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

Monday, March 31, 2008

"BF ISO Love Zombie"

So I promised I’d write Part 2 of the “Ikbal, Lieven, Josie and Madi Story." Wanna hear it? Here it goes.

I’ve been thinking about those two couples a lot since our marvelous dinner party last week. Not just because of the amazing meal, either. Although in a way, the issue of nourishment is relevant to this discussion. In fact, I always think of the words “nourish” and “nurture” when I’m around a couple in a sane, healthy relationship. I know they’re a team because you always get the feeling their energies are so complementary, so in synch, so mutually beneficial, that these two people must feel like they’ve just finished a terrific meal whenever they’re together.

They’re totally stuffed, completely satisfied, and in no need to rush off and do anything else….except maybe fall asleep together curled up in a ball.

I know that’s veering dangerously close into the realm of mushiness, which I vowed I would not do in this posting. So let me get back on track. The main theme of today’s epistle is “focus.” It’s a word I use a lot in each of my journalism workshops. It’s something I try to browbeat the journalists into understanding, that keeping a tight focus on the theme of a feature story is crucial. It keeps your interview questions on track. It keeps you organized when you’re going through your interview notes. It keeps your writing tight and relevant.

It keeps you on point. So when I heard the stories about how Ikbal and Lieven and Madi and Josie became husbands and wives, it made me take a good hard look at my own state of singledom.

You see, Lieven and Madi developed a laser-lock focus when it came to pursuing Ikbal and Josie. You know how they say that men are like taxis, and when it comes to marriage, their light has to be on to indicate they’re available? Otherwise, all the sex and love and money and cooking and great physical beauty, or anything else a woman has to offer, won’t do the trick. A man has to make the internal, deeply psychological, intention-fueled decision that he has met the woman he wants to marry, for whatever reasons, and he has to come to that decision on his own.

When Ikbal met Lieven in Addis, she says her first impression was, “That man is a racist.” He was this big, lumbering Belgian with hair down to his waist and a gruff expression, and though he offered Ikbal an administrative job in the Medecins San Frontieres office there, she almost declined.

Turns out Lieven wasn’t a racist, just kind of shy and quiet. They worked well together, and then the project closed. AS he was leaving, Lieven told Ikbal he might be coming back to Addis, and asked for her contact information. Ikbal was not having any of THAT. Though they had managed to work together without problems, she didn’t want to stay in touch. So Ikbal told Lieven, “Everybody in Addis knows me. My name is in the wind. That’s how you’ll find me.”

Girlfriend pretty much figured she’d gotten rid of Lieven, until he showed up in Addis and tracked her down. He’d visit every few months for a week or so, and she’d be polite and friendly, but there ws still no interest on her part. Then one day Lieven called while Ikbal was in the hospital having some routine tests done. Her mother told him she couldn’t talk because she was in the hospital, without explaining why.

Lieven was in Nairobi at the time. The next day and 3 circuitous flights later, Lieven was at the hospital looking for Ikbal. Ikbal’s sister said, “Now, that’s a good guy.”

Here’s the focus of their story: Lieven wanted Ikbal, and that was that. Lieven even converted to Islam, because he knew Ikbal’s traditional father would probably rather see her dead than to marry a white non-Muslim. Ikbal’s brother flew to Nairobi to check the guy out, almost positive that he wouldn’t like what he found. He came back to Addis and said, “I have no complaints. I like the guy.”

Twelve years later, they’re married with 3 children, and the vibe you get from Lieven is total nourishment. This man has what he set his sights on, and he’s quite satisfied.

Madi’s laser-lock on Josie was about as intense. They had actually both grown up in the same village in Sierra Leone, but Josie’s family moved to Indiana when she was 12. They crossed paths a few times during return visits, because Madi was the brother of one of Josie’s friends. But Josie remembers Madi as shy, quiet, and bookish, certainly not the kind of boy SHE’D find interesting, with her vivacious energy.

Josie and Madi reconnected years later, at a party in Washington, DC. She was working for Voice of America, and he was in school in New York. Josie says they recognized each other instantly, and spent the rest of the party talking. Madi was going to school in New York at the time, and at the end of the evening he announced, “I may be moving to DC soon, and I would like to have your number.” Josie was a bit skittish about giving out her phone number, so she managed to dodge him a while. They separated, and Josie thought she could slip home without giving up the 10 digits. But as she was headed to the car with her friend, Madi walked up, tapped her on the arm and said, “You still haven’t given me your number.”

