Boundaries & Social Order in Colonial Africa:
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 resignation, completely closed to all surrounding life.
- Karen Blixen
Karen Blixen’s autobiographical book Out
of Africa based on her experiences in
colonial Nairobi, Blixen describes vividly her encounter with the sick Kikuyu
boy Kamante. Her depiction illustrates the inherent boundaries present between
the black and white peoples in Kenya. Such boundaries were typical in colonial
Africa and were also portrayed in the film interpretation of Blixen’s work by
Sydney Pollack. This paper therefore seeks
to establish that boundaries between blacks and whites were created and defended
through physical, economic and socio-cultural means, so as to uphold the
dominant colonial stratification system.
physical boundaries in Pollack’s film are embodied through the use of social
space as a means of segregating blacks and whites, as illustrated through the
use of Blixen’s house as a white colonial space. With the exception of
Blixen’s black servants, the interior of the house was reserved for whites,
whereas black patients were instead treated in the veranda, used by Pollack as a
In creating such physical boundaries, colonial society sought to establish a
dominant stratification system with white colonisers as part of an elite inner
circle and black colonials treated as “outsiders”.
the economic boundaries in Out of Africa,
these can be illustrated through barriers imposed by wealth and status. Blacks
in Pollack’s film did not have the same amount of wealth as whites, resulting
in them being cast as servants or bar stewards, and occupying a lower status in
society. This economic boundary served as a means to create a dominant colonial
society with whites on the top of the hierarchy and blacks occupying a lower
socio-cultural boundaries in Out of Africa
can be seen through language as a means of communication, as well as criteria
for integration into white society. This was illustrated in the movie as few
opportunities were given to blacks to speak, with most of the dialogue spoken by
whites. Moreover, the need for an interpreter between Blixen and the Kikuyu
chief accentuated this notion of a tangible linguistic barrier separating blacks
and whites. Consequently, in his use of language as a socio-cultural boundary,
Pollack provided an environment for the colonial segregation of blacks and
whites, integrating the people versed in the English language into white
society, but excluding those who did not understand the language.
can be seen, boundaries in colonial Africa upheld the dominant stratification
structure through the segregation of the colonisers and the colonised. This
draws upon the ideas of German philosopher Fichte, who postulated that the
purity of a colonial territory can easily be penetrated on its “interior
frontiers”, which are the internal divisions within a territory that result
from the distinct identities of its people.
Therefore, in creating these boundaries, and in safeguarding the colonial social
order from such “internal frontiers”, white society sought to defend itself
against various transgressions that attempted to penetrate the European world
instance, the physical boundary of social space was defended through the
preservation of this space itself. This was exemplified in the film through the
use of the battlefield as a social space where blacks were not allowed complete
access, and were indeed not trusted to deliver supplies alone, but were instead
treated as “outsiders” who had the potential to defect to the enemy. The
battlefield hence remained a social space occupied exclusively by whites, with
the exception of black tribes who had pledged their loyalty to fighting
alongside the Europeans.
defending the economic boundaries of wealth and status, colonial society sought
to distance people who had a lower economic and social status, as illustrated
through the funeral scenes. For instance, in Denys’ funeral, the black
tribesmen had to stand at a distance to watch the ceremony, but Blixen had the
privilege of standing at the foot of the coffin to make her memorial speech.
Similarly, the lowly status of Berkeley’s Somali lover served as a tangible
barrier that prevented her from standing by his coffin and she instead had to
stand at a distance, behind the crowd of mourners.
socio-cultural boundary of language was defended in the attempt by white society
to preserve the English language as a means of communication among whites only.
This can be seen in the vehement objections against the setting up of Blixen’s
language school because white society feared that if blacks were to learn their
language, this would lead to a usurpation of their place in society.
promoting a dominant colonial system of stratification, white society set up
physical, economic and socio-cultural boundaries in a bid to maintain control
over their colonial subjects. Consequently, colonial society embarked on
numerous ways to defend these boundaries and to resist any form of transgression
that would breach these barriers. Therefore, any attempt to penetrate these
boundaries often led to opposition and resistance on the physical, economic and
socio-cultural fronts, both in terms of societal repercussions, as well as in
drastic measures taken to enforce these barriers. To a certain degree, these
measures of boundary enforcement succeeded in maintaining the prevailing social
order, with many incidents of barrier encroachment successfully defended
against. However, certain boundary transgressions proved too powerful to guard
against, and eventually resulted in a toppling of the established colonial
system. This can be seen in the eventual independence of Kenya from British
rule, which set up a new system no longer led by whites at the top of the
hierarchy, but with blacks in the forefront of power.
Karen, Out of Africa,
3rd Ed., Random House: New York, 1938.
Anthony D., The Bungalow: The
Production of a Global Culture, 2nd
Ed., New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.
Sydney, Out of Africa,
Stoler, Ann Laura, “Sexual Affronts and Racial Frontiers: European Identities and the Cultural Politics of Exclusion in Southeast Asia,” Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 34, 1992, 514-51.
The Writing Page
 Karen Blixen, Out of Africa, 3rd Ed., Random House: New York, 1938, p.26.
 Sydney Pollack, Out of Africa, 1985.
 Based on a seminar discussion on Anthony D. King, The Bungalow: The Production of a Global Culture, 2nd Ed., New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995, held on 24 April 2000.
 Fichte, quoted in Ann Laura Stoler, “Sexual Affronts and Racial Frontiers: European Identities and the Cultural Politics of Exclusion in Southeast Asia,” Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 34, 1992, p. 516.