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.
Thursday, August 30, 2007
Cut me some slack, okay? I mean, if the United States Congress can take most of the summer off, and one of its members can spend part of that time tapping other men’s shoes in airport bathrooms, can’t I at least take a few weeks off to finish the process of resigning myself to my feckless fate in Gulu?
Anyway, I’m back in the Internews groove, smack dab in the middle of our second workshop. But before I tell you about it, I have to say Nairobi has the most totally “off the hook” shopping on the entire continent. In the Masai Market, or the Ya Ya Market, you could furnish your entire house with the money you spend on one piece of African art in the U.S. The crafts are absolutely beautiful…..the beaded jewelry, cloth, carvings, baskets, artwork, sandals….you could lose your damn mind. I know I did.
Now, I am not only back in Northern Uganda, I am in WAAAAAY Northern Uganda, 5 hours north of Gulu in a small town called Arua. Arua is about a stone’s throw from the Democratic Republic of Congo, or DRC as it’s commonly called. (I like to think that acronym stands for “Death Rules Constantly”; Congolese rebels make the LRA look like your local Boy Scout troop.) A recent UN report described Gender-Based Violence in the DRC as “beyond extreme.” I won’t reveal the gruesome details, but they are truly horrific.
Which makes it appropriate that I’m here in Arua for a workshop on Gender-Based Violence. Actually, I’m getting to take it pretty easy this week, because Internews brought in an expert GBV trainer from London named Karen. Girlfriend knows her stuff backwards and forwards; I’ve learned more about GBV in the past three days than I had in the past decade. It’s journalistically fascinating, but humanistically depressing.
In Africa, GBV isn’t a sociological phenomena---it’s called everyday life. When a man can “buy” you for the price of 5 cows and 5 goats, you best believe he’s not going to wind up putting you on a pedestal. When a man can have a couple of other wives, and a myriad “girlfriends” on the side, you’re exposed to the “violent” threat of HIV every day. And when beatings are the culturally-sanctioned way to “control” your wife, it makes being female in Africa a literal disability.
As an African-American woman, I hear these facts, but my mind simply refuses to fully grasp the reality. Put simply, I come from a long-line of mentally unstable women on my mother’s side who wielded baseball bats like other women carry purses. My grandmother, Stella Jane Blocker, used to regularly stalk Grandpa Ben at the various juke joints he liked to hang out in. When he finished his debauchery, he would head home….or at least to SOMEBODY’S home, usually the skank he had picked up at the bar. But by the time Stella got through raining blows on both of their heads with the bat, tree limb, or whatever else she could get her hands on, it was “Game Over” for the adulterous duo.
Now, I’m not condoning Violence Against Men as the solution to the GBV pandemic. Violence breeds violence, and it continues generation after generation after generation. It’s sadistic, and it’s inhuman. But the man who raises a fist to hit me had better be prepared to kill me, ‘cause if I'm still breathing when he’s through, my life’s mission would focus on devising the most painful way to take him out. Homey would wind up begging me to just dump some hot grits on him and get it over with by the time I finished with him.
And puh-LEEZE let a Negro step to me talking about taking another wife. I would calmly respond that while he’s browsing, he better look for another LIFE, because I would shank his ass the minute they stepped over my threshold. Bottom line? I DO NOT PLAY THAT SHIT.
That’s probably also part of the reason I’m still single. But while I’m mostly joking, the fact that I can even conceive of that kind of behavior is a uniquely American thing. Or maybe a developed countries thing. Because some African women, even educated ones who’ve traveled and advocate women’s empowerment, still accept cultural norms that allow men to rule over women. One woman I’ve met, an extremely successful entrepreneur who owns several radio stations, didn’t blink an eye while telling me she had 70 siblings from her father’s six wives. (Of course, girlfriend was married to a British dude, so I guess she had decided to “stop the madness” from her end.)
I hope I’m around when African women….in fact women all over the damned world….realize they don’t have to accept abuse and domination. If the collective female consciousness suddenly rejected oppression and went straight up “Norma Rae” on brutal patriarchal cultures, this world would be dramatically different.
Personally, I think if Hillary Clinton is elected President, that process will begin. This is NOT a paid political announcement, but I think the symbolism of a woman running the most powerful nation in the world would ignite a tremendous catalyst for change.
Sure, there are those of you who might be thinking, “Wait a minute…Hillary put up with Bill’s indiscriminate bonking for decades. How does that make her a strong, no-nonsense female role model?” My response is, “Get over it, people.” Ask Larry Craig’s wife how she put up with her husband tapping other men’s feet in airport bathrooms for so many decades, while he fronted as this macho Idaho Senator. Sure, Hillary took a lot of crap, but she had a bigger goal in mind.
I totally hope she reaches it.
Monday, August 6, 2007
Once again, all I could offer was a big hug. Oh, and some money to help bury him. She wasn't going to say anything until my assitant V. pressed her about it. Then I jumped in, insisting that she tell me how much she needed.
