In July, 2008, I, Princess Rachella, Intrepid African American Girl International Journalism Consultant, pulled up stakes once again and headed to Nairobi, Kenya. Through my various adventures, I've concluded that if I get any MORE explosively fabulous in these prequel years to "THE BIG 5-0," I will have to register myself with the Pentagon as a thermonuclear incendiary device.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

The Mother of All Moths

I swear to God there is a moth as big as a hummingbird fluttering around my bedroom as I type these words. I know you’re all reading this and thinking, “It’s just a moth, geez!” But when you’re lying in a mostly darkened room in a village in Northern Uganda, the flapping of said moth’s wings sounds like a fucking pterodactyl, and the only thing keeping me from having a total psychotic break is the mosquito netting shrouding my bed.

I’ve swatted at the behemoth (pun intended) four or five times now, and I can hear the thump as it hits the wall or the floor. It takes a few seconds to regroup, and then heads straight toward the light of my laptop. I’ve been kicking and flailing and shouting “Get away from me!” for the past 15 minutes now, but the damned freak of nature just won’t die.

I share this in case any of you still think I’ve got lots of guts and an adventurous spirit for doing what I’m doing. What I’ve got is definitive proof of major brain injury at birth, because I have detested bugs and lizards and frogs, and all manner of creepy crawlies my entire life, and now I find myself swatting, squashing or screeching at them at least half of every day.

In 32 days, my contract ends. Wake me up when it's February 1st, cause I ain't coming out from under this mosquito netting until then.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

The Strength of a Woman

I’m having Scotch for dinner tonight, and that can’t be a good thing.

I was actually doing really well until Thursday afternoon, when I signed onto Yahoo and learned that Benazir Bhutto was assassinated. Now, I didn’t know the woman, never really followed Pakistani politics, and plus, I have my own mourning to grapple with. Still, Bhutto’s murder has left me more depressed than I’ve been in weeks.

A while back, I speculated that if Hillary Clinton is elected President of the United States, it could spark a tremendous catalyst for change for women around the world. Now, I’m just scared some nut job will whack HER if she gets the nomination.

Why are men so scared of powerful women? Sure, Bhutto’s two terms as Prime Minister weren’t exactly stellar, but she was such an incredible symbol of empowerment for women in Muslim countries. I remember feeling really excited when she went back to Pakistan in October. I thought, “Wouldn’t it be fantastic if the third time was the charm, and Bhutto swept to power on a wave of popular support, seeking to end oppression and help create real positive change for her people?”

I am such a damned Pollyanna, I’m making myself sick.

Anyway, when you think about it, Bhutto had to be prepared to die every minute of her life. Her father, one of the most popular leaders in Pakistan’s history, was executed. Two of her brothers were killed. She barely escaped death shortly after her return to Pakistan, when a suicide bomber targeted her convoy.

Watching that last video shot as Bhutto stood up through her limo’s sunroof, waving at the crowd, I just can’t help wishing she hadn’t been so damned courageous. I can’t help wishing she hadn’t had the guts of steel that made her continue her campaign after the first attack. I can’t help wishing that Benazir Bhutto had just stayed in exile, working for change behind the scenes.

But then I think about the strength of a woman. Plant a seed in us, and we can bring forth life, for Christ’s sake. And we can do it through the kind of pain that, if a man had to endure it, every government on earth would declare Caesarian sections mandatory.

I believe there is no power on earth stronger than a woman determined to make change. I say that even though Benazir Bhutto is dead, because I believe her death will spark a tremendous catalyst for change in the Muslim world.

In the entire world.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Boxing Day

In Great Britain and some of her former colonies, the day after Christmas is known as Boxing Day. It’s based on a feudal custom where British royals and landed gentry would reward the local peasants for a year’s worth of grueling labor by handing out boxes of food and dry goods. Often, these were things the loyal peasants couldn't have afforded on the pitiful wages they got from said royals and gentry.

Cor, that’s a bloody bit of irony, what? Still, I’ve decided it’s as good a day as any to open the last box Julie ever packed for me.

It’s been sitting in the main house at the compound since the day after my birthday, on October 3rd. I was in Illinois at the time, with Julie in the hospital. When I got back to Gulu on November 17th, I noticed this QVC box sitting in a corner at the main house. At the time, I couldn’t have opened it if you’d held a gun to my head.

But considering the major victory I’ve achieved by not spending the past few days in a boozy haze, I think I’m actually strong enough to open it up and see what my Big Sis thought I needed to survive my sojourn in Gulu. I’ll do that right now.

Okay, I just finished going through the box, and I can’t think of a single reason to cry or feel sad! As usual, Julie knew me like I knew myself. I SWEAR I don’t know how she’s able to reach down from Heaven and provide me with EXACTLY what I’ve been wanting lately, but girlfriend managed to do just that.

First, ever since I got back to Gulu, I’ve had a yen for American style, chemically-processed potato chips. You can actually get some very tasty, all natural chips here, but once you’ve been raised on mono-dextrose, polyunsaturated, fake-assed snacks, you can’t get that monkey off your back. Well, Julie packed two cans of Pringles in that box!

Next, she’s responsible for getting me slavishly hooked on hand wipes; in each of her other care packages, she’d included lots of them. Given how lax folks can be about hygiene in these parts, I’m glad I acquired the habit. I’ve been running a little low lately, and so guess what? Baby girl packed hand wipes!

Then, Julie knew how I suffer from hot flashes, and she was always gifting me with handy little portable fans. Well, I’ve been thinking I need a small box-sized fan to place directly on my desk, pointed straight at my face, to augment the standing fans we all have. Bingo! Now I have a 10-inch, 3 speed box fan!

And just this morning, I gathered a pile of silver jewelry that’s getting so tarnished, I don’t want to wear it anymore. I’ve had some luck with using toothpaste to polish a few pieces, but what I really craved were some silver polishing cloths.


I could go on and on, with the Jiffy cornbread, and the first aid kit, and the over-the door-hanger and the wooden spoons…..but I think you’ve caught my drift. Julie didn’t just guess about what to put in those care packages…she always seemed to KNOW exactly what I needed.

It's funny, but last week at this time, I never expected to feel so sane and stable during Christmas week. I was totally prepared to spend the holidays deeply depressed and inert. And now, I can’t stop smiling. How can I NOT believe that the Archangel Julie is swooping around me, determined to keep me from falling off the cliff of despair?

Oh, yeah, here’s the best thing of all. At the bottom of Julie’s box, were two packages of flower seeds. They came in a promotional envelope from Saturn, for their “Go Green” Hybrid cars. Saturn’s slogan, underneath the seed packet, reads,

“Like Always. Like Never Before.”

Kind of like Julie. She’s still here for me, like always. But only now, it’s like never before. And even though I’m tempted to just keep those seeds locked away in a chest somewhere, so I’ll never have to watch their flowers die, I think I’ll plant them on New Year’s Day, to show the Archangel Julie just how much I still love her. Like always.

Like never before.

Monday, December 24, 2007

"Twas The Night Before Christmas in Gulu

‘Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house,
Crept lizards and bugs…. I’d prefer the damn mouse!
No stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
‘Cause I don’t have a chimney. I need central air!

Like good looks skipped past Jamie Foxx’s hag Wanda,
Santa has chosen to bypass Uganda.
This leaves me with plenty of time for hard thinking,
(Which is certainly better than choosing hard drinking.)

I’m thinking that rather than spend this time sad,
I’ll focus on why my new life ain’t so bad.
I’ve decided I’m actually here for a reason,
More important than my feeling lonely this season.

I chose to come here to share what I know
With colleagues who have a much worse row to hoe.
They work facing dangers so real and so plenty,
While back in DC, I hardly face any.

I’ve lived a good life, traveled so far and wide,
Had experiences more deep than the tears I have cried
Since October 19th, when dear Julie passed over,
To be with our parents, our brother…Jehovah.

I’ve learned I am strong, even more than I knew,
I’ve learned when I’m challenged, there’s lots I can do.
In just six months, I have grown so fast,
(And on fish and samosas, I do NOT mean my ass.)

My growth is internal, in spirit, in trust,
I came here to help produce news that is just.
I may choose to stay here for just one more year,
But I’ll do it without (much) frustration or fear.

I might stay to finish the goal I foresaw
When offered this job. What a hoot! Ha, HAH!
I thought I could help teach reporters to think,
‘Bout why their work matters, so close to the brink

Of lasting peace in this country so troubled.
And what we’ve accomplished is possibly double
Than what I expected. Why would I leave now?
My life may be lonely, but the work I do…WOW!

So even though Santa is nowhere in sight,
Merry Christmas to y’all, and to y’all, a good night.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Live the Questions Now

Why am I spending Christmas alone in Gulu Town, Uganda? I think the Universe just sent me the answer.

I just had a knock on my door, and one of the guards, Oyet Francis (folks over here say their last name first) pointed to a tall, slim girl who was standing shyly off to the side. At first I didn’t recognize her, but then it hit me….it was Cissy, one of the girls I’m helping through boarding school next year.

Cissy shook my hand and curtsied, and said she had a card for me. At first I thought it might be a simple Christmas greetiing she’d made herself, and I braced for the floodgates to crumble. But then Cissy unfolded the wrinkled newspaper she was holding and handed me two photocopied pages from Mary Immaculate Primary 7 school. It was the report of her final grades.

Cissy ranked 8th out of a class of 267 girls in Primary 5!! She was graded “Very Good” in English and Maths, and “Good” in Science and Social Studies. I was so thrilled to see how well she’d done, especially knowing how hard her life has been. I hugged her and thanked her for bringing me her marks. And I also couldn’t resist telling her that now that she’d be living at school next year, she’d have more time to concentrate on her studies. I told her I wanted to see those “Very Good” marks replaced with “Excellents”.

Yeah, yeah, I know it’s wrong to put academic pressure on kids, but since I’ve decided I’m never having any of my own, I don’t have to worry about warping them. And I have to say, I would choose this holiday experience over stuffing my face with turkey and sweet potato pie, or lounging on a beach somewhere.

Of course, I’m already booked on a flight to Rio in mid-February, so I guess I can afford to be so philanthropic. And that’s another thing….what the heck am I feeling sorry for myself about???? I’m pretty darned blessed.

