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Karen Blixen Museum showcases rich heritage amid rising tourist numbers

The house was sporadically occupied until purchased in 1964 by the Danish government and given to the Kenyan government as an independence gift. Picture: Supplied

The house was sporadically occupied until purchased in 1964 by the Danish government and given to the Kenyan government as an independence gift. Picture: Supplied

Published May 18, 2022

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By Xinhua writers Bai Lin and Naftali Mwaura

Nairobi - Danish author Karen Blixen is well remembered globally thanks to her legendary experience in Africa back in the last century and her memoir, "Out of Africa".

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"I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of Ngong hills." This classic quote from her autobiography detailed the affection she had for Africa and the local tribal people. It also gave a renowned reputation to Ngong Hills, located on the northern edges of the Kenyan capital, Nairobi.

The author of "Out of Africa" autobiography, which later became an Oscar award-winning movie by the same title, left an admirable legacy in Kenya, hence the decision by the Kenyan government to name the house she and her husband bought in 1917 a house museum, where she lived from 1917 to 1931.

Nestled in one of the most picturesque neighbourhoods of Nairobi, the Karen Blixen Museum offers a glimpse into Kenya's colonial history, the journey toward self-rule, and the collective aspirations of its many ethnic groups.

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For decades, visitors have been trooping into the Karen Blixen Museum house and grounds for educational tours and social functions besides savouring its serene environment.

Fredrick Manthi, the director of Antiquities, Sites and Monuments at National Museums of Kenya, which manages the house museum, said that it is embedded in Kenya's rich history and culture, hence its enduring fame.

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"The fact that the Karen Blixen Museum is a repository of Kenya's long journey from colonialism to independence makes it a prized destination for both local and foreign tourists," Manthi said.

His statement rings true as a guided tour of the house museum exposes visitors to decades-old artefacts, books, paintings, pictures, and postcards belonging to one of the most renowned female figures in colonial Kenya.

Nearly a century-old trees dot Karen Blixen's backyard, and one can identify pockets of coffee trees, old farm implements like tractors and wagons that were used to transport coffee berries to the port of Mombasa for onward export to Europe.

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Karen Blixen returned to her native Denmark in 1931, from where she pursued her interests, including writing books, till her death in 1962 at the age of 77.

Rodah Lange, the curator at Karen Blixen Museum, said that her memorable stay in Kenya when the country was a British colony continues to be celebrated to this day.

According to Lange, the scion of Danish aristocracy constructed a school besides setting aside 1 000 out of her 6 000 acres of land to resettle local communities, a rare gesture from white settlers who patronized colonial Kenya.

Lange added that Blixen was kind to workers on her expansive coffee farm, whom she used to provide free medical services besides training them how to knit.

"And when she went back to Denmark in 1931, she used to communicate with her former workers through letters and even sent them Christmas gifts. This shows how Karen Blixen was caring to local people," said Lange.

The house was sporadically occupied until purchased in 1964 by the Danish government and given to the Kenyan government as an independence gift.

In 1985, the shooting of the movie "Out of Africa" began, and the National Museums of Kenya acquired the house for the purpose of establishing a museum before its opening in 1986.

Lange said a major facelift was carried out in 2013 to make it more alluring.

The Karen Blixen Museum has been hosting educational tours and social functions like weddings, while its nature trail is a popular destination for birdwatchers, she added.

According to Lange, the museum is operating at full capacity after the Covid-19 pandemic-related hiatus in 2020, and at present, tourism is recovering, attracting about 1 000 visitors every month.

Carolyn Mwenda, the marketing manager at National Museums of Kenya, said that as an iconic heritage monument, the Karen Blixen Museum is at the heart of the country's post-pandemic tourism revival efforts.

"The number of international tourists visiting the Karen Blixen Museum, though not at the pre-pandemic levels, is expected to grow with time since the country has eased all the Covid-19 travel restrictions," said Mwenda.

Hillary Mwangi, a 24-year-old guide at the Karen Blixen Museum, said that it had regained vibrancy as local and overseas visitors troop there for learning experiences and leisure.

"In the last couple of months, we have witnessed a steady flow of visitors to this museum keen to enjoy the tranquil surroundings, have a look at the decades-old artefacts, paintings, furniture, and ceramics stored inside the house," said Mwangi.

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