In July, 2008, I, Princess Rachella, Intrepid African American Girl International Journalism Consultant, pulled up stakes once again and headed to Nairobi, Kenya. Through my various adventures, I've concluded that if I get any MORE explosively fabulous in these prequel years to "THE BIG 5-0," I will have to register myself with the Pentagon as a thermonuclear incendiary device.

Thursday, January 31, 2008

The End....

Technically, my Internews contract is finished today, but I’m staying an extra week to wrap things up for the new Project Director.

Not surprisingly, I’m having some mixed feelings. I can’t decide whether my first meal back in the U.S. should be Thai or Soul Food. Last night, I dreamed about chocolate ice cream. A few nights ago, my dream about prime rib and strawberry pie was so vivid, I could literally taste them. And this morning, as I transitioned from sleep to consciousness, my first thought was whether I should buy a frozen pie crust or make one from scratch for the sweet potato pie I’ll inhale during my first week home.

I’m interpreting these thoughts and dreams two ways. First, I’ve lost so much weight that even I’M starting to worry about me. Folks tell me I don’t look skeletal, or anything, but I’m down to a size 6, from a peak of size 14 two years ago. In many ways, it’s kind of fun….I’m enjoying wearing tank tops and shorts without feeling absurd about the way my gut is spilling over the waistband, and the rather unsightly imprint my bra is making where it’s cutting into my mildly doughy back.

Next, I’m even more concerned about ANOTHER ending….my butt. It’s damned near flat now, and I don’t know how to deal with it! Even though I’ve been relatively slim most of my life, I've always had a rather bubbular rear end, compared to the rest of me. Because youth is wasted on the young, I never really took pride in it, or anything. I totally took my tushie for granted.

Nowadays, because I’ve lost at least a good 15 pounds over the past 8 months, my butt looks like a half-inflated balloon. There’s little to no curvature. It looks like one of those Pillsbury biscuits out of the can…flat, squooshy, and unnervingly pliant. There’s no bounce in my bum.

Maybe I’m not the best judge of the situation. Being the sex-obsessed piglets that they are, I’m sure 8 out of 10 men would say my booty is perfectly adequate for their purposes. The problem is, I’ve been living in Uganda, where for a woman, an ass is a true asset. I mean to tell you, I’ve seen some butts over here that have made ME gape, and I have NO desire to play for the all-girls team. (To use a phrase I absolutely adore from the TV Show “Girlfriends,” I am “strictly dick-ly.”)

Just yesterday, I was walking behind a young woman whose butt resembled 2 raccoons wrassling in a burlap bag. I was amazed she could even stand upright with that bodacious bundle. All of a sudden, I felt old and inadequate, because my entire butt isn’t as full and flourishing as HALF of her left cheek. I was depressed well into the evening (and couldn’t even do a few tequila shots to ease the pain, because my stomach is so messed up these days).

I figure this has to be why I’m having all these intense food dreams. Perhaps they’re desperate subconscious pleas routed directly from my butt to my brain. Though the aging process and gravity can’t be avoided, my ass is begging me to “not go gentle into that good night” of receding rumpdom.

I’m doing my part. I’ve already joined the obscenely bourgeois Sports Club/LA’s Washington, DC branch. It’s a bit pricey, but they were having a 75 percent off initiation fee promotion. I figure I can at least pretend to be a wealthy narcissist even if I’m not. I can also take regular yoga and Pilates classes, and stalk the elliptical machines, and do some leg presses that will tighten this jelly up a bit.

Besides, ready access to ice cream, cheese and great wine should restore at least 10 pounds to my frame within a month.

I know I must sound incredibly shallow and insensitive obsessing about food in one of the poorest countries on the face of the Earth. It must seem like the past 8 months had no effect on me whatsoever, which is definitely NOT the case. In fact, I plan on coming back to Northern Uganda often, to do journalism trainings and media consulting. I believe Internews has helped me find my life’s work; never again will I be able to take a job where I don’t feel directly connected to improving the fate of my fellow human beings.

I just need to know that while I’m making a difference in the world, EVENTUALLY AND FREQUENTLY, I’ll be able to connect with to my two favorite people in the world….Ben and Jerry. If that makes me shallow, then so be it. Just as long as my ass isn’t shallow.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Life is Only Short if Your Vision Falls Short

Remember my friend Euan, the one I wrote about last summer? He's the daring, feckless freelance photographer I met in July. I went to my first Internally Displaced Persons camp with him, on 7/7/07.

Euan's the charming 28-year-old Scot whom I consider the "pesky little brother I never had," as well as one of the most intriguing, intelligent people I've ever met. He came back to Gulu for a hot minute in November, and we stayed up till midnight slamming waragi and tonics. Euan and I just never seem to run out of things to talk about.

Anyhoo, Euan Skyped me today, and as usual, there's no aimless chit chat with that lad. He's back in London now, and headed out to capture some photo portraits of the city. He also said
he's missing Uganda, and doing work that gives him a greater sense of purpose. I definitely understand the whole creative fulfillment angle, but if the mate is missing Gulu, he needs to cut back on the crystal meth.

