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Blixen, the 'quack' who founded Nairobi's posh Karen

Karen Blixen House.

In the last few weeks, Kenyans have been treated to a circus of sorts as the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission sought to establish the academic qualifications of candidates.

While a number of these cases seem to have been resolved, the country has not been short of individuals claiming to possess the requisite qualifications.

Take the case of Karen Blixen, the Danish woman who came to Kenya over 100 years ago hoping to make a name as a prominent coffee farmer on a newly-acquired 4,500-acre farm. But Blixen was a doctor of sorts though she possessed no medical qualifications.

"I was a doctor to the people on the farm most mornings from nine to 10 and like all great quacks, I had a large circle of patients, and generally between two and a dozen sick people up by my house then," she stated in her book, Out of Africa.

The closest she came to 'medical training' was by sailing on the same boat with a German scientist during her first trip to Africa in 1912. The scientist was making his 23rd trip to the continent to try out cures for tropical diseases such as sleeping sickness. He had on the boat over 100 rats and guinea pigs on which to test his cures.

But rather than use guinea pigs, Blixen tried her medicine on the natives who she had come to admire due to their courage in the face of pain or adversity.

"I knew very little of doctoring, just what you learn at a first aid course. But my renown as a doctor had been spread by a few chance lucky cures, and had not been decreased by the catastrophic mistakes that I had made," she wrote.

Medical qualifications or not,  Blixen had a steady flow of patients whom she described as "old skeletons of men with tearing coughs and running eyes, the young slim smooth brawlers with black eyes and bruised mouths, and the mothers with their feverish children, like little dry flowers, hanging upon their necks."

Burns were also common in the farm since people sleeping around a fire would have burning wood slide on their legs. 

While she practiced medicine out of love for the local population, her coffee business floundered. Both the soil and altitude around Karen proved unfavourable for coffee farming. 

Adding to her woes was the great economic depression, not to mention the fire that gutted the coffee processing plant. Unable to sustain the massive investment, Blixen sold the farm to a developer and returned to Denmark in 1931 where she died in 1962, aged 77. Her name is immortalised in the leafy suburb she founded and home to some of Kenya's high and mighty.