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.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

The Mother of All Moths

I swear to God there is a moth as big as a hummingbird fluttering around my bedroom as I type these words. I know you’re all reading this and thinking, “It’s just a moth, geez!” But when you’re lying in a mostly darkened room in a village in Northern Uganda, the flapping of said moth’s wings sounds like a fucking pterodactyl, and the only thing keeping me from having a total psychotic break is the mosquito netting shrouding my bed.

I’ve swatted at the behemoth (pun intended) four or five times now, and I can hear the thump as it hits the wall or the floor. It takes a few seconds to regroup, and then heads straight toward the light of my laptop. I’ve been kicking and flailing and shouting “Get away from me!” for the past 15 minutes now, but the damned freak of nature just won’t die.

I share this in case any of you still think I’ve got lots of guts and an adventurous spirit for doing what I’m doing. What I’ve got is definitive proof of major brain injury at birth, because I have detested bugs and lizards and frogs, and all manner of creepy crawlies my entire life, and now I find myself swatting, squashing or screeching at them at least half of every day.

In 32 days, my contract ends. Wake me up when it's February 1st, cause I ain't coming out from under this mosquito netting until then.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

The Strength of a Woman

I’m having Scotch for dinner tonight, and that can’t be a good thing.

I was actually doing really well until Thursday afternoon, when I signed onto Yahoo and learned that Benazir Bhutto was assassinated. Now, I didn’t know the woman, never really followed Pakistani politics, and plus, I have my own mourning to grapple with. Still, Bhutto’s murder has left me more depressed than I’ve been in weeks.

A while back, I speculated that if Hillary Clinton is elected President of the United States, it could spark a tremendous catalyst for change for women around the world. Now, I’m just scared some nut job will whack HER if she gets the nomination.

Why are men so scared of powerful women? Sure, Bhutto’s two terms as Prime Minister weren’t exactly stellar, but she was such an incredible symbol of empowerment for women in Muslim countries. I remember feeling really excited when she went back to Pakistan in October. I thought, “Wouldn’t it be fantastic if the third time was the charm, and Bhutto swept to power on a wave of popular support, seeking to end oppression and help create real positive change for her people?”

I am such a damned Pollyanna, I’m making myself sick.

Anyway, when you think about it, Bhutto had to be prepared to die every minute of her life. Her father, one of the most popular leaders in Pakistan’s history, was executed. Two of her brothers were killed. She barely escaped death shortly after her return to Pakistan, when a suicide bomber targeted her convoy.

Watching that last video shot as Bhutto stood up through her limo’s sunroof, waving at the crowd, I just can’t help wishing she hadn’t been so damned courageous. I can’t help wishing she hadn’t had the guts of steel that made her continue her campaign after the first attack. I can’t help wishing that Benazir Bhutto had just stayed in exile, working for change behind the scenes.

But then I think about the strength of a woman. Plant a seed in us, and we can bring forth life, for Christ’s sake. And we can do it through the kind of pain that, if a man had to endure it, every government on earth would declare Caesarian sections mandatory.

I believe there is no power on earth stronger than a woman determined to make change. I say that even though Benazir Bhutto is dead, because I believe her death will spark a tremendous catalyst for change in the Muslim world.

In the entire world.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Boxing Day

In Great Britain and some of her former colonies, the day after Christmas is known as Boxing Day. It’s based on a feudal custom where British royals and landed gentry would reward the local peasants for a year’s worth of grueling labor by handing out boxes of food and dry goods. Often, these were things the loyal peasants couldn't have afforded on the pitiful wages they got from said royals and gentry.

Cor, that’s a bloody bit of irony, what? Still, I’ve decided it’s as good a day as any to open the last box Julie ever packed for me.

It’s been sitting in the main house at the compound since the day after my birthday, on October 3rd. I was in Illinois at the time, with Julie in the hospital. When I got back to Gulu on November 17th, I noticed this QVC box sitting in a corner at the main house. At the time, I couldn’t have opened it if you’d held a gun to my head.

But considering the major victory I’ve achieved by not spending the past few days in a boozy haze, I think I’m actually strong enough to open it up and see what my Big Sis thought I needed to survive my sojourn in Gulu. I’ll do that right now.

Okay, I just finished going through the box, and I can’t think of a single reason to cry or feel sad! As usual, Julie knew me like I knew myself. I SWEAR I don’t know how she’s able to reach down from Heaven and provide me with EXACTLY what I’ve been wanting lately, but girlfriend managed to do just that.

First, ever since I got back to Gulu, I’ve had a yen for American style, chemically-processed potato chips. You can actually get some very tasty, all natural chips here, but once you’ve been raised on mono-dextrose, polyunsaturated, fake-assed snacks, you can’t get that monkey off your back. Well, Julie packed two cans of Pringles in that box!

