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Articles Blog

African Prose

Karyn Planett

The Letters of the Land

From the crusted riverbeds and the vast savannalands, to the darkened jungles and the moist highlands, the essence of Africa has been captured on the pages of many fine writers. By a flickering candlelight, the night sounds all around them, these early adventurers scratched their impressions in leather-bound journals while they rested, weary from the day’s heat. You see, Africa has long been an inspiration to all who witnessed its theater. Collectively, the works of these inspired writers could fill the smoking room of Nairobi’s celebrated Muthaiga Club.

Why not retrieve a dusty book from one of your library’s top shelves, get comfortable, then drift off into the drama that is Africa.

Isak Dineson

Who among us does not remember that terribly romantic scene from the film “Out Of Africa” when Robert Redford waltzed in the drawing room with Meryl Streep to the gentle strains of a hand-cranked Victrola? His character, Denys Finch-Hatton, was about to again take leave of his lover Baroness Karen Blixen who, in real life, wrote under the pen name of Isak Dineson. Finch-Hatton was truly a Kenyan bush pilot who died in a fiery plane crash. The Baroness was actually the Dane who authored this tender tale.

Karen Blixen had come to Kenya to live on a coffee plantation on the outskirts of Nairobi. She grew to love those around her and fought against all odds to see that the plantation survived. But survive, it did not. And Blixen returned to Denmark to live out her life until her death in 1962. Her 1937 account of these years in Africa, “Out Of Africa,” is one of the most impassioned narratives of that era. So too is her work “Letters from Africa.”

Beryl Markham

At the tender age of four, Beryl journeyed from England to East Africa with her adventurous father who was bent on staking his claim for the future. Growing up on a coffee plantation proved a glorious adventure for Beryl as she ran naked with the children of the Masai and the Kikuyu workers, learning their languages and customs.

Following in her father’s footsteps, Ms. Markham became a horse trainer and a jockey. Next, she took to the skies as a bush pilot like her friend, Denys Finch-Hatton. With lofty thermals under her wings, the hot wind blowing into the open Avro Avian cockpit, Markham hopped from one rattly airstrip to another, carrying mail and medicine, hunters and heads of state. All the while, images burned their way into her memory, later to reappear on the pages of her autobiography “West With The Night” and in “The Splendid Outcast.”

Of Markham’s book, Ernest Hemingway wrote, “She has written so well, and marvelously well, that I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer. I felt that I was simply a carpenter with words, picking up whatever was furnished on the job and nailing them together. But (she) can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves as writers.”

Beryl Markham became the first person to single-handedly pilot a plane across the Atlantic from east to west, where she miraculously crash-landed onto the soft soil of Nova Scotia 21-and-a-half hours after take-off. The year was 1936. Thankfully, she had previously declined her friend Finch-Hatton’s invitation to join him on his fatal flight to Voi, a Kenyan game preserve.

And Speaking of Hemingway

This man’s man loved Africa and all its adventures. He wrote of this passion in his popular short story “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” where he vividly describes ‘the hunt’, and in his 1935 work “Green Hills Of Africa.”

Other labors of love by known and lesser-known authors include Ellspeth Huxley’s respected “The Flame Trees of Thika”, an account of her childhood on a Kenyan farm at the turn of the century. Popular, too, is “The Kenya Pioneers” by Errol Trzebinski, which details early settler life here. John Hylan Heminway’s book “The Imminent Rains” records the sagas of many of Africa’s last pioneers.

Peter Matthiessen has written about Africa for decades. Two of his most impressive literary accomplishments include his 1972 work, “The Tree Where Man Was Born” and “African Silences”, which he wrote not long ago. The latter chronicles the vanishing worlds of Africa, and those that are replacing them.

So, while you (or I) may never enjoy the pleasure of waltzing with Robert Redford as oil lamps cast shadows across the breezy room, you can curl up with a great book and slip into the creative minds of many talented authors. Through their gifted eyes you can view Africa as they once did.