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, July 28, 2008
Besides, there was so much hype around Eckhart Tolle's self-help book "The Power of Now,"
that I was almost tempted to dismiss it just on GP. I mean, it's easy for Oprah to "revel
in the moment"....hell, if I was worth a billion dollars, I'd be grinning like an idiot 24-7. I know money can't buy happiness, but you can definitely rent to own with that much cheddar.
But I've done enough self-help surfing through the years to have a healthy respect for the art of consciousness-raising. If I'm honest with myself, I've moved through my own life in a cloud of denial in a lot of ways, making the same mistakes over and over because I just didn't believe life could be any different.
Through the years, books like "The Power of Positive Thinking," "Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway," and "A Return to Love" have been enormously helpful to me. It's not that my life changed overnight after reading them, but it was like a layer of dead skin got sloughed off, moving me a few inches closer to a sense of renewal.
But if you've been reading my blogposts lately, you might be thinking I must have the hide of an elephant, because there still seems to be plenty of dead skin shrouding my consciousness. In the past week alone, I've pretty much resigned myself to being a lonely spinster the rest of my life!! Part of that mindset is due to the gloomy weather we've been having in Nairobi the past few weeks...and well, you know already know in nauseating detail about what the rest of it is due to.
So while I was sitting in Salon Narcisse at the Sarit Centre on Saturday afternoon, waiting to get my locks re-twisted, I fished around in the bottom of my bag and dragged out "The Power of Now." I'd shoved it in there on the way out the door, thinking that since I'd be trapped in a salon chair for a couple of hours, maybe I could actually force myself to read it.
I'm so glad I did. I'll explain why by sharing an e-mail I sent to my friend Ron the next day, after he'd read my blogposts and concluded that we were in the same boat...
"Dude, we are ALWAYS in the same boat...the "SS Single, Middle-Aged and Fabulous" !!!!
Actually, I reached another epiphany this weekend, as I lay around like a slug for the most part. As I re-read my recent blogposts about being ambivalent and menopausal, I realized I was playing the same old recording I've been blasting at peak volume this past decade or so, entitled "Rachel the Also-Ran." If I didn't have "My So-Called Bitter Life" to use on as comic relief, half of my blog material would instantly disappear!!!
But something finally forced me to pick up "The Power of Now" and start reading it. Man, did I ever get a wake-up call!! Bottom line, I'm spending WAAAAAYYYY too much time chewing over the past and bracing myself for a future that I've already declared barren and lonely!! So much so that I've almost totally obliterated any possibility of enjoying "NOW."
A consciousness-raising like that one was better than dropping acid!!! I'm not saying I'm walking around on Cloud 9 all of a sudden, but I definitely received a serious psychic tummy-tuck. I loved the concept of "The Pain Body," the aspect of the mind that keeps you totally focused on everything lacking and negative, and all the old hurt and rejection and loss. That aspect feeds on pain, and until you recognize it, your mind just keeps shoveling it fuel like coal!
Well, I'm gonna try to be more conscious of how I see myself and where I am. And I'm NOT going to rely on old scenarios or future fears. Let's see where that attitude takes me!!!!!"
Holla back, yo,
Ron, being the ever helpful friend, sent me another tool to help me stay in the moment....
"Another thought that returns to me from time to time is a quote that I believe Jamie Foxx shared when he won his Oscar (or some other award, maybe for "Ray"). I think he dedicated the award to his grandmother or auntie or someone who always encouraged him to stick to his dreams and take pride in his accomplishments and in his hard work, and told him to stand tall and keep moving forward and "ACT LIKE YOU BEEN SOMEWHERE."
I just fucking love that quote - at one point was going to do a gallery show based on it and I might yet - but it pops into my head sometimes when I walk into a bar or party or wherever, and feel inferior or like time has passed me by or whatever, and (often) I snap out of it, realizing the work i've done and places i've been and friends I have - like you!
And you should do the same. So the next time you feel these anxieties creeping up, take a deep breath and say in the voice of Jamie's gramma, "Girl, Act Like You Been Somewhere!" Then make a list of several good things you can do for others in the next 24 hours - either a helpful email to a friend afar, or something extra for the Nation crew, or a new neighbor in the Westlands - that will go a long way to reaffirm that you are not in this mess alone!"
