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.
Friday, November 28, 2008
This morning, I am nursing one molto grande case of tight tummy-itis. Psychologically, this is not a bad thing, because it stems from gorging on delicious food, which is one of my favorite pastimes. And last night was off the hook!!! I mean, George and his elegant, beautiful wife Carole put on a Turkey Day spread the likes of which I haven't seen in years!
There were about 10 different veggie dishes, including my absolute favorite of all time, corn pudding. There was turkey, dressing AND gravy, and an apple cranberry chutney with ginger that I would KILL to have the recipe for! By the time dessert rolled around, I was actually in pain. But I made a game effort at eating some of the cheesecake made by this guy named Jacob. He's a recent college graduate from Ohio, the son of Lutheran missionaries, and he's already started several businesses in Kenya.
First of all, this guy doesn't even have a stove of his own. And he had to spend an entire day searching for the ingredients. He couldn't find graham crackers for the crust, so he just pulverized some shortbread cookies and made do.
Then Jacob walked down the road to a neighbor's house and asked if he could use their oven. He literally had to sit in front of the danged thing and watch the cheesecake bake, because the oven has no temperature control and sometimes flares into a raging inferno, and he had to yank it out and wait until things settled down to continue the baking process.
I share this story to give you yet another critical window into the day to day challenges of expat life in Africa. I'm not asking for any pats on the back or awards, or anything. I'm just ceaselessly amazed at how much patience, flexibility, and creativity some folks develop while living abroad.
You'll notice I said "some folks", cuz that don't necessarily include me. Gulu dang near broke my will, and I am jealously guarding the one last good nerve I possess. When it's gone, my name will be legend on the streets of Nairobi, following a lively, expletive-filled performance before a member of the local constabulary drags me away.
Personally, I'd have just picked up a quart of gelato and been done with it, but Jacob really wanted to make a personal contribution to the Turkey Day festivities.
I'm glad he did; the cheesecake was perfect; not too sweet, not cloying, just the right note to follow a bout of intense gorging. After I got home and collapsed beneath the mosquito netting, I couldn't help being incredibly grateful for new friendships, new horizons, and the soothing wonders of Rayon clothing with elastic waistbands.
But I also knew I would spend all of today walking around feeling like 20 pounds of potatoes in a 5 pound bag. My belly is tight as a drum. I can't even THINK about eating anything in the near future. All I want to do is lie on my back somewhere while rubbing my distended stomach, thinking of all the reasons I will never EVER overeat like this again.
Or at least until the next time somebody invites me over for over for an expat feast...
Damn, this feels like I'm back home during the holidays, or something!
Thursday, November 27, 2008
In about three hours, I'll be heading to my new Cousin George's house here in Nairobi for my first Expat Thanksgiving. I actually don't know what to expect. I'm assuming most of the people there will be Americans, and that they'll already know each other. I'm expecting to feel a bit like Oliver Twist in the beginning, stretching out my bowl and pleading for "Some more, please?" while everybody else relaxes and shares inside jokes about surviving life in Kenya.
I'm sure it'll be fine, though. That's in large part because I have reached yet another major milestone in my life. Lately, I realize
that I have permanently shed my last microliter of concern about what any other living creature might think about any aspect of anything I might say, do, wear, or think, etc.
I mean, I do not give a fat rat's ass about any of that stuff anymore.
Let me see if I can try to explain this in a way that doesn't sound like I've become completely unhinged. I think the simplest way is to describe my daily routine of dressing for work. I'm actually amazed by how quickly it all comes together, once I've had some coffee and read the papers. 20 years ago, I'd literally agonize each morning, or the night before, about making sure I picked the right outfit, or that whatever I eventually chose was absolutely perfect.
I spent seeming ages on my make-up and hair. I couldn't walk out the door unless every element was in perfect harmony with every other element. It's like I was dressing to please every real and/or potential person I might meet. Oh, and it didn't matter how uncomfortable the shoes or clothes might be, or how heavy the foundation that was clogging my pores was, just as long as I thought it made me look good.
Whatever that meant.
Here's my new routine. Every morning, I untie the silk scarf that was wrapped around my head the night before, brush my toofusses, and run my fingers through my locs while I'm standing under the shower. Then I swirl a little Bare Minerals in Warmth on my mug, slap on a hint of shadow and dap on some mascara. About the only thing I seriously ponder is which saucy shade of lipstick to wear...I guess I got a little crazy at the Chanel counter at Lord and Taylor's in New York recently, so I'm actually enjoying being a bit edgy in that department.
As for clothing, if it doesn't cut off circulation in my waist or pinch my corns, it'll do.
Don't get me wrong...any of you who know me know Rachella will never lose her wardrobe flava. I still LOVE good clothes and shoes, and I know what I look good in, and what I don't look good in (another benefit of getting older). But now, I'm not gilding the lily. No, I take that back. The problem is, I WASN'T gilding the lily in the past, because I didn't believe I WAS a lily.
I didn't know that confidence and self-assuredness are the most attractive adornments a woman can have.
There are other examples of how I just don't give a figgy pudding about too much of what anybody might think these days. For example, every day in the morning newsmeeting, I find myself speaking up, interrupting folks, pointing out stuff they've missed...and you should see how these Kenyan men look at me!! Even after 5 months, when you think they'd have gotten used to this uncouth American wench speaking when she hasn't been granted permission, they still look at me like, "Is this woman completely mad ??"
I'm all like, "AND? WHAT??" I'm not doing it just for the sake of being a pain in the ass, because invariably, I'm making valid points. But it's just so liberating to express myself authoritatively in a group that could have had me stoned for doing it just a few decades back.
I guess I'm saying that one of the things I'm MOST thankful for during this transcontinental Turkey Day is that I truly believe that I have finally and completely grown into myself. So much so that when I describe myself as a hot old broad, I actually believe it!
