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.
Wednesday, September 26, 2007
Let me get back to you on that.
Their personal papers were "in order", but the weaselly rat bastard we rent the Land Cruiser from had forgotten to renew the insurance on it. So, Akiiki and Sean were escorted to the nearest police station. They were told to turn over the keys and wait for a magistrate to show up and sort the situation out. When Akiiki refused to give them the keys, they offered him the option of a few hours in a jail cell. Naturally, he rejected that offer.
Meanwhile, The Intern had to sit outside the police station and guard the stiflingly hot car, even though there were a myriad friendly Ugandan military police officers milling about carrying AK-47's. Finally, at about 1 PM, The Intern called to say the magistrate finally showed up, fined them 400,000 shillings (and ordered the rat bastard to repay us), and sent them on their way. Of course, when The Intern called, there was another torrential downpour in Kampala, so I knew it might take a while for them to get here.
At 5 PM, I started panicking. I still hadn’t heard from them, and I was on the phone with my boss in DC trying to explain what the heck was going on. I just knew I’d be called to a jail, or to a morgue, to identify them at any moment. Thankfully, The Intern called while I was talking to DC, and said they’d arrived and checked into the hotel. My blood pressure finally started dropping from the 220/198 range, and I could breathe again.
In short, I share this experience to you as a stern reminder that you HAVE to develop a spine of steel and a warped sense of humor to survive in this world. I mean, I will be returning to the US tomorrow evening on THE most difficult journey of my entire life, and yet somehow, compared to living in Uganda, it almost feels like I’m going on vacation.
Oh, and here are a few random observations:
* The ONLY reason Akiiki and The Intern weren't either shot or sent directly to the chain gang was that officials recognized Akiiki. Before joining Internews, he was a BIG DEAL recording artist with multiple top of the chart hits. Everywhere we go, we get instant access because of his fame. And then there's the fact that he gives his heart, body and soul to training journalists, working himself past the point of exhaustion at every workshop. If I were Akiiki, I would demand an automatic doubling of my salary before renewing my contract.
*Let me be even more blunt: If my bosses have even a lick of sense, they would offer The Intern a full-time job. That young man is fearless, hard-working, extremely smart, charming, and totally committed to this project. So much so that he passed out a few times today sitting in that hot-assed Land Cruiser waiting for the police to release Akiiki. ‘Twere it moi, I’d have bypassed Kampala and headed straight to Entebbe, where I would have shaken the dust of Uganda off my boots and headed back to the good old U.S.of A. But this guy just shook the whole experience off and is still down for whatever happens with Internews Gulu.
I suppose if he can handle it, so can I. However, after savoring just one bite of a Wendy’s hamburger while I’m back Stateside, and revelling in 24 hour electricity on demand and the Lifetime Movie Network, Internews might just have to find themselves a new Gulu project director…….
Monday, September 24, 2007
I thought about that yesterday, as I was sitting on the front porch of the main house on Plot 26, Samuel Doe Road. It was pouring rain, but the sun was shining just as bright as day. Usually, when that happens, I get excited, because it means there’ll be a rainbow. And rainbows are my lucky symbol….not because I’m expecting to find a jolly leprechaun beckoning me toward my own pot of gold at the end of one someday. It’s just that rainbows are so darned psychedelic, and magical, and beautiful.
The last time I went to Hawaii with my best friend Faith, it almost got ridiculous how many rainbows I saw, every single day. Maui is already an aggressively, astonishingly beautiful island geographically, but then everywhere you looked, there were rainbows. At least 10 a day, I’d guess. Heck, you could sneeze and make a rainbow, for Christ’s sake.
At the time, I took it as a sign that somehow, some way, my life would get better. It was December of 2006, and I had survived several years of trauma, grief and stress that at times had threatened to break my spirit completely. In the span of about 3 and a half years, both my parents had died, my eldest brother had killed himself, and my sister Julie had been diagnosed with colon cancer. I was a wrung out, beaten down, walking sack of bones by that point, but finding myself on Maui staring at rainbows everywhere gave me the sign I needed…..somehow, I would be okay.
Well, go try and find a rainbow in Gulu. Jeez! I mean, it’s rained on bright sunny days about a dozen times since I've been here, and yet I’ve never, EVER seen a rainbow. It’s like Uganda is the only place in the world where rainbows don’t mystically appear on a sunny, rainy day.
I really, really needed a rainbow yesterday. I found out that doctors confirmed that my sister Julie’s colon cancer is back. She’s not doing so good.
I’ll be back in Illinois at her bedside by Friday afternoon. Say a prayer for Julie. And then say one for me.