Do I have great friends or what?? WOW!
Friday, July 25, 2008
Watching survivors of the 1994 Rwandan genocide explain how they cope with unimaginably horrific memories and loss, I finally got it. It doesn't matter whether I'm single or married, young or old, straight, gay, rich, poor, black, yellow, whatever. It doesn't matter
if I live another 40 years or another 40 minutes.
What matters is what I do with the time I have left. The Rwandan survivors who tend the stacks of skulls and bones piled in former churches where tens of thousands of people were slaughtered have decided they must accept that responsibility. Many of those bones belonged to scores of their own relatives, but it doesn't really matter does it? Those bones all belonged to someone's family. Besides, if they weren't doing that, where could they even begin to try and seek revenge?
I can't stop thinking about one woman in the film. Her entire family was shot and bludgeoned to death. She managed to survive, left for dead in the pile of carnage. She lay there for days before anyone found her. During that time, she remembers being desperately thirsty.
There was no water, but she was lying in a pool of blood. The blood of her husband, and children, and parents, and siblings. At first she took one lick. But then she started lapping at the blood. It did not quench her thirst, but she kept drinking.
That's when my epiphany hit. Suddenly, NOT having a husband didn't seem so bad, when I think of that woman drinking her husband's blood to stay alive. Suddenly, I remembered the very moment I wanted to become a writer--when I finished the last page of "The Grapes of Wrath." As I imagined the grief-stricken Rose of Sharon agreeing to nurse a dying man with breast milk that should have been for her stillborn child, THAT was the first time I ever confronted the depth of horror that being human could yield.
But it was also the first time I realized the incredible power at our disposal, the truly awe-inspiring choices we confront at various points, and how we handle them. And I remembered that if you're as lucky as I have been in my life, you can choose to focus on what you don't have, or you can choose to be grateful for what you do have, and use it to make a positive difference.
I never expected to leave that screening feeling so buoyant.
Thursday, July 24, 2008
If I timed it right, I could get home in time to watch Joyce Meyer doing her shtick. By now, I'm used to the fact that 3 of any 5 African TV channels offer religious programming only. In fact, somewhere I have a CD copy of my very own appearance on a Ugandan religious channel program, TV Wa's weekly show, "The Bitterest Experience." Last November, this sweet, round little nun named Sister Jo corralled me into a guest appearance on "TBE," which is produced by the Catholic diocese in Lira, Uganda. The invitation came shortly after I'd gotten back to
Uganda from my sister's funeral. As I was telling Sister Jo about the past few years of
family tragedy, she absolutely beamed! Without a single word of comfort or consolation, Sister Jo proclaimed my life PERFECT material for her program about being a hardcore "Bad Luck Schleprock" and living to tell the tale.
Imagine that. And I didn't even tell her about my dating history.
But I digress. I've taken to watching Joyce Meyer whenever I think about it because it's good old, down home entertainment, pure and simple. The woman has the nerve of a brass monkey (to borrow that phrase from my late mother, Eloise, even though it really doesn't make a lot of sense because if a monkey is made of brass, he probably doesn't have any nerve endings, does he???). Joyce Meyer, Creflo Dollar, Joel Osteen.....they're all cut from the same mold. They're "saving souls" and getting paid in the shade sipping cold lemonade. It kinda irks me when I hear about their crusades through Africa, where they're urging desperately poor people to "give til it feels good," but that's where you gotta give it to 'em in the nerviness category. And sometimes they even say something that relates to my life. So I kill a few minutes watching them...so sue me.
Anyway, Joyce Meyer and a bowl of Mama Rachella's spaghetti is about all I'm usually up for after a crazy day in downtown Nairobi. But check me out.....I'm going out again tonight!! This time, I'm headed to the Goethe Institute for the screening of a couple of Rwandan films. One is about Rwandan women in Parliament, the other about survivors of the 1994 genocide.
