c. 1926 | Mombasa

Parting Glance

Isak Dinesen broods over the degradation of giraffes.

In the harbor of Mombasa lay a rusty German cargo steamer, homeward bound. I passed her in Ali bin Salim’s rowing boat with his Swahili rowers, on my way to the island and back. Upon the deck there stood a tall wooden case, and above the edge of the case rose the heads of two giraffes. They were, Farah, who had been onboard the boat, told me, coming from Portuguese East Africa and were going to Hamburg to a traveling menagerie.

The giraffes turned their delicate heads from the one side to the other, as if they were surprised, which they might well be. They had not seen the sea before. They could only just have room to stand in the narrow case. The world had suddenly shrunk, changed and closed round them.

They could not know or imagine the degradation to which they were sailing. For they were proud and innocent creatures, gentle amblers of the great plains; they had not the least knowledge of captivity, cold, stench, smoke, and mange, nor of the terrible boredom in a world in which nothing is ever happening.

Crowds, in dark smelly clothes, will be coming in from the wind and sleet of the streets to gaze on the giraffes, and to realize man’s superiority over the dumb world. They will point and laugh at the long slim necks when the graceful, patient, smoky-eyed heads are raised over the railings of the menagerie; they look much too long in there. The children will be frightened at the sight and cry, or they will fall in love with the giraffes and hand them bread. Then the fathers and mothers will think the giraffes nice beasts and believe that they are giving them a good time.

In the long years before them, will the giraffes sometimes dream of their lost country? Where are they now, where have they gone to, the grass and the thorn trees, the rivers and waterholes and the blue mountains? The high sweet air over the plains has lifted and withdrawn. Where have the other giraffes gone to, that were side by side with them when they set going, and cantered over the undulating land? They have left them, they have all gone, and it seems that they are never coming back.

In the night where is the full moon?

Nine Dragons (detail), by Chen Rong, 1244.

Nine Dragons (detail), by Chen Rong, 1244. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Francis Gardner Curtis Fund.

The giraffes stir and wake up in the caravan of the menagerie, in their narrow box that smells of rotten straw and beer.

Goodbye, goodbye, I wish for you that you may die on the journey, both of you, so that not one of the little noble heads that are now raised, surprised, over the edge of the case, against the blue sky of Mombasa, shall be left to turn from one side to the other, all alone, in Hamburg, where no one knows of Africa.

© 1937, Random House, Inc., renewed 1967 by Rungstedlundfonden. Used with permission of Random House

Contributor

Isak Dinesen

From Out of Africa. After studying at the Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen, Dinesen in 1912 became engaged to her Swedish cousin Baron Bror Blixen-Finecke, whose uncle, Count Morgens Frijs, suggested they leave Denmark: “Go to Kenya, you two.” She lived in the African country for seventeen years, managing a six-thousand-acre coffee estate in the Ngong Hills by herself for ten of them. After the business failed, Dinesen returned in 1931 to Denmark, publishing her memoir in 1937 and her only novel, The Angelic Avengers, in 1944.