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.

Saturday, June 30, 2007

Bargain Basement Bitch

After today, I am totally convinced there is a cruise ship headed straight to Hell with my name plastered on its hull. It will ferry me toward the flickering, flaming hacienda of eternal torment at top speed.

But at least I’ll be wearing hand-made African clothing purchased at a mere fraction of the price I’d pay in the US. That’s what I’m usually saying to myself while I bargain for better prices at the local market. Sometimes, it’s only good, common sense to protect yourself from being ripped off. Case in point: the other day, I stopped by one stall to look at some pots. You have to be careful over here buying things like pots, because many of them are, shall we say, of inferior quality.

I weep when I think of my Calphalon pots and pans boxed up and sitting in a storage locker back in suburban Maryland. I’ve been reduced to picking over aluminum pans that look like they’ll melt when you turn the burner on high. And let’s not even think about the noxious fumes they give off while you’re cooking, or the “no scratch surfaces” that peel every time you scrape a spoon across them.

It’s like all the cookware manufacturers in the world got together and said, “Let’s send all our cast off, useless and clearly hazardous reject pots to Africa. We’ll only get half price for ‘em, but the way those people have babies over there, we’ll make up the difference in no time flat.”

I finally found two that looked acceptable and asked the lady for the price. A steal at 15,000 shillings, or about 9 USD. But you can’t let vendors think you just reach into your wallet without caring about the price….they’ll nail you for a sitting duck. So I said, “Sounds good, but I’ll just look around first.” Then I walked over to the next stall. The merchandise was basically the same, so I thought the same two pans would be about the same price, or maybe just a bit higher or lower. The vendor, a man this time, looked me up and down, paused a minute, and then said, “28,000.”

Now, I only got a 450 on my SAT math score, so I ain’t exactly a math whiz. (My sister Marilyn scored, like, 760 in math, or something equally outrageous. I’m the moron of the Jones clan.) But even I know that 15,000 for the same two pots is a better deal than 28,000. And I know he only priced them that way because he knew I was American. That made me mad, and I took a few minutes to explain that he must be outta his durned mind before huffing my way back next door.

But when I think about it, I realize that in most transactions here, the pennies I bargain for in Gulu mean almost nothing to me. I’d spend $4 dollars on a magazine back in DC, when $4 could feed a family of four for a couple of days here. And I can afford to pay 2 or 3 extra bucks on an item here, so why do I always try to get a better deal….when I could probably help pay some kid’s school fees by paying the price vendors quote me?

Part of it is plain old American stubbornness, and our manic need to be the smartest person in the vicinity, especially when we’re traveling. So what if, most of the time, we don’t know the language or customs of the people we’re dickering with….we’re AMERICAN. We “bring the noise” when it comes to shopping, and the collective might of our purchasing power must be respected at all times. Bottom line, don’t try and play me for a sucker when I could probably get you to sell your children to me for a coupla hundred bucks.

Well, not all Americans are that crass, and I’m certainly not. But I’ve decided we do need to feel smart a lot more than other people do. That’s why I haggle at the dressmaker’s, or try to get the banana ladies to sell me just half a bunch at a bit less than half price. This is me at 6:30 PM: "Look, it’s the end of the day, these things are getting kinda brown anyway, and you’ll only have to carry them home, so you might as well get SOME money for your troubles."

And as I walk away from these outings, I always sense that those women are standing together watching me, wearing the iPod and the Skechers, and DKNY jeans, carrying a wallet full of shillings, and I bet they’ve found the Luo phrase to use when muttering,

“Bargain Basement Bitch."

Friday, June 29, 2007

Woolly Wonderland.....

I was wondering how long it would take for a Scandinavian aid worker to run her fingers through my hair. Do NOT get the wrong idea…..I don’t play for that team. It’s just that throughout my life, I’ve had to accept that quite frequently, when I least expected it, a white person would ask if they could touch my hair.

Or not ask. There’s the “rub”—sometimes, they don’t wait for permission. You could be sitting there talking to another person at a party, and all of a sudden you feel fingers on your scalp. You start thinking that maybe your name is Rover, or something….why is this stranger patting my head and cooing at me? At least have a tasty treat or a chew toy to offer before you start mucking about in my hair.

It happened last night, at my very first aid worker soiree in Gulu. I thought I was living in a “nice” neighborhood out here in the Senior Quarters (or “Seen-ya Quo-TAHS,” as the people of Gulu call it.) But my little spread looks like Section 8 housing compared to the compound I was at. I’m talking a good half acre of front yard, a long driveway, and a HUGE house with a big front porch. All occupied by two white female aid workers in their 20’s.

I don’t mean to player hate, but DAMN! I been busting my hump for 21 years in this journalism game, and I live in a cottage that could fit in their living room. But I got over it pretty quickly, 'cause those girls can throw down! One of the residents, a tall, blonde, peppy girl named Justine, was celebrating her 25th birthday. (She laughed when I told her I had handbags older than her.) Her father, a dapper, silver-haired, apparently prominent businessman from Alabama, had flown in for the occasion. (I’m assuming he’s prominent because in the course of 10 minutes, I learned that he’s buddies with Kurt Waldheim, George Soros and the Clintons. Not that he’s a name-dropper or anything.) He'd spent the afternoon before the party barbecueing a goat. What else are dads for?

I was one of 3 non-Africans of African descent there. One guy was Afro-Cuban, and another woman was bi-racial. Two of Justine’s African co-workers there, and then everybody else was of European or South American descent. Pretty soon, the generational gap reared its ugly head….around the time Justine bopped out to the porch with a tray of orange and raspberry Jello shooters. It was probably only the third one I’d ever had in my life, and there was more vodka in it than Jello, trust me. (I wound up having to teach her 70-year-old father how to get the danged thing out of the cup. I also wound up having 3 more. They go down so easy.)