But check with me on Christmas Eve. I may wind up doing some blogging while drunk

Alone Again, Naturally

I just dropped Akiiki off at the bus stop, to spend Christmas and New Year’s with his family in Kampala. The Intern left yesterday for California. I’m alone on the compound at Plot 26, Samuel Doe Road, Gulu Town Uganda, except for the guards and Pamela the housekeeper.

I don’t mind being alone. I actually like being alone. I’ve developed a vibrant, if borderline loopy, interior life, and I quite enjoy my own company. It’s just that I’ve just never felt so lonely as I do at this very moment.

I have never, EVER questioned my life’s choices as much as I have right this second. How did I get to be 46 and have no immediate family, no husband, boyfriend, booty-call, whatever, to share my life with??? Maybe I should have gone ahead and married the only man I was ever engaged to, The Hapless Haitian. We’d have been divorced more than a decade by now, but maybe I would have had one of his big-headed children to keep me company, to be my “family.”

Hmm, maybe the Anal Archivist is worth giving a second thought. His relationship with the Argentinian bombshell lasted about 6 months, and then I started getting e-mails from him about how stupid he was to break up with me, and how I was the best thing that had ever happened to him, and how much he cared about me.

Too little, WAAAAAY too late. Of COURSE I was the best thing that ever happened to him! That ever WILL happen to him! Why is it that men always seem to realize that after I’m gone???

Anyway, maybe I should have had my shit together when I was 40, because then I’d have adopted an Ethiopian baby girl, and she’d be 6 now, and we’d be celebrating Christmas together. Or maybe I should have given just one more month.

Or, maybe my sister Julie shouldn’t have died of colon cancer at 57. You see, whenever I’ve been alone or lonely during all of my excellent adventures, I always knew Julie was somewhere out there. I could always pick up the phone and hear her voice. I knew I always had a home in her heart.

Geez, the pathos train just jumped the tracks!! I gotta get over myself, already. So I’m spending Christmas alone in Gulu, Uganda. Honestly, I’m grateful to be here, because if I were in DC, inundated by memories of holidays with Julie and Ron, assaulted by all the trappings of Christmas in America, I’d probably be on a bridge somewhere deciding whether to belly flop or nose-dive.

So I’m guessing The Archangel Julie arranged for me to be here now. Hell, most people in Gulu are so danged poor, they couldn’t make a big deal out of Christmas if they wanted to. I’m not seeing any ornaments or Christmas lights, or plastic reindeer….there’s nothing here to remind me of Christmas.

Except this big-assed hole in my heart. (Again with the whining!) Something tells me I need to spend some focused, concentrated time trying to get that sucker filled. In other words, getting laid is the Number One resolution on my 2008 list. But not with just anybody.....finding the man I want to spend the rest of my life with has now vaulted to the top of my Life To Do List. (It just replaced adopting a baby, because some kid next door has been yelling its fucking head off for the past two hours, and I’m as close to committing Capital Murder as I’ve ever been in my life. )
So I’ll end this brief posting by hoping that all of you reading blog this have a very Merry Christmas, Happy Hannukah, Joyous Kwanzaa, or whatever your Holiday bag is. If nothing else, I hope you aren’t covered with mosquito bites and watching Columbo videos with Dutch sub-titles.

Friday, December 21, 2007

An Undigested Bit of Beef

So I promised I’d write about my conversation with the British computer guru, the one who wanted to know why I wasn’t like the “typical” African American. In case you don’t feel like reading all of this posting, let me summarize:

In 2007, an American of African descent actually has a credible chance to win the nomination for the most powerful job on earth…..and he’s being backed by the most powerful woman on earth, who just happens to be African American……and yet many people around the world still think the “typical” African American is some hip-hop hustler or ‘hoe.

So when my new chum Peter asked me that question last week, while we were sitting at a Chinese restaurant in Kampala, I had to pause and take a deep breath before responding. I actually have two fairly standard responses to that question (and if I had a dollar for every time I was asked it, I could move next door to Oprah).

The first one I call my “Teachable Moment” response. I sometimes have to use it when I’m with my friends of European descent, or when I’m interacting with folks of European descent who I believe are sincere about the query. After 45 years in racially psychotic America, I know the difference between honest curiosity about race matters and shallow stupidity.

That’s why I keep the “Teachable Moment” response handy at all times. After all, many white people can go through most of their lives without ever truly conversing with a person of African descent. Look at Montana. Or Iceland. Or the Upper East Side of Manhattan. This means those white people rely on stereotypical images of what African Americans are like. Sadly, most of those images are beamed through a TV screen into their homes, and what they see ain’t pretty.

They’re seeing gold-toothed, blinged out, thug-life, booty-shaking, titty bouncin' black people. Sure, every now and then they’ll see a movie with Samuel L. Jackson in it, and most of the time he even gets to stay alive until the very end…and he doesn’t use a single word of broken slang!!!!! But the majority of what many white people around the world "learn" about African Americans comes from music videos.

Now, I don’t even have the energy to launch a debate about censorship, and whether rap and hip hop artists have a responsibility to clean up their acts. But after Peter asked his question, I inherently knew it was a teachable moment. So I started off with a couple of questions of my own.

“What do you mean by "typical?" Can you explain what you think the "typical" African American is like?”

Thus began a good 30 minutes of parsing out race matters. Let me break it down for you like I broke it down to Peter….he thinks I’m NOT “typical” because I’m well versed, intellectual, articulate, witty, poised, and don’t regularly flash the crack of my ass in public. I don’t have more horsehair attached to my head than the average Clydesdale, or long fake nails and doorknocker-sized fake gold earrings. I don’t even have a baby-daddy or a welfare debit card.

As a Brit living in Uganda, Peter doesn’t spend a lot of time in the U.S. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of hoochies in Kampala that could out-hoochie the hoochiest African American woman, but the racial dynamics in Uganda are different. Here, everything centers not so much around race but around socio-economic status. For a white male like Peter, living in an environment where the overwhelming majority of people are black, and desperately poor, you can kind of slip into a generic state of consciousness about racial identity. African males are either powerful heads of state, brutish military leaders or servile work-horses. African women are either crusading superwomen like President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia, or Nobel Peace Prize Winner Wangari Maathai, or they're glittery ‘hoes, or they're beseeching. pitiful creatures mired in desperate squalor, abuse and oppression…that is, when they aren’t popping out babies like Pez.

See how easy that is??? Using that thought process, you don’t have to consider that maybe, just MAYBE, an African American woman could be well-versed, articulate, intellectual, witty, confident, AND disinclined to flash the crack of her ass in public. And see, the amazing thing is, THERE ARE A LOT OF BLACK WOMEN IN AMERICA JUST LIKE ME!!!! Stone Soul Sistuhs who can grab the reins in the boardroom but still keep it real at their cousin Pookie’s backyard barbecue.

I truly believe that by the end of our discussion last week, Peter went away with an expanded consciousness about the "typical" African American. Still, the weirdest thing about this whole scenario is that Peter is married to an African woman from Kenya. Tasha is funny, smart, articulate. intellectual, well-versed…..kinda like me, huh? And yet connecting those same qualities to a black American woman creates a stumbling block for Peter.

Sigh. My work as arbiter of racial understanding will never be done, I fear. The cross I must bear is like my own spectral valet, my personal “undigested bit of beef, or perhaps a spot of mustard,” as our beloved Yuletide codger Ebenezer Scrooge would put it. But look, it’s a better way to deal with life than when I use my second standard response for why I’m not like the "typical" African American. And it goes a little something like this:

“Are you really that stupid, or do you just look that way?"

Just kidding. I’d never say that to anyone…..unless my Xanax prescription had expired.


Wednesday, December 19, 2007

A Cougar's Conundrum

Of all the strange experiences of the past few weeks, I gotta say The Intern’s girlfriend Lisa provided the Numero Uno.

If you’ll recall, Lisa is the languid-eyed young lady who came along just in the nick of time for The Intern, shortly after his US girlfriend called it quits. Personally, I think he’s well rid of the fickle little heifer. I mean, The Intern postponed his psychology degree to live with her while she finished HER degree, but she couldn’t support HIM in his career choice. (Okay, so his choice involved a 7,000 mile separation, but come on! Fair is fair!)

Anyway, Lisa is Indian, Muslim, 21 years old, exotically attractive, about as big as my left thigh, and I’m told she’s quite articulate and intelligent. Sadly, I have absolutely no personal proof of the latter two qualities. That’s because every time Lisa is around me, all she does is stare and mutter single syllables. When I first met her, I thought maybe her English was limited, but then I was told she speaks 4 languages fluently. Then I decided she was just terribly shy, but I was told she’s quite conversant around other people.

It’s just that when I’m around, she barely speaks. Now, at first I thought, “Okay, I’m this loud black American woman who probably curses too much, and is the boss of 3 male employees. These are all things Lisa can’t conceive of, because in her culture, a woman who speaks without being given permission, who orders men around, who drinks like a fish every now and then….she must think I’m some sort of freakish infidel, or something.

Personally, Lisa reminds me of Morticia Adams, which is to say I’m just as uncomfortable around her as she is around me. But here’s the rub…..I can roll with her 23 year old boyfriend like we're best buddies! Maybe it’s because he’s a fellow American, and we both have slightly warped senses of humor, both like science fiction, the Rush Hour film trilogy and Monty Python, both are unabashedly fond of just about every part of a pig except its brain, and both like slot machines, but I just like hanging out with the kid.

This could be confirmation of one of my greatest fears…that I am in fact highly-functioning yet mildly retarded. I simply do not feel like I’m 4 years away from 50, whatever that’s supposed to feel like. I mean, maybe I should be more sober and mature and totally uninterested in cartoons and hip hop and tequila shots (The Intern introduced me to that demonic practice), but I like all of those things! Sure, I can hold my own in any intellectual debate, and I’m certainly not interested in spending every night at “the club” downing beers or anything. Hell, most nights all I want to do is go home and soak my corns.

