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Out of Africa | Study Guide

Isak Dinesen

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Out of Africa | Discussion Questions 11 - 20


What traits do Lulu and the narrator share in Out of Africa?

As Lulu matures, the narrator describes the antelope as being on the offensive "against the whole world." There is a longing to make the leap for freedom growing in her, and the only obstacle is her personal uncertainty. Similarly, before leaving Denmark, the narrator wanted freedom and pushed back against the cultural boundaries of her world. In the same way that she gained strength enough to make the leap—to marry and come to Africa—Lulu escapes to the forest and soon finds a mate. Here, the gazelle becomes "the complete Lulu," a queen who has come into her rights. In Blixen's anthropomorphic reading, Lulu is a fearless, independent being, who faces the joys and challenges of life with courage and self-reliance.

Why is it significant that Lulu never again crosses the threshold of the narrator's house in Out of Africa?

The narrator views the threshold of her house as a symbolic barrier between her domesticated European world and the untamed pastoral paradise of Africa. For example, she says that when the Kikuyu children enter the house to watch her German cuckoo clock chime the noon hour, "they form a link between the life of my civilized house and the life of the wild." For the time that Lulu lives in the narrator's house, it is as if this barrier has been erased and the two worlds merged. Lulu is a gift of acceptance from Africa. However, in time, Lulu matures and returns to the forest. She never again crosses the threshold because she has given herself completely to the wild; she can no longer be a bridge between the two worlds. The connection that Lulu shared with the narrator is not completely erased; for some years, Lulu returns to visit and brings along Toto—her fawn. Nevertheless, the narrator feels that when Lulu departed, "a clear note had gone out of the house and it seemed no better than other houses."

What is the connection between the African night and dreams as described in the first chapter of Part 2 of Out of Africa?

The narrator equates dreams with happiness and unlimited freedom. Within a dream, wonderful things unfold without the interference of the dreamer who is simply "a privileged person ... who has got nothing to do, but for whose enrichment and pleasure all things are brought together." For the narrator, the African night is one of the nearest things to a dream in the waking world. Here, too, is infinite freedom, prompting a feeling that "destinies are made around you, there is activity on all sides, and it is none of your concern." However, dreams can spiral into nightmares when the world of strife and necessity intrude. The dreamlike African night becomes a nightmare when there is an accidental shooting on the farm. The narrator here might be reflecting an aspect of Sigmund Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams, in which dreams are seen as wish fulfillment and nightmares are attempts to struggle with difficulties of the just-lived day. The sense of enchantment is what the narrator seeks in Africa; the shooting reflects the difficulties she must face.

How does the single gunshot in the night in Part 2 of Out of Africa show the narrator's growing connection to her environment?

In the account of the shooting accident in Part 2, the narrator describes how the tranquility of the African night is shattered by a single gunshot. Her response to that shot indicates that she has begun to interpret the African environment in ways she had not been capable of earlier. When it is not repeated, the stillness closes back in, and she begins to process the information. A single shot is a puzzle. The night is too dark for someone to be aiming at something; that is, no shooter would be skilled enough to hit a target on just one shot. If the purpose were to scare off a wild animal or intruder, the shooter would have fired two or more shots. A single shot followed by silence, then, can only be a prelude to something bad. The immigrant who first arrived in Kenya is not likely to be able to interpret these signs. The colonist who has begun to learn the ways of the land and the people understands it.

In Part 2 of Out of Africa, why do the Kikuyu squatters trust the narrator to mediate their disputes?

When mediating disputes, the narrator effectively sets aside European ideas of justice and takes "great trouble to judge rightly, and for peace on the farm," according to tribal law. This approach was unusual among the white population of colonial Africa, where European culture—including law—was deemed superior. While her task often grates against her European view of a legal matter, she realizes that she must comply with long-established tribal customs in order to settle disputes successfully. She understands that, concerning ideas of European and African justice, "those of the one world are unbearable to the other." Therefore, she approaches the native people and their way of life with respect. The natives do not realize her views on their legal system and trust that she is a person before whom they can, with confidence, lay their troubles. At these times, she becomes a symbol—a brass-serpent—who will relieve their suffering, despair, or fear by bearing it for them and fairly mediating their issues.

In Part 2 of Out of Africa, why are the elders at the Kyama confused by the narrator's suggestion that the shooting on the farm be judged as an accident?

A Kyama is a gathering of the Kikuyu elders for the purpose of resolving difficulties in the native community according to tribal law. In the Kikuyu system of justice, the intent of the person who commits a crime is unimportant. Whether the action was accidental or deliberate is not considered. The outcome is the same. So, the type and degree of guilt is not weighed. The focus of judgment at a Kyama is how much will the injured party be compensated for a misdeed. The narrator's European sense of justice is at odds with this idea. She suggests that compensation should be based on the accidental nature of the shooting. The elders cannot comprehend how it would be better if the boy who did the shooting had done it on purpose. Would the boy's father be pleased by that fact and so pay many more sheep? Would it change the outcome of the event? It is a perspective with which she cannot argue. The Kikuyu view of unforeseen and unexpected events adds another layer to their inability to grasp the narrator's point of view. The blessings and assaults of life all stem from the same source: the united entity of God and the Devil. Events are fated to occur, and the possibilities are endless because this divine being possesses "the infinite power of imagination." Therefore, the label "accident" becomes merely a descriptive term for something destined to happen, and the term carries no weight. It cannot relieve the responsible party from payment for an offense that resulted in loss of life or property.