I will have to make a HUGE adjustment over here if I’m gonna have a social life. But then again, maybe it won’t be so hard after all. There were few people of color at the restaurant openings and cultural events I attended in DC…at many of them, I was the only one. But at least in DC, the people were old enough to remember that the corny song “Fame” actually came from a movie before it was the cheesy television series. Everybody here looks like they just graduated from college…even the ones in their 30’s.

It was one of those 30-somethings who grabbed a handful of my twists last night while we were sitting on the front porch. Eli is from Norway….I’d bet at least half of the young aid workers in Gulu are from Denmark, Norway or Sweden. The place is crawling with descendants of Vikings. They all wear tee-shirts, Birkenstocks and bandanas tied around their heads. I just hope they’re using sunscreen, often.

Anyway, Eli is 35, and she's the stereotypical apple-cheeked, jovial Scandinavian, with her long, blonde ponytail and pleasingly-plump frame. She had walked up to me and shoved her arm squarely at my stomach to introduce herself. Once we were talking, she told me she didn’t really attend a lot of these types of parties, because she was “so much older” than most of the people…at age 35. She refused to believe I was 45 (which endeared her to me for life), and decreed that we would have to start hanging out together.

We had moved onto another topic when she reached out and touched my hair, tentatively at first. Even though it’s happened a hundred times, it was a bit jarring. I mean, I wouldn’t have dreamed of reaching out and grabbing her ponytail…why did she think it was okay to fondle my twists? While I composed myself, Eli murmured dreamily, “I love your hair. It’s so soft.”

I was glad those hot olive oil treatments were working, but I had to stop myself from saying, “Just like a sheep, huh?” She’s such a sweet person, and there’s absolutely no chance she was being condescending or rude. Once again, I found myself having to be the engine of racial tolerance and understanding. If I can let just one white person actually experience the wonder that is African hair texture, my life’s work will not have been in vain.

Besides, ultimately, I think the age thing is going to be more of a challenge for me in the long run. Last night, Justine’s father, me, and another man named Esteban who’s about a year younger, were the three oldest people in the group. But as it turned out, we were the life of the party! I mean, Esteban burned up the floor whenever a Latin-flavored tune was played. And Justine’s father….jeez, the Silver Fox can shake his booty! At 70, I couldn’t keep up with him. Dude was poppin’ his hips, moving his feet, raisin’ the roof… the end of the evening, I crowned him the coolest father in modern history. In fact, I left him on the dance floor groovin’ strong at around 12:30.

Apparently, age really AIN’T nothin’ but a number.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Forget Paris....

In this post, I’m just gonna tell it like it T-I is. I HATE the fact that egregiously empty-headed ‘ho Paris Hilton is named after one of the most beautiful, historically-important cities in the world. I mean, it’s bad enough that she’s managed to diminish her family’s legendary name so much that the word Hilton is now and forever associated with sleaze.

But Paris, France is majestic. Paris Hilton is an empty-headed ‘ho. Paris, France is regal. Paris Hilton is an empty-headed ‘ho. Paris, France is mesmerizing… get where I’m going with this. For starters, she’s probably a walking petri dish of sexually-transmitted organisms. Never mind the fact that you could down-hill ski on the mountain of snow that girl has snorted. It’s just that I’m sitting here in a poverty-stricken war zone trying to figure out why the hell her face is plastered on the cover of the latest PEOPLE magazine. Did I miss something….did Ms. Hilton discover the cure for cancer??? Did she throw her hat into the 2008 race? Did she even pledge to start sending a dollar a day to UNICEF, for Christ’s sake?

Before we go any further, PLEASE don’t think I’m just jealous of a 25 year old’s looks and fame. Remember, the last blonde celebrity I idolized was Doris Day. If I could look like her, circa 1960, I’d be down with that. Otherwise, I hear Ms. Hilton has huge-assed man-hands and feet, and about three strands of real hair left on her pointy-little head.

Now, some of you who know me might be surprised by this rabid attack on the aforementioned empty-headed Hilton ‘ho. You might find it uncharacteristically vicious, or you might protest my use of the pejorative “’ho.” After all, I’m a card carrying feminist, and at the very least, I should be non-judgmental when a woman wants to use her body and looks as her major form of currency. If being a repulsive slut pays off, go for it.

Okay, now even I think I’m being too harsh. It’s just that I’m sitting here in Gulu, Uganda, in a country with 1.7 million refugees…forget about the millions of its OWN impoverished people. Forget about the fact that most of the children here are permanently psychologically-scarred by the ravages of war. Forget the lack of upscale spas and four-star restaurants (ooops, sorry, that just slipped out). I mean, this whole danged CONTINENT is suffering. And yet any time I try to check up on news back home through American online media, the first thing that pops up is a picture of Paris Hilton.

Every damned media organization in the United States of America ought to have its license revoked for paying for that creature’s cocaine and other assorted debaucheries. That’s all the heck they’re doing, because they sure aren’t informing or enlightening anybody by recording her every twitch. There are more black men in jail than in college in the U.S., and yet Paris makes headlines for a 22-day stretch. Unemployment, home foreclosures and homelessness are rising exponentially in America, and yet I gotta look at her vapid little face on every news website I open.

By coming to Gulu, I thought I’d won a reprieve from the ongoing psychosis that seems to have American popular culture in a headlock. But it makes me sad to conclude that the only way to avoid hearing or reading anything about said abhorrent hotel heifer would be to hitch a ride on the International Space Station. And even up THERE one of the astronauts probably has a picture of the played-out little skank taped to a wall.

But back to my original point. Her name should be “Guttersnipe Hilton” or “Reprehensible Trollop Hilton.” There’s nothing beautiful, regal, majestic, or sustaining about her, or the media companies who helped create her. When I think of Paris—AND of American Journalism—I don’t want to have to automatically envision a pile of steaming garbage.

EDITOR’S NOTE : This column was brought to you by the letters P, M, and S.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Bouncing Boda Boda Babies........

I just read where the average Ugandan woman gives birth to 7.1 children. Meanwhile, The United Nations has officially declared my uterus an International Sperm Free Zone.

