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.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Girl from Ipanema

It is amazing what an extended bout of trichinosis can do for a woman's self-esteem.

I've spent the past few days walking around half naked on Ipanema Beach in Rio, and all I can say is, "Thank You, Gulu." Between the mosquitoes that drained half my blood and the mass quantities of pork I consumed to keep a minimal level of protein going on in my body, I finally feel confident enough to wear a bikini. At least the top part. My ass is still "Missing In Action."

I gotta tell you, I TOTALLY feel like "The Girl from Ipanema." I feel like the hottest thing since Jalapeno sauce. I feel beautiful, and strong, and confident, and ALIVE.

Maybe it's because I survived 8 months in Gulu. Maybe it's because today is the 4 month anniversary of my sister's passing. Maybe it's because I'm staying at my brother Peter's fully furnished, completely SWEET condo near the beach with my best friend Faith and another friend Jamila, and Jamila is a gourmet cook, and I've been eating pain perdu with fresh macerated peaches and spinach and chicken crepes for breakfast every day. Or maybe it's because for the first time in a long time, I feel HAPPY, and I don't feel like I need a reason to be happy, or that maybe I should apologize for feeling confident and at peace.

Whatever. One thing I know for sure after 3 days in Rio...there is no problem so huge and insurmountable that putting on a skimpy bikini top, thrusting your titties out and strolling along a beach can't solve. Especially if you do it in Rio. Granted, 90 percent of the men and women here are Amazons, which could really mess with your head if you let it. I mean, it's like cellulite and beer guts are punishable by 25 years to life down here.

But that other 10 percent? I've seen some nipples dragging their own trail in the sand these past few days. I've seen men with so many wrinkles and hide so leathery, they look like alligator suitcases with legs. I've seen some things most people should not have to witness, unless they're being punished for some unspeakable crime.

Yet I've seen those things tied into thongs, draped by bandeau tops, stuffed into speedos, and hiked into booty shorts, and strutting down the beach as bold and bad as you please. After a couple of hours, I started to feel like Halle Berry. No, I take that back. I started to feel like Rachel Jones, and that Rachel Jones was perfectly fine just the way she was.

So, a hearty "Bom Gia" to you all! I'll try to post a picture of me on the beach later today. I almost didn't recognize myself when I saw it. I've never seen myself look so much like myself before.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

An Attitude of Gratitude

I had grilled bok choy for dinner last night. Oh, and some rosemary and garlic roasted chicken, and some Israeli cous cous.

The cost of this meal from Whole Foods could feed a family of four for a week where I just came from.

I am so, SO glad to be back in America.

I'm also very much transformed. I don't think I'll ever look at my life, or my world, in the same way again.

More later, once jet lag clears and I've downed a few caipirinhas on Ipanema Beach....I'm headed to Rio on Friday.

God is good. Life is good.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Last Night in Gulu

It’s 3:48 AM on Friday, February 8, 2008. In less than 12 hours, I’ll be a former resident of Gulu Town, Northern Uganda.

I just woke up and couldn’t get back to sleep because so many thoughts are racing through my mind. Oddly, one of them was that I wanted to be awake when the rooster next door starts crowing. It might be the last time in a long while that I’ll hear that sound, and I’ve really started to enjoy it.

Now, after all these months of whining about being exiled over here, I’m not going to be a hypocrite and start waxing poetic about life in Gulu. It is harsh, sometimes boring, and more often than not incredibly frustrating. Even so, I’m really gonna miss the cozy little cottage, and the impossibly still mornings on the compound at Plot 26, Samuel Doe Road. I’m gonna miss hanging out at the open air Bomah restaurant on a rainy night, listening to the pelting drops on the thatched roof and knocking back a few Tusker beers. I’m gonna miss rollin’ with my buddies Akiiki and The Intern, and I’m gonna miss hearing the journalists we work with describe how the Internews training transformed their lives and careers.

But mostly, I’m gonna miss having so little to distract me from what matters in this world. You know, minor things, like.........THE FATE OF MY FELLOW HUMAN BEINGS. Once jet lag subsides in a week or so, there’ll be so many options back home, so much access to stuff that can entertain or distract me. For example, there’ll be the soothing pablum of morning TV, which can’t get through an hour of programming without an update on Britney Spears. But just the other morning, on a BBC interview program called “Hard Talk.” I heard author Studs Terkel drop pearls of wisdom so riveting, I let my coffee get stone cold. His comments invigorated me more than caffeine ever could.

It’s been truly marvelous having access to so many international news sources, because for the first time in my life, really, I feel as much a global citizen as I am a U.S. citizen. It’s amazing how knowing the intricate details of the Serbian presidential election and the rioting in Kenya and the winter weather emergency in China can make you feel less foreign, less of a detached observer.

This experience has transformed my life, too. Without question, I am a different person than the woman who arrived in Gulu early last June. I’m tougher, smarter, and less afraid to be who I am. I’m a LOT less worried about what people think of me. I’m a lot more willing to forgive myself for mistakes, and to applaud myself when I’ve conquered a challenge.

I guess I just LIKE me a whole lot more than I did when I got here!