But I do find myself more interested in the pursuit of fun than the average 46 year old, I guess. Maybe it’s because I never married and had children. I’m convinced those things can completely sap your quest for continuous, aimless levity. All I know is that, through the years, I’ve developed close, lasting friendships with people at least 10 years younger than me, mostly because, well, they’re just more fun than people my own age.

So it’s only natural, for ME, anyway, to become friends with The Intern. I highly respect his intellect, maturity, work ethic, and commitment to this project, but he’s also just fun to be around. Perfect example: when we go to Kampala, The Intern likes to hit the casinos. He made a nice little bundle playing Texas Hold ‘Em once, but when I hang out with him, we play slot machines. And we have a hoot laughing, cursing the malfunctioning machines, and placing bets on which foreign businessman will hook up with which consumptive whore wandering through the casino.

Well, last Monday night we were at the machines when Lisa called. She knew we’d left Gulu because of the Ebola threat, and so she was doing what most 21 year olds do when they’re separated from their boyfriend for more than 5 minutes….calling and texting incessantly. The Intern told her he was at the casino with me, and that we were headed to dinner afterwards. They talked for a few minutes more, and then hung up.

The next morning, the USAID Kampala folks basically announced they’d rather have us return to Gulu ASAP, and so we were in limbo. Apparently, Lisa had planned to come and visit The Intern while we were in Kampala, because he’d told her we’d be there indefinitely. But since we had just learned we might be returning to Gulu soon, The Intern called her and told her she probably ought to stay put.

The next afternoon, Lisa called to say she was on a bus halfway to Kampala.

At the time, I didn’t think anything of it. I just took the old “young love” attitude about it all. They’re two horny little rabbits who can’t stand to be apart from each other, so naturally Lisa would go ahead and ride a rickety, cramped bus 7 hours to be with her boyfriend, even if it was only for one night, after which she’d have to get right back on another rickety, cramped bus for 7 hours to head straight back to Gulu.

But then I got a bit of a shock. The next day, The Intern told me that Lisa came to Kampala because she thought he and I were fooling around. That struck me as funny, but then he added that she thought I was 26 years old, and that I was pushin’ up on her man.

Now, I gotta admit, hearing that did me a world of good! Seven months in Gulu have aged me considerably, in some ways. My nerves are shot, I get frustrated and tired a bit more easily, and it just feels like the incessant challenges have taken years off my life. So to have a 21 year old girl think I was 20 years younger than I actually am, AND that I actually had the energy to try and seduce her 23 year old boyfriend, was pretty freakin’ incredible!! Let’s just say it put a little pep in my step.

The Intern set her straight, but something tells me Lisa still harbors a few doubts. She STILL doesn’t speak when I’m around, and I’ve given up trying to draw her out. Ultimately, I’ve decided I don’t have to like The Intern’s girlfriend to work with him. I just have to get used to feeling slightly creeped out whenever she’s around. Thank God for DSTV and separate dwellings.

But you know what? The whole situation has me wondering if it’s time to start seriously considering younger men as potential dating and relationship partners. Like I’ve written before, most of the men who hit on me over here are in their late 20’s. Plus, I’ve had more stimulating conversations with the 23 year old Intern than most of the men I’ve dated in recent years. Should I just shift the prism on the lens a bit, and accept that most men my age have ex-wives, kids (or grandkids), and decades of psycho-emotional baggage that frankly, I don’t feel like being bothered with?

Should I just find me a unspoiled young ‘un and help turn him into a real man?

Discuss amongst yourselves.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Season's Greetings From The Hot Zone.....

Lest ye be worried that I am lying in a hospital ward spurting blood just like the champagne punch fountain at your cousin’s wedding, let me take this brief opportunity to calm your fears. My plans to deploy myself to Kampala as Intrepid Girl Disease Detective last week were scuttled by my bi-continental bosses. The suits in Washington had wanted us to help provide some stories and information about the outbreak for radio stations up north, but the U.S. Embassy-Kampala bureaucrats decided that really wasn’t our territory. So instead of walking around in a cool haz-mat spacesuit alongside CDC scientists, I’ve had a bit of time to decompress.

I guess now I can go ahead and tell you the truth. Last Saturday, as I was orchestrating our evacuation out of Gulu, I was as nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs. It’s true that when you’re in charge during a crisis, the adrenaline HAS to kick in, and you push your own panic aside. I was a rock on the outside....and a whimpering weasel on the inside. But right now, I’m having a pedicure at the Sparkle Salon at Garden City Mall, as one last flirt with civilization before we head back to Gulu tomorrow morning. Our bosses and the Ugandan government concluded the outbreak fears aren’t as bad as originally portrayed, and that the alleged cases in Gulu turned out to be false reports.

Whatever. The most important thing I’ve gleaned from this past week has been a more robust intellectual grasp of the immense geopolitical game-playing that goes on with the lives of the hoi polloi around the world, at every conceivable level. Essentially, about 9/10ths of the people on the face of the earth are utterly expendable to the other 1/10th. I mean, take
this Ugandan situation, involving a “mystery disease” that was first identified in August, but finally confirmed to be Ebola about two weeks ago. Now, I must stress here that there’s no proof the Ugandan government withheld information about the Ebola outbreak ahead of the big Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting last month. So in a sense, there’s really no point in running around pointing fingers and making accusations…at least until or if some proof is found.

I suppose the next 30 days will be critical. Ebola takes a while to percolate in the old immune system, up to 22 days max. Most of the reported cases and deaths have occurred in or very near the epicenter, in a Western Uganda town called Bundibugyo. So it’s not like people all over the country are showing up at clinics with symptoms.

However, if that starts happening a month from now, we are all in deep doo doo. I’m talking Grand Canyon Deep, people. But I can’t allow myself to worry about that right now. I’ve been too busy bracing myself for the traumatic emotional suckfest that will, for me, be Christmas Day in Gulu. The good news is I’ll be all alone, which means I won’t have to pretend to be cheery and sociable. And I’ve finally had it up to my eyebrows with all the tranquility and meditative solace on our compound, so a few days ago, I bought myself a sweet 29 inch Samsung flat screen TV.

The Dish Satellite TV guys will hook me up on Tuesday, so that means by Christmas Day, I’ll have already logged significant fetal-position hours on my cramped, uncomfortable couch watching endless reruns of “Friends” and “According to Jim,” which actually do a marvelous job of reflecting the vibrant diversity of American culture. Coupled with the steady stream of obscenely sexist and violent rap and hip hop videos, I’d say people around the world know all they really need to know about American society by watching satellite TV. (Remind me to tell you about the conversation I had with a British computer guru the other day. Let’s just say he wanted to know why I wasn’t like the “typical African American.”)

Anyhoo, truth be told, I really think I’m gonna be okay come Noel. I wouldn’t bet the rent on it, but I truly don’t think I’ll fall apart or anything. I’ll have my “moments,” as I’m describing them to my colleagues Akiiki and The Intern. There have been times when my smile isn’t quite as wide, and I don’t feel like hanging out at Da Pub, or one of the other local social watering holes in Gulu. There’ve been times when all I’ve had for dinner is a glass of Glenfiddich while lying in bed. There’ve been times like earlier today, when I was wandering through one of Kampala’s crafts markets looking for items to make my cozy little cottage feel more like home, and I saw a necklace that just screamed Julie’s name. I just KNOW she would have absolutely loved it. And just last year at this time, I would have gone ahead and bought it for her.

Now I don’t have to.

That’s what this Christmas boils down to for me. Now, I don’t have to pretend to even WANT to feel the Christmas spirit. I don’t have to be merry. I don’t have to buy presents for anybody. I don’t have to listen to Bing Crosby singing “White Christmas” a billion times in every public space. I don’t even have to be assaulted by the gaudy materialistic trappings of the traditional American Christmas, when people beat the crap out of each other to get their hands on the last Wii console, and spend three months’ mortgage on stuff they don’t really need, and won't really do what advertisers spend tens of millions of dollars each season trying to convince us they will.

This Yuletide, I’ll just be curled up on my couch eating rice and beans in Northern Uganda. Dreaming of an Ebola-free Christmas.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

"Contagion, Take Me Away....."

You remember those old commercials for Calgon....

"Calgon, Take me away........." ? Well, I've got a new spin on them.

I mean, what does one pack for an emergency Ebola evacuation??

I'm grappling with that dilemma this evening. I think I’m prepared; I’ve stuffed my suitcase with a couple of pairs of jeans and casual t-shirts, some decent blouses, a few nice outfits just in case I have to meet with U.S. Embassy or CDC officials, casual and dressy shoes (all EXTREMELY comfortable – including my MBT’s), and a smidge of make-up, which I never wear anymore, but always regret not having when I travel.

By now, you may have deduced that I’m trying to downplay the fact that in 24 hours, I’ll be in Kampala, holed up in the Fairway Hotel. My bosses…and the U.S. Government….have decided it will be safer for Internews staffers to be based there instead of in Gulu. After all, the last (and the FIRST) time Ebola hit Uganda, it struck hard in Gulu. Almost 300 people from here died from it in 2000.

Oh, yeah, I wonder if there’s room in my suitcase for one of those biological Haz Mat spacesuits like the one Dustin Hoffman wore in “The Hot Zone”? I mean, I ain’t trying to die with a 150 degree fever and bleeding from every orifice in my body.

Yes, dear friends and relatives, an Ebola outbreak has struck Uganda. I’d wager most of you have heard the name Ebola, and even if you’re not exactly sure of the details of the disease, you know it’s a gruesome, agonizing way to die. You also know it has made quite a name for itself on the African continent, having cut a wide, murderous swath through the population of Congo since it was first identified in the late 70’s. I won’t go into details here, but I will include this link with some information about Ebola.

The thing that irks me about this recent biologic nightmare is that media sources allege Ugandan government officials knew about the Ebola outbreak when it began back in August, in a remote Southwestern corner of Uganda. But that was just 3 months away from the Commonwealth Heads of Governments (CHOGM) shindig being planned for late November. The so-called “eyes of the world” would be on Kampala, and officials didn’t want to spoil the fun by announcing a pesky bout of the plague. It might hamper tourism.