Let's see if I still feel this way tomorrow, when it will be impossible to find something that doesn't cut off circulation in my waist after I eat as much as I plan to eat at Cousin George's house.
Tuesday, November 25, 2008
Hell, I've been haranguing God to do SOMETHING bout my love life for most of the past decade. Apparently, my Heavenly Homey has been letting each of those fervent pleas go straight to voicemail. Still, I ain't mad at 'im.
Anyhoo, to try and condense her somewhat convoluted story, one day, against her better judgement, Ms. Single Forever attended one last Singles' event, where she sat next to a guy with the "biggest, most beautiful brown eyes ever." (Ain't it lovely how romance makes you forget stuff like the crud that collects in the corner of his dark-cirled, bloodshot orbs each morning, or how he rolls them whenever you ask him to take out the trash???)
Ooops--that was just an involuntary sidebar from one of my many alter egos, Ms. Bitter von Barren.
Back to the story. By the time they finished chatting, Ms. Single Forever and
Brown Eyes realized they were both attending the same wedding in a few weeks...her cousin was marrying his cousin! Of course they had a magical time at the nuptials, which she related to her elderly uncle afterwards. The uncle asked, "Does your new friend have an uncle named Moe?" Why, yes, yes he does, she replied.
Turns out Ms. Single Forever's uncle and Brown Eyes' uncle came over on the same boat from Italy 50 years earlier! They'd even been best friends for a while, but lost contact. Of course, Brown Eyes and Ms. Single Forever married, had a child, and the two uncles were reunited at the wedding where they didn't get drunk and embarrass themselves on the dance floor.
That last part was the fairy tale.
Seriously, once I got my blood glucose levels back under control, I was actually touched by this story, because it beautifully illustrates just how awesome the whole coincidence phenomenon is....and why some people prefer to believe in Fate instead. I mean, how can you NOT think those two people were destined to connect, with so many inexplicable factors having aligned themselves long before they met?
As I've said before, I used to believe in destiny and soulmates and that kinda stuff, but I have the sneaking suspicion that my Divine Right Partner was tragically caught in the crossfire of a crack deal gone sour a good many years back. I try to leave open a window of possibility, and I certainly won't turn him away if by some chance he survived the hail of bullets with more than minimal brainwave activity. But hey, he better get here before my boobs start settling around my ankles.
There's another point to this coinky-dink post. Last Friday, I got a call from a guy named George Jones who said he'd read my Daily Nation article about Obama's victory and wanted to meet me. He's a professor at USIU, this local university funded primarily by,(surprise!) the US government. George had this kinda nasal New Yawk accent, so I figured he was an American. He said USIU holds Black History Month celebrations each February, and he hoped to talk me into participating next year.
I don't know why I was surprised to learn that George is African American when we met this morning. But I suppose he's heard that as often as I have through the years. Probably more, since I'd guess he's in his early 70's. He's lived in 7 African countries, and traveled through 35, in his decades of US foreign service work.
Here's the rub of this ramble. George said my article had caught his eye because he's the 10th of 10 children, and one of his daughters was born the same year as me. His father worked in a coal mine; my father might as well have been a coal miner, what with all the time he spent chucking those black rocks into our clunky old furnaces.
But for the coincidental coup de grace, just when I had decided to boycott Turkey Day this year, because I have to work, and sometimes it's hard to feel thankful when you're all alone, and it would have been a great opportunity to nurse my inner Scrooge with a few snorts of Glenfiddich while officially launching my annual Holiday Humbug routine, my new "Cousin George" invited me over to have Thanksgiving dinner with his family and friends on Thursday.
Coincidence?? I think not....
Sunday, November 23, 2008
Yes, dear readers, the Italian restaurant named after a city in Mexico and located in East Africa has FANTASTIC food! I was in mild shock after finishing the chicken and avocado soup starter, but when they brought out this trough of risotto and the most perfectly grilled and seasoned red snapper I've ever had in my life, suddenly I knew life in Nairobi was gonna be okay.
Rolling with Juliette and her mother was great, too. Margaret is a righteous hoot...watching her place an order is the closest thing to dinner theater I'll ever experience. I mean, girlfriend doesn't just state what she wants...she issues a royal decree. At one point, she told the poor flustered young waitress that she didn't want one of the specialities of the house because it had cream in it. "I don't want to get fat like you," she explained.
Now, it may just be a cultural "thang" that the waitress meekly withstood Margaret's Colonial matron routine before silently whisking away. But she'd have got cut talking like that to some of the attitudinal waitrons I've had in New York and DC. Or at the very least, her frutti di mare would have been glistening with a pungent "gravy con urini," if you catch my drift.
Anyway, the most remarkable thing about last night was that I didn't get home until 1:30 AM....and I was still relatively conscious at the time! Usually, by 11:30 each night, I'm totally sawing logs. But after dinner, the three of us went to a send-off party for Kenya's national rugby team which is headed to Dubai next week for a championship game.
It was so weird, because earlier on Saturday I'd decided to try to find out where local rugby players hang out and try to make the scene there! Seriously! I had been watching some BBC sports show featuring a bunch of rugby players who all seemed like fun lads. A bit primitive, but great physiques, and quite a spirited lot...
You know where that train of thought was heading, so I need not continue. Anyway, when Juliette suggested heading to the Rugby fete, I thought "Is this a cosmic coincidence or what?" I was happy that I'd worn my turquoise blouse which nicely accents my cougarish cleavage action. But the oldest player at the party was maybe 28. The absolutely hands down hottest of all was 20, and I wanted to head straight to Catholic confessional after thinking what I thought about him.
Bottom line, they all looked like gangly teenagers who'd suffered painfully dramatic growth spurts over summer vacation. And while all the single women were swivelling their hips on the dance floor, the rugby players stood off to the side in their own tight-knit clutch, watching video clips of themselves in action on a big-screen TV.