Having been involved in a few funerals myself in recent years, I expected to hear a substantial amount. It's OBSCENE how much funerals cost in America. But whatever she needed, I was ready to help.
Between sobs, Pamela whispered, "50,000." That's about 30 US dollars. What I'd pay for a decent meal and a glass of wine in DC.
I'm so honored that she allowed me to help. And I'm just so very sad, too. But what is it they say....."Life Goes On"????
Next time I write, it'll be from Kampala. I'm heading down again this afternoon at 2:30, on good old Eagle Air. Then, on August 8th, I fly to Nairobi, for a week's worth of Internews regional meetings. I'm taking "Dreams of My Father" with me to read while I'm there.....it'll be kind of cool to read Barack Obama's life story while I'm in Kenya.
I must be some sort of praise junkie, because I still feel all warm and tingly thinking about our closing dinner last Sunday night. I decided we’d just have a casual ceremony at the Acholi Inn, without a lot of pomp and such. I asked each reporter to stand and share the most important thing they’d gotten from the workshop.
The comments were fairly uniform, but extremely touching. One man said he would go back a totally different kind of reporter, one who approached his work more critically and professionally. Several people said they’d been to more than 30 prior workshops, but this was the first time anyone had expected them to work so hard, to push themselves. One guy said it felt like the first time anybody “cared” whether they got better or not.
There was only one point when I almost lost it. That’s when a young woman named Tracy stood up. Now, I know I’m always waxing poetic about seeing myself in the people of Africa, but Tracy really DOES look like me….at least, the me of 20 years and 40 pounds ago. I used to be that skinny, and so serious, so ramrod straight whenever I had to stand and speak before a group of people.
Tracy started off by saying, “My family wonders why I’m here today.” That’s because she had buried one of her beloved sisters the day before. I’ll never forget the numb, solemn expression on her face when she’d approached me on Thursday and asked if we could talk privately. Then Tracy told me that her sister had died, and asked to be excused so she could accompany the body back home to their village.
All I could do was grab the poor child and hug her. It was heartbreaking watching Tracy struggle to stay composed. I told her not to worry about coming back to the workshop…there’d be many others. She’d said she wanted to try and come back on Sunday, but I told her ONLY if she was up for it. I said she should in NO WAY feel like it was expected of her.
Sure enough, Tracy showed up Sunday morning, stoic, ramrod straight, her oval face just as solemn as ever. She sat quietly in the back row, adding a comment or two, but mostly watching. I learned later that day that her sister had swallowed a handful of pills. She was her husband's second wife, and Wife #1 was making her life miserable. That explained the numbness and shock, the kind of fog Tracy seemed to be in. I could relate. Until the day I die, I will never get over the fact that my own brother David, the Jones family icon, decided to go to sleep one day and never wake up. And I will never get over the guilt that he didn’t think he could turn to his family for help and support, rather than attach a hose to the exhaust pipe of his car and run it through the back seat, with the windows rolled up tightly.
Oh, well. After describing her family’s concerns, Tracy said she told them she had to be at the last day of the training because “this is my life. Let me come and learn from this workshop. I need to be there.”
Witnessing Tracy’s poise, born of numbness and shock, I wanted to weep. But I held it together. And then ANOTHER guy stood up and said I had acted like a mother toward the reporters. I had made the training a safe environment where they could fail and then keep on trying. Verily, the tears were ready to roll, but somehow I STILL kept it together.
So I guess I’m a mom even when I’m not trying to be one. I thought I was being tough, making them do things over and over, nudging them to aim for better than just good. Put bluntly, I thought I was being a hard-charging bitch. But they saw me as a motherly figure.
Okay, God. If this is the only way I get to be a mother, I’ll take it. It feels really, really great.
Friday, August 3, 2007
That makes me just old enough to appreciate the absolutely astonishing situation I find myself in. In fact, I think it has cured my technophobia completely. You see, I'm sitting on a couch in the Lira Hotel, about 3 hours from Gulu. Our technical director, Akiki, and I have spent the past few days in Lira and Kitgum, doing some follow up work with the journalists who attended the workshop.
I won't mince words...Kitgum sucks ass. It makes Gulu look like Santa Monica, and that is virtually impossible. But Lira is kind of funky cool, in a way. It's certainly a lot busier than Gulu, with a livelier market scene and more organized businesses. I immediately liked the vibe in Lira...but a day in Kitgum is all I'll ever need to experience in the entire rest of my life.
Anyway, I'm sprawled on a couch in the lobby of the Lira Hotel, one of the finer establishments in town. In Northern Uganda, "finer establishment" means there are no bodily fluids on the mosquito netting, and you won't die from the hideous, pus-dripping skin condition you'll develop if you use the shower without your own personal flip-flops. My little room here looks like it was a Catholic school dorm at one point, and it certainly makes me fervently pray I'll live through the night so I can get back to my comfy, cozy cottage on Plot 26, Samuel Doe Road, Gulu, Uganda.