Euan also commented on my Skype tagline, the phrase that pops up near my picture whenever I'm signed into Skype: "Life is Only Short if Your Vision Falls Short." I wrote it shortly after Julie died, when it was impossible to make sense of things. However, in one still, quiet, anguish-free moment, I actually was able to believe that Julie's life actually wasn't too short, because she had strangled the energy out of every second she walked this planet. Julie lived fiercely, loved fiercely, fought pain and disability fiercely....she absolutely refused to miss out on anything.

Julie's personal vision of what she could endure ....AND triumph over.... never, EVER fell short. That realization made me conclude that, though my grief was bottomless, Julie had lived a full life. And she had lived it on her own terms.

Euan thinks my Skypeline is really cool....another sign of his immense maturity and astuteness, I'd say. But he also e-mailed me something that I think may be a gift straight from Heaven for a 46-year-old woman about to take yet another leap of faith into the next chapter of her life. His e-mail contained the essay, "On the Shortness of Life" by Lucius Annaeus Seneca. All I ever really knew about Seneca was that he was one of those ancient Roman philosphers who pontificated on stuff that actually made sense.

But I must admit that, at first, the essay ALMOST made a sister take her earrings off. I mean, just WHAT was Euan trying to convey with Seneca's opening phrase,

"It is a general complaint among mankind, Paulinus, that Nature is niggardly: " ???????

Why it always gotta be about race? But a quick tour through my online Merriam Webster reminded me that word means stingy, and not something I was going to wind up pimp-slapping Euan about the next time I saw him.

Anyway, I won't try to embellish or explain Seneca's profound words, because there's no way I could do them justice. But I do want to share them with all of you. That groovy ancient cat has certainly prepared me for the rest of my journey.

On The Shortness Of Life* By Lucius Annaeus Seneca *

*Seneca, a Spanish-born philosopher of Rome who lived in the first century A.D., was one of the prominent sages of the Stoic school. He's chiefly remembered today for his /Moral Essays/, a collection of twelve articles on various ethical themes.

"On The Shortness Of Life" is an essay addressed to a friend, and it is excerpted and condensed here from Moses Hadas' fine work, /The Stoic Philosophy Of Seneca/.

It is a general complaint among mankind, Paulinus, that Nature is niggardly: our allotted span is brief, and the term granted us flies by with such dizzy speed that all but a few exhaust it just when they are beginning to live. And it is not only the unthinking masses who bemoan what they consider the universal evil: the same sentiment has evoked complaints even from men of distinction.

Hence the cry of that prince of physicians (Hippocrates), "Life is short, art long." Hence Aristotle's grievance against Nature -- an incongruous position for a philosopher: Nature has been so lavish to animals that they vegetate for five or ten human spans, whereas man, with his capacity for numerous and great achievements, is limited by so much shorter a tether. It is not that we have so little time but that we lose so much.

Life is long enough and our allotted portion generous enough for our most ambitious projects if we invest it all carefully. But when it is squandered through luxury and indifference, and spent for no good end, we realize it has gone, under the pressure of the ultimate necessity, before we were aware it was going. So it is: the life we receive is not short but we make it so; we are not ill provided but use what we have wastefully.

Kingly riches are dissipated in an instant if they fall into the hands of a bad master, but even moderate wealth increases with use in the hands of a careful steward; just so does our life provide ample scope if it is well managed. Why do we complain of Nature? She has behaved handsomely; life, if you know how to use it, is long.

One man is possessed by an insatiable avarice, another by assiduous application to trifling enterprises. One man is sodden with wine, another benumbed by sloth. One man is exhausted by an ambition which always depends on the votes of others, another is driven over every land and sea by the trader's urge to seek profit. Some are plagued by a passion for soldiering, and are incessantly bent upon threatening others or anxious about others' threats.

Some are worn out by self-imposed and unrequited attendance upon the great; many busy themselves with the pursuit of other men's estates or in complaints about their own. Some follow no plan consistently but are precipitated into one new scheme after another by a fickleness which is rambling and unstable and dissatisfied with itself; some have no objective at all at which to aim but are overtaken by fate as they gape and yawn.

I cannot, therefore, question the truth of the great poet's dictum, uttered with oracular impressiveness: "Slight is the portion of life we live." All the residue is not living but passing time. On all sides we are surrounded and beset by vices, and these do not permit us to rise and lift our eyes to the discernment of truth but submerge us and hold us chained down to lust. The prisoners are never allowed to return to their true selves; if they are ever so lucky as to win some respite they continue to roll, as the sea swells even after the storm is over, and secure no release from their lusts.

Do you suppose I am referring to wretches whose failings are acknowledged? Look at the men whose felicity is the cynosure of all eyes; they are smothered by their prosperity. How many have found riches a bane! How many have paid with blood for their eloquence and their daily straining to display their talent! How many are sallow from constant indulgence! How many are deprived of liberty by a besieging mob of clients!