So, Queen Elizabeth flew into Entebbe Airport in late November, and was greeted along the road to Kampala by about a million waving, smiling Ugandans. She hung out for a couple of days, feted by much splendiferous pomp, and then bolted the heck outta here. Lo and behold, the following week, local newspapers “revealed” that the mysterious disease officials noted back in August was in fact Ebola. Of course, there were no real precautions taken to try and isolate the outbreak back then, because you know how people are. You tell one guy he’s at risk of spreading a hideous contagion, and the blabbermouth is BOUND to tell at least, say, a gazillion other people.

Now, before I go any further, I want to assure everyone reading these words that I am absolutely safe and absolutely fine. Physically, anyway. Mentally, I’m slightly freaked, but even so, I’m not as hysterical as I might have been 6 months ago. I know this will sound macabre, but I kinda see myself in a no-lose situation here. If officials get the outbreak under control, and I’m safely tucked away in Kampala, in close proximity to the U.S. Embassy and a fleet of top flight military doctors, then I’ll have lived through an incredibly tense but exciting experience.

If by some bizarre and insanely unlikely chance I wind up eating diseased monkey meat, or shaking hands with a Congolese whore, and contract a nagging case of Ebola I’m unable to survive, after a week or so of unspeakable agony, I’ll get to see Julie again.

Sounds crazy, right?? And probably disgustingly hypocritical, given that I’m not exactly a Sunday go-to-meetin’ kind of gal who’s been washed in the blood of The Lamb. (I mean, do you know how hard it is to get bloodstains out of silk?) But I’ve told a few people here that seeing my sister die has profoundly altered my view of life. In many ways, it’s made me less afraid of dying, not so much because of the promise of an afterlife, but because I’m truly convinced now that DEATH HAPPENS. It’s not an abstract concept anymore, and it’s not something that happens to other people. Why the hell spend however many years I have left on the face of this Earth being afraid of dying when….IT’S GONNA HAPPEN ANYWAY????

So once again I say, DON’T WORRY ABOUT ME. I’m fine. We leave for Kampala tomorrow morning, and I swear on a stack of bibles that I will not stop along the way and help wash and prepare the body of a Sudanese rebel for burial. I vow to avoid copulation with a Congolese whore of either sex. I will not place my lips on a Coke bottle that was just quaffed from by a teenage girl with blood oozing from the cracks of her eyes.

I’m not only celibate these days, I’m also practicing safe evacuation.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

The Gift That Keeps on Giving

I haven’t written in a while because the topic of this post is extremely difficult to confront. It’s about something that happened while I was back in the U.S., and from the day it occurred, I’ve been struggling with my conscience. My emotions range from shock to shame to disgust about what I’ve done, and the more I try to rationalize or ignore it, the more the pangs of guilt gnaw at my heart.

But now is the time to set my mind and spirit free, to release the shame and emerge renewed and committed to healing.

Here is the source of my secret agony---I spent $261 on a pair of walking shoes while I was in the States.

Actually, it’s not my fault. I blame my friend Ilaina, a brilliant, witty business reporter from NYC. When I visited her in January, I noticed the pair of extremely chunky-looking, curve-soled sneaks she was lacing up, and asked about them. “They’re called MBT’s, and they’re amazing,” she said. In fact, Ilaina lives on 118th Street in Manhattan, and walks to her office on 44th street every day in her MBT’s. Now, if that doesn’t prove those shoes aren’t the best thing since Nancy Ganz Body Shapers, I don’t know what could.

Believe me, this wasn’t a completely reckless purchase for me. I mean, walking is about the only physical activity I do regularly and often, so investing in a good pair of walking shoes seemed to make sense. Plus, I went online and checked up on MBT ‘s so-called “physiological footwear” before parting with my hard-earned shekels. MBT stands for Masai Barefoot Technology. Some Swiss guy (ain’t it always the case that some European culture vulture comes to Africa, steals an idea and makes out like a fat rat with it???) had spent some time in Kenya and noticed the gait of the Masai, who walked long distances barefoot. He designed a shoe that trains the wearer to mimic that rolling, posture-perfect gait.

It’s probably mostly a bunch of marketing hoo-hah, but I gotta tell you, MBT’s are the most comfortable athletic shoes I’ve ever owned. Spending a couple of days in airports recently convinced me of that. Usually, I’m damned near crippled by the end of a long journey, but my MBT’s kept my corns cozy and my arches amiable.

But $261??? Even for me, a rather free-wheeling shopper, that was obscene. One thing I’ll say for myself, I rarely buy anything that’s not on sale. The MBT purchase was the first time in recent memory that I spent full price on a pair of shoes….and a full EXORBITANT price, at that.
Still, it didn’t really start nagging at me until I got back to Gulu. I mean, in the U.S., if you can afford it, and it doesn’t take food out of your kids’ mouths or land you on the streets homeless, there’s no shame in the occasional splurge. Hell, after 4 months in Gulu, I kinda felt like I was entitled to a shopping treat. But after I’d been back in Gulu about a week, Akiiki told me about two young girls who had shown up at the office earlier that day. They were both 12, and had spent the morning knocking on doors at local NGO’s and community groups, pleading for help with their school fees.

Cissy and Stella were absolutely desperate, because the administrators at their Catholic school had threatened to dismiss them unless they could pay the balance of their school fees for the year. Sissy owed about 16,000 shillings, and Stella about 8,000. That’s about $9.40 for Cissy and $4.70 for Stella. Combined, that’s about what I spend for lunch in Washington.

That’s about 1/16th of what I paid for my MBT’s.

The story shocked me even more because the nuns at Mary Immaculate P-7 School were going to boot Cissy and Stella out during final exams. That meant all of their effort to stay in school this year would be meaningless. Both girls’ parents are dead, and they walk miles to get to Mary Immaculate every day. After struggling to get there, often arriving late, the girls wind up falling asleep in class, usually because they're hungry. But even though Mary Immaculate is a private school their families really can’t afford, Cissy and Stella want to stay. Through all the trauma of their young lives, they know the value of a good education. Cissy wants to be a lawyer, and Stella wants to be a nurse.

So those two 12 year old girls did something I probably would have had too much pride and not enough courage to do at 46, even if I was desperate. They started knocking on doors, taking their chances that someone, somehow, could help them stay in school. In a desperately poor country like Uganda, that kind of chutzpah transcends begging. Those girls weren’t pleading for a handout…they were asking for a hand up.

Clearly, they knocked on the right door at the right time. They reminded me that, as had happened so many times in my own life, timing is everything. The great news is that when you never give up, when your persistence and belief in yourself never flags, the timing is always right. I learned about those girls as I was still questioning my sanity for splurging on those MBT’s. I learned about them when I’m facing the most painful, emotionally empty Christmas holiday season of my entire life, a time when the whole concept of giving means nothing to me, because nobody can give me back my beloved sister Julie. But most importantly, I met Cissy and Stella when I’d been seriously considering the idea of a tribute to Julie, a way to honor her courage and commitment to education and learning.

So, Cissy and Stella will now be attending Mary Immaculate P-7 School in 2008 as boarders. Their fees are all paid, and they’ll get to live on campus, as opposed to walking 5 miles back and forth to school each day. And it only cost me about $50 less than 2 pairs of MBT’s.

That thought is giving me a lot more energy than a pair of walking shoes ever could.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Abstinence Makes the Heart Grow Bitter

The best thing about life in Gulu is that I can have weekly massages, at a cost of about 9 dollars each.

The worst thing about life in Gulu is that those massages will probably be the only form of intimate human contact I’ll have the whole time I’m in Uganda. This past weekend, I became depressingly convinced I’ll be spending a lot of time alone in my comfy little cottage. A lot more time than I had bargained for.

Why am I musing on solitude these days? Because both The Intern AND Akiiki spent the weekend exploring their carnal natures, while I spent that time staring at a laptop screen. I was either agonizing over our planning budget for the rest of the program, or watching Columbo DVD’s with Dutch subtitles. Akiiki’s wife surprised him with a late night visit Saturday (I’m convinced the sister was trying to catch him up to no good), and The Intern is having a merry old time with his new girlfriend, a languid-eyed young Indian woman named Lisa.

I’m happy for both of them. Really. Come on, you guys……I mean it!! Akiiki works incredibly hard, and spends weeks on end away from his wife Diana and two young daughters in Kampala. I know that has to be emotionally exhausting and frustrating. Diana is a lovely woman, and you could see the absolute pride and delight on Akiiki’s face the whole time she was here. And The Intern is rebounding from a break-up during the past month. When he told his American sweetie he wanted to stay in Uganda for another year, she called it quits. I’m sure Lisa is just the remedy for what ails him, with her exotic looks and excellent Indian cooking.

Problem is, there AIN’T no remedy for what ails me, at least not in Gulu. I’ve been here 5 months now, and haven’t seen a single dating prospect. As I’ve written before, most of the aid workers and other expats here are in their 20’s, and for them, socializing involves ear-splitting music and mass quantities of liquor. Been there, done that, got the loss of short-term memory to prove it. Basically, I am at least 20 years beyond that rather pointlessly repetitious phase of human development.

And then there’s the issue I’ve been tap-dancing around….whether I would date an African man. Truth be told, doing so would almost be penance for the past decade of dating white American men who’ve all treated me with a level of off-handed disregard that makes me cringe when I think about it. I mean, there was The Numb-nut Norwegian, the Asshole Attorney, the Anal Archivist….the list is long and troubled, but let’s just leave it there, in the interest of time.

The Numb-nut Norwegian was the first, and probably the most damaging of my “skiing” expeditions. He was a newspaper editor who absolutely beguiled me with his passion for journalism….and, well, just his passion. He was earnest, tall, lean and lanky, and quite athletic, if you get my drift. We had a whirlwind affair for about 6 months, and then he decided to get married. To somebody else. Without telling me OUR relationship was over. WITHIN 3 WEEKS OF MEETING THIS OTHER WOMAN.

My only comfort is that she turned out to be a total wack-job.

The Asshole Attorney was one of my first online-dating escapades. I’m sorry, but I gave a good 4 years of my time, money and effort, and all I got was eyestrain from staring at computer screens. Still, the Asshole Attorney’s first e-mail to me was so eloquent and sincere, and intriguing. Even though he was about 15 years older than me, I fell for his charm, wit, and boyish nature. And he said he chose me because at age 55, he was ready to settle down with a “quality woman.”

