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[1]


In 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.[2] 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.

The 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 semi-public space.[3] 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”.

Considering 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 stratum.

The 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.

As 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.[4] 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 from within.

For 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.

In 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.

The 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.

In 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.

The above essay was written by Mark Lim Shan-Loong on 4th May 2000.


Blixen, Karen, Out of Africa, 3rd Ed., Random House: New York, 1938.

King, Anthony D., The Bungalow:  The Production of a Global Culture, 2nd Ed., New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995. 

Pollack, Sydney, Out of Africa, 1985.

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.


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[1] Karen Blixen, Out of Africa, 3rd Ed., Random House: New York, 1938, p.26.

[2] Sydney Pollack, Out of Africa, 1985.

[3] 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.

[4] 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.