Run through the whole list from top to bottom: this man wants a friend at court, that man serves his turn; this man is the defendant, that man his lawyer, and that other the judge: but no one presses his claim to himself, everyone is used up for the sake of someone else. Investigate the personages whose names are household words and you will find they can be classified by the following criteria: A is B's sycophant and B is C's; no one shows solicitude for himself. . . Though all the luminaries of the ages devoted their combined genius to this one theme, they could never satisfactorily expound this phenomenal fog that darkens men's minds.

Men will never allow anyone to take possession of their estates, and at the slightest dispute on boundary lines they pick up stones and rush to arms; but they do allow others to trespass on their lives, and themselves introduce intruders who will eventually claim full possession. Nobody on earth is willing to distribute his money, but everybody shares out his life, and to all comers. Men are very strict in keeping their patrimony intact, but when it comes to squandering time they are most lavish of the one item where miserliness is respectable.

I should like to buttonhole one of the oldsters and say to him: "I see that you have reached the highest life expectancy and are now close to a century or more; please give us an itemized account of your years. Calculate how much of that span was subtracted by a creditor, a mistress, a patron, a client, quarreling with your wife, punishing your slaves, gadding about the city on social duties. Add to the subtrahend self-caused diseases and the time left an idle blank. You will see that you possess fewer years than the calendar shows.

Search your memory: how seldom you have had a consistent plan, how few days worked out as you intended, how seldom you have enjoyed full use of yourself, how seldom your face was unflurried, what accomplishments you have to show for so long a life, how much of your life has been pilfered by others without your being aware of it, how much of it you have lost, how much was dispensed on groundless regret, foolish gladness, greedy desire, polite society --- and then realize that your death will be premature."

Why should this be? It is because you live as if you would live forever; the thought of human frailty never enters your head, you never notice how much of your time is already spent. You squander it as though your store were full to overflowing, when in fact the very day of which you make a present to someone or something may be your last.

Like the mortal you are, you are apprehensive of everything; but your desires are unlimited as if you were immortal. Many a man will say, "After my fiftieth year I shall retire and relax; my sixtieth year will release me from obligations." And what guarantee have you that your life will be longer? Who will arrange that your program shall proceed according to plan? Are you not ashamed to reserve for yourself only the tail end of life and to allot to serious thought only such time as cannot be applied to business?

How late an hour to begin to live when you must depart from life! What stupid obliviousness to mortality to postpone counsels of sanity to the fifties or sixties, with the intention of beginning life at an age few have reached! . . . Among the worst offenders I count those who give all their time to drink and lust; that is the sorriest abuse of time of all. Though the phantom of glory which possesses some men is illusory, their error, at all events, has a creditable look. And even if you cite the avaricious, the wrathful, and those who prosecute unjust hatreds and even unjust war, these too are more manly kinds of sin.

But the stain upon men abandoned to their belly and their lusts is vile. Open their schedules for examination and note how much time they spend on bookkeeping, on machinations, on protective measures, on courting the powerful, on being courted, on obtaining or providing collateral, on banquets (which have now become a business routine), and you will see how little time their distractions, call them good or bad, leave them for drawing breath. . .

The only people really at leisure are those who take time for philosophy. They alone really live. It is not their lifetime alone of which they are careful stewards: they annex every age to their own and exploit all the years that have gone before. Unless we prove ingrate, it was for us that the illustrious founders of divine schools of thought came into being, for us they prepared a way of life. By the exertions of others we are led to the fairest treasures, raised to the light out of the darkness in which they were mined. No age is forbidden us, we have admittance to all, and if we choose to transcend the narrow bounds of human frailty by loftiness of mind, there is a vast stretch of time for us to roam.

We may dispute with Socrates, doubt with Carneades, repose with Epicurus, transcend human nature with the Stoics, defy it with the Cynics. Since Nature allows us to participate in any age, why should we not betake ourselves in mind from this petty and ephemeral span to the boundless and timeless region we can share with our betters?... In the meanwhile, while [people] are robbing and being robbed, while they disrupt each other's repose and make one another miserable, life remains without profit, without pleasure, without moral improvement. No one keeps death in view, everyone focuses on remote hopes.

Some even make posthumous provisions --- massive sepulchres, dedications of public buildings, gladiatorial shows, and pretentious obsequies. But the funerals of such people should be conducted by torch and taper light, as though they had in fact died in childhood.

JAN. 29 POSTSCRIPT: Golly, that's deep. Every time I read it, I can't help but think,

"Oh, SNAP!! Seneca just dropped some cold hearted shit!" But it's like manna for ANYBODY on the uphill road to wisdom, power and other words, THE BIG 5-0.

Friday, January 25, 2008

The Party's Over.......

I think I’ve developed an ulcer. Which makes it all the more appropriate that February 8th will be my last day as Project Director for Internews Gulu.

I am sitting in the training room at Plot 21, Eden Road, Gulu Town, Northern Uganda, and I feel like somebody poured boiling oil down my gullet, and it’s roiling in my stomach like a witches’ brew. I’ve felt like this for about three weeks now, with severe nausea, to boot. (Someone asked me if I could be pregnant….sadly, that is NOT an option.)