That’s my rather sarcastic way of saying that even if I were lucky enough to find a man I’d WANT to father my children, it appears the old reproductive system has crapped out. The process began in the summer of 2004, when I lost all control of my moods. I couldn’t concentrate, couldn’t sleep more than a few hours a night…..and was battling the most intense hot flashes ever recorded in human history.

Actually, the insidious creep of early menopause didn’t really sneak up on me, or anything.
I kind of expected it….my mother started throwing lamps, shoes, whatever was within her reach, during brief intense rages in her late 30’s. She could go from zero to crazy in about 3 seconds flat, and she always used to complain about being too hot. It could be a frigid Midwestern day, but Mama always needed a glass cold water and a fan set on high pointed directly at her.

When the symptoms started for me, I was only 42, in pretty good physical shape, with only a few gray hairs showing. I had most of my teeth, and I could still win a dance-off with a woman half my age. Never had a single thought about entering “That Time of Life.” But then I started waking up in the middle of the night tangled in soggy sheets. Or by the time I walked to the corner each morning, my clothes would be drenched with sweat. Or I’d be sitting at the computer at work when all of a sudden, I’d be convinced somebody in the next cubicle had positioned a blast furnace right behind me.

Even my freakin’ body odor changed. I mean, when you start smelling like the decaying corpse of a weasel, no matter how much perfume or deodorant you use, you got pretty clear proof that your body has switched over to auto-pilot. That feeling is scary as hell.

But what shocked me the most was the grief. I became obsessed with the notion that “The Change” meant I’d probably never give birth.

Now, I’ve always adored babies and children; when I was as young as 7 or 8, people used to watch me interact with younger children and say, “You’re going to be a great mother some day.” I’ve always had a strong maternal instinct that makes me goofy whenever someone under the age of 4 is around. I think I’m just fascinated by the concept of miniature human beings…they’re just so delightful to me, no matter what shape, size, color, or political affiliation.

The funny thing is that I have never, EVER wanted to be pregnant. Mostly because I haven’t met the man worth going through nine months as a parasitic host. I’ve never truly believed in the whole “pregnancy glow” thing, or the testimonials from women who say they never had morning sickness, or that they had more energy when they were pregnant, or they had just 15 minutes of labor and the baby slipped out like watermelon seed.

That shit looks painful, uncomfortable, and loooooong. If I could be pregnant for 2 weeks and deliver a healthy baby, sign me up. Otherwise, I’ll take a pass. Or so I used to think. But when perimenopause kicked in, it felt like an option being taken away from me. I’ve always pretty much done whatever the heck I wanted to do in my life and my career, but now the Universe was telling me, “Okay, time’s up. You waited too long, so it’s time to take away your power to create new life.”

That felt cold-blooded. I wuz ROBBED, y’all. And I started mourning. Big Time.

So maybe it’s a good thing I’m in a 3rd world country now, where women have 7 kids apiece. It kinda takes the pressure off....some sister over here has already had babies for herself, me, and a couple of other barren First World women. And I’m fixating on beautiful little chocolate drop babies, all swathed and tied to their mothers’ backs. I giggle every time I see a tiny brown head bobbling down the street. It’s amazing that with all the motion, some of them even manage to sleep while their moms are walking. Or perched on the back of a boda boda.

In an earlier post, I promised to tell you what a boda boda is, so here goes. It’s a motorcycle. And it’s the major form of public transportation in Gulu. There are hundreds of them, mostly driven by guys in their teens and 20’s. They all wear cool, reflective sunglasses, and no helmets. All you have to do is wave one down, it pulls up beside you, and you hop on the back.

Before I came to Gulu, I had never ridden a motorcycle. Last week, when the Land Cruiser was being serviced, I rode one to get back to my cottage. No helmet, no seatbelt, no protective gear of any kind. The only thing between me and a profound head wound, or at least a wicked case of road rash, was nothing.

I’m not going to go all Thelma and Louise here and say it was thrilling. I was scared silly. I wrapped my arms around the guy’s waist and held on for dear life. Every muscle and nerve ending tensed whenever we hit a bump. A bug flew up my nose. My teeth rattled. And I ain’t gon' lie…..I partook in some medicinal Johnny Walker Blue when I made it home alive.

But you should see the women of Gulu riding side saddle on those things, with their baby bundles bouncing down the rutted roads. It’s as natural to them as it was for me to hop the Metro train in DC. It’s like the kingdom of itty-bitty brown bobble-headed boda boda babies. It’s so cool.

And I’ve decided that even though I’ll probably never give birth, I’m pretty darned lucky. I get to travel all over the world and have amazing experiences. I survived my first ride on a boda boda. I can’t create life, but I can use the one I have to make a difference in the world. So enough with the grieving, already.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

"BEWARE The Organ Meats........"

All of my friends, colleagues and acquaintances were so thoughtful and caring as they bid me farewell for this journey I’m on. Some were even gracious enough to hide their doubts about my sanity when I told them exactly where I was going. But there was this one editor at NPR whose daughter was doing a semester of coursework in Kampala, so he was excited when I told him I was headed to Uganda. Then I told him I would be living in Northern Uganda.

He spent the next 20 minutes sharing everything he knew about the bloodshed, terror, refugee camps, rape and torture that were the norm up north. I interjected every now and then to say that the way the world is today, you could get slaughtered sitting in a university classroom in Virginia.

He suggested it was rather STOOPID of me to compare the tragedy at Virginia Tech to Northern Uganda. For one thing, he said, those students and teachers didn’t voluntarily go into an area heavily-populated by well-armed, crazed murderers. I thanked him for his observations and muttered a few curses under my breath when he finally finished his oral history of the Lord’s Resistance Army.

Actually, I couldn’t blame him for my anger. Mainly, I was pissed because I was living a lie of sorts. You see, I hadn’t yet told my sister Julie exactly where I was going in Uganda. I’d been so pleased that she hadn’t completely freaked when I told her I’d be spending 8 months working with Internews in Uganda, and that I was flying to Kampala on June 5th.

