(Into And) Out Of Africa: On Travel, Healing, And The Importance Of Film

out-of-africa

“I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills…..”

Danish author Karen Blixen wrote those words in 1937, in her renowned memoir Out of Africa. Meryl Streep then famously spoke them 48 years later in the 1985, in the academy-award winning film version of Out of Africa, which was adapted for the screen by Kurt Luedtke and directed by Sydney Pollack.

I first encountered these words at 17, when I read Out of Africa for the first time. I watched and fell in love with Pollack’s adaptation shortly after, and it has since become one of my all-time favorite films. I don’t know what it is about these words, or about Blixen’s story, or about Pollack’s film that have stayed with me, but they have. Out of Africa is among those texts that I have kept coming back to, year after year since the first time I discovered it, in search of new wisdom and meaning, which I have always, always found in it.

The film is gorgeously, evocatively made, as the book is gorgeously, evocatively written, and I am a sucker for romantic epics set in exotic locations, and for stories in which complex female protagonists surmount transformative obstacles, and for prestige drama, and for classic Streep accent work, and, I assume it goes without saying, for young Robert Redford (how I long to be told that I have ruined being alone for someone the way Meryl ruined it for him!). But there is more to it than that. Something about the film has always stirred in me a sense of goal and purpose—a desire to find as much passion and meaning and adventure in the world as Karen had, and to live and love as she did: boldly, independently, against the grain, unafraid.

In the nearly ten years that I have been acquainted with her, I have sought to follow in Karen’s footsteps—to let her spirit, along with the spirits of all the other great heroes and heroines of my life, from Eleanor Roosevelt to Tennessee Williams, guide and inspire me to places that, but for their influence, I might never have gone. Recently, though, I found myself walking in Karen’s footsteps in a more literal sense than I ever had before.

At 17, I first held a worn paperback copy of Out Africa in my hand, first read those immortal words of which I have been unable to let go. “I had a farm in Africa.” Now, at 26, I have been to that farm in Africa. I have stood at the foot of the Ngong Hills. I have watched the sun rise over the Masai Mara and set on the Serengeti. I have walked on the shores of lakes Nakuru and Manyara, and stared in awe at the snow-capped peak of Mount Kilimanjaro.

As I have found is often the case with travel, I went to Africa not knowing exactly what I would I discover there, but what I did discover was more than I could have anticipated, and exactly what I needed in that moment. In Africa I found respite, renewal, humility, and joy. It was a restorative balm for my soul, which as of late has become increasingly chapped and embittered by the constant pressures of a job in which I find little joy or fulfillment, of life in the West (and especially in America) at this tumultuous moment in history, and of the stark realization that at 26 years old I am not who I thought I would be.

In my own world, I am, at almost all times, utterly consumed with myself—with my life and my problems and my prospects (or lack thereof) and my frequent existential crises. But Africa is a different world, one that forces all those who enter it to see and think beyond themselves. It is like no place I have ever been before—colorful, exuberant, magnificently diverse and unrestrained. It feels so much wilder, more vibrant and more alive than can be imagined, and it is impossible not to be humbled by its scale and beauty. But what Africa is, what is really is, is its people, so many of whom live without access to the most basic privileges and opportunities we in the West take for granted, and yet are who are still the most warm, expressive, resilient and joyous people I have encountered anywhere in the world. Experiencing life the way the people of Africa do, getting to meet and interact with so many of them, and to see the world, however briefly, through their eyes, was healing and cathartic for me in a way I cannot fully describe. There are times when all need to be reminded that the world is bigger, more beautiful, and more diverse, than we can possibly conceive, and that we as individuals are as small and as insignificant within it as grains of sand. The problems that we dwell on and cry over and are kept awake at night by are nothing. They are nothing. There is so much more to life than even the worst of them, and it is far too short to allow ourselves to be weighed down or driven crazy or defined by them. That is what Africa taught me, and it is a lesson I will carry with me moving forward.