Yesterday morning, I woke up moaning in pain. So I decided to Google my symptoms. Nausea, burning gut, no appetite. (Don't worry….I had blood and other tests too gross to describe in Kampala last week, and they cleared me of anything more scary.)

Actually, I wrote about this same feeling just before I was headed back to Uganda in mid November, following Julie’s funeral. At the time, I just dismissed the burning as intense grief pangs. But now I realize I’ve spent the past two years agonizing about Julie’s colon cancer diagnosis….and the past 20 or so years worrying about her OVERALL health challenges.

We were so close, I think I had sympathy pains that matched everything she felt. That’s GOTTA cause some corrosive action in the old stomach lining.

Obviously, living in Gulu for 8 months only made the gut-gnawing worse. Let’s see, during my stint as Gulu Project Director, I’ve had to fire a psycho slut, been threatened by a wild-eyed contractor and harangued by a vindictive nun, watched our studio be flooded, endured extremely poor access to email and phone communication, had my spine reconfigured bumping along the rutted roads of Northern Uganda, been virtually defleshed every single day by greedy, aggressive, American blood-addicted mosquitoes…….all while being responsible for a hefty chunk of US Federal Government money.

Let's just keep it real, people, I’ve never quite gotten the hang of balancing my check book, so managing a half-million dollar project would not crack the top ten of “Things Rachel Jones Performs Flawlessly.” In other words, I suck ass as an administrator.

But here's the thing. As I type these words, I’m leading a workshop about what’s in store for the hundreds of thousands of people who have spent the past 20 years in the squalid IDP camps of Northern Uganda. I’m trying to make the reporters embrace their role as interpreter of events. I’m pushing them to be more than just stenographers. I want them to tap into their creativity and create vivid images with their stories, to relish being the conduit of the hopes fears and aspirations of people praying for peace in a war-torn region.

Wow, I just impressed myself writing that last paragraph. DAMN, I’m good!! As a journalism teacher. As a mentor. As a drill sergeant. As a nurturer. As a visionary. As someone who can inspire the best in people. That’s why I’m not viewing this departure as an ending. It’s the beginning of a whole new chapter in my life.

It’s also the beginning of me swilling Cosmos like a drunken floozy very soon after I touch down at Dulles on February 10th. I’m almost embarrassed by how relieved I am at the prospect of leaving Gulu in my rear view mirror. Don’t get me wrong….I’m not talking about leaving the project, or the amazing people I’ve developed close friendships with. It’s going to be extremely hard to close the door on those things.

But it won’t really be goodbye, because I’ve learned so much, and grown as a journalist and a human being so much in the past 8 months, I’m fully prepared to morph into the role of media consultant for any of the groups working on the peace and reconciliation process in Northern Uganda. I expect to earn a lot of frequent flier miles traveling between Washington and Africa doing it, too.

And here’s the best thing of all….Internews is looking for a “roving trainer” of sorts, someone who would be based in an African country, but who would travel to all the projects across the continent to lead journalism workshops. I think I may have a shot at that gig. For a girl from Cairo, Illinois, that would feel like Dorothy chillin' at the Beauty Salon in the Merry Old Land of Oz. It would be such an amazing opportunity, if the funding is located and I were lucky enough to be chosen.

Meanwhile, back to my ulcerous innards. Or at least what I think are my ulcerous innards. I’m not looking forward to being one of those neurotic twits who swill antacid like Kool-aid, but I gotta do something about my gut. Having ready access to decent medical care will be an enormous relief. (And hell, my COBRA self-paid health insurance payments just went up, so I SWEAR TO GOD I’m gonna visit every doctor in the Kaiser Permanente Health System during my first month back in the States. I gotta get my money’s worth from the monthly reaming of my bank account.) The only good thing about this situation is that between grief and stress and a burning belly, I’ve probably lost about 20 pounds in the past 8 months. I’m also probably mildly malnourished. I also need to be exercising more, and to find a yoga or Pilates class to limber myself up. I’m tired of feeling like a 78 year old arthritic couch potato.

These are all things you pampered, spoiled Americans have been taking for granted these past 8 months, while I’ve been over here simmering in my own gastric juices. Well, shove over sisters and brothers, cuz Rachella’s heading home. It’s my turn to live like a shallow, materialistic, overfed narcissist.

Don’t hate the playa, hate the game! Rachella’s gon’ get her groove, and her guts, back in a couple of weeks. Y’all ain’t seen nothing yet!

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Baby Got Backache

I made my debut into high-profile Kampala society last night, and for the most part, I wish I’d stayed at the hotel and rinsed out some drawers.

