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.

Friday, July 27, 2007

"Manage THIS..."

I'll say this much for myself....I can put together one HELL of a journalism training workshop.

It's Friday afternoon, and this has been one of the most exhilarating weeks of my entire life. I've always enjoyed leading this kind of training, but this was the first time I was TOTALLY in charge of the theme, the speakers, the program, EVERYTHING. As project director, the success or failure of the week rested completely on my shoulders, and there were times in the days leading up to the workshop when I just wanted to hop in the Land Cruiser, floor it all the way to Kampala, and fling myself across the nose of the next KLM plane back to Dulles.

Basically, I got fed up with having to make decisions. BIG decisions. Should we buy an electrical inverter, to replace the noisy, smelly generator? Where will we find hotel rooms for the Minister of Internal Affairs and his assistant, a Ugandan Army captain who could probably have me shot if I failed to meet his expectations? What am I going to do now that the man I hired to paint our sign and banner has turned out to be a lying, thieving half-wit?

And here is the biggest question of all: "When, oh WHEN am I just going to accept that I am in no way, shape or form management material??????"

I have never, EVER wanted to be somebody's boss. Perhaps that's why I never scaled the heights of corporate America, or rose through the ranks of some media conglomerate.
Power simply has never been a personal goal of mine, and recently, I've started
to wonder if maybe, when you drown out all my vows to help save the world, I'm just
a lazy, good-for-nothing, aging slacker.

I remember almost having a seizure when I heard that one of my former colleagues at the Detroit Free Press had become managing editor at some big midwestern newspaper....were both 39. At 39, I was freelancing, working part time for National Public Radio, and barely able to pay rent, having spent the past 4 years trying to launch the Child Wire News Service. I'd come up with this plan to create a news service that would be devoted exclusively to children's issues, and had gotten lots of good feedback about the idea. I even got a planning grant from a major foundation to develop a business plan for the concept.

Everybody LOVED the idea, but nobody was willing to write me a 2 million dollar check to make it happen. So I shelved the business plan and went back to freelancing and part-time at NPR. I was living in a basement apartment, under a family of people who I believe til this day must have all had wooden prosthetic legs. It was dark and cluttered and slightly musty in that basement apartment, and the last thing I needed to read about one afternoon was that a former colleague my very own age had just become a "MANAGING EDITOR."

A few months later, September 11th, 2001 happened. Three weeks later, I turned 40. It was about that time I made my most serious venture into the realm of cognitive behavioral therapy, because frankly, all I was able to do when I was not at NPR was inhale Hostess powered donuts and watch TV Land. I felt like such an abject loser.

And now, here I am 6 years later, a PROJECT MANAGER in Gulu, Uganda. I mean, it would be a Big Deal if anybody over here gave a fat rat's ass about that title. Over here, I'm just a mouthy, uptight, impatient black American witch.

At least that's what my assistant V. must think about me. I finally had to have "The Talk" with I've been dreading for weeks. V. is 34, pleasant, funny, a bit rough around the edges, but certainly a good person. But the poor woman has absolutely no short term memory. I ask her to do something for me, and then 10 minutes later, she has to be reminded what it was. Information just eludes her, po' thang. Now, in one way, I shouldn't really rag on her about it, because if they ever need a poster girl for the Early Alzheimer's Association, I'm available.

But when V. forgets something, I am ROYALLY screwed. In a gi-NORMOUS way. And it's happened way too many times since we've started working together. Now, I've spent lots of time debating with myself over whether I should say anything. In fact, I've agonized over conscience would be absolutely destroyed if I were to cause an African professional woman to lose her livelihood. And talk about the bad Karma I'd rack up....I'd probably wind up being reincarnated as a toilet seat at a gas station along the Kampala-Gulu Road, or something.

Still, I HAD to do it. So I called her into an office and shut the door. I started out with the old "Help ME help YOU do a better job" routine. Basically, I told her I needed to be able to depend on her to handle some of the administrative load around here....AND do it CORRECTLY. Did she need to write things down in a diary? Should I send her e-mails after every conversation we have? What was it that I could do to help her succeed, I queried?

She said I'm an uptight, impatient shrew who stresses her out. We hashed out a few other points, and then she started crying.

To my amazement, I was absolutely unmoved. At first, I thought maybe I'd start crying myself, or apologize profusely, or run around the desk to pat her shoulder. But I didn't feel like doing any of that. Actually, as she mopped her eyes, I had this strange sensation of power. I was a MANAGER, somebody who had to be standing foursquare wherever the buck stopped. I had to make sure the Minister of Internal Affairs had his coffee, and the generator had enough diesel fuel, and the reporter from Lira understood the difference between a feature story and a news story, and take the Land Cruiser in for service, and hire a "fixer" to travel with us to the Pagak IDP camp, and be sure that the snacks were there once we got back from the field, and pass out the per diems, and make sure one of the two guys who'd had to share a room finally got one of his own........

