Focus – Will Africa Sing a Song of Me?
by Major Deborah Flagg –
The one video that I own (besides seven versions of A Christmas Carol) is Out of Africa. It was a gift from someone who knows me well. I love the grand, sweeping travelogue of Kenya, complete with threatening lions, aerial views of the African savanna, and passionate renderings of beloved poems.
I have watched it many times, relishing the romance and adventure of a life that is not mine. I have one problem with it, however the ending. I think I would write it differently. I don’t want Karen Blixen to leave Africa! I want her to stay with the Kikuyu, learn their ways and become wise in their earthy tribal ethos. I want her to live the remainder of her days walking the windswept plains at the foot of the Ngong Hills. I want her to spend indolent afternoons watching the Kenyan hawks perform their ancient aeronautics. I want her to be buried there, taking the unsullied earth to herself, becoming part of it. I want the lions to rest contentedly on her grave.
But, alas, she does leave at the end, returning to Denmark. The baroness, in her proper Edwardian suit, bids a formal but wrenching farewell to her loyal manservant and boards the steaming train for the coast.
The narrative is out of my hands at this point and I don’t like it much. I watch it every time with a lump in my throat. It’s partly the evocative musical score, partly the scenes of savage beauty, and partly the baroness’ final words to the place she has come to love. I can almost recite the words with her:
If I know a song of Africa,
Of the giraffe and the African new moon lying
on its 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 will 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?
The reason these words touch me is because in one form or another, I ask myself the same questions every time I leave a place. They echo from the packing boxes, the neatened office files, the home newly bereft of my things. They are the questions of every pilgrim, of everyone who journeys. The questions are specific to each place and time, of course, but they all point to one timeless concern: Have I made a difference here? Will I be remembered?
On the surface, these questions seem self-indulgent and self-serving, but it is appropriate to entertain them and be arrested by them. The wonderful, freeing paradox of the Christian faith is that while it is really not about us, it is still very much about us. We are embedded creatures, enmeshed in a specific place, entrenched with certain people, encoded in a given moment–particular. Human life, according to Gilbert Meilaender, “is a finite and bodily life, tied to particular times and places.” He goes on to remind us that “To give ourselves to no one and no place in particular is not to be more like God; it is to fail as a human being.” It is okay to wonder how we are doing with this project.
God relates to us as particular individuals, with discrete signatures and unique features. Consider how decisive is the act of naming in Scripture. Humankind is not just a metaphysical mush to him. He confirms in a thousand different ways that each of us has a unique gift to nurture and a unique contribution to make. The God who loves universally, also loves locally, exclusively, singularly.
From Job’s anguished dialogues to Jesus’ embodied and personal ministry, we see that God becomes known to us in the incarnational, embedded realities of life. And we become known–and vulnerable–in those same realities, finding that maybe, just maybe, our feeble, particular, bodily deeds do indeed serve the goal of God’s kingdom.
At the end of Out of Africa, as Karen is preparing to board the train, she asks her African servant and friend, Farah, who had always referred to her in the acceptable terms of respect and distance, to say her name. “You are Karen,” he says in farewell, “You are Karen.” And while we know that the world goes on without it, it’s still an awfully nice thing to hear.
Will Africa sing a song of me, of you, of any of us? Yes–because God sings a song of us, knows us and names us. God helps us to live in the tension between the ultimate and the particular, and to ask the questions that in the end will make us better, more embedded human beings.