Last night, Akiiki, his lovely wife Diana, and I slipped past the “velvet rope” at Ange Noir, the hottest club in Kampala. That’s mostly because the air-conditioning sucks, but still, it’s THE spot for the "juicy babes" and the "styled-up gents" in Kampala, to borrow the local parlance. I’ve been hearing about Ange Noir, and following the carnal exploits of all the major Kampala entertainers, politicians and businessmen who hook up there, for the past 7 months. This one newspaper, The Red Pepper, makes a regular point of ratting on folks caught creepin’ at Ange Noir with somebody else’s mate. They also have regular photo spreads of the club’s young female clientele who are so tarted up, your mouth puckers just looking at them.

I mean, I THOUGHT I had already seen the ultimate in hoochification after living in DC for 12 years, and having spent enough time in Atlanta to be absolutely dumbfounded by the wide range of shades you can dye horsehair, and the myriad ways you can plaster, plait, braid, swirl and curl it, to boot. Seriously, some of my ghetto fabulous sistuhs in Chocolate City and the A-T-L are so outrageous, you don’t know whether to laugh, cry, or gouge your own eyes out with a lobster fork after you see them all gussied up in their club gear.

In the US, the obesity epidemic only compounds the hoochification horror. You know good and durned well some of these women must have to rub Crisco on their hips to squeeze into the tight, stretchy, ill-fitting, scandalously revealing costumes they prance around in. After a certain point, it should be deemed a crime against nature and physics to try and pack 40 pounds of cellulite into 4 square inches of silver lame. And that’s just ONE boob.

Let me be equal opportunity about this….in America, hoochies come in black, white, Latina, Asian, you name it. It ain’t just about the sistuhs. It IS just about the big, honkin’ ASS. But I’ve noticed something during my time in Uganda. Most women here aren’t really obese, but my girls in the E-A (East Africa) have some of the most perfectly round, full butts you’ve ever seen anywhere. And when they get hoochified up in here, it is indeed a triumph of hydraulics and chutzpah.

Now I TOTALLY understand why British women started wearing bustles during the Victorian era. I bet their husbands must have returned home from long, hard months of colonizing the Dark Continent, taken one look at their pale, wan, wraithlike wives, and immediately started planning their next journey back to the bountiful land of Bubblicious Brown Bums.

Maybe I’ve just been away from the club scene too long, but last night was totally ridonkulous. I saw one young woman in a pair of white booty shorts that would make Caligula blush. Her friend had the word “Angel” spelled out in rhinestones across the half-inch of denim covering her rear. How ironic; sporting a skirt like that, girlfriend is headed straight to Hell, and if she don’t know, she better ASK somebody.

As for me, I decided my debut required a more mature set of hoochification rituals. Now don’t worry; I haven’t decided to take on an immoral sideline of my own. But all of a sudden, I feel so alive, and glad of it. My contract is almost finished, and I’m in Kampala where there’s air-conditioning, at least. It’s as though I’ve risen Phoenix-like from the constraints of grief and Ebola and administrative nightmares, and last night, I guess I just wanted to feel like I was SHIZZ-nit!!!

So I went out and bought this rather tasteful, slenderizing, sleeveless black top trimmed in silver sequins (tastefully, people, tastefully!). I paired it with the basic black jeans I had to buy a few months ago, because I’ve lost so much weight. (Yeah, yeah, I know, don’t you hate it when skinny bitches bemoan their problems putting on weight?) But the coup de grace was a pair of 3-inch, patent leather, Givenchy stiletto sandals, mostly black, with some square bluish rhinestones running down the center strap and….get this….the stiletto was made of shiny silver metal, with rhinestones encircling the top of the heel.

I haven’t worn heels that high since the Ice Age. In fact, come to think of it, I’ve NEVER worn heels that high before in my life. These days, when it comes to shoes, I always go flat, funky and fun. But if I DO choose a heel, it’s usually not much more than 2 inches. And it DAMN well ain’t a stiletto.

Amazingly, I was able to totter around fairly comfortably in those sandals. After 7 months of feeling and looking like a sweaty, mosquito-bitten eunuch, I didn’t blink buying those shoes, because, dammit, I was on a mission to teach the hoochies of Kampala that classy is the "new" sexy…. subtle, bare shoulders, red toenails, sexy heels with jeans….in other words, you don’t have to go all gynecological when dressing for a night out.

Throw in a hint of eyeliner and mascara, a swirl of blush, some Chanel lip gloss, and I have to say, I looked good. REAL GOOD. (Although Akiiki spoiled the mood by pronouncing me “ghetto fabulous.” Remind me to hire a new Technical Director.) I even managed to strut around that 3-storied club like I wear 3-inch stiletto heels every day of my life.

But like the Soulful Cinderella I am, at the stroke of midnight my corns started popping. The thin patent leather strap cut through my little toe like a hot knife through butter. It got stuffy in the building, and I had a couple of hot flashes. I snuck away from Akiiki and Diana a few times to sit at the bar on another floor, just to see if some guy would buy me a drink. The cheap bastards held onto their shillings like they were going out of circulation tomorrow at noon.

Most of the men at Ange Noir were in their 20’s and 30’s. And as Akiiki and Diana warned me, most are also broke as a joke, and looking for some employed young professional woman to latch onto. OR they were looking for a desperate, sex-starved “Sugar Mummy,” a 40 or 50 something older woman with lots of money to lavish on their studly young selves.