So by the time I climbed into bed around 2 AM, I was just happy that I'd found my Italian oasis in Acapulco, and had at least tried to get out and about. But it seems that after about 1 AM, this hottest "between-the-sheets action" for this cougar happens because I forgot to take my blood pressure pill the previous morning.
Saturday, November 22, 2008
Juliette is the really cool young scientist I hung out with on the anniversary of my sister Julie's passing. I'll never be able to thank her enough for helping make that day feel like just another day.
Of course, the fact that I'm going out with her and her mother....and they're BOTH younger than me.....isn't exactly putting me in a party-girl mood. But at least I'm breaking patterns and putting myself out there.
Although...come to think of it, going to an Italian restaurant named after a city in Mexico and located in East Africa is probably a blueprint for bitter frustration and mild food poisoning. I swear to you, the only good Italian food I've had in Nairobi so far has come from my own kitchen. I say this without the slightest hint of vanity....I make the meanest spaghetti with wild mushrooms, black olives, sundried tomatoes, prosciutto and white wine that has ever passed mine or anybody else's lips.
But that's not the point. At least I'm making a concerted effort to be more social, to drag my ass off this astonishingly uncomfortable couch and out into the world on a Saturday night. So even if the food at Acapulco sucks ass, at least I'm giving it the old college try.
Wish me luck......
Friday, November 21, 2008
I have a brand new 7 year old She-ro, and every time I think of her, I just feel so doggoned happy!
Sasha Obama should be the one walking around calling herself Sasha Fierce. In just about every picture she's in, her adorable little face is front and center, without the slightest trace of fear, intimidation or shyness. Sasha seems to enjoy being photographed, a trait I hope she'll retain.
Her willowy, coltish big sister Malia already seems to be developing some of the
poise and aloofness that many pre-teen girls try so hard to convey. Or maybe she's just shyer than her little sister. Or, and I suspect this might be at least part of the case, Malia is just old enough to comprehend what's happened over the past few years...and how her life will never, ever be the same. She may even understand just a smidge about the enormous pressure her parents will face as the President and First Lady of the United States, and that would have to be a bit scary for a 10-year-old kid.
Anyway, when I learned the new Secret Service code names for both little Obama girls, I almost felt like crying again. Malia's name is Radiance, and Sasha's is Rosebud. Now, I knew they'd have to begin with R, because their Daddy is Renegade and their Mommy is Renaissance. But my heart literally fluttered about their monikers, mostly because they perfectly capture the essence of their public images. Malia is like a radiant young princess, and Sasha's impishly round face resembles nothing if not a perfect little rosebud.
But I wanted to cry because the thought of two little black girls getting to roam the halls of the White House just makes me want to shout, "Thank you, Jesus!" The thought that they'll be presiding over next year's Easter Egg Hunt just makes me want to give two snaps in a circle, put my hands on my hips and go, "That's what I'M talkin' bout!" The thought they they will be the ambassadors for a whole new range of possibilities for the African American child just makes me want to get down on my knees and start praying and crying again.
Yeah, yeah, you've heard a coupla million people say over and over that they never thought they'd live to see this day. But I'd bet a good many African American women are saying that for another reason. We never ever expected to see the day when two little black girls would be publicly compared to radiant rosebuds. When I think of all the times I tied the towel to my head and pranced around pretending to be a fairy princess, I realize I wasn't trying to be Snow White or Cinderella. I just wanted to feel what it was like to be a pretty little girl. Or even like it was possible that somebody could think I was a pretty little girl.
And now there will be two pretty little black girls living in America's Castle. My GOD, I never thought I'd live to see this day.
Anyway, back to my baby-girl Sasha. I will NEVER forget one campaign video clip of Michelle and the girls headed down some walkway, and they were planning to turn off to the left. Well, something caught Sasha's eye; I don't know if it was a person waving, or a TV camera, or what, but Sasha kept on walking straight ahead, just as carefree as you please.
The look on Michelle's face made me cringe and chuckle at the same time. I'd seen it about a coupla thousand times myself growing up. It was, like, "Girl, if you don't get your little behind back over here, I will snatch the TASTE out yo' mouth!"
This is why I'm confident that even though Radiance and Rosebud will be treated like Little Princesses over the next 4 years, they will never, EVER turn into wretched, untamed urchins (ahem, BUSH TWINS, cough, cough.) And whether it turns out to be 4 years or 8, they will always and forever be a balm on my heart.
Thursday, November 20, 2008
Guess I better start wearing a bucket tied around my neck, 'cause I'm gonna be doing a lotta hurling. From a fashion perspective, working in the Central Business District of Nairobi is like being trapped on Capitol Hill, where every 20-something Congressional intern is dressed like every OTHER intern, and where they all look boring as hell.
I thought about that this morning while getting ready for work. I'd just read an email attachment from my friend Veronica in Chicago, about the historical significance of Michelle Obama's butt. No, that was not a typographical error. That's exactly what the African American female writer spent a thousand or so words ruminating about.
Now, I have to give careful consideration to what I'm about to write here, because a sister livin' in a glass house would WANT not to start throwing stones. I am the EMPRESS of Snark, and always eager to mine sarcastic humor from any situation. Clearly, the writer was flexing her funny bone as she analyzed the meaning of having the first African American First Lady be so tall and toned and athletic...and packin' so much junk in her trunk.
Obviously, having survived the psychological punishment of a society where blonde hair, blue eyes and a rail thin body are considered the epitome of beauty, I could relate. Even though I lost a great deal of ass matter during my enforced malnourishment in Gulu, I've been just as victimized by the whole body image baggage African American women have endured through the centuries. Our plump derrieres have been equally demonized and desired--but always characterized as non-mainstream.
Now, I'll refrain from judging the writer's success at executing her main thesis. (Although I WILL say the piece made me wonder if this type of commentary befits a woman of Michelle Obama's accomplishments and historical stature. Which of course will get me branded as simply hatin' on a fellow snark scribe, but oh well.) How it applies to the main thesis of THIS posting is that lately, I've been augmenting my DC 'drobe with some of the tailored outfits I had made in Uganda last year, and I'm really surprised by how Nairobi folks are reacting.