He neglected to tell me that he was juggling quite a few “quality women” online, spreading God knows what kind of diseases in his wake. I was crushed, but determined not to waste time with a 55 year old Peter Pan who saw Match as his own personal cookie jar.

The Anal Archivist was possibly the strangest encounter of all. I mean if you looked up the phrase “neurotic mess”, his picture would stare back at you. Now, I ain’t saying I don’t have my own emotional issues, but this guy was textbook. Filled with fear, of life, happiness, success. Great sense of humor, amazingly intelligent, but totally stingy with his time and attention. (And here’s the thing…he was LOUSY in bed!!!!) Still, for some mind-bogglingly pitiful reason, the more he pulled away, the more I vowed to make him want me. I’m talking gourmet meals, hot lingerie, anything to tempt him….to make him WANT to spend time with me.

After months of playing that stoopid game, The Archivist finally told me that he wanted to try and re-connect with a former girlfriend, an Argentinian named Isis. After days of ignoring my e-mails and phone calls, he was thoughtful enough to come over to my place to break the news to me in person. I suggested he leave my apartment immediately before I stabbed him in the eye with a spoon. Then I wailed and moaned about why men never seemed to choose me. Then I fell into a fitful sleep. The next morning, my mother died.

You see where I’m going with this?? White men ain’t brought me nothing but heartache. My friend Jamila and I were Skyping about this the other day—the “dilemma” of successful, intellectual, well-traveled black women who can’t find a black man to share some of their aesthetic interests. As mercurial as white men can be, it just seems like you’ll have more luck finding a white guy who’ll go see an Ingmar Bergman film, or a Van Gogh exhibition, than you would a brother.

I know that sounds totally racist--a thought you should automatically dismiss because I’m black myself. I’m just keepin’ it real, y’all. Trust me, I am an equal opportunity dater, and have been holding open auditions for my Soulmate the past several decades. Is it just a coincidence that most of the men I’ve dated have been white? Do I have some self-hating, subconscious desire to be ravished by the Oppressor? Am I a castrating bitch who’s just trying to keep the black man down---just like the rest of the world?

Nope. I’m just a sister trying to get some lovin’. And if it was hard in the U.S., it is downright impossible in Gulu. Not only am I keepin’ it real in Gulu, I’m also keepin’ my legs crossed. We’re all adults here….people are dropping like flies from HIV/AIDS in Africa, and the pervasively sexist, oppressive nature of many African cultures means that men get to sleep with as many women as they want.

Now, don’t get it twisted….I’m not just using that as an excuse to avoid going up against the younger, firmer competition out there. I mean, Princess Rachella still got it goin’ on, ya’ll. I mean, if I do say so myself, I’m pretty hot these days. There’s something about being a boss--and subsisting largely on rice, tilapia and veggie samosas--that turns a woman into a lean, mean fighting machine. My clothes really look good on me these days….or at least I’ve just started noticing they do. I’ve just never really been “into” measuring my physical attractiveness before, I guess.

Oh, and then there’s the small fortune I spent on fancy undies while I was in the States, which only heightens my nascent sense of smoldering sensuality. As I type these words, a lime green pair of Vicky’s Secret drawers are cutting off circulation in my waist. But I’m STILL smokin’!!!

It’s so crazy……I’ve never really considered myself sexy, until now, when I’m 46 years old and living in Satan’s Buttcrack, Uganda.

I am not entirely without options. Verily, several young Ugandan men have expressed a more than healthy interest in me, but first off, they’re in their late 20’s, an age-range I’m not totally averse to. I just won’t tread there lightly. Second, I’ve found I’m just not attracted to Ugandan men……more of the self-hating stuff, I guess. After all these years of wooing white devils, maybe African features just don’t float my boat.

For me, though, it always gets back to the HIV/AIDS in Africa thing. I think even if I met an age-appropriate African man who totally turned me on, I’d still decline the opportunity get my freak on with him. Not only because of the risk of death, but because I’ve grown tired of using sex as a recreational tool. I want commitment, connection, intellectual stimulation, wit…….and a drunk-assed, pimply-faced UN volunteer just can’t bring the noise in that department. Neither can a strapping young African man who’s mainly looking for a Sugar Mama and a way to get the hell out of Northern Uganda.

So, I’m going all zen on myself. I gotta embrace celibacy as the cost of the ticket for having this amazing mid-life adventure. I gotta smile and be friendly to wives and girlfriends, when in reality, my heart is fairly boiling with the acrid stew of resentment and jealousy. I gotta wait patiently on the Universe to send me my Divine Right Partner, the man I’ve been waiting for all my life.

Hell, who am I kidding with that psychobabble shit?? I can’t catch a break no kind of way. Even my massage therapist is a woman.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Thanksgiving Has Plucked My Last Nerve....

On this Thanksgiving in Gulu, I am thankful that my sense of humor was largely shaped by MAD Magazine.

It has amply prepared me for the relentlessly aggressive absurdity of life. I’m also well-armed with the brands of sarcasm, cynicism and warped outlook one needs to navigate the Ugandan banking system.

Translation? Those fuckers at Stanbic Bank have screwed us over again, and now we’re almost flat broke.

We’re actually waiting for a wire transfer of more than $28,000 in operating cash, but by yesterday evening, it still hadn’t arrived. Since Ugandans don’t celebrate the American Thanksgiving holiday, I just assumed we’d have another crack at foolishly inquiring about money that wasn’t there once the bank opened today. Silly me-- I forgot about all the poop and circumstance surrounding the Commonwealth Head of Governments or CHOGM meeting that kicked off in Kampala today. It’s only the second time Queen Elizabeth the Second has visited Uganda, and the populace is all atwitter.

Apparently, QE2 made it to Kampala yesterday, where she and Phillip and Charles will spend two whole days pretending they still reign over most of the darker masses of the people around the world. It’s like for a brief shining moment, the British Empire is still “all that.” Naturally, Ugandan officials waited until about, oh, SEPTEMBER to start preparing for this important event, and so life in Kampala must be downright calamitous right about now….at least for everybody who isn’t a CHOGM delegate. Common folk will probably be shot and macheted on the spot if they misbehave in any way shape or form while Liz is making her royal rounds.

Anyway, what this means is that the Government decided to declare today and tomorrow federal holidays. Which means the banks are closed. Which means we ain’t got no money. Which means that this morning, midway through our latest training workshop, I had to tell the 9 journalists participating that we would have to call it quits after today. No more per diems, no more perks. Hell, they’re lucky we can afford to send them home.

Happy FREAKING Thanksgiving to me! Shit, I am really on a roll…..down a steep, rocky hill littered with broken glass, I might add. Let’s see, my birthday was tragic, Thanksgiving is the pits…..hmmm, maybe for Christmas I’ll be disemboweled by a former child soldier!

Dammit, I’m totally Grinching it this holiday season. What the hell do I have to be merry about? It occurred to me yesterday, while wandering through the local market in search of plastic clothes hangers. If you’ve never been to an African market…FOR THE LOVE OF GOD AND ALL THAT’S HOLY, DON’T GO!!!! Just kidding….it’s actually a fascinating experience. I’ve been here long enough to be used to the crush of people, the smells, the general feeling of chaos that pervades. But I remember my first view of the massive marketplace in Accra, Ghana back in 2003. It was mind-blowing…..what seemed like miles of make-shift stands selling everything from tires to fish to pottery to bras to goats. All set in some of the most squalid conditions you could ever imagine.

Yesterday, I gingerly minced through the muddy, cobblestoned paths weaving through the market, still still astounded by how much tacky, poorly made articles are produced around the world--and how much of it winds up in Africa. Watching women sprawled on woven mats breastfeeding their babies, and boisterous men sitting around talking much smack, it slowly dawned on me that at just about every stand, a radio was playing “Jingle Bells.” I'm guessing they were all tuned to the same local station. Needless to say, after decades of being nauseated by American holiday advertising and crass consumerism, it’s quite refreshing to be away from it this season. And to revel in the tinny simplicity of “Jingle Bells” being played through cheap radio handsets.

But then I thought, “Just what the hell do these people have to be merry about? What should they give thanks for….that corrupt politicians have drained the country’s resources, failed to protect them from satanic rebel forces, and still hasn’t come up with a way to give survivors of 20 years of brutal war much more than a mud and straw hut in an abysmal refugee camp?

But then it hit me….they’re thankful to be alive. No matter how much struggling and suffering and torment they’d experienced-or perhaps were STILL experiencing-they were alive, and grateful for it. And if God was willing, they’d STILL be alive when Christmas came.

That thought should have shaken me out attending of the open bar pity party I've been planning for myself. I know part of the reason I’m feeling so tense and moody is because I’m PMS-ing, so I just have to get a grip. Still, I’m boycotting the holidays this year.

Actually, I have an even better reason for opting out of Turkey Day. Before I left, The Intern had talked a big game about being determined to have our very own Thanksgiving in Gulu. I just laughed, thinking of all the times we’d sat at Bambu or Bomah restaurants, gnawing on the most emaciated, sinewy chicken this side of Hell. Northern Ugandan chicken is so traumatized and war torn, so saturated by the stress hormone cortisol, you could have a nervous breakdown just by eating a bowl of stew. And two bites is about all the meat you’ll get off of any chicken dinner in Gulu, I don’t care if they stew it, fry it, barbecue it or bake it. You’d get more nutrition sucking the marrow from the bones.

But in his usual astonishing fashion, The Intern actually managed to find some people who kept a few raggedy-looking turkeys in their yard. They don’t eat turkey; I guess they just like having them around. He said he was going to arrange to get one of those bad boys gutted and plucked in time for Turkey Day, but with all the crisis management going on the past month, there was no time to prepare a gobbler.

Come to think of it, I could have offered up the chicken I was given as a gift on Saturday night. It had to be the sweetest thing I’ve experienced in a very long time. One of our 4 guards showed up on my doorstep just after I’d arrived at the cottage, holding a chicken. When Akiiki told me they had all pitched in to buy me the bird, I laughed, “What am I supposed to do with a chicken??”