For the past 15 minutes, the power has been off at the Lira Hotel. I'm not just talking dark up in this joint, I'm talking so pitch black, you couldn't see your finger if you used it to gouge your eye out with. Oddly enough, after an initial "Oooooh", other people in the lobby and the nearby restaurant resumed their conversations, kept eating, acted like nothing had happened. I'm kinda used to these situations by now, myself. The only light within a 100 yard radius is beaming from the screen of my Compaq Presario V6000 laptop computer.
And I'm online. I bought one of those portable external modems from one of the local phone companies, and figured out how to get the thing working all by my little old self. So while other folks are thrashing around in the dark, I'm chillin like a villain on this surprisingly comfortable leather couch, catching up on e-mails and such.
I'm sorry, but I have morphed into one extremely bad-assed technophile, if I DO say so myself....
Wednesday, August 1, 2007
I should have known it was a migraine from the get-go, what with all the pent-up stress,
long hours, lousy diet and frustration of putting the workshop together. But for about a New York minute, I thought I had malaria. My new “brother from another mother,” a British photojournalist named Euan, got me started on THAT whole line of thinking. I call Euan my
new brother because we clicked like pals immediately. He was impressed that I figured out
he was of Scottish descent (Hel-LO??? Dude, the name “Euan” was, like, a TOTAL giveaway.) I’m impressed by his pluck. Euan has to be the pluckiest young freelancer I've ever met. I mean, he'll hitch a ride on the back of a banana truck headed to the Sudan in a heartbeat. He'll slog through swamps, stand on the roof of cars, wander around an IDP camp on his own....he's a daring chap, with a literal twinkle in his eyes and a disarming grin. And plus, his “veddy British” accent is way cool.
I also consider Euan my new sibling because, as I once told him, he's like the pesky younger brother I never had. (I mean that in the nicest possible way.) He had known me for about 3 weeks when he started calling me "mouthy." He likes to talk about the grossest stuff possible while you're trying to eat. He's been bragging lately about leaving soon, to spend a month in the south of France, with maybe a side-trip to Barcelona, while I'm stuck here learning to love the myriad ways to cook goat meat. I about had to slap him to make him shut up. And HE'S the reason I thought I had malaria, 'cause he kept yammering on about it.
Anyway, after checking out malaria symptoms online, I was convinced I was a goner. First, there was the throbbing headache. Then the malaise...never mind that I was malnourished and exhausted…..I suspected malaria. Then there was the nausea...I've had nausea associated with migraines for YEARS, but just because I'm in Gulu, I immediately concluded I was, like, major-ly malarial.
So I hauled my pounding pate over to Gulu Independent Hospital. Never fear--it was not the Dickensian horror of consumption, virulent bacteria, and profound human suffering I had braced myself for. There were no severed, maggot-infested limbs lying along the corridor, no rivulets of infected blood winding across the halls. There were no excruciating moans, no putrid smells, or glassy-eyed, machete wielding “surgeons” looming in darkened doorways. There were, however, a bunch of babies and toddlers. Cute as bugs, the lot of them. I guess babies are the only real growth market for hospitals around here.....babies and HIV.
Anyway, it was a clean, if sparse environment, with nurses wearing old-fashioned British uniforms, all starchy and prim. It reminded me a lot of one of my favorite Audrey Hepburn movies, “A Nun’s Story.” That’s where our intrepid, doe-eyed waif decides to take the veil, leave her family in Belgium and nurse the natives down in the Congo. If I recall, she caught Yellow Fever and almost died in that flick. And those friggin’ vows kept her from getting nailed by a totally handsome young Peter Finch, which pisses me off every time I think about it. And if THAT wasn’t bad enough, another hapless nun got her head bashed in by some tormented villager, who thought the senseless murder would help cure one of his relative’s disease.
Dammit, I don’t like that stinkin’ movie, after all!
Never mind. It turns out I only spent about an hour at Gulu Independent. That’s less time than I've spent waiting to see a doctor at my Kaiser-Permanente health clinic in DC. They weighed me, took my blood pressure (nice and low), gave me a finger prick and a blood test to confirm that I DIDN'T have malaria, and then a doctor sent me on my way. He said they didn't have any migraine drugs, but he prescribed some codeine and an anti-nausea medication. Then I went home and watched a Colombo DVD until the pain lessened and I drifted off to sleep.
The next day, I felt totally fine. But that night, I got a text message from Euan saying, "Pop along to the Bomah, if you aren't out with malaria." No, "Hi, I just got back into town, how are you feeling? Hope you're okay." Just a "Come and have some tilapia if you aren't emitting a raspy, wrenching death rattle from the last throes of some insidious tropical disease.” Just what you'd expect from the pesky little brother you'd want to keep punching in the arm until he passed out from the pain.
Sadly, Euan is taller than me, and 17 years younger, and would probably return a few of those punches until I passed out first. So I'll settle for being grateful I don't have a potentially fatal ailment. That means I can get started working on the next workshop. WHEEEEEEEEEEE!!!!!
But at least this time, I'm ready for the inevitable eye-popping migraine that's sure to come.