"It's all good, y'all." In a sea of black and taupe pantsuits, on Tuesday, I stood out like a Lexus on highbeam when I strolled into the newsroom wearing a two piece, tea-length flared skirt outfit made of vibrant green cloth adorned with spiny black fish patterns. Today, I'm wearing a navy blue top with another flared skirt with navy blue and gold swirls against a pale yellow backdrop. ("Trust me, it works, and I'm WORKIN' it.")
Oh yeah, and the booty is bangin'! Let's just say my nutritional status has improved significantly Post Gulu, so the Ugandan clothes fit as snug as a bug in a microfiber rug. But the funny thing is that a mere two years ago, I would never have worn skirts this fitted in public because I'd have felt like my butt looked HUGE and repulsive.
So how ironic is it now that I'm filled with ancestral pride in my rather regal, round rump, I'm working in an environment where any color brighter than beige stands out like a sore thumb???
I mean, sitting in the newsroom at this very moment, there is one woman in my vicinity wearing a red blouse. Every other female, and I do mean EVERY other, is wearing either black, brown, grey or white. An hour ago, on my way back to the office from an assignment with a reporter, I had plenty of time to people watch sitting in a traffic jam, and saw at least a hundred or so women during that trip. I noticed one woman wearing a rather vivid green suit.
EVERYBODY ELSE WAS WEARING BLACK, BROWN, OR TAUPE. OR GREY. OR NAVY BLUE.
Now, I can be just as historically analytical as the next gal, so I'll share my explanation for this daily fashion snoozefest in one of Africa's internationally famous capital cities. Arguably, Nairobi is considered one of the most
"cosmopolitan" spots on the continent. It certainly beats all hell out of Kampala, and Accra, and even my beloved Addis in terms of metropolitan amenities. It's the business and financial hub of East Africa, and before the post-election violence, it was probably one of the top 5 vacation destinations on the continent, mostly for its proximity to once-in-a-lifetime Safari tours.
This means there's a lot of international traffic flowing in and out of Nairobi, which means businesses, NGO's and governmental agencies have sought to create environments that are less "alien" to visitors. This means that though Kenya declared its independence from Great Britain in 1963, the European influence was already strongly entrenched, and that meant people had already adopted the dress and language of the same colonialists they were simultaneously telling to get the hell out.
Long story short, it's a rare day in downtown Nairobi when I see a woman wearing traditional clothing of any kind. Well, I take that back...I see quite a few Muslim women on a regular basis, with their long dark gowns and head coverings. But even they mix things up a bit with colorful scarves and other jangly adorments every now and then. The women toiling in the banks and restaurants and offices and stores of downtown Nairobi are rocking the same kind clothes American women wear. So when I break out one of my saucy suits, it never fails to earn extremely positive compliments.
One woman on the elevator Tuesday just lost her damn mind over the green fish get-up! She even said, "I wish I could wear something like that."
I wanted to grab her and shout, "Yes, You CAN!" And she SHOULD, for Chrissakes! I mean, if a Kenyan woman can't feel comfortable wearing African garb in freakin' downtown Nairobi, then WTF??? It's all about freeing our minds of stereotypes and rules about what a woman should wear or look like.
THAT'S what makes me so excited about Michelle Obama's fashion influence. I'm not saying I expect her to break out the Kente cloth any time soon, but if she did, she'd look FABULOUS! It's about naming and claiming her patented brand of confidence and poise, whether you're wearing jeans or a Ugandan skirt....or, given that logic, a black suit with a collared shirt, I guess.....
However, I still insist on drawing the line at anything taupe-colored. All you can do is look sickly in it, as far as I'm concerned. And if there's a "Taupe Lobby" out there poised to attack me for saying that, you can just kiss my green fish-covered boo-TAY.
Wednesday, November 19, 2008
I suppose, in a way, that's a good thing. It means I'm making inroads into this one-year commitment, which could mean I'm one step closer to a new chapter of my life, one that might even unfold somewhere within the contiguous 48 United States.
In the interim, the most I have to look forward to is the prospect that maybe one day I'll be free of the steadily simmering tension and anxiety that's part of being a stranger in a strange land.
Maybe one day I'll climb into my Oasis cab each morning and not feel like THIS will be the day when a Matatu creams my ass into a pulpy blur on a stretch of pavement along Waiyaki Way. Maybe one day I'll walk along the streets of the Nairobi's Central Business District without feeling like I'm getting my ass kicked in a competitive speed walking race.
Maybe one day I'll learn enough Kiswahili to take some of the American edge off my accent, so that people in stores and restaurants won't automatically furrow their brows when I speak, which only deepens my frustration because, hey, I'm speaking English, right??? And English IS the official language over here, right??
Maybe one day I'll develop at least ONE "running buddy" to roll with, somebody I can call up and arrange to meet at a restaurant, or a play, or a club after work. Maybe one day there'll be somebody in Nairobi for whom it's an automatic response to wonder what I'm up to, and to check in at least once a day to find out how I'm doing.
Now, don't dismiss this plaintive reverie as yet another baleful cry for male companionship. Although, well, YEAH, it would be grand if the aforementioned theoretical "running buddy" was a mature, scintillating, single man, with a delightful sense of humor and a strong back, but what I'm really focused on here is connective tissue.
Throughout my adult life, my dear friends have been my connective tissue. Whether they will appreciate being compared to a tendon or mass of glutinous flesh is another thing, but there you have it. They're the mirror I see myself reflected in, or the sounding boards that willingly endure the unleashing of my every paranoid fear and worry. They're the ones I can revel with, and whose support and encouragement spurs me on to greater achievement. And they're the ones who'll just sit there with me if that's all that's required.