I could go on, and on, and on, and on, and on. But in that instant I could finally empathize with all of the worst bastards and fish-wives I've ever had for bosses, and it was weird, but intriguing. Sure, EVERY person who gets called on the carpet for poor performance feels bullied and victimized, I suppose. I know I've been called everything but a bald-headed child of God in some of my negative evaluations through the years.....even shed a few tears myself. But today, I finally understood what makes some managers capable of crushing an employee's fragile ego------at least the ones who don't make a sport of it every minute of every working day.

Basically, it happens when you have 24 hours to get a sign and a banner made for your government-funded workshop. You'll stop at nothing, pay any price, cuss out any lying, thieving half-wit weasel who dares impede your path. But yes...OH WILL have your sign and banner!

It's called POWER, people. Besides, V. finally pulled herself together. And we both acknowledged that most of our problems are culturally-based. When I say I need something done right now, I don't mean after you've had a cup of tea, taken a nap, and herded the goats. I need it within the next, say, 5 or 10 minutes. Ugandans simply don't share my same concept of time. Nor that of any other creature on the face of the Earth. But that's just who they are.

Language is still a problem, too. Half the time when somebody calls me, I can't figure out more than a word or two of what they're saying. I'm sorry, but this pseudo-British, formal, African toned speech pattern just ain't falling lightly on my ears. Of course, most Ugandans can't make head nor tail of what I'm saying, either.

I ended my meeting with V. by telling her I like her. A lot. I actually DO. I added that I was willing to do whatever I could to make our relationship work. I acknowledged my flaws, and said I'd try to be more patient and less tense. (Got valium, anyone?) And then I went right back out to the conference room to start editing reporters' scripts.

How I managed it, I'm still not sure.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Adoption Update....

The workshop is going really, really, REALLY well. I'll tell you all about it when I have a moment to decompress. But I just found out that the baby girl I was gearing myself up to meet, to see if maybe she was "my child," has yellow fever, and is not expected to live.

Is the Universe trying to tell me something? I sincerely hope not.


Saturday, July 21, 2007

I'm So Into ME.....

For the last 20 minutes, I've been in a daze. I don't know what I'm going to do. It's time to become a full-fledged, card-carrying grown up, and I'm paralyzed with fear.

This condition started a mere 3 days ago, while I was having lunch with the Education Secretary of the Gulu Independent School District. I'd first met Lillian Akech about a month ago, at the formal opening of the USAID Northern Uganda office. She was one of the first speakers at the ceremony, and I couldn't have NOT noticed her. She was wearing a gorgeous yellow gown with a matching headwrap, and she looked stunning! But then when she spoke, I REALLY noticed her....Lillian broke 'em off a little sumthin sumthin! She didn't care that the U.S. Ambassador to Uganda, or the Secretary of the Ministry of Justice were in the audience. She didn't care that the peace talks in Juba were still unfolding, and the political stance around the country is to be patient and diplomatic when speaking about the meetings.

Lillian lit into the crowd, and talked to the honored guests like they were all red-headed stepchildren! She basically admonished them, "Enough, already with the pomp and circumstance of the diplomatic process! The people in the IDP camps want to go home, and you need to get your collective acts together and make it happen."

I was blown away by her passion and frankness. So after she spoke, I wove my way through the crowd and introduced myself. I gave her my card, and I wrote her number on one of the handouts I'd picked up. Do I REALLY need to tell you that, of course, I lost that piece of paper?
The weeks since the office grand opening have been totally consumed with putting together Monday's workshop, but always in the back of my mind, I've been thinking, "I've got to meet with Lillian."

We finally got together on Thursday. She'd seemed like a much older woman when she spoke, but it turns out she's only 31. She has two kids, aged 4 and 2, and she's your average working mother, trying to juggle family and career. She told me the kids were in day care, and though she wasn't totally happy with the arrangement, it's the best she can do right now. I assured her that millions of American moms were in the same pickle.

Then she asked if I had kids. I told her no, but that I was thinking about adopting in the next few years. Lillian proceeded to tell me about the thousands of children in Uganda who've lost their parents, and how she used to work for this particular orphanage near Gulu. She asked what age range I was looking for, and I sheepishly told her 12 months or older...that way, I could still have the experience of raising a baby, but without as many middle of the night feedings!

I was just being my usually snarky self, but my rapier wit was lost on Lillian. She said I needed to adopt a newborn. A month old or so. She said it would allow me to fully bond with the baby. I agreed with her in theory, but I know myself far too well. I've finally been able to adjust to the hot flashes and mood swings enough to be able to sleep through the night....would I be boarding the Metroliner straight to Nervous Breakdownville if I tried to mother a bun that's fresh out of the oven???

We went round and round for a while, and then changed the subject. When I dropped Lillian off, she promised to take me to the orphanage to talk to the directors about adoption procedures in Uganda. I filed it away in the back of my cluttered head, thinking I'd start dealing with it in earnest, say, in October, when I was only 3 months from returning to the States.