Next, she’s responsible for getting me slavishly hooked on hand wipes; in each of her other care packages, she’d included lots of them. Given how lax folks can be about hygiene in these parts, I’m glad I acquired the habit. I’ve been running a little low lately, and so guess what? Baby girl packed hand wipes!

Then, Julie knew how I suffer from hot flashes, and she was always gifting me with handy little portable fans. Well, I’ve been thinking I need a small box-sized fan to place directly on my desk, pointed straight at my face, to augment the standing fans we all have. Bingo! Now I have a 10-inch, 3 speed box fan!

And just this morning, I gathered a pile of silver jewelry that’s getting so tarnished, I don’t want to wear it anymore. I’ve had some luck with using toothpaste to polish a few pieces, but what I really craved were some silver polishing cloths.


I could go on and on, with the Jiffy cornbread, and the first aid kit, and the over-the door-hanger and the wooden spoons…..but I think you’ve caught my drift. Julie didn’t just guess about what to put in those care packages…she always seemed to KNOW exactly what I needed.

It's funny, but last week at this time, I never expected to feel so sane and stable during Christmas week. I was totally prepared to spend the holidays deeply depressed and inert. And now, I can’t stop smiling. How can I NOT believe that the Archangel Julie is swooping around me, determined to keep me from falling off the cliff of despair?

Oh, yeah, here’s the best thing of all. At the bottom of Julie’s box, were two packages of flower seeds. They came in a promotional envelope from Saturn, for their “Go Green” Hybrid cars. Saturn’s slogan, underneath the seed packet, reads,

“Like Always. Like Never Before.”

Kind of like Julie. She’s still here for me, like always. But only now, it’s like never before. And even though I’m tempted to just keep those seeds locked away in a chest somewhere, so I’ll never have to watch their flowers die, I think I’ll plant them on New Year’s Day, to show the Archangel Julie just how much I still love her. Like always.

Like never before.

Monday, December 24, 2007

"Twas The Night Before Christmas in Gulu

‘Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house,
Crept lizards and bugs…. I’d prefer the damn mouse!
No stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
‘Cause I don’t have a chimney. I need central air!

Like good looks skipped past Jamie Foxx’s hag Wanda,
Santa has chosen to bypass Uganda.
This leaves me with plenty of time for hard thinking,
(Which is certainly better than choosing hard drinking.)

I’m thinking that rather than spend this time sad,
I’ll focus on why my new life ain’t so bad.
I’ve decided I’m actually here for a reason,
More important than my feeling lonely this season.

I chose to come here to share what I know
With colleagues who have a much worse row to hoe.
They work facing dangers so real and so plenty,
While back in DC, I hardly face any.

I’ve lived a good life, traveled so far and wide,
Had experiences more deep than the tears I have cried
Since October 19th, when dear Julie passed over,
To be with our parents, our brother…Jehovah.

I’ve learned I am strong, even more than I knew,
I’ve learned when I’m challenged, there’s lots I can do.
In just six months, I have grown so fast,
(And on fish and samosas, I do NOT mean my ass.)

My growth is internal, in spirit, in trust,
I came here to help produce news that is just.
I may choose to stay here for just one more year,
But I’ll do it without (much) frustration or fear.

I might stay to finish the goal I foresaw
When offered this job. What a hoot! Ha, HAH!
I thought I could help teach reporters to think,
‘Bout why their work matters, so close to the brink

Of lasting peace in this country so troubled.
And what we’ve accomplished is possibly double
Than what I expected. Why would I leave now?
My life may be lonely, but the work I do…WOW!

So even though Santa is nowhere in sight,
Merry Christmas to y’all, and to y’all, a good night.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Live the Questions Now

Why am I spending Christmas alone in Gulu Town, Uganda? I think the Universe just sent me the answer.

I just had a knock on my door, and one of the guards, Oyet Francis (folks over here say their last name first) pointed to a tall, slim girl who was standing shyly off to the side. At first I didn’t recognize her, but then it hit me….it was Cissy, one of the girls I’m helping through boarding school next year.

Cissy shook my hand and curtsied, and said she had a card for me. At first I thought it might be a simple Christmas greetiing she’d made herself, and I braced for the floodgates to crumble. But then Cissy unfolded the wrinkled newspaper she was holding and handed me two photocopied pages from Mary Immaculate Primary 7 school. It was the report of her final grades.

Cissy ranked 8th out of a class of 267 girls in Primary 5!! She was graded “Very Good” in English and Maths, and “Good” in Science and Social Studies. I was so thrilled to see how well she’d done, especially knowing how hard her life has been. I hugged her and thanked her for bringing me her marks. And I also couldn’t resist telling her that now that she’d be living at school next year, she’d have more time to concentrate on her studies. I told her I wanted to see those “Very Good” marks replaced with “Excellents”.