While there’s still a shoe left to be bought on this planet, no broke-ass 20-something hustler will ever wrench a shilling from these fingers.

After about 90 minutes, I was ready to flee Ange Noir. Something tells me I won’t be going back. It was the last bit of proof I need to confirm that the club scene is "passe pour moi." When you spend most of your time in a nightclub counting the seconds till you can gulp down a Naproxen to ease the carpal tunnel pain in your wrist, your ass needs to be home in bed wearing a loose cotton gown and a silk scarf tied around your ‘do.

That's the exact moment when you must graciously concede that at your age, if you “shake what ya mama gave ya,” it would probably drop to the dance floor and shatter into a million pieces.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

No News is Good News

My friend Allison e-mailed yesterday to check up on me. She’s obviously been following the news reports about Kenya, and must have read the last post where I described my illicit petroleum procurement activity.

I know that if Allison had been here, girlfriend would have been so TOTALLY down with me on my quasi-adventure. In fact, I’m positive that in the 3 years I’ve known her, Allison’s absolute fearlessness and REALNESS have rubbed off on me. She has a “Take me as I am,” take-no-prisoners attitude about life that I find totally disarming.

I met Allison at National Public Radio, where she walked up one day, said she had heard all about me and immediately added me to the after work drinks list. Before I could catch my breath, Allison was inviting me to plays and other events, or stopping by my desk every day, to make me howl with laughter during our our various insider, “keepin’ it real” sister-girl conversations.

I can admit it now…..Allison’s mad cool, real-deal natural hairstyle and highlights are the reason I’m happy and nappy today. I was wearing braids when we met, steadily anguishing over my receding hairline. I knew I needed to stop using extensions 'cuz they were tearing my hair out at the roots, but after 12 years, I just couldn’t kick the habit.

Rolling with Allison helped ease some of my “non-extension apprehension” about what people would think, or their opinions about how I’d look if I went natural. She made the phrase “nappy and happy” spring to life for me.

Anyway, I thought it was kinda sweet that Allison was checking up on me. Mostly because she has a good reason to. Every day, I read the local papers and watch BBC, CNN, and Al Jazeera religiously, to keep up with what’s going on in Kenya. As much as it absolutely breaks my heart, I find I’m fixated on knowing the latest. And not just because rioting in Kenya means no diesel in Uganda.

I think I’m becoming much more worldly about news. Not that I’ve been an inarticulate dolt about current events thus far, but monitoring the news while living in another country instantly adds about 50 points to a person’s Global Issues IQ score. Now, I won’t launch a diatribe against the American media here, mostly because I spent 20 years of my life involved in it before coming to Uganda. I believe there’s as much right about US media as there is wrong.

Still, one of the BIGGEST things that’s messed up IS the inward focus. I’m fully convinced that American media don’t cover the world adequately because a bunch of frighteningly rich and powerful white guys in Manhattan, Chicago and LA have concluded that most Americans are too fat, stupid and lazy to care much about what happens beyond our borders. I mean, I know they do focus groups and stuff, but I believe they’ve decided their target demographic is the cast of “Hee Haw.”

Which leaves a lot of folks completely out of the news consumer profile. I mean, what about the millions of immigrants who live and work in America? Maybe they’d like to know what’s happening back home. And so what if some blue collar guy drives a garbage truck in Memphis? What if, just maybe, he’s fascinated by Middle East politics and would love to have a more constant source of features and profiles about Arab nations, to help him develop a more informed opinion?

All I know is I can feel my brains growing every day in every way, thanks to a plethora of international news sources available to me through my completely bitchin’ 29 inch Samsung flat screen. When there’s electricity, of course. These days, I’m focused on Kenya, and just how much her people have suffered….and will continue to suffer…during these next few weeks.

There was a time when I would have avoided following the rioting and bloodshed on TV newscasts like the plague. Back in DC, I spent many a night sluggin’ it out on my microfiber sectional, flipping between TV Land and Turner Classic Movies, trying to will myself back to an era much less fraught with geopolitical horror than today.

But now, I feel obliged to understand what’s happening in the world. I need a better grasp on simple concepts, like why an African leader would unleash genocide in his allegedly beloved homeland just to stay in power. I need to understand just what in the heck he calls power, when it comes at such a demonic cost.

Anyway, Allison reminded me that I need to stay in better touch with my peeps these days, so I’m grateful. After all, diesel and petrol aren’t the only things affected by the Kenya crisis. Thousands of refugees are fleeing to Uganda, which creates a range of health, nutritional and housing issues. And the insane tribalism that’s making people chop each other up is obviously not unique to Kenya.

But God and the Archangel Julie willing, I’ll be okay. I AM okay. In other words, when you don’t hear from me, 9 out of10 times it means “No news is good news.” Trust me on that one.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Black Market Babe

Sorry for the gap in postings. I’ve been too busy scouring the dark, seedy underbelly of Gulu’s treacherous netherworld, in search of illicit petroleum products.

