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.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Abstinence Makes the Heart Grow Bitter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Thanksgiving Has Plucked My Last Nerve....

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Julie's Rainbow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you very much.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

I Am Changing.....

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

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

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

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

I’ve changed. Here's how I know.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My new credo? Fuck the dumb shit.

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

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

But then I noticed the lump had wings.

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

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

Monday, November 12, 2007

Moving On....

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 8, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We sure did have us some fun times.

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

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

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

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

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

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


Monday, November 5, 2007

Julie's Journey....

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

I Hope You Dance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Life is a Trick....

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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