Yeah, yeah, I know it’s wrong to put academic pressure on kids, but since I’ve decided I’m never having any of my own, I don’t have to worry about warping them. And I have to say, I would choose this holiday experience over stuffing my face with turkey and sweet potato pie, or lounging on a beach somewhere.

Of course, I’m already booked on a flight to Rio in mid-February, so I guess I can afford to be so philanthropic. And that’s another thing….what the heck am I feeling sorry for myself about???? I’m pretty darned blessed.

But check with me on Christmas Eve. I may wind up doing some blogging while drunk

Alone Again, Naturally

I just dropped Akiiki off at the bus stop, to spend Christmas and New Year’s with his family in Kampala. The Intern left yesterday for California. I’m alone on the compound at Plot 26, Samuel Doe Road, Gulu Town Uganda, except for the guards and Pamela the housekeeper.

I don’t mind being alone. I actually like being alone. I’ve developed a vibrant, if borderline loopy, interior life, and I quite enjoy my own company. It’s just that I’ve just never felt so lonely as I do at this very moment.

I have never, EVER questioned my life’s choices as much as I have right this second. How did I get to be 46 and have no immediate family, no husband, boyfriend, booty-call, whatever, to share my life with??? Maybe I should have gone ahead and married the only man I was ever engaged to, The Hapless Haitian. We’d have been divorced more than a decade by now, but maybe I would have had one of his big-headed children to keep me company, to be my “family.”

Hmm, maybe the Anal Archivist is worth giving a second thought. His relationship with the Argentinian bombshell lasted about 6 months, and then I started getting e-mails from him about how stupid he was to break up with me, and how I was the best thing that had ever happened to him, and how much he cared about me.

Too little, WAAAAAY too late. Of COURSE I was the best thing that ever happened to him! That ever WILL happen to him! Why is it that men always seem to realize that after I’m gone???

Anyway, maybe I should have had my shit together when I was 40, because then I’d have adopted an Ethiopian baby girl, and she’d be 6 now, and we’d be celebrating Christmas together. Or maybe I should have given just one more month.

Or, maybe my sister Julie shouldn’t have died of colon cancer at 57. You see, whenever I’ve been alone or lonely during all of my excellent adventures, I always knew Julie was somewhere out there. I could always pick up the phone and hear her voice. I knew I always had a home in her heart.

Geez, the pathos train just jumped the tracks!! I gotta get over myself, already. So I’m spending Christmas alone in Gulu, Uganda. Honestly, I’m grateful to be here, because if I were in DC, inundated by memories of holidays with Julie and Ron, assaulted by all the trappings of Christmas in America, I’d probably be on a bridge somewhere deciding whether to belly flop or nose-dive.

So I’m guessing The Archangel Julie arranged for me to be here now. Hell, most people in Gulu are so danged poor, they couldn’t make a big deal out of Christmas if they wanted to. I’m not seeing any ornaments or Christmas lights, or plastic reindeer….there’s nothing here to remind me of Christmas.

Except this big-assed hole in my heart. (Again with the whining!) Something tells me I need to spend some focused, concentrated time trying to get that sucker filled. In other words, getting laid is the Number One resolution on my 2008 list. But not with just anybody.....finding the man I want to spend the rest of my life with has now vaulted to the top of my Life To Do List. (It just replaced adopting a baby, because some kid next door has been yelling its fucking head off for the past two hours, and I’m as close to committing Capital Murder as I’ve ever been in my life. )
So I’ll end this brief posting by hoping that all of you reading blog this have a very Merry Christmas, Happy Hannukah, Joyous Kwanzaa, or whatever your Holiday bag is. If nothing else, I hope you aren’t covered with mosquito bites and watching Columbo videos with Dutch sub-titles.

Friday, December 21, 2007

An Undigested Bit of Beef

So I promised I’d write about my conversation with the British computer guru, the one who wanted to know why I wasn’t like the “typical” African American. In case you don’t feel like reading all of this posting, let me summarize:

In 2007, an American of African descent actually has a credible chance to win the nomination for the most powerful job on earth…..and he’s being backed by the most powerful woman on earth, who just happens to be African American……and yet many people around the world still think the “typical” African American is some hip-hop hustler or ‘hoe.

So when my new chum Peter asked me that question last week, while we were sitting at a Chinese restaurant in Kampala, I had to pause and take a deep breath before responding. I actually have two fairly standard responses to that question (and if I had a dollar for every time I was asked it, I could move next door to Oprah).

The first one I call my “Teachable Moment” response. I sometimes have to use it when I’m with my friends of European descent, or when I’m interacting with folks of European descent who I believe are sincere about the query. After 45 years in racially psychotic America, I know the difference between honest curiosity about race matters and shallow stupidity.