Well, Lillian just called. I didn't see the caller ID, so I had no idea who was on the other end of the line saying, "I think I have found a baby for you. She is 2 weeks old, and her mother died. You come and see her."

Here was my response:

", Lillian, I don't quite know what to say....ummm.....I was thinking about looking into this in a few months, (gulp), um---well, ahhhhhh.......this is a shock...."

I know what she was thinking on her end. "Put up or shut up, bitch, You're the one who claimed you were so ready to be a mother....I'm trying to hook you up."

I am so dazed, I don't even know how I'm able to type this post. My blood literally went cold when she rang off. I panicked.....Lillian does not play. She will dog my every step until I go and see this tiny baby girl. She will heap rebukes upon my head if I weasel out of this. She'll think I'm a selfish American, all talk about helping out, but no action.

The thing is, I'm chock full of maternal instinct.....but am I ready to actually BE a mom??? As the title of this post suggests, I AM so into me. I can say it without shame....I love being able to do whatever the hell I want to do whenever the hell I want to do it. I long for my soulmate to appear, but I have a sinking suspicion that he got carjacked on the way to meeting me. I've struggled to accept the possibility that I may never marry, or even commit to a long-term relationship, but I'm comforted by the knowledge that I can eat cookies in bed whenever I want, or move to a war zone, or close the door to my apartment, snuggle up on the couch and watch Lifetime Movie Network until I sink into an hormonal frenzy.

Will I be able to do any of this if I had a baby? Would I have to think of somebody besides myself...not just as an abstract concept, or as a beloved godson or dear friend's baby? Am I really ready for this?

But what scares me the most is.....if I go to see her, will I be able to say no? One of my NPR co-workers, Deb, adopted a girl from Sierra Leone because the child came up to her while she was there producing a documentary, grabbed her hand, and said, "You will be my mother." Deb vowed that one day, my child would "find" me, too.

So once this daze subsides, I've got to figure out a way to either avoid meeting the little rug rat, or do a serious gutcheck and see if this is "my child." Forget about the fact that I don't have a home of my own established in DC, or that my finances could stand some work, or that I've never really shared my life with anyone.

I have to have the courage to at least go see this baby. I think. Or maybe I can get re-assigned to Tanzania. I'll sure as heck keep my mouth shut once I get there.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Stamp of Authenticity....

I am up to my ever-lovin’ eyeballs trying to get things ready for our very first Internews Journalism Training Workshop, which starts on Monday morning. However, I’m happy to announce that instead of feeling that tense, eye-popping pressure I usually endure when I’m in 11th hour crunch mode, I’m actually feeling really confident and relaxed. At the last minute, it seems like everything is falling neatly into place.

Sure, our laptops haven’t been installed yet, and probably won’t be until Sunday afternoon. My assistant Victoria is stuck in Kampala, trying to elude the extortion demand from the Uganda Revenue Authority, which wants us to pay 1,678,500 shillings before they’ll release the computer editing software we ordered from the US. (Okay, though that sounds like a lot, it’s only $1,022 USD. But heck, we paid $1,750 dollars for it; why should we pay 2/3rds of that in so-called “shipping taxes”??? Oh, I forgot…I’m dealing with Bureaucracy, African Style.)

Those are just a couple of the nail biters I’m juggling until Monday morning. But all of a sudden, I’m not feeling stressed out about anything. And it has nothing to do with my good friend Johnny Walker Blue’s influence, or the locally-made demon hooch called Waragyi (gin distilled from bananas…it’s so nutritious!). And I HOPE I’m not lapsing into a malaria-induced fugue. I’m calm because I’ve finally “adjusted to the new reality.” That’s what someone in Kampala advised me to do last week….instead of being constantly frustrated by the way things DON'T get accomplished in Uganda, he said I needed to accept that this is just LIFE in Uganda. To wit: If something you ordered arrives on time, great. But the reality is that it probably won’t. So don’t set yourself up for a stroke….just roll with the flow of events.

That goes totally against my inherent craving for instant gratification, but I’ve actually started adopting that attitude. Hey, if we have functioning laptops and software for the workshop Monday morning, FANTASTIC. If not, we’ll do something else. I have no idea what that might BE at this point in time, but I know we’ll do something. There may be no electricity or Internet access, either. No problemo.

Anyway, I wanted to take a few minutes to share something that happened today, something that makes every second of stress and frustration I’ve experienced in the past month and a half worthwhile. It happened when our housekeeper, Pamela, took me to a local tailor’s to put the finishing touches on some curtains I’d had made. Pamela has to be the most centered, competent person I’ve ever met. She just gets the job done, no matter what it is. Nobody has ever ironed my tee shirts before, and sister can throw down with some chicken, carrots, zucchini, green beans, tomatoes and spices. She hooked up a stew last week that would make a bulldog break his chain.