Yes, I, Rachella, Intrepid Girl Bootlegger, have actually been forced to descend into the hellish maelstrom known as “The Black Market.” The nightmarish violence and unrest in Kenya has had a ripple effect of sorts, leaving neighboring countries short on petrol and diesel. Most of the fuel supplies for Uganda and Rwanda are routed through Kenya, and so last Tuesday at this time, when I went to the local Total station to get some petrol for our generator at home, I learned there wasn’t a drop to be found ANYWHERE in Gulu.

When my friend Pauline, one of the young Total attendants, shared that bit of news, at first I just laughed. I mean, I can’t conceive of a scenario where I can’t have something I really want. I’m not called “Princess” Rachella for nothing; I’m like, “What do you MEAN there’s no petrol?? For ME??”

And then harsh reality sank in….I am no different than the rest of the peasants in this gruesome geopolitical game. When the revolution starts and the supplies are cut off, no amount of money can conjure them up, not even for spoiled American divas.

The mere thought gave me the vapors. I mean, it’s bad enough to be able to SEE the lizards crawling up and down the walls of my cottage in the early evening hours before I fall asleep, but if the power is down and our generator is out of petrol, I’d be facing about 9 full hours of the pitchiest, blackest bowels of the night you could ever imagine….EVERY night for the near future.

It was Xanax time for sure.

But then another Total attendant told me he knew where I could buy some petrol and diesel. It would cost more, but it could be had. It took a few seconds, but then the old light bulb flashed….”The Black Market is ON and crackin’!” I would have to gather my courage and enter a world so alien, so forbidding, so potentially fraught with mortal danger….

Okay, enough with the melodrama, already! Gulu’s “Black Market” consists of one street with more chickens and goats than gangsters, and a bunch of skinny young guys standing around with big plastic jugs of petrol and diesel. It’s not some dark alley or cavernous warehouse where you have to know the secret word to get in. And it’s about as underground as Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

In other words, if you have the money, you CAN always get what you want. And those young guys are making out like fat rats. Twenty liters of petrol usually costs about 60,000 shillings. Last week, I paid 200,000, twice. Diesel runs about 30,000; I paid 80,000.

As an expat Capitalist Running Dog, I’m actually rooting for those skinny young men to make enough money to pay their siblings’ school fees, or buy enough food and clothing for their families. Realistically, there’s a chance they could spend it on alcohol or drugs. Or machetes; how people DO love to chop each other to bits in this part of the world! I just don’t get it. It haunts me.

Oh, well, all I know is that bootleggin’ is hard work. That is, unless it means trying on end-of-season sale boots at Nordstrom’s, which I hope to do when I head to DC next month. Still don’t know if I’m heading back to the US of A for good. I’ll keep you posted.


Wednesday, January 2, 2008


.....all the people

of Kenya,

and Iraq,

and Afghanistan,

and Pakistan,

and everywhere else.

living life in peace.

Imagine that.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

I Embrace My Fate in 2008

Okay, so I got a little carried away the other night. I actually DID emerge from the shroud of my mosquito netting yesterday morning. The monstrous, dive-bombing moth was gone, and life went on.

Last night, for New Year’s Eve, I got a little toasted on half a bottle of Perrier Jouet and was in bed by 9:30. That is, after the power went out, and I had to help one of our security guards (the one who was a former child soldier) refill the diesel generator and get it cranked up. (There’s nothing like hanging out in total darkness with a man who once chopped his friends and relatives to pieces to help set a relaxed mood.) It was just another night in Gulu, no confetti, no dancing, no “Auld Lang Syne.” But I was awake at midnight; people started shooting guns or firecrackers or whatever around then.

I woke up this New Year’s Day feeling great; really good booze never gives me a hangover. But then I just had to read an email from my friend Ron, the newspaper designer in Chicago. He’s supposed to be going to Nairobi soon, to help redesign the Standard newspaper there. But I think boyfriend is gonna chill in the Windy City for a minute, at least until the election rioting, tear gas, looting and bloodshed slows down a bit.

Anyway, Ron just HAD to get my year started off with a heapin’ helpin’ of neurotic anxiety. He read my last posting and wrote, “Maybe that Moth was the Good Luck Butterfly, and just wanted to land on your nose and bless you with good fortune!"

Thanks a whole lot, Ron. Just yesterday, as I was thinking about my New Year’s Resolutions, I’d already started wondering, “Hmmm, moth….MOTHER…..what if that moth was actually an incarnation of my dead mother Eloise and adjunct mom, Julie, trying to surround me with love and support and blessings? I kicked the crap out of it 4 or 5 times, cursing and screaming the whole time.”

Happy New Year to Me. Slap Happy, that is.

But this momentary dip into my own personal pool of paranoia has not totally dampened my spirits. I’m gonna plant Julie’s flower seeds today, and watch "Now, Voyager" with Bette Davis, and I’m gonna meditate on my Yearly Motto. It’s a tradition I started a few years back, as a way to augment my New Year’s Resolutions. Every year, I come up with a little rhyming slogan that characterizes my goals for the year.