That’s why I keep the “Teachable Moment” response handy at all times. After all, many white people can go through most of their lives without ever truly conversing with a person of African descent. Look at Montana. Or Iceland. Or the Upper East Side of Manhattan. This means those white people rely on stereotypical images of what African Americans are like. Sadly, most of those images are beamed through a TV screen into their homes, and what they see ain’t pretty.

They’re seeing gold-toothed, blinged out, thug-life, booty-shaking, titty bouncin' black people. Sure, every now and then they’ll see a movie with Samuel L. Jackson in it, and most of the time he even gets to stay alive until the very end…and he doesn’t use a single word of broken slang!!!!! But the majority of what many white people around the world "learn" about African Americans comes from music videos.

Now, I don’t even have the energy to launch a debate about censorship, and whether rap and hip hop artists have a responsibility to clean up their acts. But after Peter asked his question, I inherently knew it was a teachable moment. So I started off with a couple of questions of my own.

“What do you mean by "typical?" Can you explain what you think the "typical" African American is like?”

Thus began a good 30 minutes of parsing out race matters. Let me break it down for you like I broke it down to Peter….he thinks I’m NOT “typical” because I’m well versed, intellectual, articulate, witty, poised, and don’t regularly flash the crack of my ass in public. I don’t have more horsehair attached to my head than the average Clydesdale, or long fake nails and doorknocker-sized fake gold earrings. I don’t even have a baby-daddy or a welfare debit card.

As a Brit living in Uganda, Peter doesn’t spend a lot of time in the U.S. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of hoochies in Kampala that could out-hoochie the hoochiest African American woman, but the racial dynamics in Uganda are different. Here, everything centers not so much around race but around socio-economic status. For a white male like Peter, living in an environment where the overwhelming majority of people are black, and desperately poor, you can kind of slip into a generic state of consciousness about racial identity. African males are either powerful heads of state, brutish military leaders or servile work-horses. African women are either crusading superwomen like President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia, or Nobel Peace Prize Winner Wangari Maathai, or they're glittery ‘hoes, or they're beseeching. pitiful creatures mired in desperate squalor, abuse and oppression…that is, when they aren’t popping out babies like Pez.

See how easy that is??? Using that thought process, you don’t have to consider that maybe, just MAYBE, an African American woman could be well-versed, articulate, intellectual, witty, confident, AND disinclined to flash the crack of her ass in public. And see, the amazing thing is, THERE ARE A LOT OF BLACK WOMEN IN AMERICA JUST LIKE ME!!!! Stone Soul Sistuhs who can grab the reins in the boardroom but still keep it real at their cousin Pookie’s backyard barbecue.

I truly believe that by the end of our discussion last week, Peter went away with an expanded consciousness about the "typical" African American. Still, the weirdest thing about this whole scenario is that Peter is married to an African woman from Kenya. Tasha is funny, smart, articulate. intellectual, well-versed…..kinda like me, huh? And yet connecting those same qualities to a black American woman creates a stumbling block for Peter.

Sigh. My work as arbiter of racial understanding will never be done, I fear. The cross I must bear is like my own spectral valet, my personal “undigested bit of beef, or perhaps a spot of mustard,” as our beloved Yuletide codger Ebenezer Scrooge would put it. But look, it’s a better way to deal with life than when I use my second standard response for why I’m not like the "typical" African American. And it goes a little something like this:

“Are you really that stupid, or do you just look that way?"

Just kidding. I’d never say that to anyone…..unless my Xanax prescription had expired.


Wednesday, December 19, 2007

A Cougar's Conundrum

Of all the strange experiences of the past few weeks, I gotta say The Intern’s girlfriend Lisa provided the Numero Uno.

If you’ll recall, Lisa is the languid-eyed young lady who came along just in the nick of time for The Intern, shortly after his US girlfriend called it quits. Personally, I think he’s well rid of the fickle little heifer. I mean, The Intern postponed his psychology degree to live with her while she finished HER degree, but she couldn’t support HIM in his career choice. (Okay, so his choice involved a 7,000 mile separation, but come on! Fair is fair!)

Anyway, Lisa is Indian, Muslim, 21 years old, exotically attractive, about as big as my left thigh, and I’m told she’s quite articulate and intelligent. Sadly, I have absolutely no personal proof of the latter two qualities. That’s because every time Lisa is around me, all she does is stare and mutter single syllables. When I first met her, I thought maybe her English was limited, but then I was told she speaks 4 languages fluently. Then I decided she was just terribly shy, but I was told she’s quite conversant around other people.