So we’re sitting across from this elderly gent named Olubo. He’s been tailoring in Gulu since 1959, with a sewing machine so old, it was probably first used by some colonialist with the Dutch East India Trading Company. Olubo’s wrinkled face was leathery and burnished mahogany by decades of sitting in the sun. Pamela explained to him what we wanted to have done in the local language, Luo. Then Olubo told us what HE was going to do. I just smiled and nodded, 'cause old bro’ looked like he would take me out with one blow if I’d dared to object.

After a while he looked directly at me and said, “You are welcome.” I thanked him. He asked where I was from, and I replied, “Washington, DC.” He said, “Ah, America.” Then he paused, and declared, “You are home now.”

My heart almost burst with pride and gratitude. After weeks of being gawked at like an alien, a wise Gulu elder had looked at me and proclaimed that I was home. I belonged to Africa. So it doesn’t matter if the workshop doesn’t come off without a hitch, or if the mosquitoes keep tormenting me, or if the goat chops I ordered at Bambu show up an hour late.

Today, I found out that I am “real-er than real deal Holyfield.” I am home.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

A Clothes Call.....

My friend Debbie e-mailed recently to say she’s coming to Uganda with a group of doctors for several weeks in October. They’ll be spending most of their time in Kampala, with maybe a side trip to Kenya. I told her I’d be running a workshop during the time she was here, but welcomed her to come up to Gulu.

Now, I know she’s been reading the blog, and I half expected her to come up with a reason to decline a side trip up north. Life in Gulu ain’t no joke. Even though I’m actually adjusting quite nicely, and adoring the quiet, cool evenings and tranquil mornings, I retain a vague memory of what life was like before Gulu. This outpost is definitely NOT for the faint of heart.

But Debbie’s response was enthusiastic and really quite heartening…not only did she want to come up to Gulu and sit in on one of my workshops, she was also keen on visiting some refugee camps! I’ll probably have several visitors while I’m here, including my “heart friend” Katherine, who’s already looked into Northwest/KLM flights into Entebbe, and my sister Marilyn and her husband John, who’s really excited about going on his first safari. I figure I’ll take them to Murchison Falls, which I hear has absolutely breathtaking views of the Nile to go along with the wildlife tours.

Still, I doubt many of my visitors will want to visit refugee camps, and I can totally understand that. I toured another camp yesterday, but this time, the sight of children playing didn’t make me feel happy or hopeful. Like I wrote the other day, the squalor, destitution, and disease-inducing conditions at these camps are like nothing you could possibly even imagine. Yesterday, I really DID feel like crying.

There was something else I noticed this time, and it’s been disturbing me ever since. So many of the children running around Pagak camp were naked. Just like during my earlier trip, their little bodies were covered with dirt and mud. But at some of the other camps, at least they wore clothes, even if they were rags. Yesterday, most of the children under 6 were naked, or maybe wearing just a tattered shirt or shorts. Definitely most of the toddlers were nude. No diapers, no socks, no teeny little tee shirts or panties. It just broke my heart.

Mind you, these aren’t some primitive people whose culture shuns clothing; I’m not talking your basic 1920’s National Geographic stereotype of what African natives are like. The children in the Pagak Internally Displaced Persons camp were naked because their families had fled from rebels wielding machetes, taking only what they wore on their backs. Those children had lost parents, sisters, uncles, cousins, and they were struggling every second to survive. Their families had probably had simple, peaceful lives in their villages. Heck, I’m sure they at least had clothes. But now they have nothing but time to wait for monthly shipments of maize meal from the World Food Programme….and for the government to help make returning home possible.

So when Debbie asked if she could bring extra suitcases filled with clothes, I was touched. My friends Simone and Kelley had asked me the same thing before I left, but I was so rushed, I never got around to taking them up on it. Now I desperately wish I had. So after I read Debbie’s e-mail, I thought, “why not?” I know it might be a bit of a burden for friends to lug extra suitcases when they visit, not to mention the excess baggage costs. But now I know without a doubt that whatever they bring is truly needed—and would be greatly appreciated—by the children of Pagak.

So I’m turning this posting into a plea. If you know anyone with old clothing for children aged 10 and under, gather up as much of it as you can, pack it in a box and send it to me in Gulu. Now, I must warn you….it’ll take a while to get here. My sister Julie sent me care packages in early June that just arrived this past Monday. But whenever they get here, I’ll take them with me every time I visit an IDP camp. You’ll be doing God’s work if you help out.

You can send clothes to me at P.O, Box 811, Gulu, Uganda. And because even when I'm helping others, the bottom line is still all about moi, throw in a couple of bottles of Avon Skin So Soft, if you can find it. Several people over here SWEAR it keeps them totally bug free. I figure my generally bitchy attitude would lighten up immensely if I could spend just a few minutes over here NOT being tormented by skeeters.

But hey, do NOT get me started........

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Whine and Cheese?