For example, in 2003, my motto was, “It’s All About ME in 2003!” That was the year the Asshole Attorney played me like a cheap harmonica, my brother David killed himself, and my father died. The next year it was, “I’ll Open a New Door in 2004.” That was the Year of the Anal Archivist. Then it was “It’s All the Way Live in 2005!” Mama died of dementia in February of that year, and I spent the rest of it in a zombie-like trance.

The next New Year’s Day dawned with, “It’s Back in the Mix in 2006!” That’s when my perimenopause symptoms got so bad I was visiting therapists, endocrinologists, gynecologists, and getting HIV tests on a weekly basis. I literally thought I was going insane, and nobody believed I could possibly be menopausal. But FINALLY I got an official diagnosis….my female plumbing WAS shriveling like a raisin in the sun!! I wasn’t going crazy! What a relief!

So, after 3 years of non-stop mental anguish, last New Year’s Eve I adopted a less naive view of life and developed a more sober motto. No more “Seventh Heaven in 2007” kind of thinking. Life had kicked me in the teeth far too many times. I needed to come up with a mature, realistic slogan.

I chose, “My Life will Leaven in 2007.” That meant all my life’s experiences had come together to make me acknowledge that I needed more balance. My life needed more love, more intimacy, more commitments to friendships and to building a nest of my own. I visualized my life rising like a yeasty pillow, expanding until all the empty corners were full.

Just yesterday, I decided that when I committed that motto to the Universe, I must have gotten one letter wrong. As you already know, last year I moved to a war zone and watched my beloved sister die. Higher power must have thought I’d vowed,

“My life will LEADEN in 2007.”

That’s why I’ve chosen the title of this posting as my motto for 2008. The Universe has a twisted, jacked-up sense of humor, and has successfully beaten all the “Wish Upon a Star” sentimentality out of me. However, the Fickle Finger of Fate hasn’t completely vanquished my spirit, because the past 4 years have turned me into one hell of a strong woman.

There’s this Russian proverb that goes, “Through the fire, fine metal is made.” Well, after the past 4 years, my hide is made of pure, weapons grade Plutonium. Fuck with me, and you’ll wish you’d stayed at home that day. I come CORRECT. I’ll tell you what I think, and what I want, and if you don’t like it, bite me.

Or, to be a bit less crude about it, I refer to something one of my mentors, Ruby T., shared with me. She’s president of a major foundation that focuses on children’s issues, and I daresay some of the most intellectually stimulating conversations I’ve had in the past 5 years have been with Ruby. Anyway, we were lunching in DC one day, during the middle of my non-stop Personal Crisis World Tour, when Ruby offered this profound bit of wisdom.

She said that in life, you have to be like a tree in the stream, and not a leaf on the stream. When you’re a leaf, you’re carried in whatever direction the current is flowing. You have no control over your life, and you’re just waiting and hoping you’ll wind up on the shore some day. But when you’re like a tree in the stream, you’re constant. Now, that doesn’t mean you’re unscathed; the roiling waters surround you, and constantly flow past you.

But you shall not be moved.

That metaphor has carried me through many a dark night of the soul. I think it even helped this past holiday season, when I was actually wooing despair for a minute. Suddenly, I realized the awesome power of choice. I could choose to fall apart.....and God knows I’m owed a sniveling, hysterical nervous breakdown after having to close my sister’s eyelids when she died. Or, I could choose to pull myself together and keep functioning.

So that’s why for 2008, I’m like, “Bring it ON, Fate. I am NOT the one to be messin' with this year. Gimme everything you got, and I’ll STILL keep on keepin’ on. In fact, I’ll even EMBRACE your ass before I breeze right on past you.”

That’s how I’M livin’ from now on, whether I’m in Gulu or DC. In fact, I started my day with Natalie Merchant’s song, “”Wonder." Please don’t think I’m tripping, or having delusions of grandeur. I’m just so, so grateful to be still standing. It’s a wondrous thing.

Doctors have come from distant cities
Just to see me
Stand over my bed
Disbelieving what they're seeing
They say I must be one of the wonders
Of God's own creation
And as far as they can see they can offer
No explanation.

Newspapers ask intimate questions
Want confessions
They reach into my head
To steal the glory of my story
They say I must be one of the wonders
Of God's own creation
And as far as they can see they can offer
No explanation

O, I believe
Fate smiled and destiny
Laughed as she came to my cradle
Know this child will be able
Laughed as my body she lifted
Know this child will be gifted
With love, with patience and with faith
She'll make her way

People see me
I'm a challenge to your balance
I'm over your heads
How I confound you and astound you
To know I must be one of the wonders
Of God's own creation
And as far as you see you can offer me
No explanation.

O, I believe
Fate smiled and destiny
Laughed as she came to my cradle
Know this child will be able
Laughed as she came to my mother
Know this child will not suffer
Laughed as my body she lifted
Know this child will be gifted
With love, with patience and with faith
She'll make her way