Lack of ACCESS to that, even if I didn't have it on a daily, or even weekly basis back in the States, is taking quite a toll on me over here. Now, some might blame ME for not integrating this element into my daily life years ago.......and they'd be right. Every time I log onto Facebook and see the newly-posted pictures of babies and children, or see a Relationship Status line change from "Single" to "In a Relationship" or "Married," I'm reminded of how relentlessly committed I have been to NOT tending my own socio-relationship garden. Increasingly, I find myself reliving the past few decades of NOT thinking I would ever get married, or ever WANT to get married, or ever find anyone who wanted to get married to ME.
Obviously at 27, or even 37, I wasn't considering the prospect of life as a surprisingly hot 47 year old single woman living 8,000 miles from all that's familiar and having little or no success creating an intimate social circle. If I HAD been able to comprehend what that existence would be like, you can be sure I'd have spent most of my time back then trying to land a husband or get pregnant, so that if nothing else I'd have either had someone to call every week to ask where the hell the child support payments are, or someone to constantly nag about cleaning his or her room.
Surely those scenarios are preferable to the numbing sameness of going home to an empty apartment every night, where you know your mobile phone is not going to ring because you haven't connected with anybody locally who might give a hoot whether you fell and cracked your head on the corner of the coffee table, or who might want to borrow your gray Ellen Tracy blazer for a big interview tomorrow.
I've been having those kinds of thoughts a lot lately. For the most part, my nascent hermit tendencies serve me quite well these days, so I get by. But every now and then, especially on a lazy weekend afternoon, I find myself scrunched up on my astonishingly uncomfortable couch thinking, "Nobody knows where I am. I am the closest thing to invisible there is without actually BEING invisible. If nobody KNOWS I exist, do I, really???"
So, once again, I'm reminded that my primary task these days must be finding reasons to come outside of myself and connect with another human being. Somebody who isn't legally or biologically obligated to connect with me for any reason other than a sincere desire to. Someone who's fun and funny, and who doesn't take him or herself too seriously, and who only gets on my damn nerves every now and then. Someone who'd be happy to be my Kenya-based connective tissue.
Let's see where this train goes.
Thursday, November 13, 2008
I'm talking a world class, full throttle, hissy pissy attitude that makes PMS seem like a hangnail. And I'm even more embarrassed to admit WHY. But here it goes......
"Umm, to all my brothers and sisters on the African continent, BARACK OBAMA IS OUR PRESIDENT, AIIIIGHT? JUST BACK UP OFF HIM!"
God, it feels great to just admit that childish sentiment and get it out of my system! Here's how it got there in the first place---
In a recent blogpost, I shared my November 6th Daily Nation newspaper article about what the Obama victory meant to me as an African American. Basically, I rode the crest of a completely euphoric wave from the moment CNN declared Obama President-elect. Between tears and joy, it was the closest thing to bliss I'd experienced since the first time Prozac kicked in.
So why did one of my Kenyan colleagues have to go and piss a sister off? It happened last Friday, after he'd read my article. He sent me an email containing these two questions:
1. Why do African-Americans have to bring in their families every time they are narrating their experiences — I don't find that common with Africans/Europeans/Asians.
2. Are African-Americans overburdening themselves with history? Can the persecution mentality be their main barrier to progress, which clearly was not the case with Obama?
Now, y'all know me, and how I have a hard time censoring myself, right? Well, Higher Power Herself must have restrained my fingers from typing an instant reply that began with,
"Dear ig'nint-assed m-f....."
"That's right, I said it!" Or at least I almost did. Those questions ticked me off in so many different ways, it's hard to know where to begin. First, why should I have to explain to my Kenyan "brother" why this historic event made me give thanks to the forefathers and mothers? Aren't Africans known for honoring their ancestors....or did all my years of reading Alice Walker and Toni Morrison amount to nothing??
And no he didn't step to me with that "persecution mentality" nonsense! As I explained in the 5th draft of my email response, I was surprised he couldn't understand why so many African American journalists were invoking America's racial history when describing their feelings. After all, a mere 40 years ago, black people weren't even allowed to set foot in most mainstream American newsrooms, unless we were sweeping the floors or emptying trashcans.
Ummm...that would have been when President-elect Obama was about 7 years old.
So I'm not talking ancient history here, or just whining about slave ships or Southern plantations. The fact that in our new President's lifetime, a level of virulent racism that seemed to make his recent triumph impossible was actually able to flourish, is nothing short of astounding. So what part of the word "miracle" was my Kenyan colleague having trouble grasping????
Don't worry, I managed to craft a non-defensive, even indulgent response to his queries. (But don't let me catch his ass in a dark alley any time soon.) Still, beyond my fit of personal pique, the incident gave me a better grasp of the literal chasm of awareness that exists between Africans and African Americans. What we don't understand about each other is mind-blowing.
Basically, most Africans think most African Americans are thugs, hoes, athletes or blinged-out entertainers. On the other hand, a lot of African Americans think most Africans are desperately poor, diseased and just one step up from the jungle.
Don't kill the messenger, y'all...I'm just tryin' to keep it real up in here. If you wanna set me straight, feel free to drop me some knowledge.
Anyway, my point in making those wildly-stereotypical pronouncements is simple. I had my ass on my shoulders about my Kenyan colleague's questions because after all my experience working in Africa, I still expect my African "heritage" to grant me instant acceptance and understanding. It doesn't matter that I arrive in each new setting unable to speak the local language, ignorant of much of a country's history, and often unwilling to make some of the required cultural adjustments.
"A sister's just tryin' to get over with 'The Black Skin Pass', ya feel me?"
But time after time, that door gets slammed squarely in my face. Four months into my Nairobi gig, I'm just as alien to my Kenyan colleagues as I was when I got here. Oh, we're friendly at work, collegial even. But so far, my sense of "otherness" is still palpable. And I only have myself to blame for thinking it would be different.