I am writing this post from the patio of the Speke Hotel in Kampala. It’s one of the nicer establishments in town for business travelers. I’m here for five days meeting with my “bosses” at the U.S. Embassy….in between sitting in behemoth traffic jams.

I’m actually staying at the Mosa Court Hotel, which is about 5 blocks away from the Speke. But the Speke is a mite too expensive for Internews’s blood, so I just trot on down here every chance I get to eat the better food and steal Internet access through their wireless hotspot.

Bluntly put, It is a jumbo, super-sized relief to be away from Gulu. Don’t get me wrong….Kampala has its challenges, too. While I counted the seconds until I could board the Eagle Air flight down here, it felt kind of ironic that I was desperate for the city lights of Kampala. It’s still a loooooooong way from DC, or New York, or Ottumwa, Iowa, for that matter. But at least there’s hot water here, and fresh herbs.

Anyway, I’ve been sitting here for about almost 2 hours now, and most of that time has been spent trying to order garlic bread. Most of last month, I obsessed about the spaghetti carbonara I’d had during my first stay at the Speke in early June. So naturally I came here first to launch my long-awaited five-day gastronomic orgy. I mean, eating foods with complex, layered flavoring has become a spiritual rite for me. After a month in Gulu, if I see another fried whole tilapia looking up at me from a bed of bland rice, I’m gonna barf up one of my lungs. Some decadently rich Italian food from Pizzeria Mamma Mia was just the remedy I craved to help me get through another month up north.

So, I’m sitting on the patio of the Speke checking my e-mails, and after about 15 minutes, a young lady comes over to take my order. I’ve long since given up hope that restaurant servers in Uganda—even in Kampala—understand more than minimal English. But she DID understand my request for red wine…..and I had two choices. No, not between a sassy little chianti or an piquant merlot. Sweet or Dry would be my poison. I chose sweet.

20 minutes later, she came back to say there was no more sweet. So I ordered dry. 20 minutes later, she came back with the dry wine. It was filled to almost overflowing, so that definitely made up for the wait. But then, I started to wonder if I would ever see my carbonara with garlic toast. The spaghetti finally showed up, but no garlic toast. Thus began the series of interpretive dances required to get the young lady to understand what I had ordered. She finally nodded and hurried off.

She came back with two slices from what had to be the most big-assed loaf of bread ever baked, slightly grilled, with a dollop of butter in the center that would have instantly sent me into cardiac arrest if I’d tried to consume a fourth of it. More interpretive dancing, with some wild hand gestures thrown in, to get her to envision what garlic bread actually looks like. Off she went again.

20 minutes later, she came back with a round of lightly-toasted thin crust pizza, no tomato sauce, just chunks of garlic and some seasonings on top. I threw up my hands like the “Home Alone Kid,” and just started laughing my head off. She beamed, pleased that she had made me so happy. I didn’t have the heart, or the emotional energy, to send it back. And my carbonara is ice cold now, anyway.

Now, I know I sound like the typical spoiled American tourist here. After all, I spent last Saturday touring refugee camps, for God’s sake, and now I’m sitting at a nice restaurant moaning about not being able to get garlic bread. It has me wondering if maybe I’m really NOT the black Angelina Jolie after all. (Granted, all we have in common are big lips….oh, and nothing but lust for Brad Pitt.) I’ve spent the last decade declaring that my purpose in life is to write about poverty and children’s issues, to try and make a difference in this world. But it feels like all I’m doing these days is whining because there’s no cilantro for my makeshift guacamole back in Gulu.

And here’s another reason I’m starting to question myself. My best friend in the whole wide world, Faith, read my last post and thought I sounded rather “holier than thou” when I described the children in the refugee camp as “filthy.” Trust me, it’s an accurate description, because they were all covered from head to toe with the silt-like dirt that abound in the area. As I said in the post, their ragged clothing was literally falling off their bony little arms, weighed down by dirt and grime. I wanted to gather them all up, and lead them to a big tin washtub like the ones I used to bathe in when I was a kid, and use about 2,000 gallons of Johnson’s baby shampoo and Ivory soap on their precious little bodies. Then we’d all head to Target, and I’d buy them the coolest, hippest clothes ever….before we headed to Whole Foods for tandoori chicken wraps and cous cous…..

But I digress. My best friend Faith thought my use of the word “filthy” was condescending. (Never mind that I have known this woman since September of 1979, when I showed up at Northwestern University with 2 plastic suitcases and $69 in my pocket. She knows good and danged well I’m not an elitist snob….unless it’s about the merits of French wine versus Californian.) Faith suggested grimy, or grubby would have been more appropriate.

From my point of view as a writer, using the word filthy packed more of an emotional punch…..I thought it was more “in your face” than grubby. But maybe, just maybe, the snide American shrew in me was starting to affect the way I see people and places here in Uganda. Maybe my urgent craving for fast service, fresh herbs, hot water was turning me into an impatient, shallow, condescending Imperialist.