Talk about your yin and yang of life. But I've always been intrigued by African film, and have vowed to spend this next year learning as much as I can about it. This seems like a great way to start. Only this time, I'm not heading into this evening expecting it to lend a much-needed jolt to my social life. I'm certainly not looking to meet anybody, because I'm finally convinced that everybody in the entire world who wants a mate has already found him or her, leaving me ass out when it comes to the prospect of a relationship, I'm afraid.
All right, maybe I'm not completely doomed, but I am done with trying to force things. I'm letting life happen from now on. If the book of my life has a loving man in it, just for little old me and me alone, I'm looking forward to meeting him.
If not, well, at least I'll be insanely well-versed in African cinema.
Wednesday, July 23, 2008
My debut into the expat journo scene was a wash. There were no romantic prospects, and the panel discussion was led by a couple of British males who seem to think they hung the moon. I call them "AP Reporters." That stands for "arrogant pricks." It was an interesting debate, about how foreign (e.g. white trust fund babies like Ernest Hemingway and Karen Blixen) have shaped the perception of Africa through the decades. I contributed my two cents, but it was nothing to stick around for.
I'm not saying I won't venture out any more, but I will say this....if Mr. Right doesn't crawl into my freezer and wait patiently for me to open the door and gouge him in the ass with a spoon, I'll probably spend the rest of my life single.
Tonight, I'm attending the launch of the Kwani Litfest, whatever the hell that is, at the Royal Media House, off Dennis Pritt Road, wherever the hell THAT is. At 7 PM, there will be a panel about how foreign correspondents have shaped the literary image of Africa. Thinking strategically, I concluded there may be quite a few expat journos in attendance, and it could be a way to meet interesting single men. I guess.
I don't know, I'm feeling kind of ambivalent about it today. Actually, I've been feeling that way a lot lately. Not about work, mind you...the challenge is way too big for that. It's just that in my personal life....or lack thereof......I've been decidedly, determinedly, and indubitably disaffected.
I just don't care. No, let me take that back. In one sense, I DO care--a great deal. We're all adults here, so I really don't have to spell it out for you.....it would be nice to get sweaty for reasons other than severe hormonal imbalance every now and again. I mean, REALLY nice. I could tell you how long it's been since that happened, but I'm not trying to write Greek tragedy here.
Here's the deal. When it comes to actually summoning the mental energy, initiative, and effort it requires to venture out, present an attractive, appealing commodity, and then initiate the interpersonal two-step required to spark a potential "connection," hell, I'd rather have some gelato. I swear to God, you put a tall, dark, handsome, muscular young Kenyan besides a bowl of Italian Kiss gelato from the Sweet Temptations shop in the Sarit Centre Mall, and I would choose the gelato without blinking or thinking.
I fear this must be a pretty strong indication that my libido has completely shriveled, just like my reproductive organs have by now. I haven't had a visit from Aunt Flo in almost 3 months, and my hot flashes and mood swings have been absolutely punishing. I mean, every single day I'm sitting in the middle of the newsroom fanning myself, literally dripping with sweat, during what Kenyans call their "winter." My internal thermostat is completely broken, and any type of activity, even the burning of calories from a meal, creates a wave of thermo-nuclear agony that leaves me beyond miserable. Each night, the minute the door shuts behind me at the Lizard Apartments, I immediately start peeling off clothing and head straight to one of two standing fans in the apartment. I turn that sucker up as high as it'll go and pretend I'm not posessed by some evil spirit bent on causing me to spontaneously combust.
With all my heart, I wish that last paragraph was a literary exaggeration. But it's not. I have reached the point where I'm PRAYING for infertility, BEGGING God or Buddha or whoever's in charge to just shut my reproductive shit down so I can get on with my life. I don't CARE if no man under the age of 60 ever winks at me again, or if this means I am completely relinquishing the power to create life and officially embracing my lot as a "Dried Up Old Maid."
Please, for the love of all that's holy, would my freakin' Follicle Stimulating Hormones just dry up and leave me the hell alone?????? Can I please just enter menopause and be done with it?
It is in that spirit that I embark upon my inaugural journey into the Nairobi cultural scene tonight. (Just imagine the hordes of enamored swains I will attract with that kind of energy swirling around me.) However, there is about a half a gallon of gelato waiting for me in my freezer, just in case I get so pissed off sitting in rush hour traffic that I snap at the driver to just screw it and take me home, dammit.