Which is probably what's making me feel all tetchy about what Africans appear to NOT know about African American history. I'm all, like, "Oh, we're some damn 'victims' who are 'overburdened by history,' huh? And yet now you want to claim Obama as yours, huh?"
"Well, peep this...Obama's father may have been born in Western Kenya, true dat. But, er, um, he rolled with Barack, Jr. for about, say, a year or so in total, right???? And then he went back to Kenya, right??? In other words,
"President-elect Barack Obama is AMERICAN, dig? Ya'll need to check yaselves right quick, okay?"
By now, you've probably deduced that this posting is one big psychic belch to rid myself some negative, and extraordinarily unproductive thoughts. As the title suggests, for the most part, I'm following Jay-Z's advice and "brushin' my shoulders off" about this matter.
But it's made me commit to at least trying to do my part to close the gap between Africans and African Americans. We have a loooooooooooong road ahead towards understanding about each other's histories. That may be one of the most exciting side-effects of an Obama presidency.
I'd be down for that, for real.
Friday, November 7, 2008
I felt weepy because I wished my parents Lewis and Eloise, and my two eldest siblings Julie and David could be here to see this. Then I saw this kid on CNN start talking about what the election meant to him, and then HE started getting choked up, and the I lost it AGAIN....I was basically a quivering wreck for most of the day.
On the way to the office this morning, sitting in a typical Nairobi traffic jam, I couldn't help reflecting on the last 48 hours and thinking, "What does it all REALLY mean?" Part of the reason traffic is so bad today is because 7 leaders of African nations have gathered in Nairobi to discuss the intensified rebel warfare in Eastern Congo. Over the past decade there, more than 5 million people have been killed or died from malnutrition and diseases associated with refugee life. BBC radio reported that rebel fighters have started dragging men and boys out of their homes and killing them because they won't join their ranks. Children are being recruited to help kill. Scores of people are starving to death daily.
So...after the "Post US Election High" the whole world seems to be feeling subsides, what's next? Some Kenyans seem to think a President Obama will be a savior of sorts. People are already planning what they'll do when they get their instantly expedited American visas.Other African nations think his election means an automatically elevated stature and benefits for the entire continent.
People are looking for magic. But where's the magic in Eastern Congo?
Guess you can tell my own high has diminished significantly. As proud of and happy as I am for President-elect Obama, I have to shudder when I think of the challenges he faces, and how much madness and pain and suffering exists in the rest of world.
Still, I can't stop thinking about the lyrics from the theme to "The Poseidon Adventure." It feels like the US has been trapped on a sinking ship for the past 8 years, and we've finally reached the morning after.
THE MORNING AFTER
(A. Kasha/J. Hirshhorn)
There's got to be a morning after
If we can hold on through the night
We have a chance to find the sunshine
Let's keep on lookin' for the light
Oh, can't you see the morning after?
It's waiting right outside the storm
Why don't we cross the bridge together
And find a place that's safe and warm?
It's not too late, we should be giving
Only with love can we climb
It's not too late, not while we're living
Let's put our hands out in time
There's got to be a morning after
We're moving closer to the shore
I know we'll be there by tomorrow
And we'll escape the darkness
We won't be searchin' any more
There's got to be a morning after
(There's got to be a morning after)
There's got to be a morning after
(There's got to be a morning after)
There's got to be a morning after
(There's got to be a morning after)
There's got to be a morning after
(There's got to be a morning after)
There's got to be a morning after
(There's got to be a morning after)
Thursday, November 6, 2008
They words have never seemed more real, or more beatiful, to me, than they do today.
Lift every voice and sing, till earth and Heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise, high as the listening skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on till victory is won.
Stony the road we trod, bitter the chastening rod,
Felt in the days when hope unborn had died;
Yet with a steady beat, have not our weary feet,
Come to the place for which our fathers sighed?
We have come over a way that with tears has been watered,
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered;
Out from the gloomy past, till now we stand at last
Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.
God of our weary years, God of our silent tears,
Thou who hast brought us thus far on the way;
Thou who hast by Thy might, led us into the light,
Keep us forever in the path, we pray.
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee.
Lest our hearts, drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee.
Shadowed beneath Thy hand, may we forever stand,
True to our God, true to our native land.
Wednesday, November 5, 2008
Here it is...
I have been asked to describe my 47-year journey from a small segregated Southern Illinois town to a conference room in Nairobi yesterday morning, where I stood transfixed before a big screen TV, tears streaming down my face during Barack Obama’s address as the first black American to be elected President of the United States.
In a way, my path from Cairo to Kenya mirrors the path that America has had to take from the tumultuous Civil Rights Movement to November 5th, 2008. You see, as the 9th of 10 children born to a black American laborer and a maid in 1961, there was very little reason to believe I would ever wind up doing what I’m doing today.
But the foundations for my journey echo the evolution of the new American consciousness that appears to have dawned with the 2008 US Presidential election. Though I was born poor and black in a racist society, my parents Lewis and Eloise Jones believed their children could lead better lives. They demanded that through hard work and diligence, we would one day reach heights they never could have achieved.
My father was born in Mississippi in 1917, and later moved to Southern Illinois with his mother and siblings. My mother took a parallel path from 1926 Georgia to Pennsylvania with her family. Their migration from the American South to the North mirrored that of millions of Africans moving from rural areas to larger cities in search of employment, education and a better life overall.
But the more time I spend living in Africa, the better equipped I am to interpret the different impacts of American racism versus African colonialism. There’s no question that colonialism left a deep scar on the African consciousness, one which gets played out every day in stories of political wrangling, tribal warfare and intractable poverty. Still, African societies flourished long before colonialists arrived, and seem to imbue Africans with a sense of bolstering identity. For many black Americans, the nearly 400 years of our existence have been circumscribed by slavery and its lingering remnants.
