Of a forgotten time

out of africaKaren Blixen (aka Isak Dinesen) published Out of Africa in 1937. In this classic memoir, she reflects upon her time as a small-time coffee farmer and expatriate living west of Nairobi, Kenya. Many know of Blixen thanks to the 1985 movie, “Out of Africa,” starring Meryl Streep and Robert Redford, which is based upon Blixen’s account.

As one who lives and works only a few kilometers away from the community now called “Karen” (the upscale Nairobi suburb bearing Blixen’s name), some of the places she describes are places I’ve been. Her old tractor and the mammoth rusted coffee dryer sit adjacent to her old farmhouse, now a museum open to tourists. The Ngong Hills that she praises poetically also greet me each morning a century later, unchanged in their glory, though now hemmed-in by dwellings and businesses spilling over from Nairobi.

The reader is soon aware that Blixen’s workers and the squatters on her farm became for her like the children she never birthed, and she the matriarch. Her love for them is evident, though there is always a measure of condescension. Nowhere does she describe a “Native” (now an unacceptable descriptor) as an equal. Perhaps this stems in-part from her own high birth as a Danish baroness? A Kenyan reading the book today may take offense at some of the sweeping character generalizations she makes about Kikuyus, the Maasai, and others. The colonialist worldview tolerated in the early 20th century – which shows up in Blixen’s occasional use of the term “savage” and talk about “two races” (white and black) – sounds a false note in a book whose words-pictures otherwise let the account soar to orchestral levels.

 

K Blixen home

Karen Blixen home

 

Despite these shortcomings, Out of Africa, when considered as a snapshot-in-time, provides a fascinating portrayal of an era that is no more. Visitors to the museum should first read the book. This will provide context to better appreciate the compelling story of an intrepid European woman who – thanks to a 17 year sojourn – came to fondly view Kenya and its hospitable people as her second home.

 

 

James Copple on saving the children

Voices_from_the_night_3D-v4James Copple’s Voices from the Night (Amazon Kindle, 2013) takes you from  drug-infested crack houses in the Midwestern United States to the slums of Nairobi. In words that paint memorable pictures, Copple shares stories of children and youth who face impossible odds and somehow come out on top.

Key to Copple’s method is what he calls “coming alongside”:

My career path is about coming alongside the dispossessed, the impoverished, the broken, and the wounded. To be in journey along side of the oppressed is to recognize that you bring skills, gifts, and capacity that can strengthen or contribute to the welfare of those you engage. Further, to come along side suggests that you have as much to learn from the other as the other has to learn from you. It is a bridge bound by love, grace, and empathy (location 122).

For the author, child victims of war, drug abuse, and poverty must not be mere abstractions or projects at whom we throw money to ease our conscience. Rather, they are a living, breathing reality, youth with hopes, dreams, and incredible potential. Copple laments that governmental budgets find millions for wars and leave social agencies to fight each other over the remaining scraps. Surely we can do better than this! But more than money, children and youth need us, our time, our love, our attention. That’s what community is all about.

Voices from the Night includes heart-wrenching stories, so be prepared to be haunted by what Jesus called “the least of these.” Whether it’s little Omar in Somalia who divulges to soldiers where his mother is hiding, resulting in her rape, all so that his empty, growling stomach can have a couple of biscuits, to a little girl in a filthy crack house who pleads with Jim, “Mister, can you get me out of here?,” there’s no taking your eyes off the sad specter of children suffering.

A positive aspect of the book is that the author doesn’t just present the problem. He offers practical solutions, but be warned: They come at a personal price. Community change can only transpire when we are in-the-flesh involved with those who need rescuing. The final chapter offers ways to roll up your sleeves and make a difference.

The wide-ranging nature of Voices from the Night is also its weakness. Really there are two books here, one dealing with anti-drug crusading in the United States and a second telling more recent stories from the hardscrabble areas of East Africa. While the children and their stories are compelling, the long interludes of moralizing are less so.

Despite this weakness, Voices from the Night is a clarion call to advocate for those who are most often shunted aside as insignificant. Copple never promises that change will be easy, but he guarantees that looking back one day, you’ll be glad you spent yourself in a cause bigger than yourself.

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Photo credit: James Copple the Seeker