Sigh. I'll let you know what happens.....
Sunday, July 20, 2008
I am pretty much a closeted hermit. I spend way too much time by myself, and during about 70 percent of that time, I'm perfectly content. I've written before that I have an incredibly vibrant, if borderline loopy inner life, which means I'm actually pretty good company for myself. I've never really needed to have a lot of people around me, for some reason.
But I've always believed that if at any point in my life, if I really WANTED to have a swingin' social life, I could.
I became fully convinced of that during my years as a freelance writer for the Delta Airlines Shuttle Magazine in Washington. As the person responsible for exploring DC's culinary and cultural scene, I wound up on everybody's list. There were weeks when I was at a restaurant opening or exhibition or party every single night. I mixed and mingled beautifully, if I do say so myself. So much so that even after that gig ended in 2000, I was STILL invited to every splashy restaurant or hotel opening, still a much sought after warm body to fill a coveted seat at some high profile event.
And then I moved to Northern Uganda, where all of that interpersonal revelry came to a screeching halt. I was a 45 year old woman in a, shall we say, culturally-limited remote African village where electricity was optional...forget about mixing and mingling. As for my potential pool of social companions, most of the humanitarian aid workers were nauseatingly idealistic Europeans and European Americans in their mid-20s who were immutably convinced that they had the solution to world poverty. Their idea of a social life was to get wasted and have sex with anything that wasn't nailed down, all while listening to obnoxiously loud music. The rest were bitter, cynical 50-something European and European American aid workers who were pretty much fed up with the ignorance and greed of the local power structure, were abusive to their African staffers, and had lost that idealistic zest for saving the world. They were just holding on by their fingernails until the next posting in the next country, where they would ALSO be infuriated by ignorant, greedy local politicians and wind up drinking too much, being even MORE abusive to their African staffers and eventually be permanently relieved of their duties.
The whole time I was in Gulu, I had nobody to talk to, nobody to hang out with. Oh, sure, it was fun rollin' with The Intern every now and then, and I appreciated having a fellow American to relate to. The Ugandan Technical Consultant, Akiiki, was a married man separated from his wife and 2 young children; most of the time, he was totally preoccupied by long distance family crises....that is, when he wasn't working insane hours for the program. The contacts I made with other expats were fleeting at best; the few interesting people I met were usually just in town for a few days before moving on, or they were based in Kampala.......6 hours south of Gulu.
At this point, you may be pondering another fairly obvious option....bonding with local residents. For example, I suppose I could have worked harder to be friends with the vivacious Jane, who owned the only decent restaurant in Gulu. She was married with grown children, about two years older than me, and very friendly. We kept saying we'd get together at some point to cook our favorite dishes, either at her home or my cottage, but we never got around to it. Or I could have accepted the numerous invitations to attend local churches, but I really didn't see any point to that. Besides the fact that most services were conducted in the local languages, there wasn't much hope of building any lasting connections there. Mostly because I didn't see myself being "Born Again" just to have somebody to go drinking with a coupla times a week.
What I'm trying to say is that I never made a single friend during my time in Gulu, and that solitary sojourn definitely took its toll. On the other hand, I've only been in Nairobi 3 weeks, and I've already made contact with quite a few folk. In fact, one of those interesting, age-appropriate people I met briefly in Gulu lives here. I hung out with Jackie and her daughter last weekend, and once I get my apartment together, I'll probably have her and her family over for dinner. My NPR colleague and friend Muthoni is from Nairobi, and I've also met her sister Lucy and her family. I've already promised to cook for them, too. And on Friday, I met a young man who works for a socially conscious PR firm I've dealt with in DC. He's based here, and he and his new bride are eager to start venturing out more.
Are you starting to detect a pattern here? Basically, just about every potential social contact I meet is married....most with children. As pour moi, I seem destined to be "Ms. Perennial 5th Wheel," the kind of woman who's sparkling company at dinner parties, but what the heck do you do with her afterwards? I mean, you don't really know her well enough to call up for a chat or to invite on a shopping trip. And somewhere in the back of your mind, even though she does not emit a single "wanton slut vibe," you're thinking you might not want to leave her alone with your husband or boyfriend..........