When my African expedition had come to a close, I was sad to say goodbye, but knew I would be returning to my own corner of the world better off than I had left it—wiser, humbler, and more grateful. On one of several connecting flights on my way back to New York, my brother and I were seated behind a father and his two children, who were probably around 6 and 9. The kids were flipping through the selection of in-flight movies available, and the father sternly instructed them to pick wisely because they were only allowed one movie each, despite the fact the flight was 8+ hours long. The nine-year-old began to protest and her father silenced her with what I consider truly one of the most infuriating parenting phrases: “It’s one movie or none. You’re not spending eight hours watching television. It will rot your brain.”

I wanted so badly in moment to shake some sense into their father and explain to him just how wrong he was. As a child, I remember being told over and over again by various adults that movies and television rot our brains, that they encourage laziness and bad behavior, and about a hundred other iterations of that same basic principle.

Luckily for me, my mother never subscribed to that logic, and I was permitted to watch all of the movies and television I wanted (which was a lot). And, I think to myself all the time, thank God for that. I am all in favor, especially in this day and age, of encouraging children to not live their entire lives in front of screens—of teaching them to experience and interact with the world in ways that are more authentic and that allow for more meaningful connections. And of course, I think every child should be encouraged to read absolutely as much as possible (I was a voracious reader as a child, and the time I spent watching movies or television certainly never interfered with that), and to play outside, and to do puzzles, and play games, and use their imaginations.

But I think we do children a sincere disservice by denying them access to all of the knowledge, and the joy, and the inspiration that can be found in films and television, and by teaching them that these things have no value or purpose other than to distract or entertain. Growing up when I did, and where I did, in a working class family in the American south in the 1990s, movies and television were much more to me that something to distract myself with, or to laugh it. They, along with the many books I read, were my window to the world. So much of what I think, and what I know, and who I am is derived from the movies and shows I watched as a child (and of course, as an adult as well). Movies inspire us to dream bigger dreams than we otherwise might have, to go places we otherwise would not have, to see and interact with the world in ways that, but for them, we might not know were possible. They did that for me. They can teach us so much about life, and about the world, and even about ourselves—I genuinely believe that—and it is always perplexing, and very sad to me, when I realize that many people don’t feel the same way.

So I wanted very badly to inform that father on the plane that in fact, movies do not rot our brains—they do the opposite. They sharpen our minds and expand our sense of what is possible. If I had never seen Out of Africa, or Gorillas in the Mist, or The African Queen, or I Dreamed of Africa, or Wild at Heart, or even before that, A Far Off Place, or Duma, or Scout’s Safari, or The Wild Thornberrys, or Tarzan, or The Lion King, I almost surely would not have been on plane, because I would never have gone to Africa and would never have experienced all that I did there. I would never have gone to half of the places I have been—from Canada to Ireland to Australia—if not for the hundreds of films I watched as a child that inspired in me an interest in those far-off places, and a longing to see them for myself. And I think to prevent any child from discovering those same interests and longings, for travel or anything else, is a terrible waste.

Movies and television have always been, and continue to be, such a crucial part of my life. They have brought so much color, and richness, and illumination, and motivation to it—more than I could even have asked for. It is because of Out of Africa that I now have the pleasure of wondering, as Meryl did in the film, “If I know a song of Africa, of the giraffe and the African new moon lying on her back, of the plows in the fields and the sweaty faces of the coffee pickers, does Africa know a song of me? Will the air over the plain quiver with a color that I have had on, or the children invent a game in which my name is, or the full moon throw a shadow over the gravel of the drive that was like me, or will the eagles of the Ngong Hills look out for me?”

And for that I am so humbled, and so appreciative. And I hope very much that all the children in the world who have fathers like the one I encountered on the plane (who I am sure is a good parent and means well but is, in my opinion, misguided on this particular subject) have the opportunity to wonder such things themselves.

xx

JB