For a CUSO volunteer in East Africa in 1965, the Thorn Tree at the New Stanley Hotel in Nairobi was a central gathering place. There was a good bookstore run by an Asian right around the corner. I was able to acquire and read a number of books about the colonial days in East Africa. Among them were Karen Blixen’s Out of Africa, along with Robert Ruark’s Horn of the Hunter, Ernest Hemingway’s Snows of Kilimanjaro and White Mischief by Jamie Fox. These stories of the colonial times captured the excitement and romance of the early settlers in Kenya or at least the well-heeled, aristocratic gentry variety. The world they portrayed was exotic and charmed.
When the movie Out of Africa with Meryl Streep and Robert Redford, came out in the mid eighties, I was working with AMREF. I went to see it in Nairobi with a couple of African physician friends. I had read the movie reviews and convinced my friends with my effusive descriptions of how fascinating the book was. During the movie I was transported by the romance of the story, the setting and the exquisite photography and it took me a while to notice on leaving the film that my friends had gone quiet. I was surprised that they didn't like the movie.
“OK", I said, attempting to see it through their eyes, “The whites used Africa as a playground. They were frivolous, privledged aristocrats and those were different times. Not very politically correct.”
Finally one of my friends opined, “It is more than that. The Africans are portrayed as simple and backward. They were treated as children.”
“Unfortunately, that part is probably an accurate portrayal,” I admitted, “or at least close to the truth.”
“Yes, he agreed, “ and it’s depressing, not only as a way to treat people but also as a way to represent them in a film.”
Since then I have had this love-hate thing about Out of Africa. Well maybe love-hate is too strong but I feel like it as I do about Tom Sawyer being designated as racist. It makes me sad because I really like the book.
So my first thought when I saw that the exhibit of African fabrics I had loaned to the local Fiber Arts Festival in Gibsons this past week had been entitled Out of Africa, was not overly enthusiastic. However, curator had done such a smashing job of displaying the pieces, I was stunned into disbelief.
I had provided piles of old and new articles of clothing, blankets, pieces of tie dye, swabs of cassava print, photos of the process of weaving and dye pots in Kano; Bokolofini cloth, raffia pile mats from Congo and Ethiopian goat hair mats and from this hodge-podge, Tracey Lee Hearst, the curator had created a museum-quality display.
Not all of Africa was represented in my collection, but more than just East Africa, so the title Out of Africa seemed appropriate. It celebrated the complex, artistic, traditional creativity and exuberance of Africa.
An Africa able to fashion so much out of so little. An Africa which celebrated and decorated the simplest articles of daily apparel and furnishings with such beauty and grace. An Africa where artistic, identifiable styles were developed and perfected over generations and then the very best of them adopted by others in specific geographic areas. An Africa where ideas and approaches are shared and exchanged.
Over the years I lost track of those two friends. Last year I ran into one of them at a workshop in Nairobi. He is now the director of a large clinical and research organization in Africa. The other had recently died of a brain tumor. I think they would have appreciated and enjoyed the Out of Africa exhibit of fabrics and its celebration of Africa and Africans.
Photos: Entrance to Exhibit; Nigerian dress; display of Senegal Cassava print cloth, Indigo tie dye &Hausa blankets;cards depicting aspects of cloth preparation; Ethiopian dress; Dahomey applique