See, that's the weirdest thing about my social status right now! A couple of acquaintances have alread suggested I might be persona non grata where their significant others are concerned. It's that last thing I would ever do, because I believe too strongly in Karma. Make a move on somebody else's mate, and not only will it happen to you, it'll probably happen when you're most vulnerable...maybe lying in an iron lung somewhere desperately needing someone to spoonfeed you bland gruel and make sure the plug stays in the socket. What goes around comes around, and frankly, I have yet to meet the man worth going through the trouble of taking from some other woman.
Nevertheless, as a single, attractive, older woman, I'm perceived as a threat. You know, in a way, it's kind of cool to think that about myself. I mean, after decades of fairly lousy self-esteem, I can finally say without a trace of ego that I'm a pretty hot number. Even if I AM the only person who fully appreciates just HOW hot I am.
Anyway, the bottom line is because of that fact, I may be in for another long, socially-arid stint here in Nairobi. I know, it's still way too early to reach that conclusion. Since my arrival on June 25th, I've spent the past few weekends just recharging my batteries. I haven't had the energy to venture out much, but the good news is that Nairobi has a pretty vibrant social scene. I'm sure that once I start checking out the local theater and arts scene, and link into the expat community, I'll eventually get a life.
At least, I hope I will....
Thursday, July 17, 2008
But from the moment I read an entry on my friend Sarah's Facebook page, I knew I would have to. Sarah wrote that she would miss her friend Gary, and especially hearing his voice. I tore off an e-mail to her immediately, begging her to tell me that Gary, the front desk receptionist/greeter at NPR, had found a new job.
But I knew he hadn't. It was just a way to give myself a couple more hours to NOT think about Gary being dead. You see, Gary was so full of life. He was a big, tall, burly man, who probably would have told you himself that he oughta lose 50 or 60 pounds if he wanted to live longer.
You just had to feel Gary's vibe to know why I'm hurting so much right now. He kept it real, and he made you do the same. When I first met him, I was almost a bit scared....he had this booming voice, and he looked like he could slap the taste out of your mouth if he had to. I was quite small and meek during those early exchanges , until one day he said something funny, and I think I must have laughed and said something like, "You KNOW you ain't right, don't you?" From that moment on, Gary was my buddy.
For a while, I didn't know Gary was so tall, because I only saw him sitting down. But then, once my own family members started passing, whenever I would return to the office from bereavement leave, Gary would get up, come around from behind the desk and give me a big bear hug. He'd let me know he'd been praying for me. It warmed my heart so much that one time, I brought him some of the ribs my sister Julie had frozen and brought out to DC on one of her visits. When I saw him the next day, it was probably the ONLY time I've ever seen him speechless. He just couldn't find the words for a while. When he finally did, he said those were the best ribs he'd ever eaten. "That meat just fell off the bones," he marveled.
The hug he gave me when my sister died had something else in it. (No, not just an extra ounce of sadness that there would be no more succulent ribs.) It was a bit longer than the other hugs. It held a silent acknowledgement that we are all getting older, and we are all losing people we love, and we just can't curl up in a ball and spend the rest of our lives pissed off that these people are gone. Like Gary, we have to get up from behind the "desk" of grief, walk around it, and spread out our arms to embrace whatever remains in life.
Gary used to jokingly berate me about "runnin' my ass all over Africa"and not bringing him anything back, so when I was in Nigeria back in March, I saw a brass bracelet I thought he'd like. I polished it up until it shone like the sun, and then I brought it in one morning. "I OUGHT to keep this for myself," I mumbled as I reached inside my bag. "You better hurry up and give me my bracelet," he said. His smile when he saw it was all the thanks I needed.
So........what more can I say? Only this: the thought of walking through the doors at NPR without seeing Gary's face ever again makes me ache inside. I just can't handle it right now.