How do the European and African perspectives on justice and judgment differ as described in Out of Africa?

The European and African perspectives on justice and judgment differ in process and goals. The contrast can be seen in the case of Kitosch, the boy beaten by a white settler, and the case of Wamai, the boy accidentally shot by another Kikuyu child. The first case was tried under European law, the second, under tribal law. The European system of justice focuses on the individual, whether criminal or victim. After defining the crime and establishing the victim or victims, the main step is to establish the innocence or guilt of a person accused of the crime. Next, the intent behind the crime is determined and the degree of fault or guilt is weighed. Punishment follows, often involving imprisonment. The purpose of all this is to ensure that a person responsible for a crime is rightfully discovered and punished in accordance to the degree of criminal intent. In this way, justice is served and order is restored in the community. However, as seen in the case of Kitosch, the extent to which justice is served may be doubtful when the court favors one side over the other. In contrast, the African justice system is not concerned with intent because it has no bearing on the outcome of the crime. As in the case of the shooting death of Wamai, the identity of the shooter is known to be Kabero. His intentions when he shot off the gun are not important. Wamai is dead either way. Similarly, gradations of fault or guilt are not considered. Once again, they do not affect the outcome. Finally, there is no punishment. Instead, compensation is made for the offense, usually paid out in livestock. Imprisonment or other punishment serves no practical purpose for the individual or the tribe, and does nothing to counterbalance what has been lost. The purpose of the African system is to make the community whole again by restoring balance.

Why might the African ideas of justice as depicted in Part 2 of Out of Africa serve the people better than the European ideas of justice?

The European system of justice concentrates on punishment, which often includes imprisonment and typically does little to help the victim of a criminal offense. In contrast, African ideas of justice focus on helping a person who has suffered loss due to a misdeed, while simultaneously benefitting the community and maintaining tribal unity. These ideas have grown out of the culture and needs of a tribal people. The people live in settlements or compounds called manyattas. Within the community, lives are intertwined, and the welfare of the tribe depends on the welfare of all the group's family units and individuals. The chief principle of justice is that of replacement, compensating the family that suffers a loss in some way. When a person is hurt or killed, "a loss has been brought to the community, and must be made up for, somewhere, by somebody." In keeping with the African system of justice, the person who caused the loss pays for it, the person who suffered the loss is fairly compensated, and peace in the community is restored. Other punishment, such as imprisonment, is impractical and does not remedy the situation. Furthermore, imprisonment cuts a person off from family and the community, weakening both and unraveling the tribe's tight-knit unity. As the narrator discovers when she loses the farm, this unity is vital to the members of a tribe. It is their collective identity, and to preserve it intact is crucial to the tribe's physical and cultural survival. Whatever tears the tribe apart weakens its ability to survive and threatens the people with "the shame of extinction."

Why is the relationship between the narrator and Chief Kinanjui significant in Out of Africa?

In the character of Chief Kinanjui, the narrator perceives the noble qualities of an aristocrat. In her friendship with the Kikuyu chief, she behaves aristocratically, as she defines the term. Chief Kinanjui is in charge of the more than 100,000 Kikuyus living near the farm. Revered by the native people and trusted by the Europeans, he makes sure the narrator has all the workers she needs. As a true aristocrat, the chief behaves nobly toward others. He rules with dignity and skill, successfully bridging the cultural gap between European immigrants and Kikuyu natives. He graciously provides counsel when the narrator turns to him for help after the shooting on the farm. In him, the narrator discovers "an originality of mind, and a rich, daring, imaginative spirit." There is mutual liking and respect between the narrator and Kinanjui. Their friendship is cemented when she violates British colonial law by serving him alcohol. Though he passes out as a result, he is convinced that she "braved a danger ... to make him happy." Thereafter, he is a frequent and welcomed visitor to her home, and looks to her for help when he is dying. She feels, with his approaching death, that "a great vitality and power of enjoyment ... were at their end here," and keenly regrets her failure at the last to fulfill his dying wish. His death is one in a series of losses that end with the narrator leaving Africa.

In Part 2 of Out of Africa, what is significant about the narrator's decision to ask Chief Kinanjui for help?

After the accidental shooting and despite the initial settlement of the matter, the peace of the farm is threatened by the father and grandmother of the boy Wanyangerri, who was disfigured. They have put a curse on the cows of the Kaninu, the father of the young shooter, Kabero. All of his cows are going blind. Kikuyu witchcraft is beyond the narrator's ability to handle, and she is afraid the farm "will run into a bad dream, a nightmare" if she does nothing. While in Africa, the narrator has pursued her wish for independence and freedom. She runs the farm on her own; she is free from the class and gender restrictions of European society; and she imagines herself to be the master of her domain. To restore peace, however, she must awaken from her dreams of autonomy and self-reliance to accept that she needs outside help. She is dealing with the beliefs of a preindustrial people, and recognizes the need for African guidance. For this, she turns to the Kikuyu chief, Kinanjui. It is a reminder that Africa, in reality, does not belong to the Europeans, but to its people—that "the Natives were Africa in flesh and blood."

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