Thank goodness their English isn’t so good, because I really wasn’t trying to hurt their feelings. It’s just that the whole thing seemed like a sketch from MAD TV. I mean, I come back to Gulu after the biggest tragedy of my entire life, and someone cared enough about my feelings to try and ease my grief with……a live chicken??

But see, that’s the thing about Ugandans. The majority of them don’t have a pot to piss in, but they’ll gladly give you half of whatever they have if they like you. I’d like to think the guards and our housekeeper Pamela like me, and it’s clear they missed me by the warmth and excitment of their welcome home greetings, even before the chicken entered the picture.

So even though being a manager ain't no day at the beach, I guess I’m a GOOD one. I’ll just be thankful for that and call it a day.

P.S. My gift chicken is still alive, in case any of you readers are member of PETA. Even though I'm a devoted carnivore, even I can't eat a chicken I've actually been introduced to.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Julie's Rainbow

I've been in such a whirlwind this past week, there's been no time to focus on the blog. Between the physical toll of jet-lag and plunging back into my duties as Project Director (a.k.a. “Chief Gulu Gal,”) I've been so overwhelmed, my creative muse finally got pissed and skipped town.

It’s amazing how much you’re expected to actually comprehend when you’re a manager. Obviously, being gone for a month a half tends to put one behind the eight ball, but I’m astounded by how much people actually expect you to take on, just because you’ve got a snooty title. I mean, why the heck would I know anything about budget projections? Could you please just make a pedicure appointment for me and back off?

Actually, the only saving grace in this swirling nightmare of administrative responsibility is the gutsy team here working with me. I’ve sung the praises of my colleagues Akiiki the Technical Director and The Intern often enough, but being away for a while only heightens my respect and gratitude for how much they’re willing to put up with to keep this project going. Their whole-hearted commitment makes the thankless task of being a boss a little less bitter.

I mean, YOU try calculating the budget for the next three months, planning another workshop, networking with the BBC, yelling at incompetent builders, getting the toilet fixed…and those are just the top 5 on the list……all at once. IT SUCKS ASS. And yet….

I am so, SO grateful for this gig. It’s almost like God planned for me to jump back into this very scenario at this very time. It helps to obscure the piercing pain I feel whenever I think about my sister Julie's death. When you literally don’t have TIME to grieve, the option gets swept off the table. When every nook and cranny of your consciousness is jammed with to-do lists and numbers and buying desks and projectors and air conditioners, grieving becomes this hulking menace that threatens to topple everything else you have to do. You’re pretty much forced to stave it off.

Don’t get me wrong…..I’ve had my moments. For example, on November 19th, my first day back at the helm and the one month anniversary of Julie’s death, Akiiki decided to forward an e-mail to me. It was one of those chain slide-shows full of breathtaking images and hokey homilies. He even admitted that he hates having his inbox cluttered with them, but something made him read this one. It touched Akiiki's heart, and he thought it would be inspirational for me.

Fat chance, buster. Basically, the e-mail was about a little boy named Jimmy who died of cancer, and whose anguished mother wondered why God lets little children suffer so. The boy wanted his body donated to science, but a nurse gave the mom a lock of his hair before his body is taken to a local university. Mom heads back her empty house to wallow in grief so bottomless, she doesn’t expect to ever come up for air. She curls up on Jimmy’s bed and falls asleep, and when she wakes up, this “Letter from Jimmy” magically appears next to her on the pillow.

I won’t even TRY to relay the entire letter here, because it amounted to PORNIGRAPHICALLY OVER-THE-TOP EMOTIONAL MANIPULATION. (If any of you are curious about it--and have hearts made of stone--drop me an e-mail and I'll forward it to you.) But at one point, Jimmy tells his mother he’s glad he’s in Heaven, because he just couldn’t stand the pain anymore. That’s when I lost my shit completely.

After a bit of choking and spluttering, I took stock of the situation. I decided that e-mail was a sign from Julie that’s she’s okay….actually a lot better off now. My brother-in-law Ron and I joke about how pathetic we must be, considering every bird and butterfly sighting as a sign from Julie, but really, it’s one of few things that keep me sane. In fact, there was another sign last Saturday, as I was headed back to Gulu from Kampala.

You’ll all be happy to know that Akiiki found different route from Kampala to Gulu. It cuts through Hoima and Masindi, and reduces by at least 25 percent the probability of future chronic spinal injury from bumping over mostly impassable roads. There were rainstorms most of the way, but every now and then the sun would peep from behind big puffy clouds.

There’s so much that’s lush and beautiful about Uganda’s rolling hills and vast mountain ranges, even though the profound poverty in most areas is deeply disturbing. When Akiiki and I weren’t laughing and talking about all that had happened while I was away, I spent a lot of time pondering how amazing it is that I’m doing what I’m doing, where I’m doing it.

And then we rounded a curve near Masindi. Directly in front of us, filling half the horizon, was a rainbow. It was actually just a section of a rainbow, a goodly portion of the left side of the usual arch-like configuration. It was encased on top and bottom by big white puffy clouds. Calling it startling is a severe understatement. Not only because of how blue the sky was and the psychedelic colors, but because it was the first rainbow I’d seen in Uganda.

Right before I went home to help Julie make her transition, I blogged about how even though it rains a lot when the sun is shining in Gulu, there were never any rainbows. I needed to see one, I wrote, because rainbows were my lucky symbol. Whenever I see a rainbow, I take it as a sign that everything’s going to be okay. If I could have just seen a rainbow before I left, I’d know that even though Julie was facing yet another brush with death, she would emerge triumphant again, like she had myriad times before.

Well, Do Jesus! I finally got my rainbow, but one could argue that it was bit too late by that point. On the other hand, it came right when I needed it. If the Ugandan Internet system ever advances to the point where sending photographs doesn’t cause nationwide network failure, I’m going to post a picture of Julie’s Rainbow on this blog. I think it'll astonish you just as much as it did me. It’ll be my gift to all of you who’ve hung in there while I opened a vein and bled all over my laptop screen this past month or so.

Thank you very much.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

I Am Changing.....

I don't care what anybody says, Jennifer Holliday is the one and only REAL DEAL Effie.

Jennifer Hudson may have won an Oscar for her turn in Dreamgirls, but hell, my corns are older than she is. Girlfriend can wail, but Ms. Holliday hocks up her lungs everytime she sings. I'm talking straight from the guts, not just singing but "sangin'," like they do every Sunday at every black Baptist church in Mississippi.

That's why when I think of how the past few months have affected me, I think of Jennifer Holliday.

"Look at me. Look at meee-eeee-eeee-eee.......I....AM......CHAAAAYNNNNNGING."

I’ve changed. Here's how I know.

First, I’ve been in Kampala for the past four days, and at least twice a day, I’ve used a boda boda to get around town. For those of you who haven’t wasted an hour or so of your lives reading this entire blog, a boda boda is a rickety little motorcycle driven by cool, reckless young men wearing reflective shades and no helmets. They're equivalent to taxis in major American cities.

Needless to say, you are placing your future into the loving arms of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ every time you climb onto the back of one of these rolling smudgepots. I call them smudgepots because your chances of winding up smeared across a Kampala roadway are EXTREMELY high each time you ride one. There was a time in my naïve youth, (or June, which seems like a lifetime ago these days) when I vowed I would never be so reckless. Watching these African kamikazes weave through impassable Kampala traffic convinced me there’s no place I needed to get to bad enough to risk an excruciatingly painful death.

But on Thursday afternoon, after I’d finished meeting with folks at the American Embassy, it was as a no-brainer to flag down a boda to get back to my hotel. First, it’s virtually impossible to get a taxi in Kampala unless you’re at a hotel, shopping center or other touristy location. Most taxis are private cars owned by guys trying to eke out a halfway decent living. You can’t tell which of the zillion cars zooming past you is a taxi even if you wanted to. Second, you can spend a significant portion of your life sitting in obscenely congested traffic, and I ain’t trying to exhale my last breath in a stifling convection oven on wheels.

What’s worse, Kampala is going to host the Commonwealth Head of Governments Meeting, or CHOGM, in a few days, which means traffic is already double what it used to be. Bodas may be deathtraps, but they can weave in and out of traffic, cutting your commute to a fourth of what it would be if you’re in a car.

It took me about 3 minutes to flag one down, and I climbed on. Usually I’m wearing pants or shorts on a boda, which means I can straddle those bad boys. But this time I was wearing a skirt, so I had my first sidesaddle experience. I just crossed my ankles, clutched my bags, and went with the flow. It was a great way to get reacquainted with Kampala, and there’s a lot that’s actually quite lovely about the city. So what if your driver has the hair-raising habit of squeezing between huge trucks, or darting boldy in front of cars to make turns? If you survive, a boda trip is actually incredibly exhilarating.

I’ve come so far from June, when I was paralyzed with fear during my first boda ride. I hope I’m not just completely engrossed in nihilism at this point. I mean, life IS too short, and we're all going to die eventually, but why risk making it infinitely shorter by doing something that will more likely than not end in bloody, mangled, mayhem?

But why not? At least you're choosing the time, place and method of your death.

Okay, here’s more proof that I’ve changed. In one of my more sane moments, I took a taxi to get back to the hotel. The driver was this friendly young Ugandan who wanted to know why in the world an American from Washington, DC would choose to live in Gulu. I told him I wanted contribute something to this world, make a difference. He thought I was nuts, but was gracious enough to thank me for trying to help his people.

It was one of the best taxi rides I’d had in Uganda......until we pulled into the hotel. Right in front of us, a woman in a minivan was trying to maneuver her way into a parking spot, and having a rough time of it. The taxi driver sputtered and tisked a few times while we waited for her to get it together. When we were finally able to pull up to the lobby, he said.

“I don’t know why they give women license to drive. They cannot drive cars. They are terrible drivers.”

Now, the Rachel of 6 months ago would have lit into him like a firecracker. I’d have sat in that taxi arguing with him, refusing to pay him until he repented his sexist ways and admitted that not ALL women were bad drivers, just as all men aren’t good drivers. I would have considered it my duty to combat this kind of patriarchal, demeaning stereotyping of women.