Monday, July 14, 2008
Yes, it was "Columbo" to the rescue again! If you'll recall, watching Columbo DVDs was the only social life I had during my stint in Gulu. I have the first 3 seasons with me here in Nairobi. The ones I bought with the Dutch subtitles are still in Uganda, with the Intern. He's living in Kampala now, preparing to marry his girlfriend Lisa at the end of the month. The Intern graciously offered to transport my stuff from Gulu to his new house in Kampala, and I'll pick it up when I head over there in next month or so.
Eventually, I will explain why I spent most of Monday in bed. But first, overall, I had a pretty nice weekend. My friend Jackie, the radio consultant I met in Gulu last year, lives in Nairobi with her husband and two daughters. On Saturday, Jackie and her younger daughter Molly gave me a day-long driving tour of the region. We started in an area called "Karen" (named after Karen Blixen, the "Out of Africa" lady), and hit the Crossroads Mall there.
I gotta tell you, I'm blown away by the upscale shopping developments throughout Nairobi! Sure, you can find makeshift roadside crafts stalls galore, and rotating Maasai markets where vendors display their gorgeous jewelry, art, baskets and carvings. But malls like Westgate, Junction, Crossroads and Village Market are actually better than many of the malls I've visited in the U.S. They're also obscenely expensive...I guess they're targeting the fabulously wealthy 3rd generation European/Kenyan landowners, or the Japanese and German tourists with deep pockets. I mean, I saw this stunning belt adorned with African copper talismans and coins in the Silk Road boutique at Crossroads....but I'd need a lobotomy if I were crazy enough to spend $700 on it.
Then Jackie drove me along Ngong Road, where you can get just about any piece of furniture you want custom made. Later we toured Peponi Road, or what we call "Puppy Road," because guys stand in traffic holding the most adorable puppies, bunnies and kitties for sale. God knows how many heinous diseases the poor little critters have, but they sure are cute to look at.
You can also buy the most glorious flowers you have ever seen in your life for next to nothing along Puppy Road, and throughout Nairobi. Right now, I have a dozen yellow roses and 2 dozen orange ones in vases in the apartment. I paid 300 shillings for the lot of them.....about 5 dollars. Trust me, I'm gonna have a steady stream of fresh roses, birds of paradise, gerber daisies, sunflowers...the works....throughout the next year.
Yesterday, I visited the Kiambethu Tea Farm in Limuru, about 20 kilometers from Nairobi. My group consisted of three women named Rachel and a woman named Mariah. The other 3 work for the U.S. Embassy. Rachel #2 (Naturally, I'm Rachel #1, since I own shoes that are older than the other 3 women) got to Nairobi after I did, and yet she handled her four wheel drive over bumpy back roads like a pro.
I never really thought about how tea grows before. I guess I figured it came on a vine, or even a tree. But the acres and acres of squat, vivid green bushes represented some of the finest tea grown in Africa. We got a "Tea 101" briefing from the charming 3rd generation British owner, whose grandfather grew the first tea in Kenya back in 1908. Then one her her Kenyan employees, Kimani, toured us through the lush farmland and the last acre of unspoiled forest land left on the property. That was followed by a delicious brunch, and an afternoon in front of the fireplace sipping the best tea I'd ever had in my life.
Sounds like a great weekend, eh? Well, somewhere along the way, I had to get all adventurous and try a beverage called "Tree Tomato Juice." I call it Nature's Roto Rooter. My stomach is still shredded from that misadventure. I woke up this morning cramping like crazy; guess I'm still dealing with the aftereffects of what Gulu did to my innards.
Hmm, maybe I'll lose 10 more pounds during this Nairobi stint! Not that I need to, after spending the past 4 months trying to explain to friends and family what the hell happened to my butt while I was in Uganda. I think I'll just stay away from stuff that's too exotic. After all, Rachel #2 wound up with a similar case of tummy trouble after eating at a Lebanese sushi joint named The Phoenix.
I mean, even I know better than that.
Monday, July 7, 2008
It also helps me to process some of my experiences over the past few days. I haven't felt like writing because I've been so very haunted by what I saw during my trip to Kibera, and another slum area, Kisumu Ndogo. The Kibera trip was arranged to meet with Caleb, the young man who served as Ron's guide through Kibera.