Centuries of African culture and language and identity survived colonialism’s impact. Many black Americans had to build, brick by brick, a consciousness based primarily on hope for a better day. Pernicious racism and inequities flourished for decades after slavery “ended” in the mid 1800’s, in education, in employment, in every sector of American society. My parents, and their parents, knew struggle and despair, but they always dreamed that one day, we would overcome.
I believed that same thing, as a young girl in Cairo, Illinois. As poor as we were, I always believed that one day I would see the world. One of my earliest childhood heroes was the character Dorothy Gale from “The Wizard of Oz,” because she never backed down from a challenge. Dorothy always believed she could reach her goals, no matter what fantastic ogres and witches blocked her path.
Besides poverty, I faced a few ogres myself growing up during Civil Rights rioting and marches and their aftermath. As a poor black girl, society pretty much wrote me off early. By the time the infamous Moynihan Report on the State of Black America was released in 1965, the prevailing image of the black American woman was one of out-of-wedlock babies, welfare and hopelessness.
But that started to change by the early 1970s, due to initiatives like Affirmative Action, which sought to give black Americans an equal chance at higher education and decent employment. Several of my older siblings benefitted from Affirmative Action programs—because of their superior academic achievement–and I closely studied their success. It made me realize that I could succeed, too, if I worked hard enough.
Which brings me to that conference room yesterday, where I sobbed while listening to Barack Obama implore Americans to work hard to heal divisions and help find solutions to pressing problems. Our paths are wildly divergent. President-elect Obama is two months older than me, born in Hawaii and with no ancestral history of American slavery. He had done more world-traveling by the time he was 12 than I had done by the time I was 40. He’s an Ivy-league educated lawyer who bypassed Wall Street wealth to opt for public service.
I’m a writer with 2 decades of journalism experience who sought to change the world through my words, by telling stories that make people think, and possibly reexamine what they think they know about issues.
That is what brought me to Kenya. After 4 previous years of doing journalism training in Africa, including an 8 month tour in Northern Uganda in 2007, the chance to work with Kenyan reporters covering health issues was too good to pass up. I fully expected it would fulfill me as much as it might benefit anyone I would work with.
Though I might have just laughed if you had told me 30 years ago that I would one day live in Nairobi, Kenya, deep down inside, I knew I would travel to Africa during my lifetime. I had been prepared. I believed in myself, and my abilities, and I knew that my forefathers and mothers had worked and bled and died for me to go wherever my mind could take me. The price for my ticket had already been paid.
I envision Barack Hussein Obama, Senior and Ann Dunham imbuing the same limitless possibilities on their son, born the same year as me. That’s where the journey of the past 40 years has led America, and now the rest of the world.
I don't know why I was trippin' so hard about the election!
Remember last December 26th, when I wrote about opening the last box my sister Julie sent to me while I was in Northern Uganda? Well, on top of all the goodies she had somehow figured out I needed, nestled in the crumpled newspaper packaging, was a large "Obama '08" button, which I'm wearing today.
My brother in law Ron reminds me that at the time, Julie was a Hillary supporter. But I suspect that she also knew she wouldn't live to see the election, and that Obama just might be able to pull it out.
Julie wanted me to have this button to help celebrate for her. And that's what I did this morning, at the Tribe Hotel. I toasted President-elect Obama, hugged, wept and just marvelled at this moment in time.
I will probably be in a daze for a while. I just wish I hadn't worn mascara today, cause I'm definitely rockin' the whole 'coon eyes thing, which is NOT cool. Especially since everybody in the newsroom is coming over to congratulate me.
And this one reporter named Douglas, who introduced himself back in July by saying he hated Americans, now says those feelings have evaporated.
Now those are the kind of election results I'll stay up all night for!!!!!!
Texted my buddy Brian in Kakamega...
Headed out the door to an Obama Rama Party right now....
Life is Good. More later....
Oh, and did Liddy Dole get SERVED, or what?????
Tuesday, November 4, 2008
After all, it's 2:46 PM on the East Coast right now...almost 11 PM in Nairobi. So far, all I'm seeing is intense coverage of people standing in line, and blow by blow analyses of what the 21 votes from Dixville Notch, New Hampshire really mean. I'll go starkers sitting through another 3 or 4 hours of this.
Instead, I think I'll watch a few "Family Guy" episodes til I drift off. After all, Brian the dog is more articulate and perceptive than most news "personalities" these days. My alarm is set for 4 AM, about the time when officials calls should start being made. Maybe after a bit of sleep, I'll be braced and ready to sit hypnotized in front of the TV screen for a few hours.
Or maybe I'll just lie here wide awake and staring at the ceiling with bloodshot eyes before finally stumbling into the kitchen to pour myself another scotch and tonic.
Que sera, sera. I'm open to whatever the Universe brings. As long as I get to party my ass off all day tomorrow.
My Kakamega buddy Bryan called first to wish me a happy Election Day. You remember? The guy who almost presided over my massive coronary during a hellish hike in the Nandi Hills. He'll be attending an all night election watch party at the Kakamega Country club in Western Kenya. I bet that whole side of the country will explode in a mighty roar if/when Obama is declared the winner.
My buddy Jeff called a few minutes later. He and his wife Meredith live here in Nairobi, and like me, they're finding it hard to concentrate on much of anything today. Jeff sounded so excited but also completely stressed out that I had to take a few minutes to calm him down.
Come to think of it, I was calming myself down just as much.
It's probably obvious that, like me, both guys are Obama supporters. But the
most interesting thing about those two calls is that Bryan is 26, and Jeff is
28. That means Bryan was 18 in 2000, and Jeff was 20. Now, I'm not trying to be patronizing here by saying these guys were too young to understand what it was like going through the aftermath of the 2000 elections. My memories of that time are of utter heartbreak, mixed with impotent outrage that something like that could happen in America.