Thursday, September 13, 2007
Don’t get me wrong. I haven’t taken up a sideline of my own. Oh, sure, there’ve been times in my life when freelancing was scarce and the rent was a month or two behind, when I might have gotten desperate enough to give it a whirl. But the prospect of my very first customer asking for change back from a 10 dollar bill would have shattered my self-esteem.
It’s just that I’m in Kampala today, and last night, I was mistaken for a ‘hoe twice. Now, you can’t spend an evening in Kampala without seeing a myriad young women, all dressed and meticulously made up, with their do’s seriously DONE, standing along the side of the road, or clustering in bars and restaurants. Want another example of my mind-boggling naivete? When I first got to Kampala back in June, while walking back to my hotel from a restaurant one night, I passed a group of pretty young women standing on the side of the road chatting. As I walked past, I caught a whiff of perfume that was so intoxicating, I wanted to stop and ask whoever was wearing it where she bought it. The person I was walking with suggested we keep moving.
“They are whores,” he explained.
It’s sad, but from that point to this, whenever I see a group of young women standing on the streets of Kampala at night, I just assume they’re hookers. Maybe in some warped way, I should be flattered that people are mistaking ME for a ‘hoe. I mean, at least they think I’m still young enough to shake what my Mama gave me. But yesterday was too weird. After a long day’s drive from Gulu, I was sitting in the hotel lobby with The Intern, trying to get caught up on some e-mails. The Intern stepped away for a minute, and some grizzled old goat in a taupe-colored suit (911 Fashion Emergency!) shuffled over. “You seem all alone,” he leered. “Would you like some company?”
Yes, I thought. I would like a squadron of LRA rebels to swoop in and chop you to pieces, you filthy old coot.
But I chose to keep that thought to myself and politely declined his company. I am ashamed to admit, though, that the last, tattered remnant of my pre-menopausal, emotionally-fragile wreck of an alter-ego was slightly flattered that he’d assumed I was a ‘hoe. I mean, some of these working girls in Kampala are really quite attractive….and they’re about 25 years younger than me.
But that egotistical reverie was shattered about an hour later, when The Intern and I took a cab to dinner. As we were pulling out of the driveway, our Gulu driver returned to park the truck in the hotel lot and leave the keys with me. I had the taxi driver stop and wait a few minutes while I took care of that bit of business.
Later, The Intern told me that the second I stepped out of the cab, the driver asked him, “Did you hire her for the night?” To his credit, The Intern snapped, “No, she’s my boss.” Apparently, the guy groveled his apologies and kept his mouth shut for the rest of the ride.
This time, it wasn’t quite as funny or flattering. I mean, I’ve spent the past 3 and a half months over here being a “Project Director,” the Head Cheese, the Big Boss. I RUN the whole freakin’ show, y’all. And I think I conduct myself in a professional manner, for the most part. Sure, there are days when all I can muster is a pair of jeans and a tee-shirt, make-up be damned, and my hair is standing all over my head like Sideshow Bob from the Simpsons. But I’m trying to work on projecting a consistently professional image.
It’s more than a little frustrating to realize that a lot of people automatically assume I’m a ‘hoe. Even though I’m naïve, I have sense enough to realize it’s happening because The Intern is white and I’m black. And that’s the crux of my take on issue of ‘hoes in the African socio-economic context…..in Africa, wherever there’s a group of white male expats or other foreign businessmen, ‘hoes are sure to follow. They come in all shapes, sizes, colors…but most are in their late teens and early 20’s. At least the ones who ply their trade publicly. Given the whole international sex trade phenomenon, I’m sure plenty of these guys are abusing girls who are much, much younger.
I first noticed it in Addis Ababa, at the Hilton Hotel. I am convinced that the Hilton Addis is the center of the universe for slobbering, pot-bellied 60 year old German businessmen. Every night, you see them drooling over impossibly slim and beautiful young Ethiopian girls, gracious enough to buy them a drink before taking them up to their rooms to commit unspeakable acts.
Maybe it’s because all Ethiopian women have the eyes of a timid young doe, but I was convinced that some of these girls were in their mid-teens. Of course, hotel management has to be aware that half of their occupancy rate comes from prostitution, but it doesn’t seem to be a problem. And many of those young girls are actually sanctioned, even ORDERED to do this kind of work, to help feed and clothe their families.
That’s what I mean about putting an African socio-economic context on this issue. With my American sensibility, all I see are abused and exploited young women at risk of violence, unwanted pregnancy and fatal diseases at the hands of foreign pervs. But it’s such a common activity over here, nobody thinks twice about it.
