After six days on safari in the Masai Mara and Naboisho Conservancy, I got back to Nairobi late last Saturday afternoon. The driver took me to my hotel in the grounds of the Karen Blixen House Museum. Since she lived there (1914-1931) Nairobi has become a sprawling city that has completely engulfed the old coffee plantation.
Mbogani – “the house in the forest” – has been lovingly restored and refurbished with original furniture and artifacts. It’s instantly recognisable from Sydney Pollack’s Out of Africa and it is easy to imagine Meryl Streep and Robert Redford sitting on the verandah in the roles of Karen Blixen and Denys Finch-Hatton. It’s now a major tourist attraction, drawing some 50,000 visitors a year.
I was keen to see the museum, partly because of my fascination with Karen Blixen as a storyteller and writer, and partly because Chris had also visited it during her time in Kenya in 2012. I wanted to stand where she had stood, and see what she had seen, and I did feel very close to her as I wandered around the house and garden.
In the sketchbook Chris made in Kenya, she pasted in a copy of the picture shown above. It’s a portrait of a young Kikuyu woman called Njeri and was painted by Karen Blixen, who was a trained artist, in 1923. The original is now in a Danish museum and a full-sized reproduction hangs on the wall at Mbogani.
Njeri was, by common consent, the most beautiful young woman in the tribe and her bride price the highest ever known to have been asked. The guide told us that it had been 250 goats, plus (and this is the detail that intrigued me) one pot of honey.
I couldn’t get that pot of honey out of my mind and over the next 36 hours as I travelled home to England, I wrote this poem to say farewell to Kenya and to honour Njeri and Chris, both of whom were “pearls of great price” with a sweet tooth and (I like to imagine) a playful love of words.
She was her father’s favourite,
Daughter of his old age,
And a great beauty.
So her bride price was very high:
Two hundred and fifty goats
And one pot of honey.
Everyone agreed she was worth it.
Many men tried and failed
To raise the sum.
The goats weren’t the problem;
They could be found.
It was the honey.
Only one man knew how to make
Honey sweet enough
For Njeri’s taste.
While others went to rob the bees
He whispered words of love
To her, instead.
She looked him in the eye and said
I like these sugared words
You pour into my ear.
Your sweet tongue is what I crave
Let my father have the goats,
This honey is for me.