She’d come a long way from April of 2003, when I’d told her I was headed to Accra, Ghana to teach my very first weeklong journalism workshop. “You know I worry about your immune system,” she’d wailed. “You’ll go over there and catch some parasite that will kill you instantly. You’ll get malaria. You’ll get mauled by a rogue orangutan.”

She didn’t actually say that last thing, but Julie had a whole arsenal of other reasons why going to Africa was a dumb idea. Bottom line, she was absolutely scared to death, and willing to stop at nothing to make me change my mind.

Maybe I need to explain why Julie’s buy-in on these types of life decisions matters so much to me. You see, Julie is the 3rd of my 9 siblings, the eldest girl. By the time she was old enough to hold a dish towel, Julie was helping my mother raise babies. The last four of us were girls, so Julie wound up being our adjunct mother. She was the one who combed our hair, and dressed us, and fed us, and made sure we behaved. She was also the one we all used to climb into bed with and watch TV or just hang out, because we always felt safe and warm and secure with her.

By the time I was 9 years old, I had 3 crucial role models: Doris Day, Mary Tyler Moore and Julie. Doris came first, because she was so beautiful and sweet and funny and smart. Plus, she managed to keep her legs crossed around the powerful masculine force of nature that was Rock Hudson. (Makes sense 50 years later; she had a bit more information than the rest of us did.) Anyhoo, Doris was the ultimate “Good Girl,” the embodiment of what a career woman should be, I thought. Always perfectly dressed and coiffed, supremely confident yet demure and vulnerable when necessary. And girlfriend was spunky as hell.

Which leads us to Mary Tyler Moore. She’s the reason I’m prone to shopaholic tendencies to this day. (Well, there are also certainly hereditary neuronal misfires in the roiling genetic stew of my familial DNA that may also be factors, but you don’t need those gory details just yet.) Anybody over the age of 40 remembers actually watching the premier episode of the MTM show, when Mary blusters her way through an interview with gruff old Lou Grant, who eventually tells her, “You got spunk. I HATE spunk.”

Mary Richards was the ultimate clotheshorse. I drooled over her perfectly coordinated outfits, her peppy shoulder bags and matching shoes, and her hip, happenin’ hairstyles. I loved her quirky sense of humor, and the way everybody loved Mary. And when Mary got a reputation for throwing parties that ALWAYS flopped, she completely stole my heart. The Divine Miss Richards had a flaw, and yet people STILL adored her. And best of all, Mary Richards managed to pull off the amazing feat of being beautiful, popular, funny, and charming, and yet you always got the impression that she didn’t really see herself that way.

That leads me to Julie. At age 19, she was about 90 pounds of pure pretty, inside and out. So tiny that at age 9, I was almost able to wear her clothes and shoes. (A few years later, I actually did start sneaking into her closet after she left for work to wear her clothes and shoes. And even when I finally got busted, she didn’t slap the shit out of me. Now THAT’S true big sister love.)

Julie had the face of a pixie, and a perfect little figure, and she was smart, funny, and strong. Hell, she’d raised just about all of her younger siblings, so she had no other choice. And she was popular. Guys wanted to date her, but that ritualistic, shame-based mind control we were raised under (previously referred to as “Midwestern Values”) made her decline all offers. I think it’s because she didn’t realize what a beautiful young woman she was.

I’ve talked about this often enough, so I’m hoping she won’t mind me sharing it. Julie had the chance to leave Cairo, Illinois for good when she was around 19. Her friend Claudia wanted Julie to move with her to Texas, get a job, or go to school, or do ANYTHING besides just stagnate in Cairo. It was the late 60’s, and the whole world was opening up for a beautiful, smart, articulate, strong young black woman. If she’d been a different kind of person, Julie might have jumped at the chance.

But she couldn’t leave her four little sisters behind. Sure, maybe she was scared to take the leap, or maybe she knew something about Claudia that made her leery of hitching up with her. But Julie always says, and I believe her, that she turned down Claudia’s offer because she didn’t want to leave us behind.

In the 37 years since she made that decision, Julie’s faced challenges that would have destroyed other people. She was diagnosed with lupus, she lost a child, she’s had a myriad life threatening surgeries. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve sat by her bed in hospitals, fiercely bargaining, pleading with, and threatening God to keep her alive. She worked almost 40 years with the Cairo Public School District before she retired last year, and she’s traveled all over the country representing the National Education Association. And Julie has pulled my ass out of the fire so many times, it’s a wonder she had time left to do any of it.

She's so damned STRONG. When I told her about my first trip to Africa, my whole family was already gobsmacked by grief at the recent death of the family's firstborn icon, our eldest brother David. (I’ll write more about him some day.) My going to Africa seemed like just one more potentially devastating loss, and so I understood why she didn’t want me to go. I went anyway.

4 years later, both my parents have died, too, and I don’t think I’ll ever truly get a handle on the whole "coping with loss" thing. And when I told Julie I was gonna spend 8 months in Uganda, I half expected her to blow her top, have a stroke, or tell me I was being a selfish bitch by putting her through such worry and stress. (THAT’S why I told her I was going to Kampala, and left out the other details.)

Did I forget to mention that when I shared my travel plans, it was about a year after Julie had been diagnosed with colon cancer, undergone emergency surgery, been given a clean bill of health, come to DC to celebrate her first cancer free year, and then wound up in Georgetown Hospital again with dangerously low potassium? By the time I told her about Kampala, she was back home safely in Cairo, but I was down to my last nerve worrying about her health. I was torn between wanting to have this experience, and agonizing over being so far away from her.

Julie was so supportive, I could have wept. (Granted, this was based on false information, but you do what you gotta do.) No more guilt-trips, no more threats of physical violence if I ignored her concerns. She actually thought it was a great opportunity for me. Of course, when she found out I was in Gulu, just a few days after I arrived, she sent me an e-mail which kind of hinted that she wanted to kick my ass for not being straight up with her. But even then, Julie hid her anxiety with a bit of humor.