So I guess I need to just get over the fact that every time I’m seen somewhere with The Intern, people are going to think he’s paying for my company. Though why a 22 year old would pay for a ‘hoe twice his age who battles hot-flashes and PMS at least 15 days out of every month is beyond me.
Tuesday, September 11, 2007
But the good news is, we've had electricity for most of the day today! Somehow, where there's light, there's the hope that some creepy, crawly, or winged creature won't sneak up behind you and give you an instant coronary.
And we're going to Kampala tomorrow....me, our Technical Director, and The Intern. I swear, you've never met anybody like this young man...he is the most capable, affable, poised young person I've met in decades. Maybe it's because in a way, like me, he's taken the road less traveled in life. Instead of the 4 year university thing, he's been a sous chef in a Japanese restaurant, an EMT, a group home counselor, and managed several large ranches.
So far, about the only thing The Intern can't do is give birth. He says he just knows a lot of useless information about a wide range of things, but I think the dude is a certified genius. And he takes the initiative....you don't have to ask him to do things, 'cause in that superior brain of his, he's already figured out that it needed to be done and has started doing it.
I swear, I literally would not have made it through the past few weeks without The Intern. At 22, he's got more confidence, sense and sensibility than most....nay, ALL......of the men I've dated in the past decade. If he were 20 years older, I'd be all over him like a rash. As it is, I'm just thankful I didn't wind up with a useless slacker as an intern.
And the whole Internews Gulu crew is headed to semi-civilization tomorrow, for meetings, errands and such. If we don't get caught in the middle of a bloody coup or something, it will be a wonderful couple of days' respite from the insanity of the past week.
Not unlike a heaven-sent spark of hope. Just as long as it doesn't come from the generator, I'll cling to it.
Monday, September 10, 2007
Remember my vow to write something every day during September? Well, if I had, you’d be fearing for my sanity at this point. At the very least, you’d be busy trying to resurrect Johnny Cochran so he could come over here and get my ass out of a Ugandan jail for killing 3 or 4 of the aforementioned urchins. Hands down, this past week has been the most dysfunctional of my entire stay in Gulu.
It started with the unpleasant task of dismissing our bookkeeper. Then, we opened the door to the studio and found that while we were away for a week in Arua, there had been at least 2 inches of standing water in the room, based on the water marks on the bookcase and desks, and the damp throw cloth covering our equipment.
This all happened, of course, during a period of back-to-back week-long workshops, the one in Arua and a quick turnaround in Gulu. Sadly, the third time was NOT the charm for our training program, because we somehow managed to choose the most intellectually-challenged, timid group of journalists I’ve seen in 4 years of doing this kind of work. I mean, these guys and gals came off as dumb as a box of rocks. I almost had to use a crowbar to pry anything out of their mute faces. This was after inheriting them from the expert GBV trainer, Karen, who HAD to have been wildly eager to get the hell away from what seemed to have been a hoo-doo curse placed on Internews Gulu. She left on Friday, and then I had the next few days to take up the slack. Or should I say the slack jaws.
Oh, did I tell you that during all this Gulu-based glee, I got a nasty note from a noxious nun in Arua? It seems our surly sister was upset that we gave such “high” per diems to the workshop participants ($25 USD per day.) For the two reporters from her radio station, that came to 6 days, or $150. Now, you need a little background on the whole African workshop per diem thing to understand why this turned into such a big freakin’ hoo-hah. Most African journalists go to workshops expecting to be bored silly by some patronizing white guy who drones on for 8 hours daily over two or three days, pick up a five or ten dollar per diem, and then go back to their stations even LESS interested in what the heck they’re supposed to be reporting on.
Internews does NOT play that. The whole idea is to challenge journalists to think critically
about their profession, to give them access to the smartest, most plugged in people related to the workshop theme, as well as practical field reporting experience. AND we expect them to produce stories that are ready to air before they return to their stations. To my American way of thinking, $25 dollars a day is slave wages for how hard we push these journalists to become more than they could have ever imagined.
Not so fast, said Surly Sister in a 1,000 word e-mail screed. Having a high-faluting US-funded training group come in and hand out per diems in one week that amount to just a little less than what her station pays journalists in a month did not sit well with her. Frankly, God's Girlfriend was pissed. And then she had the nerve to grill me about who else from her station I had worked with to set up the workshop.....AND to be upset that I had paid a local youth drama group affiliated with the station to perform a play about domestic violence.
That’s just part of the nunnish nit-pickery I had to confront while we were trying to figure out if our studio equipment had been destroyed or not. Thankfully, I had the presence of mind to wait a few days before responding, or I’d have forced Ms. Sister to do about 870 Hail Mary’s to get the offensive imagery in my reply out of her head.