Caleb is 29, and he's a process server for the government. He lives in Kibera with his wife, three children, and three of his deceased sister's children. I've seen many African slums over the past 5 years, but nothing prepared me for Kibera. Nothing possibly could've, other than perhaps a trip to Hell.
A million people are packed into cramped, tin-roofed shacks covering about 20 kilometres or so. The narrow, muddy, broken cobblestone pathways between those shacks are barely arm's length wide. The odor of garbage and raw sewage almost made me pass out at one point. But then I saw a toddler playing in a gutter full of filthy standing water and muck, and suddenly, my survival instinct trumped my intense maternal instinct.
I guess I'm still guilty that I didn't grab that baby and pull her out of that puddle. I was too paralyzed by the horror of what I was seeing. And I didn't want to die of cholera, or worse.
Kibera is the kind of place you can take a stab at describing, but nothing I could write would be adequate. Caleb and his family live in a room about 10 by 8 feet wide. There is one light bulb attached to a crude electrical outlet, but the day of my visit, it wasn't working. Caleb couldn't afford to pay the modest fee for electricity. There was one chair and one bed. I'm assuming anybody who can't fit into the bed has to sleep on the floor.
Against all odds, Caleb is trying to start an afterschool program for children in Kibera. I've done many stories on the need for afterschool activities for children in the U.S., so I was interested in his efforts. He hopes to provide regular services to at least 200 children.
Statistics say that the majority of people in Kibera are under the age of 18. This means Caleb might be able to help 200 of more than 500,000 young people.
Still, he has hope in a hard place.
That trip was on Sunday, and I went home in a somber, even dark mood. I mean, I became a journalist because I wanted to help right wrongs, expose injustices, blah, blah, blah. I'm here in Nairobi because I want to help journalists do the same. But how in God's name do you even begin to start in a place like Kibera?
On Tuesday, I went to Kisumu Ndogo with a young reporter named Irene. She had received an e-mail from one of her friends who works for an NGO here in Nairobi. It was about a woman who's suffering from a mysterious disease that's causing her limbs to swell. Doctors have been unable to diagnose it, and in despair, she turned to an "herbalist" who promised a cure...if she pays him 30,000 shillings, or about 475 dollars. He might as well have asked for 30,000 dollars. She has about as much of chance of raising that sum as the other.
I reminded Irene of a basic tenet of journalism....you can't do a story about every needy case because there are simply too many. If you do one, tens of thousands of other people will want their story told. However, with a little analysis, thought and creativity, a reporter can find a way to tease out a news angle that highlights a broader issue that has impact beyond the life of one person.
We decided to try and develop a story about the practice of herbal medicine in slum areas, and whether these so called "herbalists" are actually helping people or just getting rich off the desperation of the desperately poor.
When we got to the woman's house, the first thing I noticed was the "Obama for President" bumper sticker on the back of one of her chairs. Compared to Caleb's home, the setting was almost spacious. There were two rooms, and a bunk bed. Then the woman pulled back the wrap covering her leg, and once again, it was hard not to faint.
I don't know if Irene's reporting on this story will eventually wind up in the Nation. But during my visit to Kisumu Ndogo, I was reconnected to why I do what I do. If we can come up with the right angle, and put it all together in a compelling, informative package, maybe we'll help more people get the help they need. Maybe we'll help them avoid phonies who take their money and offer bogus cures. Maybe we'll raise awareness about the need for more research on herbal medicine. Or maybe we'll shed more light on the critical need for proper health care in Nairobi's slums.
In other words, maybe we can provide a bit of hope in a hard place.
Friday, July 4, 2008
Second, last night I polished off the rest of the bottle of champagne I'd bought on Tuesday to toast my new digs at 46 Rhapta Road. Let's just say a snootful of the bubbly goes directly to my head, does not pass Go, does not collect $200.
That explains why, thirdly, I had a bit of a crying jag last night. I wanted my big sister; I can't explain it, but I missed her so desperately. Besides that, I wanted somebody to hold me all night and tell me I'm not completely insane for uprooting myself once again and plopping down in another African country, away from everybody who gives even the faintest damn about what happens to me.
