Travel

Old house of 35,000 visitors

PHOTO | SALATON NJAU
Inside the Karen Blixen compound. PHOTO | SALATON NJAU | NMG 

A century old wood and diesel-driven coffee grinder sits on the 12-acre land with ancient trees and bushes.

We arrive at the well-kept centennial bungalow where some schoolchildren are awed by a ‘dead’ tractor and a disused horse-cart both with wooden and metallic wheels. They have been at this same location for the past 75 years.

In the compound are an Italian cypress and a South African palm tree that were planted by Karen Blixen.

Every year, Karen Blixen Museum in Nairobi opens its doors to thousands of visitors. Last year, it was the most popular monumental house in Kenya, beating the famous Kapenguria Museum, which tells the story of the struggle for independence.

Karen Blixen Museum welcomed 35,800 tourists while Kapenguria Museum attracted 12,400, according to the 2017 Economic Survey.

Monumental tourism is not so big in Kenya, but what draws this high numbers of foreign tourists is a story still living through the old walls, antique bathtubs, mirrors, paintings and dark rustic furniture.

Karen Blixen, a Danish woman who was born Baroness Karen Christenze von Blixen-Finecke, loved her 6,000-acre Kenyan coffee farm that she penned nine globally acclaimed novels that still remain ‘alive’ five decades after her death.

She came to Kenya by ship together with her Swedish husband, Baron Bror von Blixen Finecke, in 1912 and bought the expansive estate in 1917, which she improved to her liking.

In 1921, she parted ways with her husband but declined to return home to Denmark opting to continue tending the farm single-handedly until 1931 when she sold it to Remy Marin due to ill-health.

Remy would later subdivide the farm that he disposed of with the Blixen house being taken over by British Army officer Lieutenant Colonel G. Lloyd.

During her 14-year stay, Karen Blixen would spend time facing Ngong Hills early in the morning and late into the night tapping on her typewriter to drown her sorrows about her broken marriage but often celebrated the joy she had living on the farm surrounded by her servants .

It is this story of a baron falling in love with Kenya that remains a crowd-puller for many Europeans who troop to Kenya to track Blixen’s footsteps and see all her life’s trappings from furniture and the scenery around her house.

Damaris Rotich, a senior curator at the house, says visitors come to see Blixen’s sceneries and walk around her house to better understand this aristocrat who fell in love with Kenya and remained true to it.



Part of the kitchen area. PHOTO | SALATON NJAU | NMG
Part of the kitchen area. PHOTO | SALATON NJAU | NMG

But just like hotels, the monumental house is feeling the pinch of slowing number of tourists as most shy away due to political uncertainty.

The number of visitors has been dropping year-on-year with 2012 recording the highest number when it hosted 54,900 tourists.

“We have not had any new arrivals for some time now, many tourists prefer to wait until its the election is over. This has seriously hurt our numbers leaving us with no money to fund ongoing works to restore the facility,” says Ms Rotich.

The curator said they had proposed and prepared architectural plans for a Sh37 million visitors’ centre where museum staff will be housed as well as lecture rooms and an exhibition hall where Karen Blixen’s pictures will be displayed.
The house is under National Museums of Kenya.

Lion’s skin

“Blixen was a people person and spent lots of time visiting locals and had many servants whom she lived with on the expansive farm,” Ms Rotich says as she ushers us into Blixen’s well-kept bedroom where a dried leopard skin with its stuffed head still intact is spread on the floor.

The next room was her husband’s room that dons a lion’s dried skin with its stuff head still intact on the floor.

“Many visitors get surprised at Blixen’s and her husband’s way of life but many of couples in the African society spent their nights in separate rooms. There was a simba among the Luo and thingira for men of the house in the Kikuyu community,” says Ms Rotich.

Blixen’s expansive dining room has wide windows overlooking Ngong hills and the table is freshly set as if it is about to be used complete with a menu of bone soup that was a favourite.



The dining room. PHOTO | SALATON NJAU
The dining room. PHOTO | SALATON NJAU

Then there is a chair next to the wide windows where Blixen loved whiling away the evening sipping tea while looking at the ‘dying’ sun atop Ngong Hills.

206,500

Her life revolving around the house is well-captured in her novels that many ardent readers are surprised when they visit the home to find everything as she wrote about many decades later.

In the reception, we find Blixen’s revered typewriter and a Columbia gramophone now preserved as well as a safe that she used to keep money meant for the farm’s operations. A bookshelf with all her publications is also available showing Blixen’s love for reading, letter-writing and story-writing.

In the past five years, the forlorn-looking house has welcomed 206,500 tourists following her trail. Ms Rotich says they rely on fees received from tourists and family functions held at the well-kept lawns for upkeep funds.

‘‘It is difficult to preserve such a building that requires special artisans who understand ancient architecture,” she says as she leads us to the wood stove kitchen where all kitchen implements used by Blixen remain intact.