It’s just that when I’m around, she barely speaks. Now, at first I thought, “Okay, I’m this loud black American woman who probably curses too much, and is the boss of 3 male employees. These are all things Lisa can’t conceive of, because in her culture, a woman who speaks without being given permission, who orders men around, who drinks like a fish every now and then….she must think I’m some sort of freakish infidel, or something.

Personally, Lisa reminds me of Morticia Adams, which is to say I’m just as uncomfortable around her as she is around me. But here’s the rub…..I can roll with her 23 year old boyfriend like we're best buddies! Maybe it’s because he’s a fellow American, and we both have slightly warped senses of humor, both like science fiction, the Rush Hour film trilogy and Monty Python, both are unabashedly fond of just about every part of a pig except its brain, and both like slot machines, but I just like hanging out with the kid.

This could be confirmation of one of my greatest fears…that I am in fact highly-functioning yet mildly retarded. I simply do not feel like I’m 4 years away from 50, whatever that’s supposed to feel like. I mean, maybe I should be more sober and mature and totally uninterested in cartoons and hip hop and tequila shots (The Intern introduced me to that demonic practice), but I like all of those things! Sure, I can hold my own in any intellectual debate, and I’m certainly not interested in spending every night at “the club” downing beers or anything. Hell, most nights all I want to do is go home and soak my corns.

But I do find myself more interested in the pursuit of fun than the average 46 year old, I guess. Maybe it’s because I never married and had children. I’m convinced those things can completely sap your quest for continuous, aimless levity. All I know is that, through the years, I’ve developed close, lasting friendships with people at least 10 years younger than me, mostly because, well, they’re just more fun than people my own age.

So it’s only natural, for ME, anyway, to become friends with The Intern. I highly respect his intellect, maturity, work ethic, and commitment to this project, but he’s also just fun to be around. Perfect example: when we go to Kampala, The Intern likes to hit the casinos. He made a nice little bundle playing Texas Hold ‘Em once, but when I hang out with him, we play slot machines. And we have a hoot laughing, cursing the malfunctioning machines, and placing bets on which foreign businessman will hook up with which consumptive whore wandering through the casino.

Well, last Monday night we were at the machines when Lisa called. She knew we’d left Gulu because of the Ebola threat, and so she was doing what most 21 year olds do when they’re separated from their boyfriend for more than 5 minutes….calling and texting incessantly. The Intern told her he was at the casino with me, and that we were headed to dinner afterwards. They talked for a few minutes more, and then hung up.

The next morning, the USAID Kampala folks basically announced they’d rather have us return to Gulu ASAP, and so we were in limbo. Apparently, Lisa had planned to come and visit The Intern while we were in Kampala, because he’d told her we’d be there indefinitely. But since we had just learned we might be returning to Gulu soon, The Intern called her and told her she probably ought to stay put.

The next afternoon, Lisa called to say she was on a bus halfway to Kampala.

At the time, I didn’t think anything of it. I just took the old “young love” attitude about it all. They’re two horny little rabbits who can’t stand to be apart from each other, so naturally Lisa would go ahead and ride a rickety, cramped bus 7 hours to be with her boyfriend, even if it was only for one night, after which she’d have to get right back on another rickety, cramped bus for 7 hours to head straight back to Gulu.

But then I got a bit of a shock. The next day, The Intern told me that Lisa came to Kampala because she thought he and I were fooling around. That struck me as funny, but then he added that she thought I was 26 years old, and that I was pushin’ up on her man.

Now, I gotta admit, hearing that did me a world of good! Seven months in Gulu have aged me considerably, in some ways. My nerves are shot, I get frustrated and tired a bit more easily, and it just feels like the incessant challenges have taken years off my life. So to have a 21 year old girl think I was 20 years younger than I actually am, AND that I actually had the energy to try and seduce her 23 year old boyfriend, was pretty freakin’ incredible!! Let’s just say it put a little pep in my step.

The Intern set her straight, but something tells me Lisa still harbors a few doubts. She STILL doesn’t speak when I’m around, and I’ve given up trying to draw her out. Ultimately, I’ve decided I don’t have to like The Intern’s girlfriend to work with him. I just have to get used to feeling slightly creeped out whenever she’s around. Thank God for DSTV and separate dwellings.

But you know what? The whole situation has me wondering if it’s time to start seriously considering younger men as potential dating and relationship partners. Like I’ve written before, most of the men who hit on me over here are in their late 20’s. Plus, I’ve had more stimulating conversations with the 23 year old Intern than most of the men I’ve dated in recent years. Should I just shift the prism on the lens a bit, and accept that most men my age have ex-wives, kids (or grandkids), and decades of psycho-emotional baggage that frankly, I don’t feel like being bothered with?

Should I just find me a unspoiled young ‘un and help turn him into a real man?

