Study Guide

Out of Africa Foreignness and 'The Other'

By Isak Dinesen

Foreignness and 'The Other'

Rarely, rarely, have I met such a wild creature, a human being who was so utterly isolated from the world, and, by a sort of firm deadly resignation, completely closed to all surrounding life. (1.2.11)

Kamante, the boy that the Baroness is describing here, is different not only in the way that all the natives are different from her, but he's even different from them. This makes him doubly foreign; he's an outcast and he knows it, so he is an "other" to white and black people alike.

The Natives became silent under the drought, I could not get a word on the prospects out of them, although you would have thought that they should have known more about the signs of the weather than we did. (1.3.12)

The Baroness recognizes herself and an undefined "we" as the foreigners in this case. The Natives ought to know more about the rain forecast because they're in their own land. When it comes to predicting the weather, the Baroness is willing to tip her hat to the natives.

An African Native Forest is a mysterious region. (1.4.3)

Foreignness is rooted in place; the person who is from elsewhere is a foreigner. So it kind of makes sense that the Baroness, a foreigner in Africa, would find the forests of Africa to be so mysterious. It's kind of funny though—do you think they're anymore mysterious than the northern Danish forests?

All Africans are the same in these rites. (2.2.9)

Okay, sorry, Baroness, but we're calling you out on this one. Seriously, all Africans are the same? She only really gets to know a couple of different tribes, the Somalis and the Kikuyu, but she's ready to cast a wide net and say that all Africans have the same understanding of justice. But we'll cut her some slack, because generalizations are an easy trap to fall into when you're a foreigner looking at everyone as The Other.

The old men felt themselves at the mercy of Somali mockery, and chose to lie low under it. (2.3.21)

Because of the Baroness' sweeping perspective of all Africans as the same, we can sometimes forget that Farah, too, is a foreigner looking upon the natives as the Other. He is pretty haughty about it too.

Left to their own nature, and to the tradition of their nation, they will look upon our activities as upon those of nature. They judge you not, but they are keen observers. (2.4.10)

The Baroness is describing the Kikuyus and all other tribes of Africa in this statement, and "our" must mean Europeans. This lack of judgment is not the pious lack of judgment that Christians might strive for, but in the Baroness' eyes it's just another way that the Other is different from "us".

Farah's attitude to the Natives of the country was a picturesque thing. No more than the attire and countenance of the Masai warriors, had it been made yesterday, or the day before; it was the product of many centuries. The forces which had built it up had constructed great buildings in stone as well, but they had crumbled into dust a long time ago. (2.5.18)

Farah is a Somali, and also the head servant on the farm, so he looks down on the Kikuyu a little bit. And when we say a little bit, we actually mean a ton. According to Dinesen, his superior attitude is the result of eons of history that have shaped the relationships between foreigner and "Other".

The Kikuyu, when going to a Ngoma, rub themselves all over with a particular kind of pale red chalk, which is much in demand and is bought and sold; it gives them a strangely blond look. The colour is neither of the animal nor the vegetable world, in it the young people themselves look fossilized, like statues cut in rock. (3.1.6)

Whoa, this is rich. The Baroness just can't wrap her head around the Kikuyu and their ways, and she lets that slip multiple times in her description. For one thing, saying they look "strangely blond" is, well, strange, because the last thing you would expect from a description of black Africans is the word "blond". The dissonance comes up again in the simile comparing them to fossils and statues, as though they were stuck in the past.

By the time that we had become well acquainted, the girls asked me if it could be true what they had heard, that some nations in Europe gave away their maidens to their husbands for nothing. (3.2.7)

Once again the Europeans are reminded of their own "Other-ness" when the Somali girls start dissing their mating rituals. Whereas the idea of selling off your daughters in the Somali tradition might seem super-foreign to the Baroness, her willingness to just marry a guy for free is just as foreign to the Somalis.

[P]erhaps the white men of the past, indeed of any past, would have been in better understanding and sympathy with the coloured races than we, of our Industrial Age, shall ever be. When the first steam engine was constructed, the roads of the races of the world parted, and we have never found one another since. (3.7.7)

The Other looks to the Baroness' eyes like a remnant from the past. She imagines that perhaps the Natives of Africa have something to do with white people from the past, but she recognizes the deep divide between industrialized Europe and Africa.