Josie thought she was being slick by giving him her work number. It was a Saturday evening, and she figured she could at least keep him in check until Monday. But she made the mistake of going into work on Sunday afternoon to finish up a story. The phone rings, and she picks it up as usual, answering with her name. On the other end, Madi says, “So, you gave me your work number instead of home.”


Anyway, eventually Madi did move to Virginia, and invited Josie to a barbecue at his apartment. He said his family would be there. Josie shows up at the appointed time, and ain’t no family there. Ain’t NOBODY there but Madi. Now, it wasn’t one of those sleazy scenarios, he just told her to come a few hours before the rest of the family showed up. They talked. And they talked some more.

They’ve been together ever since.

Okay, I share their stories because, as I said earlier, the two men in these scenarios created their own Vulcan mind meld with the women, whether the women knew it or not. Those two guys knew down to their toes that these were the women they wanted to marry, and they pursued it with all the energy, sincerity and creativity they possessed. For them, there was no other possible outcome.

Which brings me to the term “love zombie.” Granted, zombie is not the most flattering description, and in no way am I saying that Madi and Lieven are zombies. But you know how in the movies, zombies are all mesmerized, their arms straight out in front of them, heading straight at a cringing victim with relentless focus? Well, that’s kind of the way Lieven and Madi were with Josie and Ikbal! Not that they were all covered with gore, or missing an eye, or hell-bent on destruction. They just would not be distracted from their ultimate goal, that’s all I’m saying.

Their stories made me confront something very important about myself. AS I look back over my rather dysfunctional, barren relationship history, it all becomes crystal clear. At any given point, I was actually totally unfocused and ambivalent about the man I was with. As I tell people, I could have walked into a room filled with 100 men, and 99 of them could have been slobbering over themselves to get at me, and yet I would develop a laser-lock focus on the one man who totally ignored me.

What does that say, except that throughout my entire adult life I have had absolutely no intention of getting married, settling down, or sharing my life with someone? What does it say when I can recall several men through the years who were probably just as intensely focused about me as Lieven and Madi were their wives, and yet I KNOW I did everything humanly possible to rebuff, discourage and shut down their energy?

So what am I actually saying here? Basically, that I’ve been too damned satisfied to be by myself my entire life, and THAT’S why I’m not married. I’ve been too damned selfish to share my life with ANYONE…husband, boyfriend, booty call, baby---the whole nine. The beauty of getting older is that now, I can acknowledge that as the unvarnished truth, as opposed to 20 years ago, or 10 years ago, or even 5 years ago, when I interpreted all my pitiful attempts at dating as some sort of indictment of me and my worth.

God, I wish I had a dollar for every time I tortured myself for being not smart enough, not sexy enough, not nice enough, not pretty enough to get a man. It was always about me…I was alone because there was something wrong with ME. No man would EVER want me, because I was a loser. I was broken, I was damaged goods. I spent so much time despairing the fact that I would never be anybody’s wife, that I would never ever be able to say the words, “I’ll need to talk with my husband about this and get back to you.”

“My husband.” Two simple little words that seemed completely off limits to me.

But now I realize the real reason I was never be able to say “my husband” was because I just couldn’t be bothered. I was not about to have to order my life around somebody else’s needs or considerations. I was not about to have to ask some man for permission to waste my money on shoes and clothes. There was no way on God’s green Earth that I was EVER going to turn down a chance to travel, to take a last minute trip, to go off to Uganda for 8 months because some man didn’t want to go.

“Cool, stay your ass at home. I’m out.”

I guess this means I’ve been a self-centered loner my entire adult life. And I may continue
to be one. The reality is that, given my propensity for maximum freedom, fun and fulfillment,
I may never get married. But there’s also a chance that one day, I’ll meet someone who’s just as intensely focused on me as I am on him. Everybody keeps telling me that if (they say “when,” but I’m more of a realist) I meet the right man, it’ll hit me like a ton of bricks.

Or, in keeping with the title of this posting, it will turn me into a total “love zombie.” I’m actually kinda looking forward to it.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The Mother of Invention

I‘m at the airport in Abuja, headed back to DC for a hot minute. But I have to say the absolute highlight of this journey occurred last night. It was the most wonderful evening I’ve spent in a very long time. If nothing else, it was certainly the most multi-ethnic evening!