By this point, you’re probably wondering why the hell I titled this post, “BEWARE the Organ Meats....” Stay with me, there’s a connection. The first time I called Julie after getting settled in Gulu, I must have spent 20 minutes in my newly-adopted role as spokesperson for the Greater Gulu Chamber of Commerce. I had to convince her I was safe, warm and dry, and well-fed. I told her about this great little restaurant called “Take Away,” which serves amazingly delicious savory stews, fabulous lentil soup, and fresh vegetables. Why, just that day, I’d had this fantastic kidney stew with green beans, tomatoes, and other yummy vegetables.

Julie’s response? “I think you should stay away from organ meats. You know how I worry about your immune system.”

It makes me smile, every time I think about it. Julie could have said, “Listen, you better enjoy that food now, cause when the Lord’s Resistance Army gets a hold of you, they’ll be eating a stew made from YOUR stupid-assed kidneys!” But once again, she was being a trooper, hiding her naked, quivering fear for my safety, and offering calm, measured advice.

It’s the kind of advice that only a role model, adjunct-mother, fiercely strong survivor, and fountain of unconditional love can offer. None of my other “so-called” friends have cared enough to warn me about the potentially deadly hazards of organ meats. I’m blessed to have Julie in my corner.

(But I’m still gonna eat that kidney stew, as often as I can wrap my lips around it. Sorry…at 45, it’s about time I cut the apron strings.)

Friday, June 22, 2007

The Month of the African Child....

I've just finished a day of finance and accounting training from Internews managers who've flown in from Nairobi. They're smart, fun people, so that made the day bearable. But right about now, my brain feels like it's been deep fried in lard.

If my new employers knew that my budget management skills extend only so far as calculating the difference between the 50% off at Nordstrom's Semi-Annual Women and Children's Sale and the 65% off end of season sale at Macy's, I probably wouldn't be chillin' like a villain in Gulu right now.

This won't be a long post. But since I've mentioned children, I guess I should tell you that I tried to read today's Daily Monitor newspaper as a way to unwind from the day's training. But after the first few pages, I had to stop. Ugandan newspapers are fascinating....I mean, if you think American journalism is too sensationalistic, just pick up a copy of the Red Pepper. In one column the other day, the writer speculated about when a prominent soccer player was going to "shaft" his new girlfriend....and I don't think he was talking about the Richard Roundtree movie.

Lately, there've been a lot of stories about the plight of children, because June is informally considered the "Month of the African Child." I probably don't have to tell you that life is insanely hard for most children on the Continent. They struggle to be born, to escape early illness and death, to survive as orphans, to get enough food and education, to avoid sexual and exploitation....I could go on and on.

But the article that made me stop reading today's paper defies just about any form of human comprehension. I've focused on social policy affecting children and families in the U.S. for the past 13 years in D.C., so I know a lot about the worst problems for poor American children. Still, a story about what happens to children trafficked from Uganda to the Middle East almost stopped my heart.

Get this: apparently, some of them are used to train horses and camels to run faster. I am not making this up. Ugandan Minister for Justice and Constitutional Affairs Fred Ruhindi explains:

"When a horse is trained to run fast, it has to hear a lot of noise behind. So the more noise, the faster it becomes. To achieve this, a rope is fastened onto a child's leg and then tied on a horse, which then pulls it. The more noise the child makes by crying, the faster the horse runs," he said.

This is definitely one of those "Stop the World and Let Me Off!" moments for me. Or at the very least, one of those double gin and tonic moments. ANYTHING to get that image out of my head.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Gulu....Who Knew?

My friend Katherine has just alerted me to something I hadn’t really noticed about this blog. I’m posting all these missives from Northern Uganda, but reading them, you can’t tell why the heck I came here.

This is why Katherine is one of my dearest friends. She always has my back. She’s a “heart friend,” one of those people whose personal energy just jumpstarts your senses every time you’re near her. I met her at a boot-scootin’ cowboy bar in Kalispell, Montana, in 1992, if memory serves. I was there with a group of women journalists who belong to a group called Journalism and Women Symposium or “JAWS."

That acronym is a perfect fit. Katherine literally embodied the driving force of JAWS. When we met, she was a columnist for the St. Paul Pioneer Press, so right away, you knew girlfriend was not afraid to break you off a piece of her mind. While I watched her out on the dance floor, yeee-hawing through a chorus of “Achy Breaky Heart,” I knew I could roll with a chick like her.

We’ve been rolling ever since, though not as often as I’d like. Somehow, life and career drama always manage to consume most of your time and energy, and you look up one day and you haven’t seen or spoken to that heart friend in months…even years. But as sure as my name is Rachel, I know that the next time I see Katherine, we’ll just pick up where we left off.

I also know that within an hour or so, she’ll have me sobbing like a baby. I can go years without crying for any reason, but when Katherine and I get to gabbing, let the good red wine and the tears flow! We seem to always peel away the layers and get right to the heart of our lives. She’s my “Sister of the Prairie.” We’re both from Illinois….Cairo for me and Moline for her… and we’ve both spent the last few decades deprogramming ourselves from the ritual brain washing of a shame-based culture (a.k.a “Midwestern values.”)

Anyway, Katherine’s critique was right on time, so I’m using this post to explain how in the world I wound up in Gulu, Uganda. The quick and dirty answer is that I’m here working with an organization called “Internews.” The group’s mission is to provide training in critical issues for journalists around the world. I’ve led 4 previous short-term journalism workshops for Internews in Ethiopia and Nigeria, for print and radio reporters who cover HIV/AIDS. This time, I’m training radio journalists who are covering the recent peace talks between the Ugandan government and the rebel armies who’ve been killing and terrorizing the people for the past 20 years.