Long story short, we made it through the rain, and did our own holy hosannas last night at 9, after dropping off the journalists at the hotel. The best news of all? Our radio production equipment still works, so our Technical Director, Akiiki, and The Intern, who is now officially the smartest, most mature member of the Internews Gulu office, celebrated by knocking back a few tequilas at one of the local boites. As pour moi, all I wanted to do was crawl into my bed and pull the covers over my head. But as I was fumbling with the key to the front door of my cozy little cottage, I looked down and saw the hideous little garden-gnomish, rabbit-type thingy that one of the journalists had given me as a present.
In a way, it was kind of sweet. He’d wanted to show his appreciation for the rigorous training he’d received, which he assured us would make him a better reporter. Maybe he even had a little crush, who knows? But gifting me with a demonic-looking rabbit with large, fiery red eyes was probably not the best way to endear himself to me.
So now I have another member of my own personal Manaical Menagerie to contend with. Last Monday, it was the bitter Meth Monkey who’d raged over being fired. And now, every time I come home, I’ll be greeted by a rabbit that looks like it's been free-basing for 4 days straight.
(You already know what I’ve named him, don’t you??? I’m SO looking forward to being welcomed at my cozy little cottage each day by my good friend ‘Base Bunny.)
P.S. You will NOT believe this, but as I am typing these words, I’m cowering under my mosquito net while a bird flies around in my room. Hopefully, he’ll have sense enough to get out the way he got in, but until such time, I’ll be lying here wide awake, hoping the mosquito netting is fine enough to prevent any drippage from the inevitable attack of explosive diarrhea my winged visitor will have right over the head of my bed.
P.P.S. Won’t somebody please come and take me home??? I might be wearing a straight-jacket, but just come and get me, for God’s sake…..
Monday, September 3, 2007
But the meteorological storms of late are nothing compared to the Nor' easter that roiled through the office this morning. If you’ll recall, I had to fire my acccountant today. Now, how can I describe the scenario in a way that does justice to what actually went down??? Hmmmm….
Okay, here goes. Imagine Curious George in a meth-fueled rage coming at you with a shiv.
Now, I’m not just being racist or derogatory by comparing my former assistant to that mischievous monkey we all know and love. It’s just that she has a rather large, round head with a short Afro, and dark glittering eyes that were always full of potential mayhem. She looks like freakin’ Curious George, people.
She had her say, and we had ours, and she left. I’m relieved that it’s over, and a bit proud of the way I kept my composure. Doing what you have to do can actually be a positive growth experience.
Especially after you’ve had 3 vodka tonics. So I’m going to go to bed now, because we have another workshop that begins tomorrow. And after all, tomorrow IS another day.
I was going to write a follow-up to my last blog post, about the somber task that awaits me in less than 7 hours. Just in case you haven’t read Saturday’s blog, this morning, I have to fire the mentally-unstable, thieving ‘ho who just happens to be our accountant. Needless to say, I’m not looking forward to it.
More about ‘hoes, in the African socio-economic context, in a future blog. Instead of mentally playing out different approaches to the daunting task repeatedly, I’ve decided to share some insight with all of my friends and family who think I’m absolutely nuts to be doing what I’m doing where I’m doing it. I’ve been in Northern Uganda for three months now, and can honestly say I’m feeling settled in. There are still a ton of frustrations every day, and challenges by the bushel, but I don’t shudder anymore when I tell people I live in Gulu, Uganda.
Maybe it’s because the Arua workshop went really well, and I always feel so gratified after working with African journalists. I walk away from each encounter with tangible proof that I’ve made a difference in someone’s life, and for me, there’s no greater high.
So I thought I’d use this post to send an All Points Bulletin to all my beloved family and friends who have been following this blog. I know you worry about me, and I bet you even miss me about as much as I miss being with you. But lately, I’ve been listening a lot to a song by Oleta Adams which perfectly explains why I’m over here, and I want to share it with all of you. It’s called, “I’ve Gotta Sing My Song”, and if you can buy, borrow or download it, you’ll be glad you did. With apologies to Ms. Adams for changing a few words, here’s her song……and my song…..
I know it’s late, but I couldn’t wait to call you on the phone.
It’s been a while since I’ve been home.
All of this was my own choice, since the Man upstairs has given me this voice.
No matter how long it takes, no matter how hard the breaks,
I’ve gotta use it, or lose it, I just can’t stand to refuse it.
Gotta do what I’ve gotta do,I’ve gotta sing my song.
Sing the hatred into love.
Sing a praise to that Man above.
Sing the tears into a smile,
Sing until I feel this is all worthwhile.