I'm sure that's part of what's making Bryan and Jeff so nervous today. But what I find most intriguing is that I truly don't think they can relate to my level of angst about the "race wildcard" on this historic Election Day. Bryan is white and Jeff is biracial, and as young Americans who came of age during the hip hop era, they are blissfully free of the kinds of racial memories that are making me slightly nauseous right now.
Put bluntly, and as I've written before, I KNOW what fear and paranoia could do to some white undecided American voters who feel their way of life is being threatened. I'm still worried that a significant number of those people could walk into the voting booth today, take a deep breath and cast a vote that essentially says, "This is my last chance to hold the line for America as a primarily white Christian nation."
And there wouldn't necessarily be anything against Obama in a vote like that. Also, there might probably be very little in support of McCain in a vote like that. There'd just be a sense that the power and the status of being a white American is slipping away, and that thought might make more than a few people feel uneasy. In an atmosphere of intense financial and political uncertainly, THOSE people might just conclude that a vote for the status quo would send a deeper message, that somebody's got to stick their finger in the dike......
Do I sound totally paranoid here??? I certainly hope I'm just straight trippin' about this. But talking to Jeff and Bryan this morning, I felt really happy that these two young men had no deep experiential scars to tend to during this Election Day.
Monday, November 3, 2008
Ain't that a blip? 10 months ago, Kenya was going up in flames, and people of different ethnic tribes were killing each other over a disputed Presidential election. On Wednesday, I'll be joining other Americans in Nairobi to (possibly) celebrate the election of the first black American president, who's of Kenyan descent, and whose father was a member of the Luo tribe, which had the biggest beef about Kenyan Presidential election results because the Luo candidate, Raila Odinga, was declared the loser.
Kenyans are saying it's pretty ironic that a Luo will be elected President of the United States before it ever happens in Kenya. But do NOT get me started on the whole tribal thing here...I just don't understand it.
Anyway, I still feel myself holding back about the election outcome. Don't get me wrong...I'm ready to party like it's 2009 up in here. But I guess I'm also following Obama's lead. I'm not taking anything for granted. One of my young Kenyan colleagues, a guy named Phillip who follows every bit of Obama news religiously, just showed me a copy of a leaflet that's being handed out in Virginia, instructing Democrats to vote on November 5th.
To many Kenyans, this just seems like a harmless trick compared to some of the Byzantine poll rigging, intimidation, terror and bloodshed that occurs during African elections. And though they sympathize with the drama surrounding America's 2000 election results, they seem convinced nothing will prevent Obama from being elected this time around.
About 95 percent of me feels that way too. But even at this 11th hour, I'm still keeping a corner of my heart protected. I still believe that if there's a way to cheat and steal an election, disgruntled American politicians can find it. I'm heartened by polls that give Obama a resounding lead, but I just can't let go of that last bit of doubt and fear.
So I'm pretty much gonna be useless until the Obama-Rama party. Maybe there'll be a clear, irrefutable result by that point.
Talk about waiting to exhale.....
Saturday, November 1, 2008
It's such a beautiful movie, whether you like boxing, or Russell Crowe, or not. I still don't know how Ron Howard captured the gut-wrenching nature of poverty and desperation so exquisitely. And maybe it resonated so much with me because I grew up just as poor as the folks in that movie.
But then, maybe poverty is a relative term. After all, growing up in Cairo circa the early and late '60s is not the same as growing up during the Great Depression. Still, with 10 kids to feed and menial jobs, my parents struggled just as hard as Jim and Mae Braddock did. And we were just as cold during Midwestern winters as they were in 1930's New York City.
Some of my clearest childhood memories involve trying to stay warm from November through April. You felt like you'd won the lottery when it was your turn to sit directly over one of the metal grates leading up from the coal furnace, or when you just received your old bleach bottle filled with hot water to tuck between the frigid sheets in your meat locker of a drafty bedroom.
I know what hunger is. Not just "being hungry." I know what it's like to go to bed with no supper. Gratefully, thanks to "socialist" initiatives like the Head Start and School Lunch and Commodity Food programs, I rarely went for days without eating something. There was alwasy at least one carton of free milk or a block of cheese to gnaw on at some point.
Anyway, I'm guessing that movie made me cry so hard because I'm thinking a lot these days about how far I'VE come. And I'm thinking about the prospect of a black man being President of the United States, something that little black girl huddling over a coal furnace grate back in Cairo, Illinois could have never imagined.
It's actually enormously bittersweet and ironic when I think about it. One of the things I clung to back then was my fantasy of a place over the rainbow, some wonderful land where all my dreams could come true. I BELIEVED in Oz, and Dorothy Gale was my hero, because she stood up to every challenge and never gave up in her search for home. I had to believe in her, because I had to find my way out of Cairo and out of poverty and into a brighter future.
Forty years ago, I could clearly envision Oz, but I couldn't envision a black man being President.
Maybe that's why I've been crying so hard. Maybe, sometimes, the dreams you don't even DARE to dream really do come true. After all, here I am, living in a far away land where it's actually hot between November and April.
But then, as a devout believer of Woody Allen's creative dictum that "Life is material," I had to get something out of the hellish maelstrom that was my return trip from the U.S.
I've been back in Nairobi about 48 hours now, and I'm amazed by how okay I feel! When I remember how wretched I felt for about 3 weeks after arriving here in June, I'm astonished that I've slept soundly, during my usual 7 hours ahead of DC schedule, and I don't feel as groggy and disoriented as back then.
And here's the strangest thing of all. It feels good to be here. Oh, not in the way it felt good to be in New York and DC, surrounded by friends and familiar sights and sounds and foods. It's just that, after 4 months, I feel like I get Nairobi. It's still nervewracking, like the 2 hour drive home from the airport in obscenely congested, diesel fume choked traffic that only takes 45 minutes when the roads are clear.
It's just that, for the next 8 months, this IS my home. It's where I've chosen to be. It's where I'm doing important work, and doing a great job of it, I might add. Where the next road leads is a mystery...all there is is now.
And for now, it's good to be home.