Study Guide

Out of Africa Religion

By Isak Dinesen


The tropical night has the companionability of a Roman Catholic Cathedral compared to the Protestant Churches of the North, which let you in on business only. (2.1.3)

The narrator compares the African heavens to a cathedral, as though they were one of those great works of art that take many, many generations to complete. When she says that they're "companionable" in comparison to the Protestant churches, she means that often cathedrals are open all the time for anyone to come wandering in to look, not just for scheduled services ("business").

The Europeans have lost the faculty for building up myths or dogma, and for what we want of these we are dependent upon the supplies of our past But the mind of the African moves naturally and easily upon such deep and shadowy paths. (2.2.19)

For the narrator, the ability to create legends, or dogmas, is something that has been lost along with industrial and technological advances. Europeans depend on the "supplies" of their past, by which she means old religions. Instead of creating new myths or belief systems, they stick with the old ones. The Africans, though, according to Baroness Blixen, are constantly creating myths, even today.

But the Koran itself, which I was studying in those days says: "Thou shalt not bend the justice of the law for the benefit of the Poor." (2.3.7)

It seems kind of strange that the Baroness would quote the Koran to explain her decision to treat the poor parents of Wamai as though they were anybody else. After all, she's Catholic and the Kikuyu are not Muslim. But it seems that religion is interesting to her, and she is willing to apply belief systems from all over the world as she tries to make wise choices.

I went with him back to the house, and as I got near I caught sight of a swarm of white-robed figures spread on the lawn, as if a flight of big white birds had settled round my house, or a company of angels swooped on to the farm. It will have been a whole Spiritual Court sent from India to keep up the flame of orthodoxy in Africa. (3.2.4)

The "white-robed figures" are first compared in a metaphor to a "swarm", which is usually a fairly sinister thing—bees and wasps and sharks come in swarms. Well, maybe not sharks, but you get the picture. Swarms are nightmare food. Then a simile to compare them to birds and angels, which gets a little bit closer to the heavenly realm. This "It will have been" is kind of a way of making a supposition, tongue in cheek, about the purpose of the large group of priests.

But while a Somali girl may marry into Arabia, an Arab girl cannot marry into Somaliland, for the Arabs are the superior race on account of their nearer relationship with the Prophet, and, amongst the Arabs themselves, a maiden belonging to the Prophet's family cannot marry a husband outside it. (3.3.6)

The Somalis who live on the farm are Muslims, and the Baroness gets a lesson on their beliefs about marriage, which she kindly passes along to us. Apparently women are supposed to marry up (onward and upwards!) and the more closely related a woman is to the Prophet (that's Muhammad, the founder of Islam) the fewer choices she has for moving up in society, because everybody's beneath her.

It seemed that I was to take the part of the High Priest who presents a goat alive to the Lord, and sends it into the wilderness. (3.5.6)

When the Baroness sends Emmanuelson (who already has a pretty biblical name: Emmanuel is a symbolic name meaning "God is with us" and symbolizing the Lord's protection) out into the desert, she uses a religious metaphor to compare herself to a priest, and Emmanuelson to a goat that is being sacrificed. That tells us that she's pretty sure he's going to die. He survives, so maybe the Lord is protecting him.

[Denys] knew great parts of the Old Testament by heart, and carried the Bible with him on all his journeys, which gained him the high esteem of the Mohammedans. (3.8.4)

Denys is a studied man, and one of his academic feats is memorizing huge chunks of the Bible. It's kind of interesting that, if he already has it memorized, he also has to carry it around. Maybe the sacred text works as a sort of good luck charm. Charming the Muslims, for example, by showing off his religiosity, might have been one of its powers.

You are bewildered when you read the second article of the faith of the Christian Church: That He was crucified, dead and buried, that He went down into Hell, and also did rise again the third day, that He ascended into Heaven, and from thence shall come again.

What ups and downs, as terrible as those of the man in the story. What is to come out of all this?—The second article of the Creed of half the world. (4.1.22)

The articles of faith in the Christian church is also called the Apostle's Creed, and refers to the agreed-upon beliefs of church members. This second one, which lists all the trials of Jesus Christ (that's who "He" is) helps the Baroness when she's in dark times because, at the end, when she is wondering what the point of it all is, she believes that there is a story behind it all.

The old Chief had many sons, it appeared that there were various influences at work in the Kikuyu world. Two of his sons, Farah told me, were Christians, but one was a Roman Catholic, and the other a convert to the Church of Scotland, and each of the two Missions was sure to take pains to get their pretender proclaimed. The Kikuyus themselves, it seemed, wanted a third, younger, heathen son. (5.2.3)

The death of the Chief of the Kikuyus leaves a power vacuum, which forces the churches to show their hands. They're interested in souls, but also power, so they each start backing a representative among the Chief's sons as his successor. Of course, the Kikuyus, too, are conscious of religion and prefer a non-Christian successor.

The Bishop of Nairobi, I was told, had not wanted to come out, because there had not been time to have the burial-ground consecrated, but there was another clergyman present, who read out the funeral service […]. (5.3.53)

The site where Denys is buried, which he himself chose, has special meaning for the Baroness, because it is on her farm and is a place where she spent lots of time with her dear friend. Of course, it isn't a specially-designated cemetery, so the Bishop can't perform a proper funeral there according to Church rules. There's tension between what is personally sacred and officially sacred.