Literature Study GuidesOut Of AfricaPart 2 Chapter 2 Summary

Out of Africa | Study Guide

Isak Dinesen

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Out of Africa | Part 2, Chapter 2 : A Shooting Accident on the Farm (Riding in the Reserve) | Summary

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Summary

The narrator rides into the Masai Reserve, a vast region of grass and open undulating land. Here the Masai live in villages and tend their cattle for half of the year. Otherwise, the land is inhabited only by herds of gazelles, elands, and giraffes. On this day following the shooting, the reserve provides a refuge for the narrator from the world of people. Here she can reflect on her curious relations with the natives in legal affairs and what will be expected of her.

As owner of the farm, she cannot avoid disputes among the squatters. The natives expect her to help settle matters. However, European and African ideas of legal justice are very different. To the native mind, an action—whether deliberate or thoughtless—that results in loss to the community requires reparations. The motive behind the action is not important; neither is the degree of guilt. The main concern is how the "crime or disaster shall be weighed up in sheep or goats." While this concept of justice is difficult for the narrator to understand, as owner of the farm, she must be involved in the proceedings.

Riding back to the farm, the narrator meets Kaninu's sons, who are out looking for their brother, Kabero. Since the shooting, he has not been seen. Though they are certain the boy is dead, they are going into the reserve to try to find him. The narrator reflects that to find a boy so small, they will need the vultures as guides. With a heavy heart, she rides home.

Analysis

At the beginning of the chapter, Blixen sheds her guise as detached observer and storyteller to share her reaction to the tragic shooting. She says, "my heart was heavy," and the elders waiting at the house make her "uneasy."

Blixen then delves into the complexities of justice and judgment in colonial Africa, and the clash between European and African ideas in these matters. She recognizes that the issue of what constitutes justice has two sides, and that the opposing ideas of the one world are unbearable to the other. While European law attempts to establish degrees of guilt or innocence upon which to base punishment, African tribal law has no interest in this beyond the question: Who is responsible and who will pay? In this, tribal law is not dissimilar to Western civil court where a person who feels they have been harmed by another may ask for a cash award to remedy the situation. Wrestling with the differences, Blixen attempts a balanced approach when dealing with disputes among squatters on her farm, trying to judge rightly, according to native law.

The Kikuyu of the farm apparently never realize Blixen's critical views of their legal system. The fact that they set her up as a judge, she attributes to their gift for creating present-day myths and dogma. This gift allows for contradictions, as in the myth of the Norse god Odin who exchanged his eye for greater insight and knowledge. The natives imagine that Blixen's ignorance of tribal laws, in mythic fashion, is a good thing.

Just as attributes are attached to mythological figures, so the native people assign attributes to white people. These qualities are reflected in special names often associated with animals. While she does not reveal the Kikuyus' special name for her, Blixen does relate how she and others colonists were sometimes turned into a symbol that she calls a brass-serpent—a biblical reference denoting a person or thing that relieves people's suffering, despair, or fear by bearing it for them. In discussing her role as brass-serpent, she intentionally points out a harsh feature of colonialism during World War I: the British Carrier Corps, which sent thousands of natives to their deaths as they provided military labor for troops fighting in Africa. In that period, Blixen provides comfort to the worried and grieving Kikuyu left behind on her farm, becoming their brass-serpent.

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