More about war and peace later. (Although I’m sure many of you out there think I’m out of my freakin’ mind for coming to a war zone for ANY reason.)

The longer answer involves making a difference. I’m 45, and by the time I’m 50, I’ll have lived more than half of my life. Personally, I plan to be the baddest, hottest 50 year old woman who ever walked the face of the earth, but even so, I'll be 50. By that point, you get to wondering what you’ve accomplished in life, and whether you’ve contributed anything of real value to the world. My work with Internews has helped tremendously…I get more fulfillment from this kind of work than any other aspect of my career.

But check this out….I have a pathological need to help. I’m a nurturer at heart. Sure, if you don’t know me, I can seem reserved and aloof. That’s because I’m intensely shy, and have waged my own war to hide that fact all my life. But once you get to know me, you realize that I’m a born cheerleader, a rally-er, purveyor of pep talks, the kind of woman who gets giddy when I can cook for a lot of people and watch them enjoy the food.

I’m a nourisher, I guess. So it makes sense that I’ve landed in a poverty stricken war zone. I mean, where else are you gonna be needed this much? And I believe the fact that I am a black woman in charge has to be a powerful influence in this town. A woman’s status in Africa is most often deplorable, e.g. less access to education, most likely to die in childbirth, vulnerable to HIV because the culture demands that a woman defer to her husband sexually, no matter who he’s been sleeping around with.

These kinds of challenges are as clear as a relief map on the faces of girls and women in Gulu . When I see them, I think that could have been me. (Not that I’m grateful for slavery or anything, but I might just as easily have been born in Africa.) So when I'm given the chance to help a female journalist in Africa strengthen her ability to use her skills to empower other women, I’m gonna take it every time.

(EDITOR’S NOTE: In the interest of full disclosure If Internews ever opens a Baghdad office, the sentiments expressed in this column are rendered null and void.)

Wednesday, June 20, 2007


I thought I was being really clever and profound by naming my blog “Notes of a Native Daughter.” It riffs on one of my favorite books, “Native Son,” and it also alludes to the spiritual journey my trips to Africa has launched for me.

Granted, I’m officially a native American….AFRICAN American, that is. I’ve never had a problem embracing that term. But some black people believe adding the “African” separates us, calls too much attention to our different-ness, instead of blending us into the melting pot.

But here’s the thing. Italian Americans don’t seem to have a problem with that label. They have special societies, they laud their cuisine, they’re proud of it. (Except for the whole “Sopranos” connection, I reckon.) Most Asian Americans seem comfortable with the term. Ditto the Irish, and a host of other ethnic groups. So why do some people of African descent who were born in America think “African American” is almost a slur?

Let’s face it… least one of my ancestors, on both sides, was born in Africa. And for God’s sake, PLEASE don’t tell me that when you look at me, you don’t see color. Some white people actually think that’s a compliment, but I usually tell them they better run, not walk, to the nearest optometrist’s office, cuz they must have glaucoma or something. I am the color of a Hershey’s chocolate bar, richly, unmistakably, deeply brown.

Growing up in racially volatile Cairo, Illinois, I was familiar with the saying, “If you’re white, you’re alright. if you’re yellow, you’re mellow. If you’re brown, stick around. If you’re black, get back.” It’s the unspoken code in America’s turbulent racial history….skin color matters. I mean, I admire Vanessa Williams, and forgave her for the freaky photo shoots years ago. But when she won the Miss America title, black folks knew it was because she had green eyes and café-au-lait-colored skin.

She was “light, bright, and damned near white.” On the other hand, a guy I once dated told me he thought I was the whole package….smart, attractive, career oriented, funny. Then he said he wished he could take me home to meet his parents.

But he couldn’t, because I was too dark-skinned. Didn’t pass the “brown paper bag test.” (Legend has it that was the standard for some elite African American families post-slavery. Any skin tone darker than a brown paper bag was completely unacceptable for breeding purposes.) Now, I eventually got over that guy’s astounding insensitivity. In hindsight, he deserved props for being honest. His parents probably would have seen me as little more than a pickininny, and his mother would warn about the Brillo pad hair texture of any children I’d produce.

Even though I’ve had a several of those kinds of experiences, I am staunchly black and proud. And I think about these uniquely American racial psychoses a lot here in Gulu. I’ve considered my trips to Africa the perfect way for me to revel in the source of my blackness.

But that’s what’s so ironic. In Gulu, I’M light, bright, and damned near white. The average skin tone here is about 5 shades darker than my cocoa coloring. I’m talking as black as ink, as a piece of coal, as midnight. People look at me and instantly realize I’m not a native. I’m a "muzunga," or foreigner, and when I open my mouth, I seal my fate.

I’m an American muzunga, a descendent of lowly slaves. Stolen from my homeland, with no real family tree, no way to know which country or tribe I come from. The people of Gulu Town look at me with pity, while I want them to see me as a “sister.” But I know that for my entire 8 months here, they’ll always see a stranger.

It really sank in the other day, when I was trying to find some ham to cook with a big fat cabbage I’d bought at the market. I’d learned the Luo word for ham, gweno, and trekked to every reputable butcher in town. They all looked at me like I was crazy, so I figured my American accent was throwing them off. They were either yanking me around or they really didn’t understand what I was saying.

I’d intended to simmer that cabbage and ham and share it with my Ugandan co-workers, to cement our ancestral bond. I’d cook a Southern “soul food” dish to prove that even though I’m a muzunga, I can “handle my bizness” in the kitchen. I’d show them that African Americans have proud traditions, too, thus earning my cultural street cred.

I still haven’t found any ham. But I won’t stop looking. And if I stick around long enough, maybe the sun will move me a little bit away from Hershey-land toward true Mother Africa Black. As long as my sun-screen holds out, bring it on.

Monday, June 18, 2007

The Good, The Bad, and the Totally F----ed Up......

It’s gonna be a looooong 8 months in Gulu. I finally admitted it to myself this morning, while watching a guy clutching the legs of 8 stunned chickens with both hands.

