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Out of Africa | Study Guide

Isak Dinesen

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Out of Africa | Discussion Questions 1 - 10


In the first chapter of Out of Africa, "The Ngong Farm," what is the effect of Isak Dinesen's sensory imagery in her descriptions of Africa?

The overall impression is one of vast, sensual, untamed beauty, an Eden-like paradise where she breathed easily and thought, "Here I am, where I ought to be." Dinesen's sensory language paints a pastoral picture of Africa. Similes such as "the colors were dry and burnt, like the colors in pottery" reveal the artist's observing eye which connects Africa to an earthy, preindustrial age of handmade pottery. She presents images of ever-changing light and texture. Beyond the visual, she conjures the scents of Africa, discussing the aroma of coffee beans and "the grass ... spiced like thyme and bog-myrtle." She conjures touch with contrasts between soft grass and hard stone as well as the feel of the place in descriptions of the high, living air.

What does the farm represent to the narrator in the first chapter of Out of Africa?

The farm, with its hardship and challenges, represents a pastoral ideal, a paradise made precious by being concentrated—"It was Africa distilled up through six thousand feet, like the strong and refined essence of a continent." The narrator begins the book by saying, "I had a farm in Africa." She does not say she manages the farm or owns it with her husband. It is hers. It poses challenges—the farm is hard work. She says that a coffee farm is demanding and that you never feel that you have kept up with all that needs to be done. Despite the work, she feels content, reflecting that "up in this high air you breathed easily, drawing in a vital assurance and lightness of heart." The farm is a risk, too. She discusses the difficulty of planting the coffee trees so that they are sure to take root, waiting several years for them to mature, and then harvesting. The venture is far from certain; one year the processing factory burned down. When the harvest is sent off to London to be auctioned, you can only hope for good prices. She feels proud of the orderliness of the farm in the midst of Africa's wildness. The farm also includes the people. In the natives of the farm, she finds "a magnificent enlargement of all my world."

How do the narrator's views of aristocracy influence her relationship with the native people in Out of Africa?

European men and women living in Africa as colonizers automatically became part of the ruling aristocracy: positions of entitlement and power—positions not earned, but assigned. This sense of entitlement and superiority could lead to abuse, as in the case of Kitosch, the native boy fatally beaten by a white settler. Through colonization, the native people of Africa found themselves ruled—at times harshly—by people who held their race and their culture in contempt. Upon moving to Africa, the narrator becomes a member of its aristocratic elite. However, she believes that aristocracy is not an assigned or inherited social class, but a way of being that crosses economic, social, or cultural divisions. It springs from a sense of personal dignity and is reflected in the noble treatment of others. Anyone is capable of being a true aristocrat as long as he or she is able to relate honestly with others. The narrator looks for and finds these qualities in the natives of Africa, most notably Kamante, in whom she perceives a "greatness of soul," and Chief Kinanjui, whom she describes as "a crafty old man, with a fine manner, and much real greatness to him." In turn, her treatment of the natives reflects the tolerance and respect of her authentic aristocratic nature. She treats the Kikuyu workers on the farm with kindness and genuine concern for their welfare. She provides medical care and sets up a school for them. When she must sell the farm, she fights for their suitable relocation.

How does the narrator of Out of Africa both gain something and lose something as a result of her isolation?

The narrator's farm in Out of Africa is large and distant from the homes of other members of the colony. This isolation provides her with more opportunities to connect to the land and people of Africa, but it also causes loneliness. Alone on her farm, she can enjoy the quietness of the night and the shifting colors of the land. Her isolation from other European colonists also provides her with more opportunity to connect to the Kikuyus on her farm. Of course, her ability to make that connection results from her acceptance of other people and ways of life. The drawback of this isolation is that she often feels very lonely when there are no European visitors whose lives run parallel to hers. When she is alone on the farm, in the stillness of the evening, time passes slowly; life seems to be dripping out of her. For these reasons, visitors to the farm are very important to her.

Why do the Kikuyu trust the narrator as a doctor in Out of Africa, and how does that trust reflect their spiritual worldview?

The Kikuyu trust the narrator as a doctor because she has success healing them. When the narrator's medical treatments result in a cure, the Kikuyu see this as a sign that the Lord approves of her and is on her side. To them, the Lord doles out both good and bad outcomes based on His unknowable and changeable desires or whims. She has been fortunate to have had more cures than failures, so the Kikuyu trust that there is a good chance that treatment for their sickness will be successful. This trust leads Kamante to come to her for treatment of his leg sores. Although she is unable to cure him, the fundamental trust the Kikuyu have in her seems not to be shaken. Kamante sees his treatment at the Scotch Mission—which succeeds in curing him—as "an astounding thing." But he also has a sense of obligation to her, and when he returns from the mission he comes back to her home to work for her.

How does Kamante's attitude toward suffering in Part 1 of Out of Africa reflect Kikuyu tribal beliefs?

