The narrator once had a farm in Africa, located at an altitude of six thousand feet on the foot of the Ngong Hills. The African landscape appears dry and burnt, like the colors in pottery. Trees delicately arch into the sky like ships. On the vast plains, the sky is so big that one can see clouds coming from miles away. The heat scintillates the air, often distorting images as it does so. Each morning when the narrator wakes in Africa, she feels that she is where she is supposed to be.
The farm grows coffee. Only part of the farm's six thousand acres is used for agriculture, the rest being partially a forest and partially land where natives live. These natives are known as squatters. As repayment for living on the farm, they work on it a specified number of days per year. Both native women and children, the latter referred to as Totos, help to harvest the coffee. The coffee is then roasted in a factory on the farm. After the factory dries the coffee, it is sealed in burlap bags, taken to town, and sent by boat to England for sale.
The closest town to the farm is Nairobi, about twelve miles away. When the narrator first moved to Africa, there were no cars and one could only get there by ox cart. Nairobi is a lively town with clubs, restaurants, shops, and government offices. Clusters of native people live in small townships around Narobi: the Swahilis, the Somalis, and the Indians, who usually are merchants. The nomadic Masai tribe lives just South of the farm on a large reserve planned by the colonial government.
The author has seen many wild animals in the game country surrounding her farm, such as lions, giraffes, rhinos, and elephants; and has learned to be wary of abrupt movements while in the wild. She feels that learning about African animals has exposed her to the true essence and rhythms of Africa. Her exposure to its native people also has taught her about the true African essence.
Ever since she arrived, the narrator has felt affection for the natives. She believes she is close friends with the native community. Natives differ from Europeans in many ways, such as their tendency to be silent or answer questions in a cryptic manner. Natives also admirably take the difficulties of African life in stride. Although the narrator is close to the many natives on her farm, she also senses that they exist on a different, parallel plane from her. She occasionally feels lonely.
The squatters on the farm primarily belong to the Kikuyu tribe. The narrator meets Kamante when he is small Kikuyu boy, herding his family sheep around the property. The narrator approaches him because Kamante has large open sores all over his legs. She instructs him to come for medical care the next morning. The narrator gives medical care to the squatters on her farm every morning, even though all she knows is basic first aid.
The native people always take their maladies and treatment stoically. Kamante is no different, even though he is just a child. Although silent, he obediently returns each day to be treated for a week. When his sores do not heal, the narrator sends him to the hospital at the nearby Scotch Mission to be treated. Although Kamante looks terrified upon being left with so many white people, he stays for three months, until his legs are completely healed.
Upon returning home, Kamante informs the narrator that he has converted to Christianity. Although he does not directly state his thanks, Kamante places himself firmly in her household and starts serving her. For this reason, the narrator makes him part of her staff.
The narrator runs an Evening School on the farm with a Native schoolmaster, so that the natives can learn to read. Kamante sometimes goes to school. Initially he works as a medical assistant, but after the cook dies Kamante becomes the cook himself. Kamante is an excellent cook and is capable of preparing the most complex of European dishes. Kamante remembers each dish by memory and even remembers which guests prefer which dishes. In order to further enhance his abilities, the narrator sends him to be further trained in several European restaurants in Nairobi. Kamante stays with the narrator until she leaves Africa.
The opening of the book places us immediately in Africa. After learning that the narrator had an African farm, the landscape of the farm is sketched. Dinesen paints the picture carefully with attention to the colors of the local culture, the hues of the earth and sky, and the texture of the land. Her attention to visual imagery harkens back to her training as a painter. She uses detailed terms to conjure up images. Trees are compared to "full rigged ships with their sails clewed up." Bushes and animals are specifically named in order to suggest their plurality and specificity: bog-myrtle, lilies, liana, creepers, lions, rhinos, buffalos, giraffes, spur fowl, and guinea fowl. Truman Capote once called Out of Africa, "One of the most beautiful books of the twentieth century." The beauty of Dinesen's book is usually attributed to her rich, lyrical prose, which is amply demonstrated in her colorful and descriptive opening passage.
The format and tone of the book also is suggested in these opening two chapters. It appears to be a memoir, yet one recounted in a dreamlike manner. Although the book details the landscape, it leaves many other details cloudy. We know the farm is in Africa, in what is now Kenya, but we do not know when the story takes place, or why the author is there. In fact, we do not even know who the narrator is. She does not introduce herself. Her gender is not even clear until the second chapter when Kamante calls her "Msabu," a native term for a white woman. Her specific ethnicity is not mentioned. Although one may want to believe that Dinesen simply is telling her own story, her desire to cloak information about her identity shows that she is taking obvious pains to distance her own experience from the book and that she does not want it to be a straight memoir or autobiography.
In addition to concealing her name, the narrator also rarely expresses her own emotions and uses a tone muted with understatement. She notes, for example, that "they were never rich" on the farm, a gross understatement of the economic troubles that shall bring the farm's ruin. She even states the major reason for the farm's eventual failure, "the farm was a little too high up to grow coffee." Yet this detail seems insignificant given the light narrative tone. The narrator tries to remain like the painter who described the landscape in the book's opening pages. Dinesen uses the tone of a narrative storyteller, which shifts her book from any impression that it is a memoir or autobiography and turns it instead into a variation of storytelling that takes place in a timeless manner in an African land.
The primary metaphor in this opening section equates colonial Kenya with paradise. By emphasizing the fresh, raw nature of Africa, Dinesen suggests that the landscape and its people exist in a virtual Garden of Eden. The heavy use of aerial imagery in the opening descriptive passages provides the reader with a Godlike perspective on the landscape. Just as God looked down on the landscape after he created, so too is the reader able to see this relative paradise. Dinesen's idea that Africa is a paradise arises from her belief that the Africa presents man as he once was, before the adulterating influence of modernizing culture. As she states, the African natives preserve "a knowledge that was lost to us by our first parents." Dinesen's philosophy emerges from the "pastoral school" consistent with many nineteenth century writers and painters, who believed that man exists in his most godlike form when he has a strong connection to nature. Robert Langbaum has called Out of Africa "one of the most successful pastorals of our time." While Dinesen opens the book in "paradise," by its end Out of Africa shall be a tale of "paradise lost," since the author shall be forced to leave her farm and Africa—the place where she feels that she should be living.