I don’t know. Feel free to weigh in on this. Tell me if the snark quotient in these postings is getting a bit redundant and overbearing. Or just tell me flat out that I shouldn’t have brought my “ig’nint” arse over here if I expected things to be exactly like what I voluntarily left behind. I can take it that kind of criticism, and maybe I NEED to take it.

I’m about to pack up and head on back to the Mosa Court. And here’s the thing….this time, my room there is about 100 percent better than the room I stayed in last month! There’s even a shower curtain! So what the heck am I complaining about, anyway? It just goes to show you what perimenopause can do to person’s perspective. I mean, I’m taking every opportunity I can get to be a total Crabby Appleton these days, and I gotta get a grip on myself. I gotta keep things in proper perspective.

Help me out, here, people.

Saturday, July 7, 2007

Lucky Me........

Several people have asked me why I call myself the African American, female Larry David. Clearly, they have never seen the horrifyingly funny HBO series, “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” It’s brilliant, and it makes me squirm every time I watch it, because the show’s character Larry David, based on the real “Seinfeld” creator Larry David, is possibly the biggest schmuck who ever lived.

But even though he’s a colossal super grande schmuck, you have to pity him for the situations he winds up having to fight, sweet talk, or grovel his way out of. It’s exquisitely painful viewing, and I always finish every show thinking, “Well, I’ve screwed some stuff up in my days, but I’ve NEVER been that much of ass.” I figure Larry’s performing a vital public service for thousands of his fellow neurotics.

Anyway, I’ve been thinking about Larry a lot recently, because for me, almost every day in Gulu eventually ends up like an episode of “Curb.” At LEAST once a day I find myself in some difficult situation that I have to fight, sweet talk, or grovel my way out of. I mean, I am trapped in a huge, menacing, seemingly endless maze of absurdity these days. But I’m also grateful for my finely-honed sarcasm and deeply warped sense of humor, because along with gin, they are the mainstays of my coping mechanism in Gulu.

Here’s a perfect example. I’ve been reading a bunch of stories online about how people around the world are considering today, 7/7/07, some celestially-endowed lucky day. People are galloping to churches and synagogues to get married, thinking that the alleged “good luck” of the three 7’s will guarantee them a long, happy marriage. (I can almost guarantee divorce for any couple stupid enough to believe that getting married today will counter the harsh realities of love handles, a bad case of the flu, destructive vices, infidelities, and other potential hazards that lurk along the path through matrimony.)

Restaurants are offering special romantic dinners to help people mark the fortuitous occasion, and nightclubs are throwing wild, borderline orgies inviting singles to drop by and maybe “get lucky.” (Most will be lucky if they don’t contract a particularly virulent strain of STD.) In short, people everywhere are spending all of today basking in a media-manufactured sense of hope that 7/7/07 will be chock full of good tidings.

And what did Princess Rachella wind up doing on July 7, 2007? Take a wild guess. Get even wilder if you want (just as long as your guess doesn’t involve sex because frankly, it’s been so long, I’ve forgotten how to do it). Give up yet? Okay, here it comes….

I spent all day touring refugee camps near Gulu.

Let me diagram all the lucky things that happened to me so far today. I did NOT get ambushed by rebels! I was able to suspend my bodily functions so that I didn’t have use a toilet or anything vaguely resembling one. Our vehicle did not collide with a 900 pound steer. I did NOT get my heart ripped right out of my chest and stomped on viewing the conditions that hundreds of thousands of people in Northern Uganda must endure while the government and the militants finish having their jamboree-slash-peace talks.

Best of all, I did NOT spend most of the day choking back sobs when I saw the scores of children, hungry, traumatized, filthy little children, many of whom have lost their parents, and who must battle gargantuan challenges every second of every day to keep safe, free from sexual exploitation, and even borderline sane. That was the luckiest break of all.

After all, I’d spent most of yesterday dreading my impromptu tour. As a journalist, I was obviously intrigued and even excited about the chance to bear witness to one of the worst humanitarian crises in modern history. (And PLEASE don’t worry, dear family and friends….I traveled with a highly-secure UN convoy. Lucky day or no, armored trucks and burly guards are always the smart way to go in these types of situations.)

I was convinced the experience would haunt me, possibly for weeks. I didn’t think there was enough gin in the world to erase some of the images I expected to see. I am a VERY strong woman, but my heart can only sustain so many profoundly sad psychic blows in one lifetime.