In a strange kind of way, Gulu also helped prepare me for my sister Julie’s passing. I used to be convinced I would never survive losing her. But after spending the four months prior to her death being constantly tested, pushed harder and harder to make sense of things, having to reach inside my gut to summon courage I didn’t even know I had, I finally understood what Julie faced every minute of every day of her life. If Julie could keep going, and vow daily to never give up, or give in, then I knew I must try and do the same.

I don’t know what tomorrow brings, other than a flight out of Entebbe airport, headed to Amsterdam, and then another flight to Washington Dulles. I gotta tell you, so often these past few months, it felt like this day would never come. On those nights when I cried myself to sleep, and then cried myself awake, my heart pierced by grief and loneliness, I didn’t think I could make it to this day sane and functional. The jury’s still out about the former, but there's no disputing the latter. I am a survivor.

"Through the fire, fine metal is made." "What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger." Maybe that’s what middle age is all about….realizing that those so-called “tired clich├ęs” are all irrefutably true, and that no matter how much pain and struggle you’ve faced in the past, it made you EXACTLY who you are at this very moment, and if you can honor and respect that, you’ll be one step closer to real peace of mind.

That’s where I am right now. I’m up for whatever life throws my way, because I spent the past 8 months in Gulu. Reaching that understanding has been the most rewarding journey of my life.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

"Oprah Light"

I went shopping today with Cissy and Stella, the 2 pre-teen girls I’m sponsoring this year as boarders at Mary Immaculate Primary School outside of Gulu. The headmaster, Sister Helen, had given me a list of items the girls would need when they report to Primary 6 on Monday.

As long as God lets me live, I will never forget the dazed gratitude on their thin little faces as Akiiki and I drove them from place to place shop for those things. First, the girls picked out two tin suitcases, with blue shapes stenciled atop the steel gray casing. Next, they got two twin foam mattresses and a set of sheets apiece…Cissy chose yellow, and Stella picked blue.

The girls would need 3 bars of bathing soap each, and 4 long, thin blue blocks of laundry soap. Cissy chose a 12-pack of pretty floral “knickers.” I keep forgetting about the colonial influence in Uganda, and I’m standing there scratching my head trying to figure out where the hell you’re supposed to buy knickers in the 21st century when Cissy handed me the package of panties. When I told Stella to pick out a pack, Cissy said, “Oh no, we will share these. Six for her, and six for me.”

I was floored. I mean, you just let some bleeding heart, deep-pocketed sponsor cart ME around Pentagon City Mall to buy whatever I want, and just SEE how many times I object to buying more than I actually need. Do NOT hold your breath, okay?? I’d be like, “Hell YEAH, let me get three of those bad boys.” But time after time, when I tried to suggest that maybe one set of pencils wasn’t enough, or that they might buy 3 fifty-cent towels instead of 2, the girls politely declined. “Two is enough,” they chirped.

For about 90 minutes, I was "Oprah Light." I will never feel as rich and powerful as I did this afternoon, watching those two excited girls pick out whatever they needed for school. Admittedly, the cynic in me expected them to spoil my charitable mood by asking for lipstick, or a purse, or maybe some glittery blouse that was totally inappropriate for a 12-year-old girl. I braced for the one request, the one furtive little glance or snicker behind my back that would unmask those girls as greedy little manipulators, and me as a hapless sucker with a target painted on her forehead. When, on WHEN am I gonna start closing my heart to sob stories and just let other people pull themselves up by their bootstraps like I did???

But then Cissy stopped in front of a stall that sold cheap polyester blankets with hideous designs on them. I’m talking one step beneath the “saucer-eyed dogs playing poker on velvet” scenario. The things made me itch just looking at them. I couldn’t help thinking those tacky little blankets would burst into flames if the sun shone directly on them; forget about a drop of candle wax or paraffin oil.

Watching Cissy and Stella oooh and ahhhh as they poked through the tacky textiles, I realized that we might as well have been standing in Neiman Marcus. It would take their families 7 days to earn the 7 dollars I would pay for each blanket. And for those girls, having something brand new, and just for them, was more than just a dream. Last year this time, as they prepared to return to school, they didn’t even have the 14 dollar fee to pay for both semesters. Now, they were on a shopping spree, buying new things they’d get to pack in their very own suitcases as they headed off to boarding school…..all expenses paid.

And oh, yeah, today’s shopping spree set me back a grand total of about $100.

I think I finally understand the real reason I'm sponsoring those girls. My mother’s mother’s name was Stella Jane. As I’ve already mentioned, Grandma Stella Jane crushed my mother Eloise’s dreams and ambitions for her future before they could even start to bud. My mother went straight from helping run a household with 8 younger siblings and two nutty parents in Philadelphia to Cairo, Illinois, where she would raise 10 more children and never, EVER get the chance to further her education, explore the world, define who she was and what she wanted from life.

So, dear Grandma Stella, with all due respect, IN YO’ FACE!!! Your granddaughter Rachel is making sure that one little girl who shares your name and lives in a mud hut with a thatched grass roof on the other side of the world gets to start the school year "living large and in charge."
I believe this will change Stella's life, and Cissy's life, and that they'll both start dreaming of the world outside of Gulu, and they'll get there one day, because they've already had this astounding miracle happen in their lives.

So, Granny, I hope that wherever your spirit is, it will find Mama’s spirit, apologize, and give it a big hug and a kiss on the cheek.