So I boo hooed a while. A good long while. And after seeing myself in the mirror this morning, I just knew the folks at the Nation would think I'd caught a beatdown from somebody. Still, I couldn't call in sick on my second day, so I drained half a bottle of Genteal, slapped on some make-up, and headed downtown.
Two things that happened today make me believe Julie must have heard my sobs and managed to find a way to show me everything will be okay. First, during my lunch break, as I was threading through the throngs of people on Kimathi Street, I turned a corner and saw a big yellow sign, with red letters bearing the words,
"WINKY TRADERS." Winky was my sister's nickname.
A few hours later, I went up to the Watatu Gallery, around the corner from the Sarova Hotel. My friend Debbie had purchased some fabulous artwork from Watatu last fall, when she was in Nairobi as part of a medical mission. She encouraged me to meet the owner, Morris, and see some his client's paintings.
Well, I absolutely plotzed over three incredibly vivid, textured oil paintings by a young Ugandan artist named Anwar. They're startling yet somehow dream-like at the same time. I wanted them so badly, I was almost drooling. One in particular stood out, of a woman with an asymetrical coif and traditional jewelry. Though I wanted all three, I knew I had to be fiscally prudent, so I focused on just the one. After talking Morris down to my price, he told me the painting's name....
"You Are Not Alone."
I won't be crying tonight. There's no need to. Big Sis has my back. So, have a happy Fourth of July, y'all. Mine will definitely be a lot happier than I expected it to be.
Wednesday, July 2, 2008
This evening marks my first full week in Nairobi. Instead of feeling daunted, I'm actually quite proud that I HAVE moved into my apartment, and I'll get started at The Nation newspaper soon. I've gotten a lot accomplished in the past week, considering the fact that I spent most of it in a zombie trance.
What really cleared my head this morning was watching a CNN International report on clean water (or lack thereof) in parts of Nairobi. I've written before about how much I appreciate being a news consumer abroad, because there's so much more access to information about other parts of the world. Well, this morning's "Going Green" segment featured a young female Kenyan researcher who's been testing water samples in Kibera.
If you followed coverage of the Kenyan post-election violence earlier this year, you know that Kibera is one of the largest slums in Africa. Nearly 1 million people live in this impoverished area of Nairobi. Long story short, nearly all of the water samples collected by the researcher tested positive for e-coli. Some levels were so high, they were sure to result in cholera for anyone who drank it.
But the report didn't stop there. The researcher was working with Kibera residents to teach them a solar-fueled water purification process. It's cheap, relatively simple, and could save thousands of lives if implemented broadly.
This story is fantastic on so many different levels. First, I was thrilled to see a young woman modeling her scientific prowess and commitment to bettering her country, in this male dominated part of the world. Also, this kind of solution based reporting excites me, largely because I came to Nairobi to work with reporters who cover health issues. I'd love to see lots of these kinds of stories in The Nation newspaper, because I think it would make a tremendous difference in the lives of so many people.
Finally, I'll be visiting Kibera soon myself. My friend Ron, the newspaper design expert from Chicago, spent a lot of time in Nairobi recently, helping with the redesign of the Standard newspaper. While he was here, he met with a community activist in Kibera who's trying to start a program for children and youth there. Ron mounted an exhibition of photos he took while in Kibera a few weeks ago, and wants to continue working with his contacts there. I'm happy to be his proxy, to help move things along for him.
That's why I became a journalist back in ...... 1986. (I know, it's hard to believe, given my youthful joie de vivre, eh?) That's why I keep coming back to Africa, because I find the work so much more fulfilling. I know that from now on in my life, I can never take a job that doesn't reflect who I've become....a Citizen of the World.
And if I get another good night's sleep tonight, look out Nairobi! Rachella's getting her groove back, and she's ready for whatever comes along. As long as it isn't slithering.
Tuesday, July 1, 2008
Except for something that just occurred to me. Add just two little letters...r-d....and I would be living in the Lizard Apartments.
Dear God in heaven.....why am I being tormented this way?? Didn't I suffer enough with the lizards crawling up and down my walls in Gulu????
See, that's why I'm not even going to attempt to write a lengthy post today. If I can get more than 3 hours of sleep tonight, I'll fill y'all in on things tomorrow.