But now I’m sitting here writing about today, and I actually almost feel happy. And you know why? It’s because of those hungry, traumatized, filthy little children. If you can believe it, even in the midst of the devastation and horror 20 years of rebel warfare have left in their wake, those children were laughing, playing, tussling, and waving at the visitors with the biggest, brightest smiles you ever saw. They had the will to play around the informal graves their families had dug right outside the crude straw-thatched huts they lived in. Their clothes, when they had them, were literally falling off their backs, weighed down by filth, and yet they smiled and waved and posed for the camera. There were little girls as young as 3 carrying infants on their backs, and yet they laughed and did their chores and they looked so much

I kept looking for reasons to weep, and on the one hand, there were plenty. There’s no way to describe the level of primitive, destitute, disease-inducing conditions the 24,000 people living in the Amuru Internally Displaced Persons camp live in, so I won’t even try. But when I looked at the children, I didn’t want to cry. I actually laughed and played with them. I felt hopeful. I was deeply humbled by the tremendous power of the human spirit, their will to survive, their ability to adapt, their belief that even amidst all of that squalor and death and hopelessness, there was still a reason to play.

So, on July 7th, 2007, y’all out there in the Developed World go ahead and play Powerball for me, or go out to one of those Triple 7 happy hours and swill a few for me. (Make sure you ask for extra ice….I haven’t had any ice since I set foot in Gulu. Ice is nice. Mmmmm.) No matter what happens to YOU, bet I’m luckier than anybody who reads this post. Today, I got to meet the strongest, most dignified, awe-inspiring people who’ve ever lived, and most of them were younger than 12 years old.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

God Bless America

Somebody’s gon’ get called out their name today. I am about ready to set it OFF up in this village!

Remember when I said that to survive in Gulu, you have to expect, even embrace the fact that no matter how much you try to plan ahead, something will go wrong? Well, EVERYTHING has gone wrong these past few days, and you can stick a fork in me, ‘cuz I am DONE.

I never thought I would miss the surly, slack-jawed expressions on the face of the average American teenager standing behind a fast food or grocery counter, but I do. I’d like to grab one of those young slackers and give him or her a big wet kiss on the cheek. Because at their worst, they’re better than the people who aim to “serve” at some of just the finest establishments in Gulu.

Actually, most people aren’t really surly or rude, they’re lethargic. Borderline comatose. Granted, sometimes they don’t speak English, so that part I understand and am patient about. But the kid sitting down behind the MTN phone service counter today spoke perfect English, and knew exactly what I was asking about. But he answered my every question with the most opaque, bottomless stare I have ever seen. He mumbled something about a certain “Kenneth” being on the road from Kampala, and that he would be able to help me with my problem.

“So, when is Kenneth expected?” I asked.

Baleful stare. “He is on the road.”

“That doesn’t tell me very much. When will he get here?”

“He is on the road.” Another baleful gaze, and then he turned away from me to talk to somebody else.

Aw, sookie SOOKIE, now! Homey just opened up a can of whoop ass up in this joint! I walked in front of the man he was talking to, bent down so we were looking eye to eye, and I said in my crispest, coldest, “I will slap the TASTE out yo’ mouth” voice,

“Please don’t ignore me when I’m talking to you. I was here first, and I’m not finished.” Spoken like a true-blue, grown-assed, middle-aged black American woman who can act a pure-dee FOOL when the occasion calls for it.

Both guys were visibly shocked. I just know they were thinking that a couple of decades ago, they could have beaten the crap out of me for such impertinence, and gotten off scot free. But the way I felt, if they’d tried something, I’d have pulled out an eye or two before the fight was over. DC is in the HIZ-ouse, y’all, and I was about to go straight-up Chocolate City on those muthas!

I’m back home now, and the phone service still isn’t working, and I’ll have to go back into town later to see if the elusive Kenneth has arrived from Kampala. The guy who’s supposed to be installing the computers in our office just called to say that after 3 weeks of waiting, he STILL hasn’t received his wire payment, thanks to the mysteries of the Ugandan banking system. The mosquitoes are still biting the ever lovin’ shit out of me, and I’m sitting on my bed eating the Gulu equivalent of a ham sandwich. (I believe the local name for this lunch entrĂ©e is the “Trichinosis Special.”) And I’m thinking about all the barbecues and fireworks and cold beer being enjoyed back in the good old U S of A, and I’m asking myself, ‘

“What the F*&# was I thinking about coming over here?”

I know for certain that this, too, shall pass. But tomorrow marks my one-month anniversary in Gulu, and I don’t feel like celebrating. I want a slightly charred hot dog, for Christ’s sake!

All this is to say that I love to travel, and this is an amazing experience for me to be having, but thank GOD I hold an American passport. As much as I think Dulles Airport sucks, it will be the most beautiful sight I’ve seen in months the next time I touch down there. America really IS the coolest country in the world, warts and all.

So Happy Fourth of July to all the lucky Capitalist Running Dogs reading this post. Save a barbecued chicken leg for me. Just hold the growth hormones; I’m starting to like this organic, free range poultry over here.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Ugandan Oreo

In this post, I have to make my first major correction. (Even literary geniuses mess up sometimes.) In an earlier missive, I complained that the people of Gulu would never view me as one of their own, and would always think of me as a “muzungu” or foreigner. Well, first off, I spelled it wrong. It’s “mzungu.” And second, mzungu doesn't mean foreigner, per se. Its specific meaning is “white person.”