I was invited to a dinner party at the home of a woman named Ikbal. She’s a lovely 40-year-old Ethiopian married to a Belgian aid worker with UNICEF’s Immunization and Child Survival programs. Ikbal and Lieven have 3 of the most ethereally beautiful children I’ve ever seen. (That is, next to my adorable 7 year old godson Ty, and his big-eyed baby doll of an 18-month-old sister, Talia.)

Ikbal and Lieven are neighbors to Josie and Madi, a couple from Sierra Leone. Josie heads up the Internews journalism program here in Nigeria. Madi is her charming husband, who welcomed me into their home like I was family. Ikbal, Lieven, Madi and Josie live in one of the many expat compounds in Abuja, and they’ve created an amazingly close-knit, supportive community for themselves.

I won't even try to describe the marinated pepper steak in a mushroom cream sauce over baby potatoes that Ikbal whipped up in a jiffy last night. Instead, let’s just talk about Ikbal. I’d actually already met her the night before. At one point, during a barbecue thrown by a Kenyan neighbor named Rebecca, Ikbal grabbed my arm and led me to her townhouse, to show me some of the crafts she’s been working on.

By this point, I’ve traveled through Africa enough to be prepared for wanna be “artistes” trying to show me their etchings, or who want to help somebody else sell their etchings. Across the African continent, it is generally believed that the average American will mindlessly whip out his or her wallet and empty it on the nearest flat surface, eager to snatch up whatever trinket, African print cloth or vivid canvas is placed in front of them.

Speaking of flat surfaces, Ikbal led me to the glass coffee table in her second floor sitting room. The minute I saw it, I gasped. On that table lay the most exquisite African necklace I had ever seen. It was this slightly muted yet still vibrant shade of pale green, made of powder beads and old brass amulets and semi-precious stones and burnished pieces of old West African currency…all things she had spent the past 12 years collecting in myriad marketplaces. No African craftwork has ever made me come close to losing consciousness before, so I knew I was witnessing straight-up God given creativity.

But when I went to pick the darned thing up, I gasped again. You’d slip a freakin’ disc trying to flaunt that baby, it was so heavy! I was still stunned by its beauty, but politely mentioned that it was a mite too bulky to actually wear. That’s when Ikbal explained that it was not a necklace for a person to wear….it’s a necklace for a dining table, coffee table, or any type of surface, especially one exposed to a lot of light.

My heart literally skipped a beat. Now, I’ll never be accused of subscribing to Architectural Digest, so maybe this “table necklace” concept is old news to avid art collectors and expert interior designers. And I’ve seen enough of the large, ornate ropes of beads, seed pods, and other trinkets that are used to adorn walls and furnishings in Africa. But the concept of a necklace for a table that was just as beautiful and meticulously crafted as the piece of fine jewelry women usually wait for a major birthday to splurge on? Designed to accentuate a setting in a way that’s subtle and dazzling at the same time? AND which evokes the very spirit, drama and grandeur of West African history…..all to add the ultimate finishing touch to the perfectly set table?

I was still trying to wrap my mind around the first necklace when Ikbal left and came back with armfuls of her other creations, one in every possible combination of color, beading, craftwork, cola nuts, bronze pendants-one even had a tinkling bell from Cote D’Ivoire. And they’re so versatile. Some are designed so you can arrange part of it vertically and then splay the beadwork on each end across the table. You can wrap them around lamps, which instantly become the center of focus in any room. You can hang them on the wall or in a display case.

Okay, I’m gonna stop raving about Ikbal’s divine designs to insert a full disclosure notice here. ON THE SPOT, I vowed to help her market her fabulous work. Sure, I’m all about supporting a sister from across the Diaspora, but let’s keep it real up in here. I am also trying to get seriously PAID by hitching my little red wagon to an inspired idea.

Still, I couldn’t help feeling humbled in the face of such extraordinary talent and creative energy. I’m a reasonably intelligent, above average writer, a pretty good cook, and I'm a great dancer, when my hip joint isn’t locked up. But I harbor absolutely no delusions about possessing artistic genius. Or even artistic dull-wittedness, for that matter. I’m a wordsmith, not a silversmith. But I’ve used that ability to craft words to rise above poverty and hardship and travel around the world, doing exactly what my heart tells me to do.

On the other hand, Ikbal is an Ethiopian woman, the 9th of 12 children born into a Muslim family in Addis whose greatest expectation was for her to get married and have children one day.
Ikbal achieved that goal, and has followed her husband all over Africa to be the anchor for her family. She loves and is loved deeply by a wonderful man and said cherubic children, and readily admits how blessed she is to be engulfed by such a nurturing , life affirming vibration.