Discuss amongst yourselves.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Season's Greetings From The Hot Zone.....

Lest ye be worried that I am lying in a hospital ward spurting blood just like the champagne punch fountain at your cousin’s wedding, let me take this brief opportunity to calm your fears. My plans to deploy myself to Kampala as Intrepid Girl Disease Detective last week were scuttled by my bi-continental bosses. The suits in Washington had wanted us to help provide some stories and information about the outbreak for radio stations up north, but the U.S. Embassy-Kampala bureaucrats decided that really wasn’t our territory. So instead of walking around in a cool haz-mat spacesuit alongside CDC scientists, I’ve had a bit of time to decompress.

I guess now I can go ahead and tell you the truth. Last Saturday, as I was orchestrating our evacuation out of Gulu, I was as nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs. It’s true that when you’re in charge during a crisis, the adrenaline HAS to kick in, and you push your own panic aside. I was a rock on the outside....and a whimpering weasel on the inside. But right now, I’m having a pedicure at the Sparkle Salon at Garden City Mall, as one last flirt with civilization before we head back to Gulu tomorrow morning. Our bosses and the Ugandan government concluded the outbreak fears aren’t as bad as originally portrayed, and that the alleged cases in Gulu turned out to be false reports.

Whatever. The most important thing I’ve gleaned from this past week has been a more robust intellectual grasp of the immense geopolitical game-playing that goes on with the lives of the hoi polloi around the world, at every conceivable level. Essentially, about 9/10ths of the people on the face of the earth are utterly expendable to the other 1/10th. I mean, take
this Ugandan situation, involving a “mystery disease” that was first identified in August, but finally confirmed to be Ebola about two weeks ago. Now, I must stress here that there’s no proof the Ugandan government withheld information about the Ebola outbreak ahead of the big Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting last month. So in a sense, there’s really no point in running around pointing fingers and making accusations…at least until or if some proof is found.

I suppose the next 30 days will be critical. Ebola takes a while to percolate in the old immune system, up to 22 days max. Most of the reported cases and deaths have occurred in or very near the epicenter, in a Western Uganda town called Bundibugyo. So it’s not like people all over the country are showing up at clinics with symptoms.

However, if that starts happening a month from now, we are all in deep doo doo. I’m talking Grand Canyon Deep, people. But I can’t allow myself to worry about that right now. I’ve been too busy bracing myself for the traumatic emotional suckfest that will, for me, be Christmas Day in Gulu. The good news is I’ll be all alone, which means I won’t have to pretend to be cheery and sociable. And I’ve finally had it up to my eyebrows with all the tranquility and meditative solace on our compound, so a few days ago, I bought myself a sweet 29 inch Samsung flat screen TV.

The Dish Satellite TV guys will hook me up on Tuesday, so that means by Christmas Day, I’ll have already logged significant fetal-position hours on my cramped, uncomfortable couch watching endless reruns of “Friends” and “According to Jim,” which actually do a marvelous job of reflecting the vibrant diversity of American culture. Coupled with the steady stream of obscenely sexist and violent rap and hip hop videos, I’d say people around the world know all they really need to know about American society by watching satellite TV. (Remind me to tell you about the conversation I had with a British computer guru the other day. Let’s just say he wanted to know why I wasn’t like the “typical African American.”)

Anyhoo, truth be told, I really think I’m gonna be okay come Noel. I wouldn’t bet the rent on it, but I truly don’t think I’ll fall apart or anything. I’ll have my “moments,” as I’m describing them to my colleagues Akiiki and The Intern. There have been times when my smile isn’t quite as wide, and I don’t feel like hanging out at Da Pub, or one of the other local social watering holes in Gulu. There’ve been times when all I’ve had for dinner is a glass of Glenfiddich while lying in bed. There’ve been times like earlier today, when I was wandering through one of Kampala’s crafts markets looking for items to make my cozy little cottage feel more like home, and I saw a necklace that just screamed Julie’s name. I just KNOW she would have absolutely loved it. And just last year at this time, I would have gone ahead and bought it for her.

Now I don’t have to.

That’s what this Christmas boils down to for me. Now, I don’t have to pretend to even WANT to feel the Christmas spirit. I don’t have to be merry. I don’t have to buy presents for anybody. I don’t have to listen to Bing Crosby singing “White Christmas” a billion times in every public space. I don’t even have to be assaulted by the gaudy materialistic trappings of the traditional American Christmas, when people beat the crap out of each other to get their hands on the last Wii console, and spend three months’ mortgage on stuff they don’t really need, and won't really do what advertisers spend tens of millions of dollars each season trying to convince us they will.

This Yuletide, I’ll just be curled up on my couch eating rice and beans in Northern Uganda. Dreaming of an Ebola-free Christmas.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

"Contagion, Take Me Away....."