But in that moment, a switch flipped on in my brain, and I thought, “Who cares? This man was raised in a sexist, oppressive culture that considers women inferior on every level. This is not just one man’s opinion…it’s a societally-accepted norm. NOTHING I say will change his mind…even if he apologized, if only to get my crazy ass out of his car, he’d STILL believe what he’d said with every fiber of his being. Why waste my time?"

I thanked him and climbed out--even gave him a tip. I was shocked by how little I cared about his remarks. Besides, I was having a hot flash, and all I wanted to do was get up to my room, turn on some blessed air conditioning and take a nap.

After the past couple of months, I’m losing my obsessive grip on the pursuit of truth and justice in my every waking moment. I’m realizing there are some battles that must be fought, and others that are a mere waste of energy. These days, I’m zealously guarding my energy. I don’t have a drop to waste anymore. For 21 days recently, my sole focus in life was attending to my sister Julie’s every need. Getting the bed pan to her in time, keeping her perfectly pouty little lips moisturized, helping to change her sheets, or squirting liquid oxycontin down her throat. Now THAT was energy well spent.

My new credo? Fuck the dumb shit.

Here’s the last and possibly best indicator of the dramatic sea-change going on in my life. This morning, I went to the coolest, hippest coffee shop in Kampala for breakfast. The cappuccino at Café Pap is as good or better than any I’ve had in America, and the food isn't bad, either. I ordered my usual double cappuccino and read the papers while waiting for it.

They always do this lovely, creative thing with the foamed milk at Café Pap, and this morning, my cup was festooned with a sweet little heart. I smiled as I dumped a few spoonfuls of sugar into the center of the heart, but as I was stirring it, I noticed a little black lump. Obviously, I thought, it must be a piece of coffee bean that hadn’t been fully pulverized.

But then I noticed the lump had wings.

Now, the Rachel of a year ago would have gagged and immediately sent that shit back. But in 7 or 8 hours, I’ll be back in my cozy little cottage in Gulu, where I’ve made peace, even formed meaningful relationships, with all things winged, creepy and crawly. Now, unless that critter was a tse tse fly, or some form of poisonous pest, it had only managed a couple of back strokes before dying a painful, par-boiled death, milky death. Besides, I was headed to Nothern Uganda, a region so desperately poor that a fly landing on your plate could be considered an additional source of protein for your meager diet.

So I just scooped the sucker out of the cup, tapped it onto the saucer, took a swig of java and kept on reading my paper. Que sera, sera. However, if I start sprouting wings or something, please be kind enough to refrain from laughing your asses off.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Moving On....

In about 6 hours, I'm leaving the US to return to Uganda, and I can't really explain how I feel.

The best analogy I can come up with is that sort of queasy feeling you get when you know you're about to puke, and you're bracing for the onslaught. For me, there's a distinct emotional process that occurs when I'm going to barf...the shame, the logistics, the bad breath that lingers afterwards......all those scenarios run through my fevered brain.

Sometimes if I gulp in enough air, I can beat back the quease and the urge to upchuck passes, and then there are times when it can't be denied. But even though it's always an unpleasant experience, you're also guaranteed that once the last hurl is over, you usually feel a lot better.

Well, I've been feeling that way since I got to DC. I've described it to a few people as the feeling of boiling oil in the pit of my stomach. It's churning down there, and most of the time it absolutely kills my appetite and wakes me up at 2 AM, to lie there staring at the TV I left on to keep me company. But I also think the burning represents something more profound. I think it's the firewall between me and total emotional collapse.

Trust me, y'all, I could absolutely fall out on the floor kicking and screaming and wailing right now. I'm leaving America, DC, my home in Cairo....and the next time I visit Julie, it will be at Greenlawn Cemetery. This will be the first time in my blessed life of travel and a myriad adventures that I won't be able to pick up a phone and share something with Julie, to hear her hysterical howls as I describe the latest in the series of hilarious scrapes I always seem to get myself into. Julie has always been my best stand-up comedy audience.

Julie was always my best stand-up comedy audience. Writing that sentence really got the old burnin' belly churning. My stomach is knotted up like a fist, and not just because I just finished a two-piece from Popeye's. (Had to get one last blast of genetically, hormonally-enhanced yard bird before going back to Gulu to gnaw on emaciated war torn poultry.)

It's not that I'm scared to leave. After watching Julie take her last breath, I don't think I'll ever be afraid of anything again. Except maybe shoes from Payless. And it's not that I feel that I don't have lots of love and support here "at home" poised and waiting for me to settle my ass down somewhere. It's not even that I'm dreading the harsh conditions, the adjustments I'll have to make, the endless challenges that are the hallmarks of my daily life in Gulu.

I think my guts are burning because I can't pick up the phone and say goodbye to Julie. I can say a prayer, and I can write about what I'm feeling in this blog, but I can never, ever again tell her how much I love her. Loved her. How she was the wind beneath my wings. How much I'm aware that all these amazing experiences I get to have are because she loved me.

I guess I'm starting to feel like no matter how much I accomplish for the rest of my life, how much love and joy or career success or whether I finally do get around to adopting my baby and writing my book, Julie can't share it with me. I'm feeling incredibly guilty, because I feel like she made this GINORMOUS, unstinting, unqualified, whole-hearted, love-infused investment in making me the kind of woman who can get on a plane headed to live and work in Gulu, Uganda, and now that things may finally start to come together for me, when I'm emotionally and spiritually ready to create a balanced, nurturing, fruitful life for myself, Julie won't get to reap the dividends.

Maybe I'm feeling guilty because I can actually FEEL the possibilities of this next chapter of my life. Basically, I am invincible right about now. Professionally bullet-proof. Socially, I'm not going to test my luck by going on a blind date with an LRA rebel or anything, but I feel like anything I tackle, any goal I set for myself, I can achieve because there's nothing truly invaluable for me to lose anymore. In a lot of ways, it's a limitless, exciting feeling.

And yes, I know Julie WILL be with me, in so many ways. Except sitting next to me eating Popeye's, or trolling the sale racks at the mall, or clinking champagne glasses on a cruise ship, or standing up for me at my wedding, or holding my child.

I'm gonna greatly, devoutly enjoy doing all of those things. I AM gonna move on. It's just that sitting here at this table in front of this laptop, typing these words, I have no idea how. I can't begin to imagine what my life will be like tomorrow, or a week from now, a month from now, or a year from now, without Julie in it.

Now that I think about it, I guess there really IS one thing left that scares the hell out of me.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

The One Thing I Miss About Uganda.....

It took a while, but I’ve finally identified one thing I miss terribly about living in Gulu, Uganda. Here it is: nothing, and I mean absotively posolutely NOTHING in that town reminds me of my sister Julie.

This past Monday, for the first time ever, flying into Washington National Airport was seriously depressing. I mean “drink a half bottle of wine to gulp down your Xanax” depressing. Normally, gliding across the Mall and peeking out the window at our majestic national monuments makes me feel like one of the luckiest people in the world, because I get to live in the Mighty, Mighty District of Chocolate.

But now, everything in Washington reminds me of Julie, and how much she loved coming to visit. Here’s why: I worked in Detroit for 3 years, and Julie never visited me there ONCE. On the other hand, she came to DC, on average, about 3 times a year over the past 13 years. Only when she was in too much pain to unfold her arthritic joints--and that would have had to be enough pain to drop a Clydesdale--would Julie pass up a chance to come see about me and DC.

I was SOOOO worried about Julie's health while she was doing all of her traveling for the National Education Association. Don't get me wrong--being a representative for Education Support Professionals (ESP’s, or the secretaries, janitors, teacher’s aides, bus drivers, librarians and other non-teacher professionals across the country) made all of us so very proud of her. This new chapter in her life opened after she’d spent more than 30 years in the Cairo Public School System, at a the time that major hassles with school district officials, and a major lupus flare, left her bedridden for about 2 years in the late 90’s.

But when Julie got the call to help launch the NEA ESP committee, she literally WILLED herself out of bed. It didn’t matter that she had to swallow more than 60 pills a day to muzzle the pain and other complications of lupus. Julie handled her biz’ness, traveling across the country doing whatever it took to keep that committee going, to help fight for her colleagues’ rights.

And she did it with suitcases so big and heavy, you’d have thought she was trafficking gold bars from South Africa or something. I can personally attest that my uterus shifted at least 4 or 5 times over the years while trying to drag her massive deadweight luggage into my apartment. I think Julie’s motto was, “If you bring all your shit with you wherever you go, you have an ironclad guarantee that you’ll never run out of something, or have to buy a replacement while you travel.”

When she wasn’t leading meetings, and when I was off work and we weren’t prowling Pentagon City Mall, chillin’ at home with Julie watching Turner Classic Movies or Forensics Files was more relaxing than a weekend at the spa. With Julie, I didn’t have to be “NPR’s Rachel Jones,” or make sure I was wearing my best clothes and the right make-up. I could totally revert to the little nappy-headed girl who used to climb into Julie’s big bed 40 years ago while she read us stories or rocked us to sleep.

And I could eat my ever-lovin ass off. Part of the reason Julie’s suitcases were so heavy was that she and Ron would spend a few days barbecuing ribs before she came to visit. They’d freeze those ribs, pack them with Julie’s patented traveling food system, and then load them all into my freezer when she arrived. Julie would also cook a big pot of greens, and candied sweet potatoes, and mac and cheese…..whatever I fancied.

Or we’d go out to snazzy restaurants openings. I lured Julie out to DC many times by telling her about some ritzy event I’d been invited to where she’d get to rub shoulders with the famous, or eat exquisite food. I have pictures of Julie talking to Barbara Walters and Andrea Mitchell like they were old buddies.

We sure did have us some fun times.

But since I got back to DC Monday, I’ve been crying even more than I did after being dumped by some online loser. (Don't worry....I promise to write the Mother of All Blog Posts soon about my online dating adventures.) Yesterday evening, I was literally weeping, hysterically. It was the end of a long day of running errands and meeting with Internews staff to prep for my return trip to Uganda. I was headed to my brother Peter’s house in the snazzy little red Mustang convertible he’s letting me drive while I’m in town. I’d almost reached his street in Northwest Washington, but had to make a u-turn to get there. To do that, I pulled into a Popeye’s restaurant off of Georgia Avenue.