But even with so much to be thankful for, Ikbal still sought a form of self-expression that had nothing to do with diapers, UN dinner parties or cooking. She wanted to create something lasting that brings joy and energy and light into other people’s lives. Ikbal literally stumbled across this incredible talent only last September, when she was taking a jewelry-making class. It was the first time she’d felt free to take a break from being a full-time mother in 12 years, because her youngest child was just starting nursery school.

When her classmates started asking if they could buy the necklace she had made, and when the instructor asked if they could display it as an example of superior work, Ikbal’s vision of herself began to expand. THAT’S what made her grab my arm and lead me upstairs, not knowing whether I’d gasp in awe or hoot in derision. She took a chance.

Here’s another moment of full disclosure. I also wrote this post because after re-reading the last one, I find I’m tired of writing only about the plight of the diseased, oppressed African woman. That profile is in danger of becoming as much of an over-used stereotype as the blinged out African American hoochie. Ikbal reminded me that women all over the world are the same. They have the power to create, and they can express it in so many beautiful life-affirming ways, if given the opportunity.

My next posting will be Part Two of the Ikbal, Lieven, Josie and Madi Story, but from a different perspective. You see, it’s been a long time since I’ve pondered the whole “How the hell does anybody ever wind up getting married, especially since it’s never happened for me?” conundrum.

The title will be, “BF ISO Love Zombie.” I DOUBLE DOG DARE you not to read it.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

An Unequal Burden

If I’m gonna be completely honest with myself, the main reason I keep coming back to Africa is because of women like Josephine Yire. She’s a 40 year old Nigerian Civil Service health worker who looks old enough to be my grandmother.

Josephine is a patient at the National TB and Leprosy Training Center in Zaria. We met her last Wednesday, during the workshop field trip. Sadly, her story is just about typical for most women in Africa. She got married, had 3 children……and eventually contracted HIV. So what did her husband do when he got the news?

He divorced Josephine, ordered her out of the house, and forbid contact with their children. Because of course, she MUST have cheated on him. There’s no way HE could have contracted it from one of his 4 or 5 girlfriends, or the 2 or 3 co-wives. And here’s the thing….too often, in African cultures, when a woman is diagnosed with HIV, even her own family may abandon her, or accuse her of adultery.

I’m telling you, the vast majority of African women can’t catch a break, no way, no how.

But Josephine’s story has a more gut-wrenching sidebar, something that still haunts me. You see, a short time after Josephine’s husband kicked her out, she found a cramped, one room apartment just outside of Zaria, hoping to try and move on with her life. One day, her younger sister showed up, needing a place to live. Naturally, Josephine took her in, even shared her bed.

Now, that might not seem like such a heroic feat in a poor African village. But get this….Josephine’s younger sister had tuberculosis when she showed up on the doorstep. And Josephine knew it. AND Josephine works for the Nigerian Ministry of Health, so there’s overwhelmingly strong evidence that she was very familiar with how contagious and potentially deadly TB is.

When several of the journalists asked why on earth Josephine would expose her already weakened immune system to full-blown, possibly drug resistant TB, she replied by saying she didn’t want to make her sister feel abandoned. If she had asked her to sleep outside, or use different plates or spoons, her sister would have felt rejected. For Josephine, there WAS no choice….a strong family tie wound up binding her in a deadly grip.

Now, I love my sister Marilyn a lot, but if she showed up on my doorstep coughing up a lung, I would politely instruct baby girl to log on to and see what kind of a deal she could rock. I mean, I’d certainly call her every day, sometimes even twice, but she most definitely wouldn’t be sharing my bed. (Hell, NOBODY has shared my bed for a pathetically long period of time, so I don’t think breaking that streak with plague victim is the smartest way to go.)

But every minute of every day, African women must confront the issue of choice….or to put it more accurately, lack of choice. No choice about who or when you marry, no choice about whether your husband takes one or 7 more wives, no choice about refusing sex when you have strong evidence that your husband is screwing everything with a pulse…..and no choice about whether to abandon a loved one with cholera, typhoid, meningitis, TB or HIV.

Desperate poverty robs a woman of so very much, it’s almost incomprehensible.