When the narrator comes upon Kamante on the plain, he appears to have no more than a few weeks to live. Clearly, he is physically suffering, yet he has an "infinitely patient face." When the narrator tries to cure him, he bears the treatments with stoicism. While he seems completely cut off from surrounding life by his misery, "his fortitude of soul in the face of pain was the fortitude of an old warrior." He is prepared for the worst. The Kikuyu people hold a philosophy by which they face changes in life with great calm and acceptance. They know that their destiny is in the hands of a god whose actions cannot be predicted, and that it is foolish to try to avoid what sorrow may come.

How does Kamante provide a link between the narrator and the Kikuyu population on the farm as described in Part 1 of Out of Africa?

Kamante is a Kikuyu boy, son of a squatter. The narrator finds him sick and suffering from running sores, helps to cure him, and welcomes him into her house. In this way, he comes to trust her and is able to help her bridge the gap of understanding and trust that generally existed between European and African people. Europeans had broken into the Africans' existence. As the narrator notes, "We could not know, and could not imagine, what the dangers were that they feared from our hands." For this reason, the native people, such as the Kikuyu on the farm, held themselves safely apart, ready to "withdraw into a world of their own, in a second" if unsure of a European's intent. They had no reason to trust and were difficult to know. Kamante smooths the way as he becomes the narrator's assistant, excellent chef, and friend. He converts to Christianity to be more like her. He retains his tribal perspective, and this is the prism through which he views much of life. He observes European culture and his own with a critical eye, and the narrator says that "in a world of fools, I was, I think, to him one of the greater fools." For this reason, "he showed me all the time great interest and sympathy, and he laid himself out to guide my great ignorance." On occasion, he gives much time and thought to a problem, and his shared observations help the narrator to better understand and connect with the Kikuyu people.

In Part 1 of Out of Africa, what does the narrator perceive in Kamante that others do not, and what does this perception tell readers about her?

In Kamante, the narrator perceives greatness of soul. She knows that he is a gifted chef and an honest, hard-working employee with a noble character. Over the course of their relationship, he displays thoughtfulness, wit, and humor. However, these fine qualities emerge from "a dark stillness" in Kamante and retreat once the narrator leaves Africa. Because there is no one left to recognize his gifts, Kamante cannot find work. All people see is "a little bandy-legged Kikuyu, a dwarf with a flat, still face." The narrator describes him as a treasure locked up behind the stone door of a storybook cave, but with her departure, the magic words "Open Sesame" have been forgotten. The narrator's response to Kamante demonstrates her own humanity in her ability to look beyond his size or the stereotypes of racial categories that prevent other Europeans from seeing him as he really is. She also shows great emotional intelligence and a sympathetic nature in her ability to empathize with him.

In Part 1 of Out of Africa, what is the significance of the message in Kamante's third letter to the narrator after she leaves Africa?

Before introducing the letters, the narrator says she knows "a song of Africa" but wonders, "Does Africa know a song of me?" The letters suggest that, in the person of Kamante and the other Kikuyu who lived on her farm, Africa does know a song of her. Kamante tells her that they cannot forget her and believe that she, in turn, cannot forget them because "you remembered still all our face and our mother names." In remembering her, they are expressing their own need to be remembered and to be cherished. This sentiment finds particular expression in Kamante's third letter. He says, "We think that you shall never ... forget us." The narrator points out the difference between how a white man and Kamante would communicate such a thought. There is a shift in focus. A white man would say "I can never forget you." Kamante, instead, shifts himself and the other Kikuyu to be the objects of a memory, not the subjects. He does not say "we can never forget you" but "we cannot be forgotten by you." The expression suggests the codependent relationship of the colonialist and the colonized as well as the sense of identification the native people have with the narrator. In his letter, Kamante also says, "Write and tell us if you turn"—meaning "return." In this way, while providing proof that her presence in Africa had meant something, he also becomes the voice of Africa, calling the narrator back.

What is the significance of Lulu's presence in the narrator's house in Out of Africa?

Lulu is a young female antelope that lives in the narrator's house for a time. She serves as a link that connects the narrator to Africa, but she also figures as a foreshadowing of the narrator's eventual loss of Africa. Lulu's presence erases the barrier between untamed Africa and the narrator's civilized world. The narrator says, "she made my house one with the African landscape, so that nobody could tell where the one stopped and the other began." Lulu seems to be a token of friendship from Africa and establishes a symbolic link between Blixen and the pastoral landscape she loves. Even after Lulu returns to the wild, the years when she, her mate, and her young come around to visit are, in the narrator's words, "the happiest of my life in Africa." Also, Lulu's story foreshadows the end of the narrator's African sojourn. As the narrator must, like a good mother, let Lulu go into the wild where she belongs, so in the end Blixen must let Africa go. Her efforts to find a new home for her Kikuyu squatters as she plans her departure is another maternal letting go that echoes the story of Lulu.

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