Sing it high, and sing it low,
Sing for me within my soul.
Sing it loud, and make it clear,
Sing so everyone can hear.
When it feels the road I’ve chosen may be wrong,
I’d be nothing, if I couldn’t sing my song.
By the way, may I say “Thank You” for the love you’ve shown,
All of these years since I’ve been born.
Some thought I was college-degree bound,
Others expected me to settle down.
I’m not ignoring what you had in mind, neither do I want to sound unkind.
Before I give up, I’ve got to live up to a challenge to do my thing.
I’ve got to cut loose the apron strings,
Oh, I’ve gotta sing my song.
(All I want to do is)
Sing the hatred into love. (Yes, I do)
Sing a praise to that Man above. (Thank you, Lord)
Sing the tears into a smile,
Sing until I feel this is all worthwhile.
Sing it high, sing it low,
Sing for me within my soul.
Sing it loud, and make it clear,
Sing so everyone can hear.
When it feels the road I’ve chosen may be wrong,
I’d be nothing......
(Said I’d be nothing)
If I couldn’t sing,
(I couldn’t sing)
Saturday, September 1, 2007
First, my stint is about half over, which heightens my pleasant anticipation of ordering the pecan-crusted halibut with a glass of lightly-chilled viognier at DC Coast restaurant in only about 4 more months! Second, I’m going to try and write a blog post every day this month….that is, every day there’s wireless connectivity in Northern Uganda. My August output was totally paltry, and the truth is, there’s actually something interesting, sad, or hilarious for me to write about at least 20 times every day.
Basically, it really is time for me to stop complaining about things and get down to business. I am a PROJECT DIRECTOR, and I have to act like one. I have to “woman up” and take the lead, in good times or bad. On those days when I want to stomp my feet, ball up my fists and start swinging at everything that moves out of pure frustration, I just have to suck it up and handle my bizness.
Like today. Remember one of my past blogs in which I wrote about my finance assistant, V., the one who’s a young, well-meaning, if memory-impaired, striving Ugandan professional woman? Well, dear readers, would that I had known just HOW professional she actually was.
My first AND last clue should have been when at the end of some workdays (particularly Fridays), she kept asking to be dropped off at the local Total petrol station. She said she just wanted to “chill out.” I simply attributed this strange activity to her significantly lower than average IQ. Or that perhaps there was a mechanic at the station she had a crush on. Even though I’m 45 years old, I’m still astonishingly naïve at times. My brain still refuses to believe the worst, resorting to a Pollyann-ish automatic default option rather than absorbing what is glaringly obvious.
Well, recent intelligence has revealed that my finance assistant has a sideline. Need I say more? In fact, our newest hire, a 22 year old intern from California, figured it out before I did. (After only 2 weeks, it turns out that in just about every measurable way, the kid is smarter than all the rest of us put together.)
But that’s not even the worst aspect of this Byzantine management crisis. I was also informed this morning that my finance assistant has yet ANOTHER sideline…..cutting side-deals for herself with vendors. Let’s say a truck rental costs 400,000 shillings. My assistant comes back to me and says it costs 430,000 shillings. She then pays the vendor, and pockets the extra for herself.
Trust me, I would not be typing these allegations without proof. So, on Monday morning I have to call a staff meeting at which several of our burly security guards, our new intern and our Technical Director will be present. I’ve already arranged a flight to Kampala for her on Monday afternoon, so now all that’s left is to fire her ass that morning.
Have I adequately communicated the blood-curdling horror of the situation I find myself in, one that had you predicted it for me a year ago, I would have called you crazy as a loon? But for some reason, I’m incredibly calm. I have a job to do, and I intend to do it swiftly, authoritatively, and thoroughly.
(My God, I think it’s FINALLY happened…..I am a bona fide grown-up. I’ve resisted that cruel fate for so long, but now maturity has me clutched in its cold, bony, unforgiving grip. I suppose it had to happen at some point, but the reality is harsher than I’d envisioned.)
Then again, maybe it’s not so bad after all. I’m learning that when you stop whining and complaining about things you don’t want to do, and just DO them, it saves a lot of time. Looking back over my post-teen years (remember, for me, adulthood just kicked in today), I’ve wasted a lot of time resenting unpleasant or difficult responsibilities. I probably could have accomplished a lot more in my life if I had just shut up and done what needed to be done, instead of procrastinating and moaning about it.
So, keep a good thought going for me at 9 AM Monday September 3rd Gulu time (2 AM EST, 1 AM CT, and 11 PM Pacific Sunday September 2nd). Being a grown-up is a sucky job, but almost everybody has to do it at some point.
Stay tuned for tomorrow’s update..….