Except for whenever I see a woman like Josephine, or a woman walking down a dusty road in a village early in the morning balancing a 20 liter jug of water from a filthy stream a couple of miles away, or a huge bundle of wood that would cause major cranial injury to the average American woman.

Usually, that woman has a baby tied to her back and a little one walking beside her, and she’s headed back to her hut to cook breakfast and wash clothes for the family, knowing that in about 6 hours, she’ll have to repeat the whole process by heading back to that stream to get 20 more liters of filthy water to cook dinner and wash clothes.

When I lead journalism trainings, I don’t discriminate against or ignore the male reporters. I think my very presence as workshop leader helps chip away at their hard-wired negative opinions about a woman’s intelligence and capability. But if I’m really gonna be completely honest with myself, I keep coming back because I want to create a vast army of women journalists who can critically analyze these issues and produce thoughtful, enlightening, human stories about the plight of women and children on the continent.

No delusions of grandeur for me, eh?? Maybe the term “vast army” is a bit over the top, but I truly feel I’ve made a difference each time a woman journalist has thanked me for my help, and keeps in touch to ask for advice about a story, or get some virtual editing. Because what I do is truly needed, I will continue to choose to battle jetlag, abysmal lodgings, maniacal mosquitoes, and whatever else it takes to keep doing this type of work.

Because in a way, I don’t have a choice.

Monday, March 17, 2008

The Luck of The Irish Cream

Thank God for Bailey’s. They’ve just launched a new coffee-flavored version that’s simply yummy. I bought a bottle of it, and a bottle of their Crème Caramel libation, during my marathon layover at Heathrow Wednesday. (Hey, it was on sale!)

I suspect there won’t be a drop left by the end of this week.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Achieving Zen in Zaria

Note to self: It pays to nail down the details of international travel before you actually get to your destination.

Following my exit from Gulu last month, I was so focused on American food, family and friends, I didn’t get around to focusing on this latest Nigeria journalism training until I was almost headed to Dulles last Tuesday. In fact, it wasn’t until I’d been in Abuja for a full 24 hours that I learned the workshop on TB and HIV reporting wouldn’t even BE in Abuja. It’s actually taking place in a city called Zaria, about two and half hours north of Abuja.

That was welcome news. Other than The "Great Gulu Outward Bound Caper," most of my time in Africa has been spent in capital cities….Accra, Addis Ababa, Abuja. While I was in Uganda, Kampala was a total lifeline, because short trips there gave me a brief respite, a welcome reminder of the urban life I’d left behind in DC. I think it’s safe to say that going forward, if I were ever to actually live in Africa, it would have to be in a capital city.

That doesn’t mean I’m not down for traveling just about anywhere on the continent to do journalism trainings. But I’d have to know that at the end of a few weeks or so, I could head back to home base. So when I learned the workshop would be in Zaria, where the only TB/HIV hospital in Nigeria is located, it didn’t faze me. After all, I’ve stayed at Northern Uganda hotels I wouldn’t house a dog in. I’ve curled up in a tight ball in the center of a bed with sheets so suspiciously gray, I spent the entire night trying to will myself to levitate about a half inch above the mattress, better to avoid the virulent case of eczema, psoriasis or trench rot I’d surely develop. I’ve hovered under mosquito nets with my iPod going full blast to drown out the mosquitoes buzzing around my head.

Surely, the Teejay Palace Hotel in Zaria, Nigeria couldn’t be any worse. (Life Lesson Number 2: While traveling in Africa, if you should come across a hotel with the word "Palace" in its title, better you should slit your own throat than book a room there.)

Of COURSE it could!! Come on, people, don’t act like you aren’t aware that “Misadventure” is my middle name! My first clue about what to expect came during the drive up to Zaria. I slept most of the way thanks to the last stages of jet lag, but when I was conscious, the surroundings looked eerily like Gulu. Still, I’d been told Zaria was a university town, so I rather naively hoped the best hotel and conference center in town would offer decent, if spare accommodations.

Right now, I’m sitting in one of the “suites” at the Teejay, and I’m reminiscing about sultry nights in Gulu. That’s because the local mosquitoes have begun their tactical offensive, aptly titled, “Operation Bite the Shit Out of the African American Woman Who Keeps Bringing Her Ignorant Ass Over Here For Us to Feast On.” Because it’s a suite, I have a bedroom AND a sitting room. Of course, the sitting room has no air conditioning, which should preclude any actual sitting there once the temperature reaches 108. Mercifully, there’s a wall air-conditioning unit in the bedroom.

