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Historic places: Around Nairobi

Karen Blixen Museum

Karen Blixen Museum, Nairobi. Javier Yanes/ "I had a farm in Africa at the foot of the Ngong Hills". The phrase has become one of the best known in the history of literature, but it was actually made famous on Meryl Streep's faked Danish accent at the opening credits of the movie based on Karen Blixen's life and work. Well, this is the farm, and the Ngong Hills are in the backdrop. Need anything more for a truly historic landmark?

Though the old farm was long ago replaced, and where not, by a stately residential neighbourhood, the farmhouse that from 1917 to 1931 belonged to Danish writer Karen Blixen has managed to remain standing through all the historical avatars experienced by Kenya along the 20th century.

The house is set some 10 km or 6 ml from downtown Nairobi, in the heart of the Karen district. Although the name of the suburb would seem to make it clear so as to its origins, actually it is not so. One version states that it was the writer's uncle, the owner of the family corporation, who named the district after his own daughter Karen. Since Blixen had so many names --née Karen Christenze Dinesen, named by marriage Karen von Blixen-Finecke, Isak Dinesen as only one of her pen names, and known to her friends not as Karen, but as Tania--, the naming of the district is not a straightforward issue. But who cares; everyone prefers to believe that the whole area pays homage to her memory.

The museum actually owes its very existence to Sydney Pollack's classic movie 'Out of Africa' (1985). After Blixen's departure from Kenya, the house remained in private hands until it was acquired by the Danish Government, who donated it to Kenya as a gift to celebrate the country's independence in 1963. At the time the movie was shot, the house was used as a residence by a nearby college. The National Museums of Kenya acquired the house and opened the museum in 1986.

View of Ngong Hills from outside Karen Blixen's veranda, Nairobi. Javier Yanes/ Immediately the museum became a sanctuary not only to commemorate the writer's figure, but also celebrating the movie. Besides some original furnishings and objects belonging to the real Blixen, the museum holds some pieces used by the film's cast. Those looking for a remembrance of the movie will easily recognise the ambience, since outdoor scenes where actually shot around the house, including the veranda from where Blixen/Streep gazed at the nearby knuckle-shaped Ngong Hills while she waited for her lover, hunter and aristocrat Denys Finch Hatton who for posterity will always have Robert Redford's face. Conversely, a different location was chosen for the indoors, since the house is quite narrow and dark inside.

The museum comprises two buildings, the main residence and a separate block that houses the kitchen. Guided tours, which are available and obligatory, lead the visitors through the house, that definitely appears way too small and modest for an aristocrat. This may be the reason why some visitors end up rather disappointed with the museum, but remember that although this is mostly a place for fans and mythomaniacs, not only it was the dwelling of a renowned writer who fell just short of winning a Nobel prize; it is also one of the scarce remaining testimonies of the ancient colonial Nairobi, of which not even the fake ones survive: the set built by the film crew recreating 1900s' Nairobi was neglected and destroyed after the shooting.

There is yet one hidden surprise that many rushing visitors unfortunately miss. On the far side of the garden, a path clears its way through the surrounding forest. The path leads to an old and rusty coffee mill that is said to be the original one destroyed in the fire that put an end to Blixen's farming venture. Whether it was that very same mill or just the one portrayed in the movie was crafted following the design of this old ruin, it really doesn't make much difference; 'se non è vero, è ben trovato'.

The museum is open daily from 9.30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Access to the grounds is free, but tickets are required to visit the main house and kitchen annex. No pictures or videos are permitted inside the house. The grounds are also available for private or corporate events.

More information: Karen Blixen Museum's official website


Nairobi National Museum. teachandlearn via Flickr Right, you don't usually travel to Kenya to see museums. But the Nairobi National Museum, located at Museum Hill not far from the city centre, gives an excellent chance to first time visitors for submerging themselves in the big picture of the country they are about to meet. The museum is the whole Kenya at a glance: prehistory, history, culture, geography, nature, art and people, all under one roof.

The museum at its current location dates back to 1930, under the colonial rule, but actually the idea of a permanent setting to house biological collections was initiated 20 years earlier by some naturalists. Prior to the construction at Museum Hill, two different locations were tried, at the sites where now stand the infamous Nyayo House and Nairobi Serena Hotel.

The museum collections are now huge, but the main attractions are still the fossil casts portraiting East Africa as the 'cradle of mankind', together with the model replica of 'Ahmed', Kenya's most famous elephant, a specimen with colossal tusks that lived in Marsabit National Park and was protected under 24 hour surveillance by a decree from former president Jomo Kenyatta.

At the turn of the century, it became evident that the museum facilities had become obsolete and were no longer representative of all Kenya has to offer in terms of natural, cultural and historical heritage. Thus, the museum closed its doors in 2005 for an extensive renovation and reopened in 2008 with a much fresher and attractive look, including dining and shopping options plus a venue for events. The botanical gardens and nature trail round off the visit.

The museum is open daily from 8.30 a.m. to 5.30 p.m.

More information: Nairobi National Museum's official website


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