You remember those old commercials for Calgon....

"Calgon, Take me away........." ? Well, I've got a new spin on them.

I mean, what does one pack for an emergency Ebola evacuation??

I'm grappling with that dilemma this evening. I think I’m prepared; I’ve stuffed my suitcase with a couple of pairs of jeans and casual t-shirts, some decent blouses, a few nice outfits just in case I have to meet with U.S. Embassy or CDC officials, casual and dressy shoes (all EXTREMELY comfortable – including my MBT’s), and a smidge of make-up, which I never wear anymore, but always regret not having when I travel.

By now, you may have deduced that I’m trying to downplay the fact that in 24 hours, I’ll be in Kampala, holed up in the Fairway Hotel. My bosses…and the U.S. Government….have decided it will be safer for Internews staffers to be based there instead of in Gulu. After all, the last (and the FIRST) time Ebola hit Uganda, it struck hard in Gulu. Almost 300 people from here died from it in 2000.

Oh, yeah, I wonder if there’s room in my suitcase for one of those biological Haz Mat spacesuits like the one Dustin Hoffman wore in “The Hot Zone”? I mean, I ain’t trying to die with a 150 degree fever and bleeding from every orifice in my body.

Yes, dear friends and relatives, an Ebola outbreak has struck Uganda. I’d wager most of you have heard the name Ebola, and even if you’re not exactly sure of the details of the disease, you know it’s a gruesome, agonizing way to die. You also know it has made quite a name for itself on the African continent, having cut a wide, murderous swath through the population of Congo since it was first identified in the late 70’s. I won’t go into details here, but I will include this link with some information about Ebola.

The thing that irks me about this recent biologic nightmare is that media sources allege Ugandan government officials knew about the Ebola outbreak when it began back in August, in a remote Southwestern corner of Uganda. But that was just 3 months away from the Commonwealth Heads of Governments (CHOGM) shindig being planned for late November. The so-called “eyes of the world” would be on Kampala, and officials didn’t want to spoil the fun by announcing a pesky bout of the plague. It might hamper tourism.

So, Queen Elizabeth flew into Entebbe Airport in late November, and was greeted along the road to Kampala by about a million waving, smiling Ugandans. She hung out for a couple of days, feted by much splendiferous pomp, and then bolted the heck outta here. Lo and behold, the following week, local newspapers “revealed” that the mysterious disease officials noted back in August was in fact Ebola. Of course, there were no real precautions taken to try and isolate the outbreak back then, because you know how people are. You tell one guy he’s at risk of spreading a hideous contagion, and the blabbermouth is BOUND to tell at least, say, a gazillion other people.

Now, before I go any further, I want to assure everyone reading these words that I am absolutely safe and absolutely fine. Physically, anyway. Mentally, I’m slightly freaked, but even so, I’m not as hysterical as I might have been 6 months ago. I know this will sound macabre, but I kinda see myself in a no-lose situation here. If officials get the outbreak under control, and I’m safely tucked away in Kampala, in close proximity to the U.S. Embassy and a fleet of top flight military doctors, then I’ll have lived through an incredibly tense but exciting experience.

If by some bizarre and insanely unlikely chance I wind up eating diseased monkey meat, or shaking hands with a Congolese whore, and contract a nagging case of Ebola I’m unable to survive, after a week or so of unspeakable agony, I’ll get to see Julie again.

Sounds crazy, right?? And probably disgustingly hypocritical, given that I’m not exactly a Sunday go-to-meetin’ kind of gal who’s been washed in the blood of The Lamb. (I mean, do you know how hard it is to get bloodstains out of silk?) But I’ve told a few people here that seeing my sister die has profoundly altered my view of life. In many ways, it’s made me less afraid of dying, not so much because of the promise of an afterlife, but because I’m truly convinced now that DEATH HAPPENS. It’s not an abstract concept anymore, and it’s not something that happens to other people. Why the hell spend however many years I have left on the face of this Earth being afraid of dying when….IT’S GONNA HAPPEN ANYWAY????

So once again I say, DON’T WORRY ABOUT ME. I’m fine. We leave for Kampala tomorrow morning, and I swear on a stack of bibles that I will not stop along the way and help wash and prepare the body of a Sudanese rebel for burial. I vow to avoid copulation with a Congolese whore of either sex. I will not place my lips on a Coke bottle that was just quaffed from by a teenage girl with blood oozing from the cracks of her eyes.

I’m not only celibate these days, I’m also practicing safe evacuation.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

The Gift That Keeps on Giving

I haven’t written in a while because the topic of this post is extremely difficult to confront. It’s about something that happened while I was back in the U.S., and from the day it occurred, I’ve been struggling with my conscience. My emotions range from shock to shame to disgust about what I’ve done, and the more I try to rationalize or ignore it, the more the pangs of guilt gnaw at my heart.