Imagine a jackhammer going at full blast right next to a cement mixer in the middle of Manhattan rush hour traffic. That’s what the air conditioner in this room sounds like. That is, when it’s not lurching to a halt like a derailing freight train. Then there’s about 10 seconds of silence before the cement mixer scenario kicks back in. But there’s a plus side…..the electricity just went off, so that may provide some blessed quiet until somebody can go fire up the smelly diesel generator.

Besides, total darkness prevents you from seeing the lone towel in the bathroom that’s so stained, it looks like the entire defensive squad of the New England Patriots wiped their sweaty groins with it. Thank God for facial cleansing cloths and Wet Ones….they’ll last me until I can buy some towels tomorrow….that is, I HOPE I can buy some towels………

Okay, why am I dumping this on you, gentle readers? Surely, you’re somewhere out there thinking, “What the hell is Rachel moaning about NOW???? Nobody forced her to go back to Africa.” But the thing is, I’m really NOT complaining about the situation. I’m merely writing about it to process yet another milestone in my psychosocial development. You see, about 20 minutes ago, I discovered that the Teejay Palace Hotel has wireless Internet. I’m sitting in my noisy-assed, mosquito infested bedroom typing this posting to you while I’m on the Internet. In Zaria, Nigeria. (Which if Gulu is Satan’s Buttcrack, Zaria is most assuredly his left armpit.)

Being connected to the outside world while bracing for a week’s stay at Motel 666 somehow helps ameliorate these temporary discomforts and assaults to my finely-tuned aesthetic sensibilities. First of all, I could probably buy the hotel with what I paid for this laptop. Second, I can communicate with anybody anywhere in the world with it….something that about 90 percent of Africans still don’t have the ability to do. Third, I get to add another notch on my travel belt…another district heard from, so to speak.

But most of all, tomorrow morning, I get to jump right back into journalism training mode, talking with my African colleagues about the thing I love most…writing, reporting and telling stories. I get to tap into my own growing sense of awareness about major issues in the world, and I get to urge those journalists to share my enthusiasm about making a difference through their craft. I get another chance to add meaning and measure to my time on this earth, and to avoid the fate of people like the whining crybabies the Roman Philosopher Seneca wrote about, the ones who spend so much time bemoaning the passage of time that their lives and energies are completely wasted.

Basically, I’ve had to go all Zen about this experience before I go all crazy because of it. Been there, done that, got the nervous tick and the deflated ass to prove it. Going Zen feels a whole lot healthier.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

It's Hard Out Here For a 'Ho...Especially One With Hot Flashes

If I’m going to keep traveling in Africa, I’m really going to have to make peace with the fact that everywhere I go, people will automatically conclude I’m a ‘ho.

It was funny for about 5 minutes when I was in Uganda, especially whenever I was with The Intern, my 23 year old white colleague. The thought of that strapping young lad paying me for sex just tickled me to death. First of all, it’s been so long, I’ve forgotten most of the logistics. The kid would have been entitled to a partial refund even if money had exchanged hands.

Mostly, I just couldn’t understand how people reached that perfectly absurd conclusion given the prevailing physical evidence. Don’t get me wrong…my self-esteem is actually quite strong. But my feminine charms are not even remotely close to “hoochie grade.” For example, I wore sequins ONCE during my entire stay in Uganda, and maybe applied full make-up twice. I never purposely flaunted my boobies, or flirted or smiled seductively at total strangers in bars. On mornings when water pressure was non-existent, deodorant and toothpaste were optional.

Bottom line? Most days, I looked like I’d been rode hard and put up wet. (Come to think of it, that’s probably not the best metaphor to use in this discussion, but for those of you who DON’T have filthy minds, that expression means I looked like a tired old workhorse who’d been sent to the barn ungroomed after a long day’s work).

Honestly, I've never exhibited any ‘ho’ish behavior in my entire life. No outrageously long fake nails or “unbe-weavable” hairdos. No painfully tight jeans or plunging cleavage or 4 inch heels. Basically, the only thing that could remotely lead to the conclusion that I’m a prostitute is the fact that I’m a female of African descent traveling alone.

