Karen Blixen Museum
By Maina Kiarie
Karen Blixen museum is located at the foot of the Ngong Hills in the upmarket estate named Karen, about 10kms from the city centre. The museum was opened to the public in 1986 and is one of the museums in the Nairobi region under the jurisdiction of the National Museums of Kenya. The building that houses the museum was built in 1912 by Swedish civil engineer and later Swedish honorary consul to Kenya, Ake Sjogren. From 1917 to 1931 it served as the residential home of Karen Blixen, a Danish settler and farmer in the early 20th century turned famous author.
Between 1896 and 1901 the British government constructed a railway line dubbed the Uganda railway running from the coastal port of Mombasa to Port Florence (Kisumu) and in 1901 to 1903 the railway was extended to Uganda. To make the railway sustainable in terms of revenue generation and pay its operating expenses, from 1902 the government encouraged European settlement in the region for farming and commerce. Upon settlement the Europeans set up farms and ranches for large-scale farming in the fertile highlands of Central Kenya and the Rift Valley.
Among the settlers who came to Kenya during this period was a Swedish national, Baron Bror von Blixen-Finecke, who came to Kenya with an initial intention of starting a dairy farm. In December 1913, Karen Dinesen from Denmark set off for Kenya to marry Bror, who was her second cousin. Bror and Karen got married at the coast in January 1914 then proceeded to their first farm at Mbagathi. Through marriage Karen gained the title of baroness.
Instead of starting a dairy farm as was initially intended, Bror von Blixen decided that they should farm coffee. The farm was financed by Karen’s uncle Aage Westenholz, with members of both families acting as shareholders. In 1913, Bror von Blixen acquired 4,500 acres of a 6,000 acres estate of Swedo-African coffee company owned by Swedish civil engineer, later honorary Swedish consul to Kenya, Ake Sjogren who had also built a house on the estate in 1912. In 1916, Bror acquired the remaining 1,500 acres of the estate. In the following year, 1917, Karen and her husband moved to the house on the estate, which she called “Bogani” or “Mbogani” meaning ‘a house in the woods’. The coffee farm did not do well, suffering various tragedies including factory fire and continuous bad harvest. Karen and Bror separated in 1921 and officially divorced in 1925, leaving Karen to run the coffee farm on her own, until 1931 when she moved back to Denmark.
After Karen’s departure the house farm was bought by Remy Marin, who broke the land into 20 acre parcels for development. Subsequent development marked the beginning of the upmarket estate, Karen, named after Karen Blixen. In 1964, the Danish government bought the house and gave it to the Kenyan government as an independence gift. The house was then used as the residence for the principal of the college of nutrition set up on the grounds. In 1985 the house was used as the set for the shooting of the movie, Out of Africa, based on Karen’s book by the same title detailing her life in Africa. The museum was opened to the public in 1986, by which time most of the furniture that Karen had sold to Lady Macmillan on her departure in 1931 had been reacquired and is now on display at the museum.
The museum meets three of the customary criteria for historical significance.
- It is associated with the broad historical pattern of European settlement and cultivation in East Africa.
- It is associated with the life of a historical figure as the home of Baroness Karen Blixen from 1917-1931. The house served as the setting and basis of her well known book “Out of Africa”.
- The house’s architecture is typical of the late 19th century bungalow architecture. It embodies the distinctive characteristics of its type, period and method of construction.