Julie dined at some of the best restaurants in this country, but we shared one distinct culinary passion….the 3-piece from Popeye’s. With the mashed potatoes and surprisingly tasty gravy. And some green beans. Trust and believe that I trolled the DC streets many a night looking for a Popeye’s during Julie’s visits to DC.

Remembering our shared reverence for the ubiquitous yard bird, I almost crashed into another car trying to get out of that parking lot. I kept my emotions in check long enough to get inside my brother’s house, drag myself up to my room, climb out of my jeans and unhook my bra so I could really cut loose with non-constricted heaving sobs, and then I opened the floodgates. I was pounding my fists on the bed, wailing, moaning her nickname over and over.

“Winky, Winky, Winky,” I sobbed. “Why, Why, Why?”

Of course, there was no answer. Didn’t the poet Rilke say “Live the questions now, and perhaps you will live along some distant day into the answers.” Too bad the answer to this particular question can be found only when I’m dead myself. Anyway, fter sobbing for an hour or so, I knew I had to try and pull myself together. I had to keep going. I couldn’t assume the fetal position for the rest of my life.

Besides, I’m just too damned busy. I gotta get ready to hop a plane out of Dulles next Monday evening, bound for Amsterdam and then Entebbe. I’ve got my own ridiculously heavy suitcases to pack. I’m headed back to Uganda, where my sharp pangs of grief will be quickly eclipsed by near-crippling lower back pain over raggedy-ass roads during my six hour drive from Kampala to Gulu. I’m headed to my cozy little cottage, where I will be greeted by my demonic-looking old pal ‘Base Bunny.” I’m headed to Northern Freakin’ Uganda. I’m headed……


Monday, November 5, 2007

Julie's Journey....

I'm sure Ron won't mind me serving as his Publicist for the website he's building for Julie. I think it's really sweet, even if I AM a bit too close to the subject. Julie was such a pistol. Check 'er out.

I Hope You Dance

Ron chose the title of Lee Ann Womack's song, "I Hope You Dance" as the inscription for Julie's headstone. Read these lyrics, and glean just a little more insight into who Julie was.

And into how I intend to live the rest of my life. I hope you will, too.

I hope you never lose your sense of wonder
You get your fill to eat
But always keep that hunger
May you never take one single breath for granted
God forbid love ever leave you empty-handed

I hope you still feel small
When you stand by the ocean
Whenever one door closes, I hope one more opens
Promise me you'll give fate a fighting chance
And when you get the choice to sit it out or dance
I hope you dance
I hope you dance

I hope you never fear those mountains in the distance
Never settle for the path of least resistance
Living might mean taking chances
But they're worth taking
Lovin' might be a mistake
But it's worth making

Don't let some hell-bent heart
Leave you bitter
When you come close to selling out
Give the heavens above
More than just a passing glance
And when you get the choice to sit it out or dance
I hope you dance
I hope you dance

I hope you still feel small
When you stand by the ocean
Whenever one door closes, I hope one more opens
Promise me you'll give faith a fighting chance
And when you get the choice to sit it out or dance......
I hope you dance
I hope you dance
I hope you dance

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Life is a Trick....

I should have known better than to make a hair-coloring appointment on Halloween. Actually, I like the's more burnished coppery than my once-golden-turned-straw-like-blonde highlights of recent weeks--with chalk gray roots thrown in for good measure.

But when I arrived at the snooty, "Featured In Essence Magazine" Atlanta natural hair salon I'd found online--about 20 minutes before my 2 PM appointment, mind you--the receptionist told me I couldn't eat the sandwich I'd brought with me. Not even in the front reception area. Not even if I made a blood oath vow to not drop a crumb. So I had to walk across the street and gulp down my lunch on the brick wall surrounding the parking lot of the office complex next door.

Then, "Miss Chrissy," my 23-year-old infant stylist, was 30 minutes late getting around to my nappy head. Actually, for a black hair salon, 30 minutes late is blessedly early. But when Miss Chrissy showed me the color she'd picked out. I had to pump her brakes right quick. She chose a "fiery red" guaranteed to win me unanimous acceptance into the the Hoochie Hall of Fame if I'd been crazy enough to follow her advice. Since Miss Chrissy didn't have any more subtle shades to offer, I had to run across the street to the beauty supply shop and buy my own hair color. By the time I got back to the salon, a walk-in client had diverted Miss Chrissy's attention from my head to the sure-fire bird in the hand customer. So I had to sit and wait another 45 minutes while she did a "quick" re-twist.

Long story short, I left that salon at 7:15 PM following a 2 PM appointment. Miss Chrissy actually did a good job. The style wasn't quite what I wanted, but when I got back to my sister Marilyn's house, she raved over it. So I guess I'll just have to get used to it.

Just like I have to get used to being tricked, hoodwinked and bamboozled every single day for the rest of my life. For the most part, the past two days have actually been almost normal. I connected with a local SAAB dealership and got quotes for all the repair work I'll need to "Pimp My Ride," a sweet 2002 SAAB 93 hatchback I've named FiFi. I also bought two rear tires from Costco, and got my watch battery changed. Last night, I had dinner with one of the young women I mentored when she was a high school student in Detroit. Jamila just took a job editing the food section of the Atlanta Journal Constitution, and I couldn't help feeling really proud of her success.

I mean, I'm doing what I'd be doing on any kind of return trip from Africa, taking care of business, paying bills, making arrangements for my car, getting my ducks in a row before heading back to the Mother Land. The difference is that these days, I'll be sitting in traffic, or standing in line at Costco and all of a sudden reality gobsmacks me BIG TIME...

Julie is dead. That fact is so blunt, so overwhelming, it's like being punched in the chest, really hard. My eyes well with tears at semi-regular intervals, and I'll look down and my hands are shaking, or my breathing is shallow. I'll remember that last big pain-addled smile she gave me, or I'll think of her when she was on the go at one of her meetings, or lounging like a queen on vacation. My emotions start to teeter right at the brink, and I'm tempted to throw a shrieking snot-fit in public. But most of the time, just as quickly, the feeling passes.

I've decided THAT'S the ultimate trick of life. It tends to happen, whether you're up for it or not. You can choose to blunt your reality with drugs or alcohol, to buy a few minutes or hours of pain-free thought. But unless you're hooked to a Jack Daniels IV drip, that numbness wears off, and what caused your emotional pain will still be there, snarling at you, defying you to stay sane.

So the trick is to CHOOSE to keep on keepin' on. To try to accept Life on its own terms, and not rail against reality. However, I still retain the right to throw a shrieking snot-fit in public at least once in the next few months. I'm actually looking foward to it.

Monday, October 29, 2007

"To Everything There Is A Season......."

I'm writing this post at a Barnes and Noble Bookstore in Atlanta. I drove down here yesterday to stay with my sister Marilyn, after saying the second most difficult goodbye I've ever had to say in my life.

Yesterday morning was so surreal, preparing to leave my sister Julie's home, knowing that the next time I returned, she would not be there. My heart was about to wrench itself from my chest as I braced for saying goodbye to my dear brother-in-law Ron, knowing that when I left, and when the visits from concerned friends and colleagues started dwindling, he'd be in that house all alone, surrounded by memories. I didn't want to leave him that way.

But Ron wound up being the one who shored me up. And he did it fairly succinctly. He said Julie would come back and kick my ass if I decided to give up on life and curled up in a ball in a corner somewhere. He reminded me that Julie would be the first one to tell me to finish what I started, even as much as she worried about me in Africa. In life, she would always welcomed me home for any reason, be it on the lam from the law or in full nervous breakdown mode, but in the back of her mind, she'd be thinking, "Wow, Rachel went out like a total punk-ass."

Well, not quite a punk-ass, but she'd definitely be sorry that I couldn't hack it. So if Ron could stand there on Sunday morning, frying bacon for me and my brother John an hour before I left, trying to convince me that life WOULD go on, then I had no other choice but to leave.

Standing beside my car, I hugged Ron and told him I'd always have his back, and that I loved him, through my sobs. Then I drove down to the Ohio River levee and wept, looking out at the tugboats churning their way north on the calm waters. The sun shone so brightly, it looked like the river was a long, wide mirror the boats were gliding across. Through my tears, I saw the bridge to Kentucky that I would have to cross to start my journey south. I'd sat on my bike or in a car staring at that bridge thousands of times as a child and a teenager, wondering where my life would take me once I left Cairo. I never, ever, EVER dreamed about Gulu, Uganda, but I knew my destiny lay far beyond Cairo.

Now I was leaving Cairo with the knowledge that my compass, my touchstone, my heart's guide, was no longer waiting for me in the lovely, comfy house on 29th Street. My home. My heart's home.

Sitting here in Barnes and Noble, I can't even try to explain how I managed to unclench that steering wheel, mop my eyes and face, and start my 7 hour drive to Atlanta. All I really remember was how absolutely beautiful the day was. That's one thing you don't get to see in Africa....the changing of the leaves. It's almost peak color season in these parts, with a cozy chill starting to set in. It's Autumn near its pinnacle of gloriousness. While I drove, I kept thinking about that song, "To everything, turn, turn, turn, There is a season, turn, turn, turn, And a time to every purpose under heaven."

I used to like that song a lot, and it still makes sense. But where Julie NOT being alive is concerned, it's just a crock of shit. JULIE IS SUPPOSED TO BE ALIVE, and waiting for me to come home, or waiting for me to pick her up from an airport, or off somewhere at an NEA meeting. There AIN'T no season for Julie to be gone.

Still, somehow the drive helped calm my thoughts. The beauty of Autumn was replacing the beauty and vibrancy of Julie's spirit. Sure, the cold rains and the snow will come and strip away all those lavish red and gold leaves, but they'd be back again NEXT Autumn.

And that was Julie's message to me that when you love someone, and they have loved you, that love never dies. Just because I can't see her or touch her anymore, she's still with me. In the rains and snows of my grief, I will focus only on the loss of her physical presence. But in the deep Autumn of my heart, I know that the reds and golds of Julie's fiery love and loyalty and generosity and strength will always, always burn in the hearts and minds of those who loved her. And there are so many who did love her.

Who DO love her. Who always will.