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Out of Colonial Kenya

By Mary Warner MarienMary Warner Marien, who writes from LaFayette, N.Y., teaches fine arts at Syracuse University. / April 2, 1991



LONGING FOR DARKNESS: KAMANTE'S TALES FROM OUT OF AFRICA. Collected by Peter Beard, Chronicle Books, 264 pp., cloth $40, paper $24.95

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IMAGINE a compendium of photographs that reveals, better than words could, the dazzling abundance of wild animal life in Kenya during the early 20th century. Set them amid a text of African tales, related by a narrator who remembers the village life of his people. Now insert exclusive glimpses of a world-famous author-heroine. You have begun to fashion "Longing for Darkness," a book of stories told and illustrated by Kamante, a Kikuyu friend and attendant to Isak Dinesen, whose autobiographical works, " Out of Africa" (1937) and "Shadows on the Grass" (1960), describe her years on the Kenyan coffee plantation she ran for 17 years.

To be honest with the time and material, you must also imagine colonial society in which shooting lions and rhinos was a casual sport. You must take notice of the extent to which village life, and even life itself, depended on the vagaries of colonial farmers and ranchers. Lastly, you must envision a colonial existence so indulgent that a coffee-plantation owner thinks nothing of maintaining two cooks and a cooking supervisor to prepare meals for her three Scottish deerhounds. This, too, is "Longing for Darkness."

For his first years with Karen Blixen - who used the name Isak Dinesen, among other aliases, in her writing - Kamante was the supervising dog cook to the woman he called Mrs. Karen. Over the years, Kamante rose through the sundry ranks of house servants to become her personal cook.

Kamante's tales are of several kinds. The preponderant part of the book records his remembrance of life on Karen Farm. These stories disclose the extraordinary ordinariness of everyday life in the Kenya of the period. With gentle wit and still perceptible amusement, Kamante tells how Mrs. Karen found a young bush buck, named it Lulu, and took it into the residence like a house pet. His narrative amplifies Blixen's own. "Lulu came to my house from the woods as Kamante had come to it from the plains," she wrote. Those who prize Dinesen's writing will appreciate Kamante's complementary account of their shared lives.

Reading between the lines of this text, one realizes that it is not a simple reminiscence. When Mrs. Karen zealously insists on serving a delicate Queen cake to her guests, we have an ominous inkling of the intense colonial desire to recreate first-world existence in the third world. Strewn throughout Kamante's account are photographs of the trophy animals killed for sport. Together with the incursion of the large farms and ranches, the book exudes a foreboding for what we now know was the wholesale dep letion of wild animals and their habitats.

The last, slim section of the book contains Kamante's retelling of fables, like Aesop's tale of the fox and the grapes. These stories have an African inflection. The familiar maxim, a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, is retold featuring a lion, a gazelle, and a guinea fowl. Throughout, Kamante's whimsical drawings enliven the parables.

Kamante's tales were gathered over a period of 12 years, ending in 1974, by the well-known wildlife photographer Peter Beard. He also facilitated their publication and, one supposes, decided to incorporate photographs of life in Kenya belonging to his friend Karen Blixen. Kamante's account, translated by his sons, is presented on lined paper, with quotations, photographs, and drawings liberally interspersed throughout the text, giving the volume the look of a neatly assembled scrapbook-journal. This mak es for an undeniably handsome book, even if the substantial fabrication makes this historian queasy.

But the most disturbing aspect of "Longing for Darkness" - the title is from Dinesen's "Shadows on the Grass" - is not its appearance but its tone. The teasing ambiguity of Isak Dinesen's book title, "Out of Africa," has not been dissipated in this companion volume, provocatively subtitled "Out of Africa." In the end, one is left wondering whether these stories come out of Africa, or, in some strained way, from outside Africa.