At least I think they were stunned. They were definitely alive, and some even had some serious game left, flapping and squawking the whole time. But for some reason, they weren’t able to get a grip and run like…..well, like a chicken with its head cut off when the guy placed them on the ground near my table at the open-air restaurant where I was eating “breakfast.”

Sigh. The weekend brunch at Café Atlantico in DC is a tragically far too distant dream. Hell, the daily special at I-Hop would be cool at this point. I ordered the sausage with scrambled eggs, baked beans, coffee and pineapple juice, hoping to get something that at least faintly resembled American breakfast. Well, the sausage came out pink….not as in undercooked, but as in shot through with nitrites and other cancer causing chemicals. The eggs were scrambled, but can a sister get a little salt and pepper? The coffee was instant (no more amazing machiatos like in Addis), and the pineapple juice….well, most restaurants here don’t really roll with the whole “fresh squeezed for every glass” thing. There are zillions of pineapples and passion fruit in the local markets, but it tastes like most eateries simply fill a trough with water, run a piece of fruit through it, and then serve it up lukewarm to expat suckers like me, thinking we’re so disoriented , we won’t know the difference.

And the thing is, why did it take half an hour to get instant coffee???

Okay, now that I’ve done a little therapeutic venting, let’s get back to the guy with the chickens. When we left off, he had placed the dazed birds on the ground and was negotiating a price with one of the kitchen staff. I was fascinated and horrified at the same time. I mean, you just don’t see the live product paraded through the dining area at most American restaurants. I resisted the urge to splash my bottled water on the hapless hens and shoo their feathered asses to freedom.

And then I realized something important. Something you’re not necessarily guaranteed in every American restaurant, even some of the pretty good ones.

When you order chicken curry at the Bambu, or the Bomah, or the Take Away restaurant in Gulu, you can be pretty sure it was alive about 12 hours ago. It’s the ultimate freshness guarantee. And talk about your free range, organic, hormone free poultry…you’d pay 8 bucks for that kind of yard bird at Whole Foods, when you can buy one here for $2.50.

Of course, Whole Foods does you the favor of plucking and gutting ‘em first, but there’s good and bad in both scenarios.

That’s the point of this particular post. For every inconvenience here, there really is something positive to replace it. There are no movie theaters in Gulu, but how much time did I spend going to movies in DC? And there’s fresh air here…palpably fresh air, as opposed to the smog and fumes in Urban America. Apart from the occasional septic assault, I’m gulping pure high test oxygen every day.

There’s no TV, but also no brain rot from watching too much mindless TV. No shopping malls, but no chance to buy the 5th pair of black shoes you don’t really need, but they were 50 percent off. No reliable Internet, but absolutely no temptation to descend into the swirling toilet of cyber desperation that is the online dating scene.

I have to keep that perspective, or some unsuspecting Gulu-ite is gonna get a royal, neck snappin’ DC-style cussin’ out any day now. That’s where the “totally f----ed up” part comes in. One thing is crystal clear….to cope over here, you need to expect, even embrace the fact that no matter how you plan, something is going to go wrong. Somebody’s gonna be late, or the order you were guaranteed will be a couple of months late, or the car you just had serviced will die about a mile after you leave the garage. That happened to me today. The first stop I made, the engine wouldn’t turn over. I’m talking cold and dead. I was about ready to set it off in downtown Gulu, before thinking,

“This is just my first week and a half here. If I let this give me an aneurysm, I won’t last 8 more hours, no less 8 months.”

So I hopped onto the back of a boda boda, went back to the garage, adopted the sharpest Ugly American tone I could muster, and had a mechanic drive me back to my stalled car with a new battery. Problem solved.

You do what you gotta do, whether it’s in Gulfport or in Gulu.

(Oh, and I’ll tell you what a boda boda is later.)

Friday, June 15, 2007

Blogus Interuptus......

Hi There!

I would need all week to explain why I haven’t posted anything since June 7th. There’s no way i could adequately convey all the absolutely mind-boggling experiences I’ve had since landing in Uganda on June 6th.

So I thought I’d take the easy way out by simply saying I'm typing this post from a dining table in the tidy little compound on Plot 26, Samuel Doe Rd., in Gulu Town, Uganda. There are 2 structures on this plot….the main house with four smallish bedrooms where several Internews staffers and guests will stay….and my tiny, tidy, lovely little cottage out back. It has 2 bedrooms, so come on over to Gulu and visit any time you want.

(Full disclosure: Come on out any time you want to have the flesh picked off your bones by voracious African mosquitoes. I finally stopped clawing at myself this morning, after I remembered the Bendryl capsules I’d brought. They're helping a bit, but PLEASE SEND POWERFUL ANTI-ITCH MEDICATION AT ONCE!!!)

Other than that minor nuisance, I wake up each morning to the sounds of birds chirping. There’s even the obligatory rooster crowing. Last night there were thunderstorms, and listening to the sound of rain on the corrugated tile roof is more soothing than a fistful of Valium. Check back with me 3 months from now, but at the moment, I am totally digging the solitude of this place.

In my first week, I’ve spent some time in both Kampala and Gulu. After my beloved Addis Ababa, Kampala was a bit of a let-down. It's huge and congested like your average African capital, but Kampala has little of the cosmopolitan attitude you can find in Addis. It felt much less urban to me. (However, the Speke Hotel has the best goat curry you will ever taste in this or any other lifetime, period. Yeah, I never thought I'd find myself admitting to having eaten goat meat, but life is full of unexpected twists and turns.)

A word of advice: if you EVER happen to be in this neck of the woods, puh-LEEZE don’t drink a lot of fluids before setting out on the 5 hour drive from Kampala to Gulu. I kept a vise-like grip on my bladder during the trip down to Kampala last Sunday, because I figured toilet facilities would be primitive at best.