I hope I don’t sound like I’m whining here, because there are a lot worse things that could be happening to me. In fact, I could actually BE one of the slim, pretty, tarted up young ladies who even as I type these words are draped across couches in the bar at the Nicon Luxury Hotel in Abuja. (Life Lesson Number 1: if you are ever traveling through Africa and come across a hotel with the word “Luxury” in its name, RUN, DO NOT WALK in the other direction. You are being hoodwinked, bamboozled and led astray. You will intensely regret the experience.) I actually COULD be one of these girls with no education, no family support, and no reason NOT to try and eke out a living allowing repulsive strangers to use their bodies like a public toilet.

But I’m NOT one of those girls. But that doesn’t matter. About an hour after checking in yesterday, I was on the elevator when a Nigerian businessman joined me, his suitcase and satchel in tow. I smiled and said hello, and he responded, “I like your structure. You take care of yourself. Here is my card, I am in room xxx.”

It took a few minutes to process the interaction. He “liked my structure”??? Once I figured it out, I actually thought it was kind of cute. It was certainly a lot less crude than some of the comments I’ve heard on the streets of the US. I mean, back in the day, when I actually had an ass, it garnered a wide range descriptive adjectives. Still, mild amusement quickly changed to shock…..this dude had just handed me his business card and suggested that I stop by his room, like I was some sort of room service order he could place at his leisure.

Okay, I ain’t gon’ lie. After guiltily savoring the Eliot Spitzer debacle this past week, I definitely experienced a Garden of Gethsemane moment. If homey had been SUPER fine, and seriously bringin’ the bling, I may have tried to rock a deal. Shoot, $4,300 for 2 hours work ain’t nothing to sneeze at. Granted, the workin’ gals of Africa don’t pull anywhere near that much paper, but ain’t no shame in trying to get a few months’ car notes cleared up.

Obviously, you all know I’m kidding, right? Mostly…..

Anyway, the experience was a harsh welcome back into African culture. But I really couldn’t dredge up the energy to be outraged or offended. After all, I’m gonna be here for 2 weeks, and I knew it was just the beginning. In fact, just 10 minutes ago, one of the hotel security staff walked up to me and kindly requested that I sit up straight on the couch I’m perching on.

You know how sometimes when you travel and decide you don’t want to spend all your time holed up in your hotel room, so you go down to the lobby or to the bar area and you settle onto a comfy couch, stretch your legs and get down to some serious e-mailing or writing? That’s precisely what I was doing. And yes, it’s pretty obvious that the glittery girls sitting on three or four of the other couches are plying their trade, but shouldn’t you be able to look at me peering at my laptop screen and realize I’m a business traveler trying to unwind while getting some work done?

Apparently not. Mr. Security guard came over to me and said, “Excuse me, we don’t allow legs on the couch.” I looked at him like he’d lost his damned mind and requested an explanation. He said, “Because this is a hotel.”

No shit, Sherlock! I’m PMS-ing BIG TIME, so I snapped, “I’ve been in hotels all over the world, and no one has ever objected to me getting comfortable on a couch.” But that cut no ice with Mr. Security. He stood there staring at me with a blank, imposing expression until I turned around, legs closed and facing forward like a good girl. Then I added, “By the way, I’m not a prostitute, if that’s what you’re worried about.”

He mumbled and walked away. And I couldn’t help thinking that if I’d been a white woman dressed exactly the same way, doing the exact same thing, that security guard wouldn’t have come near me. I also couldn’t help remembering that brief moment last year, when I was almost flattered that somebody thought I was young enough and hot enough to be a ‘ho.

I’m definitely hot, all right. It got up to 107 degrees in Abuja today, and the air conditioning in this hotel is pitiful.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The Heart DOES Go On...........

So I’m winding down the homestretch of a 14 hour layover in London's Heathrow Airport, and I’ve just heard the most craptastic Muzak version of Celine Dion’s “The Heart Does Go On” ever committed to public airwaves. After that abomination, my teeth ache, and my ears are almost bleeding.

On the other hand, hearing that song reminded me that two years ago today, my sister Julie learned she had colon cancer. I’ll always remember the grim face of the young doctor who broke the news. He was slightly built with reddish blonde hair, and when he first came into Julie’s room at Hahnemann Hospital in Philadelphia, all he said was, “Mrs. Newell, where is your husband? I think he needs to be here.” Ron had stepped down the hall, probably for one of his life-sustaining Pepsis and a bag of Fritos, which is all he ever ate during Julie’s hospital stays. My gut lurched, and I wondered why my friendly banter wasn’t eliciting a smile, chuckle, or at least some slight cordial acknowledgement from the young whippersnapper doctor.

