House and Leisure, December 2005
Interview with Sally Dudmesh in the Out of Africa house, her home.
Twenty years after the film, there is still a farm in Africa at the foot of the Ngong Hills. We went to visit Sally Dudmesh, living among her jewels and ghosts, in the most famous house in Kenya.
My diary reads: 9am, interview Sally Dudmesh, Out of Africa House, Nairobi.' We're driving through Karen, one of the affluent suburbs to the southwest of Nairobi and a small sign reading `Ngong Dairy' is all there is to alert us to the upcoming Hollywood set: the house made famous by Sydney Pollack's film Out of Africa. As we approach, one can't help but have a vision of Meryl Streep standing at the end of the long driveway, waving farewell to Robert Redford as he leaves for another life-threatening safari.
The long rains have started, Nairobi's surrounds are lush with tall grass and bright green acacias and I am totally overwhelmed by the beauty of this place at the foot of the Ngong Hills. With John Barry's score soaring to a dramatic crescendo in my head, I wave to the smiling woman standing on the deep verandah.
Sally Dudmesh moved into the Ngong Dairy 11 years ago and although she doesn't own the property — which belongs to a Kenyan family — she has put her unique stamp on it.
The house was built in 1920, with a wing each for owner Major Steele and his housekeeper (with whom he was rumoured to be having an affair). The architect was 'probably the same person who built Karen Blixen's own house,' Sally says. 'They are quite similar.' Blixen's actual residence is now a museum and, while the architecture is indeed similar, the interiors feel quite different; Blixen lived her life in dark rooms behind heavy stone walls, while the Ngong Dairy is filled with soft light which streams in through the large bay windows. After Steele's death his housekeeper inherited the property but owing to financial difficulties was unable to maintain a farm of 300 acres, so in 1965 she sold it to the present owners.
Meanwhile, Sally was born to English parents in Pakistan and subsequently lived in Singapore, Mauritius, Ghana, Yemen and Egypt, attending school in the UK and first discovering her love of jewellery in West Africa. She came to Kenya for her 18th birthday — and on her last day in the country, she met the man who would become her partner for six years.
She stumbled across the Ngong Dairy years later while sharing a cottage in Langata with her best friend, the controversial British aid worker Emma McCune. (A film based on Emma's War — Deborah Scroggins' book about McCune — which is to star Nicole Kidman, is due to go into production at the end of this year. `Emma came back one evening to tell me that she had found the most incredible house,' Sally says, `and I remember when we walked in for the first time a little bushbuck scuttled off into the garden. The lawn was beautifully manicured, but there wasn't a single thing in this house!' They signed the lease there and then. Tragically, on the night of their first dinner party at the Dairy, Emma was killed in a car accident on her way home. 'I literally felt she had moved me here,' Sally says. `Emma had everything in place when she died and I can still feel her spirit very, very strongly. It feels like she looks after us here.'
Over the years Sally has lived in the Ngong Dairy she has indulged her two great passions: jewellery design and Africa.
After falling in love with ancient West African trading beads in Ghana all those years ago, she elected to do a goldsmithing apprenticeship in Cairo when her parents were living there. What began as a hobby — collecting beautiful pieces and selling them to her student friends back home — later became Sally's main source of income and she now supplies Kenyan lodges and also sells her own intricate designs as far afield as Europe and the USA. `Jewellery is my passion. I find it irresistible when I see a new bead. And I also like my jewellery to be a protective talisman as well as a beautiful adornment.'
She loves Kenya for the free spirit of both the environment and the people, and doesn't miss the social constraints typical of the UK. 'There is that sense of wildness here, it's a kind of cowboy country. This attracts people who don't quite fit in with the rules and structures of England and that's why in the past you often used to find the black sheep of families settling here. Kenyans are very accepting, they are not judgmental. You can just be yourself.'
And that suits Sally just fine. 'I've always felt very comfortable here. The house is surrounded by a lot of creativity; we rent it out for exhibitions and there's also a carpenter's workshop at the back. It used to be very social as well — I would rent out one wing to a Nairobi DJ and we'd have big parties in the "ballroom". But we've all grown up a bit now.'
When I ask why she's never tried to buy the one place she obviously feels so rooted in, she just smiles. 'I had travelled all my life and when I first came here someone asked me where I was from and I realised, "Oops, I'm not from anywhere!",' she laughs. 'I never imagined that I would live in this place for 11 years, I've been such a nomad all my life. So because I've always moved I don't want to fix myself to a place.'
The irony is that she's done just that.