That means I’m not actually a mzungu, I just play one on the streets of Gulu. That's because whenever I speak to people on the phone, before they actually meet me, they've assumed I was white. But I should be used to it by now….I’ve been accused of “acting white” from the first time I set foot in a public school classroom. Through the years, I’ve written frequently about this curious phenomenon. In many urban US communities, when an African American speaks clear, articulate, grammatically-correct Standard English, people accuse them of “acting white.” MY bottom line? Sounding like you have some sense is NOT the sole purview of white people.

I talk like I talk because my mother, Eloise, talked that way. She was born near Augusta, Georgia in 1926, but she was raised in Pennsylvania. Her lazy Southern drawl got wiped out pretty quickly. And plus, Mama was a genius. Certified. She was the eldest of nine children, and had to help her mother raise all the young ‘uns. But she was always near the top of the class in school.

In fact, when she was in high school, Mama logged an IQ score in the 160’s. One of her teachers, a white man who noticed her smarts and was supportive, went to my grandma Stella Jane’s house to convince her that Mama needed to go college. I’m sure he would have helped her get scholarships, or WHATEVER it took to get the smartest girl in his class (and one of few black kids in the entire school) into college somewhere.

My crazy-assed grandmother shooed him off the porch with a shotgun. Eloise wasn’t goin’ NOWHERE, because Stella needed her to help with the other kids.

Sometimes, I think about that moment and wonder. Obviously, if grandma had been a different person, somebody who was able to put her own needs aside to help her daughter do better in life, I probably wouldn’t be sitting here in a cottage on Samuel Doe Road in Gulu Town, Northern Uganda. I’ve always known that my mother should have been a lawyer, or a journalist, or a college professor. Eloise could dice you like a carrot with words…we ALL inherited a deeply-ingrained sense of sarcasm from Mama.

I mean, sarcastic remarks fall out of my mouth like broken teeth. It’s my automatic default response, to say something smart-assed. Like last night, we were sitting at Bambu restaurant listening to a local musician playing his African lyre. One of his songs was about a young married couple, deeply in love, who start having problems after the birth of their first child.Apparently, Pops couldn’t handle the baby crying at all hours of the night.

Now, it was a beautiful, cool African night, with a huge Harvest moon in clear view as we sat on the verandah at Bambu. I had just had a massage, and was feeling totally relaxed and at one with the world. We’re all just chillin', right? But the very second the guy finished explaining what the song was about, before he could even start playing the instrument, I snapped,

“Humph. Daddy shoulda thought about THAT 11 months ago, when he was gettin’ his groove on.” Everybody laughed, but I was actually embarrassed by how totally inappropriate that comment was....and how there was no way in the world I could have stopped myself from saying it.

Anyway, that’s an example of just one of the personality traits the 10 Jones siblings inherited from our mother. The others include: love of reading, storytelling prowess, a loud, long laugh, a penchant for turnip and mustard greens cooked together, the inherent power of attraction that makes absolute strangers walk up to us and unspool their entire life stories, and OCD, among other quirks.

What I’m trying to explain here is that my mother was a flippin’ GENIUS, and had she been born 40 years later, let’s say, 1961--when I was born--her mind would have taken her all over the world….hell, all over the UNIVERSE. But Mama got married at 19, had 10 kids, worked hard all her life, and died at 79.

So I’m thinkin’ about Mama tonight here in the cottage. I’m here with my assistant, Victoria, and another colleague, Jackie. Victoria is a bubbly Ugandan woman, as sweet as she can be. She's a bit TOO enthusiastic at much so that I’m tempted to roll up a newspaper and smack her over the nose to make baby girl to chill out. Jackie is a British consultant, and directs another humanitarian project that trains journalists. Internews will be sharing offices in Gulu with her group.

Okay, here's the big confession--I thought Jackie was white before I met her! Most of the British aid workers in Gulu are white, and so when I heard her posh English accent on the phone, I just automatically assumed. So when I pulled up to the airstrip in my Land Cruiser to pick her up, I was surprised to meet a black woman. Just like me.

We’re all sitting in the dining/living room area now, Jackie and me plugging away on our laptops, sending e-mails to the four corners of the Earth, and Victoria logging our expenses on her PC, while the generator rumbles outside in the yard. And something just thumped me right in the gut… we are, three women of African descent, from 3 different continents, sitting in a cottage in Northern Uganda, sallying forth on the Information Superhighway, handlin’ our bizness, doin’ it TO it.

What a moment in time, what a juncture in history.

Mama would probably say, “So, what do you want, a standing ovation?” Well, maybe I do, and I would accept it in HER name. I’m living the life Eloise might have lived, if Stella Jane could have somehow managed to believe that one day, one of her grandchildren would be doing what I’m doing right at this very second.

Here's to you, Mama.