But now is the time to set my mind and spirit free, to release the shame and emerge renewed and committed to healing.

Here is the source of my secret agony---I spent $261 on a pair of walking shoes while I was in the States.

Actually, it’s not my fault. I blame my friend Ilaina, a brilliant, witty business reporter from NYC. When I visited her in January, I noticed the pair of extremely chunky-looking, curve-soled sneaks she was lacing up, and asked about them. “They’re called MBT’s, and they’re amazing,” she said. In fact, Ilaina lives on 118th Street in Manhattan, and walks to her office on 44th street every day in her MBT’s. Now, if that doesn’t prove those shoes aren’t the best thing since Nancy Ganz Body Shapers, I don’t know what could.

Believe me, this wasn’t a completely reckless purchase for me. I mean, walking is about the only physical activity I do regularly and often, so investing in a good pair of walking shoes seemed to make sense. Plus, I went online and checked up on MBT ‘s so-called “physiological footwear” before parting with my hard-earned shekels. MBT stands for Masai Barefoot Technology. Some Swiss guy (ain’t it always the case that some European culture vulture comes to Africa, steals an idea and makes out like a fat rat with it???) had spent some time in Kenya and noticed the gait of the Masai, who walked long distances barefoot. He designed a shoe that trains the wearer to mimic that rolling, posture-perfect gait.

It’s probably mostly a bunch of marketing hoo-hah, but I gotta tell you, MBT’s are the most comfortable athletic shoes I’ve ever owned. Spending a couple of days in airports recently convinced me of that. Usually, I’m damned near crippled by the end of a long journey, but my MBT’s kept my corns cozy and my arches amiable.

But $261??? Even for me, a rather free-wheeling shopper, that was obscene. One thing I’ll say for myself, I rarely buy anything that’s not on sale. The MBT purchase was the first time in recent memory that I spent full price on a pair of shoes….and a full EXORBITANT price, at that.
Still, it didn’t really start nagging at me until I got back to Gulu. I mean, in the U.S., if you can afford it, and it doesn’t take food out of your kids’ mouths or land you on the streets homeless, there’s no shame in the occasional splurge. Hell, after 4 months in Gulu, I kinda felt like I was entitled to a shopping treat. But after I’d been back in Gulu about a week, Akiiki told me about two young girls who had shown up at the office earlier that day. They were both 12, and had spent the morning knocking on doors at local NGO’s and community groups, pleading for help with their school fees.

Cissy and Stella were absolutely desperate, because the administrators at their Catholic school had threatened to dismiss them unless they could pay the balance of their school fees for the year. Sissy owed about 16,000 shillings, and Stella about 8,000. That’s about $9.40 for Cissy and $4.70 for Stella. Combined, that’s about what I spend for lunch in Washington.

That’s about 1/16th of what I paid for my MBT’s.

The story shocked me even more because the nuns at Mary Immaculate P-7 School were going to boot Cissy and Stella out during final exams. That meant all of their effort to stay in school this year would be meaningless. Both girls’ parents are dead, and they walk miles to get to Mary Immaculate every day. After struggling to get there, often arriving late, the girls wind up falling asleep in class, usually because they're hungry. But even though Mary Immaculate is a private school their families really can’t afford, Cissy and Stella want to stay. Through all the trauma of their young lives, they know the value of a good education. Cissy wants to be a lawyer, and Stella wants to be a nurse.

So those two 12 year old girls did something I probably would have had too much pride and not enough courage to do at 46, even if I was desperate. They started knocking on doors, taking their chances that someone, somehow, could help them stay in school. In a desperately poor country like Uganda, that kind of chutzpah transcends begging. Those girls weren’t pleading for a handout…they were asking for a hand up.

Clearly, they knocked on the right door at the right time. They reminded me that, as had happened so many times in my own life, timing is everything. The great news is that when you never give up, when your persistence and belief in yourself never flags, the timing is always right. I learned about those girls as I was still questioning my sanity for splurging on those MBT’s. I learned about them when I’m facing the most painful, emotionally empty Christmas holiday season of my entire life, a time when the whole concept of giving means nothing to me, because nobody can give me back my beloved sister Julie. But most importantly, I met Cissy and Stella when I’d been seriously considering the idea of a tribute to Julie, a way to honor her courage and commitment to education and learning.

So, Cissy and Stella will now be attending Mary Immaculate P-7 School in 2008 as boarders. Their fees are all paid, and they’ll get to live on campus, as opposed to walking 5 miles back and forth to school each day. And it only cost me about $50 less than 2 pairs of MBT’s.

That thought is giving me a lot more energy than a pair of walking shoes ever could.