I’ve used this blog to chart several significant sea changes in my life, and I know I’ve proclaimed each one more profound than the last. But this time, I can truly say that the moment the words “Stage 3 colon cancer” left that doctor’s mouth, I experienced what was nothing less than an out-of-body experience. I vividly remember the puzzled disbelief on Julie’s face, and Ron’s stunned shock. I was sitting on the edge of the bed holding Julie’s hand, but somehow, I was also looking down on the entire scene. I remember having about a millisecond to stifle the wailing moan rumbling up my throat, and feeling more freezing cold to the bone than ever before in my life.

But at that same instant, some psychic tectonic plate shifted, and I also remember thinking, “I will not fall apart. I cannot fall apart. I have to be strong, for Julie.”

So I just crawled into bed beside her and held her while she cried. And I also told her that I’d be there for her, no matter what.

I’ve done a lot of gallivanting since March 12th, 2006. Been to Ethiopia and Nigeria and Uganda and Kenya and Brazil. God willing, I’ll continue to travel, see new places, meet new people, try to make a difference in the world. I’ll be in Abuja, Nigeria for 2 weeks starting tomorrow morning, and then on April 11th, I’ll spend 2 weeks in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Who knows what May will bring….maybe a return trip to Uganda….or a job working the drive thru at Chick-Fil-A. I mean, I don’t want to be presumptuous or anything.

Life is so unpredictable.

Still, no journey I’ll ever take for the rest of my life will compare with the path I walk
each day, trying to make a life for myself in a world without Julie. At some point daily, I find myself amazed that I’m still sane. I never thought I’d get to this place, emotionally.

So, even though some crappy elevator music has me about ready to blubber into my plate of already watery spaghetti carbonara, I’m grateful for the poignant reminder that the heart DOES go on.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

March Forth!

Hey, y’all!

I’m back, I’m black, and I’m better than ever!

That’s just my way of saying I think my re-entry into American society is complete. I've spent the past 3 weeks playing hooky.....first a week in Brazil, and now in Atlanta, visiting my sister Marilyn and her husband John, and my Rio galpal Jamila. It almost feels like I’ve never been away….except for reminders like the scars from where I clawed at bug bites, and my fascination with light switches that actually illuminate every time you flip them. Every day is a marvel of paved roads, hot water on full blast, and dessert.

I can’t underestimate how glad I am to be back in the US of A. But at the same time, I’ve also made peace with the fact that my work with Internews over the past 5 years has been the closest thing to a “calling” I’ve ever experienced. As I predicted, I’ve been away from Gulu 3 weeks, but I miss working with the journalists. I miss their energy and enthusiasm, and I miss editing their scripts and pushing them to be more creative.

The good news is I’ll get to keep doing it during monthly commutes to Africa. Internews has decided that even though I'm virtually brain-dead as a manager, I'm quite useful as a trainer. So, I head to Nigeria March 11th and Ethiopia on April 11th. If I’m lucky, I’ll be doing once-a-month gigs for the near future…traveling around the African continent for Internews working with African print and broadcast journalists who cover urgent, complex issues.

Come to think of it, it was about last year this time I learned about the Gulu job. At the time, I was stagnating at work, licking my wounds from yet another disastrous interlude, and preparing for a visit from my sister Julie. She had received her colon cancer diagnosis in March of 2006, and on St. Paddy's Day that year, a surgeon pronounced her emergency surgery a complete success, and that they'd gotten all of the cancer cells. In March 2007, we were going to celebrate the one year anniversary of that joyous news. It was the perfect time for me to consider tackling the Gulu job. By that point, after all our family had been through, the prospect of living in a former war zone didn't seem so far-fetched.

A year later, I’ve quit my job, haven’t had a single date, spent 8 months living in Uganda and survived Julie's death.

And I’m still marching forth. I’m telling you people, I am so incredibly amazed, humbled and grateful for that. As I’ve told everybody who stands still long enough, I’m happy, and not because of a man or a windfall or the miraculous re-appearance of my rump. (Minutes after I arrived in Atlanta, my sister Marilyn commented on my weight loss by saying, “What happened to your butt?? It’s concave!”) For absolutely no reason at all, I’m gripped by an inexplicable, ongoing sense of contentment, a feeling that even though I have no idea what tomorrow will bring, I’ll be totally and completely all right.

Funny, but I can't shake the sneaking suspicion that this is the way I’m SUPPOSED to feel most of the time. Imagine that.