But on the way back up to Gulu Wednesday, I couldn’t hold out. 4 hours into the trip, I had the driver pull into a Shell station before I whizzed on myself. A polite young lady handed me the key and waved me toward the toilet.

If you can, envision the 9th circle of Hell, perfumed by the acrid stench of urine. Imagine a square hole cut into a concrete floor, inside a dank, coffin-like stall. I’m gonna stop there, because I think you get the drift. Once my eyes refocused and the horror subsided, I resisted the urge to run screaming down the road back to Kampala and manage to do my business.

Have you seen “The Ten Commandments” with Charlton Heston? If not, check it out. The scene where Moses comes down from the mountain after receiving the golden tablets captures how I felt exiting that stall. My hair wasn’t lily white and flowing in the breeze like old Mo’s, but I had the same glassy-eyed stare, the same bone-chilling numbness, the same profound sense that I had just seen something that would change the course of my life forever.

Basically, from now on I’ll be wearing Depends during every road trip I make in Africa.

Anyway, I’ll try to get caught up on experiences over the next few days. The weekend looms ahead like a long vacation, with nothing to do and nowhere to go, and cool breezes and rain to keep things cozy. I’ll probably do some exploring at the local market and in Gulu, and catch up on my reading. (It took me long enough, but I've finally bought both of Barak Obama's books in Kampala. I want to see if they get me inside the brother's head like other folks have claimed.)

My biggest challenge to blogging these days is processing everything I see….everything that happens is sensory overload right now. But now that my initial orientation and training phase is finished, I’m thinking this blog will be the only way for me to creativelywork through this experience, to figure out why I’m here.

I mean, I don’t think I came here solely for the purpose of being de-fleshed by mosquitos, but maybe that’s what the fates had planned for me all along…..

Naaaaaaah. I got work to do.



P.S. I’ve finally figured out how to use my new camera, so I'll send a few pictures of my lovely little compound soon. Nothing fancy, but peaceful as all get out.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Crossing the Nile.....

I've had many extraordinary experiences in my life, but I think today was a high point.

Last night at the hotel in Entebbe I was so tired, my eyes were literally crossing. But after a decent night's sleep, I opened the curtains in my hotel to the amazing view of Lake Victoria. What an absolutely glorious way to start this journey.

The drive from Entebbe to Kampala was relatively brief, about 30 minutes. My soon to be predecessor, Chris Greene, is a proper, pleasant Brit who's been very helpful to me. But I suspect he's down to his last nerve......even though he lived in Nairobi for 3 years before Gulu, I believe he's lost the love for Uganda and is ready to blow this pop stand. Three months of trying to get the office here set up has fried his neurons pretty good.

Anyway, the 4 hour drive from Kampala to Gulu just about shook my cerebellum loose from my brain pan. Some stretches are okay, but then there are miles of potholes, broken pavement, and dirt roads....but, it's all worth the effort when you round one particular bend and see the Nile River.

What is it about the river Nile that evokes such powerful emotions? Sure, it's the longest river in the world, blah blah. The section I saw looks like just about any other river you might see in Montana or Wyoming. But my heart just about leapt from my chest at the sight.

And it felt like such a symbolic crossing for me. Three days ago, I was living in Washington, DC, with access to just about anything I could possibly want. Tonight, I'm sitting in the quiet little compound on Plot 26, Samuel Doe Road in Gulu, Uganda, with no street lights, sporadic electricity, just the sound of radio and crickets out the front door. But I haven't felt this relaxed, happy, and at peace in many, many years.

I'm am so blessed.

More tomorrow.

When Life Hands You Lemons.....

....jam those suckers down throat of any jerk who pisses you off or tries to block the path to your 5:30 PM flight to Dulles.

Sorry for that opening salvo of negativity, but you would not even begin to believe what I went through yesterday afternoon trying to get to where I'm sitting right now.....what I'm told is the only decent coffee shop in Kampala Uganda.

Here's a brief synopsis: First, I was chewed out and out by the young Israeli movers who snapped at me for not having done enough of my own packing. A quick call to their boss got the glares and muttered curses stopped. But they had a big surprise for me at the end.....A $700 tab for the move, which was entirely reasonable, and then...

....a $980 charge for the packing materials. I had to threaten to call the police to get things straightened out.

But enough of that, because I just got a prompt saying my battery is low. I'll send a longer post when we get to Gulu, about 4 hours away. Just know that it is an absolutely beautiful day, and I'm feeling great, and I'm absolutely wired beyond belief after 2 Macchiatos that will probably keep me awake for the next 3 days.

Just another episode in the life of Rachella, a.k.a. "God's Sitcom"...


Monday, June 4, 2007

Au Revoir, Y'all

Tomorrow evening, I begin an 8 month journey living in Uganda. If you had told me 4 months ago that this would be happening, I would have hooted like an owl. It just would have seemed so outrageous.

But I think I've finally learned that nothing is impossible. NOTHING. Perfect example, I am still alive and sane after three years of the worst case of early menopause in recorded history. That alone assures me that I am powerful beyond human imagining.

I'm calling this journey my "Midlife Crisis Tour." After all, I turned 40 just 3 weeks after 9/11, and since then everything in my life has felt like one long, intense hot flash. Most of you know the litany of personal tragedies and challenges life has tossed my way. I've been so consumed by them, I haven't really had the time to buy a red sports car, converse with a Himalayan wise man, or break up somebody's marriage.

Instead, I'm opting to plunge into an entirely new experience. Well, not ENTIRELY new. I've had some tremendous opportunities to explore Africa over the past four years. I am now totally in love with Ethiopia, as you all know. I'm even planning to adopt an Ethiopian child in the next 2 years. But this will be my first experience living overseas, chillin' with the expats in Gulu, Uganda.

But right now, I have to get myself ready to get the heck out of Dodge. If you could see how much stuff I still have to get done.....less than 24 hours before I get on a plane, you'd think it's impossible. But like I just said, NOTHING is impossible.

The next time I write, it'll be from Uganda. Can't wait!