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, May 29, 2009
Wednesday, May 27, 2009
It was actually the perfect read for the flight back, and I saw a lot of my own past counterproductive relationship behavior in those pages. But in retrospect, I may be forced to write the definitive rebuttal to Harvey's runaway bestseller. After nearly a year in Kenya, my proposed tome would be entitled, "I CAN'T Think Like A Man Because I Don't Have A Penis, And That's What They Use to Think With." I'm thinking I could make much bank with that project.
Now, I ain't trying to hurt nobody's feelings here, but as Steve himself might interject,
"I'm just sayin', dawg!"
Yesterday's blog post got me to thinking real hard about that seemingly misanthropic theory. After all, I used it to focus on my mother's role in the Jones family planning process, when I should have spent a few more minutes trying to plumb the depths of my father's psyche. I mean, what was Lewis Jones thinking, after the 5th, 6th, and 7th babies he couldn't really afford to provide for showed up???? Weren't condoms created by the time the mid-50's rolled around? I'm pretty sure self-control was.
Don't get it twisted---I ain't hatin' on my father by calling him out on this issue. And I acknowledge that he worked just as hard as Mama did every day, from "cain't see to cain't see," over 40-odd years, loading bags of grain onto Ohio River barges. But surely the issue of producing more mouths than he could feed--and his role in curbing that phenomenon--had to have occurred to him at some point...didn't it?
Apparently, that issue got trumped by more earthly considerations. Moving away from that personal example of my central thesis, consider the evidence I've gathered during just 11 months in Kenya.
1. Watching the Grand Coalition Government slowly but decisively descend into a pit of chaos and destruction, what it all boils down to is One Gigantic Pissing Match between one ethnic tribe versus another, led by two bombastic old men who TOTALLY just need to sit down somewhere and be quiet.
2. Recently, following the one-week so-called Sex Strike staged by Kenyan women activists, a man filed suit, saying that going one week without his conjugal rights left him depressed, stressed and virtually unable to function. I'm sure his wife enjoyed the vacation.
3. Research shows that the HIV infection rate in Kenya is growing fastest among married couples. Now, I'm not saying all Kenyan wives are saints, but the main reason for this increase is because married Kenyan men have lots and lots of sex with people other than their wives.
4. Just this week, a Kenyan men's rights group announced that Kenyan men are actually more at risk of domestic violence than women. Citing examples of this violence, group leaders stated that Kenyan men were actually being forced to cook, clean and care for their own children more than in previous years. And they said women were even depriving men of their rights to decide how big their families should be.
5. Last week, during a meeting of village leaders in a Kisumu neighborhood, one man was asked what men need to do to ensure they only had as many children as they could afford to care for. He responded that they needed help from philanthropic Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs). When told that many NGOs were trying to provide support in the form of family planning methods, he replied that family planning went against his beliefs. Period. So when asked what men themselves needed to do to control how many children they had, he said most men are able to abstain from sex when necessary. When the large numbers of needy children in his own neighborhood were pointed out, he was asked what should be done to help men who can't abstain. He said those men needed help from NGOs.
I could only conclude he wanted those NGOs to slap his hands with a large ruler everytime he reached for his zipper.
Those are just a few examples. There are plenty more, trust me. And no matter what you might think, I'm not trying to demonize Kenyan men with this screed, but since they're who I'm interacting with mostly these days, and they supply me with a steady stream of examples of penile-related thought processes, I'm forced to run with 'em.
But that doesn't mean I'm giving up on the big galoots.
Tuesday, May 26, 2009
We were invited there by the Population Reference Bureau to get information about family planning and reproductive health services in Kenya. It's an especially timely topic, because for most of the past decade, Bush Administration policies denied funding to any international family planning organization that offered information about...or even mentioned...that "dirty" little word:
You know, I have to say that my feelings about that word are actually quite detached. Oh, don't get me wrong...I'm staunchly pro-choice. I also think religious leaders who condemn any type of family planning in desperately poor developing countries are committing crimes against humanity.
But I've never had an abortion, or needed one. Amongst friends and aquaintances, only a few have shared that gut-wrenching decision with me, and each time I was intensely grateful they'd had the information, support and strength to do what they felt was right for their lives.
Still, even though I've never had personal experience with an unwanted pregnancy, I wonder how many anti-choice activists around the world have actually entered a ramshackle clinic in a Third World country and seen starving women and children queued up for basic health care. That's just one of the many sights I witnessed during last week's briefing. Some of those women cradling skeletal, weak, raggedly dressed babies and children were also there to get birth control pills, or Depo Provera shots, or other tools to help them just rest a minute.
I mean, imagine being 25 years old, with no education or skills, living in a mud and straw hut, and you already have 6 sickly, poorly-fed kids who you can't afford to send to school, and your husband, who ain't got a pot to piss in just like you, is threatening to beat you bloody if you do anything to keep from getting pregnant, but he won't keep his freakin' hands off you, and your pastor or priest or village chief or nosy-assed, half-starving-her-OWN-damn-self mother-in-law is warning that you will burn in HELL if you do anything to stop producing babies who will eventually die slowly and painfully before your eyes...........
Trust me, I try to keep an open mind about these things. After all, I've frequently acknowledged that if the Birth Control Pill had been introduced in 1951 instead of 1961, and had been easily accessible across America, I and about 5 or 6 of my siblings never would have been born. If Eloise Jones had had even one of the dozens of amazing opportunities I experienced in my early adult life, she would have stopped getting pregnant after the first one or two deliveries. She would have done what many of those desperately poor women in that Kisumu clinic were doing the day we visited...obtaining pills and shots and IUD's and tubal ligations behind their husband's backs.
(After all, I respected my father growing up, but he didn't have a pot to piss in, either. AND he couldn't keep his damn hands to himself. Thank goodness, huh???)
I know, that makes me sound like a hypocrite. Glad my mother didn't have access to abortion, but unwilling to support keeping other women from "ending some kid's life." But stay with me for a minute. Just imagine me standing in that Kisumu clinic, born the 9th of 10 children to two poor Americans all those many years ago, watching those desperately poor Kenyan women, and thinking, "What's the difference between Eloise Jones's experience and theirs?"
One word: EDUCATION. Or put another way, knowledge of, and a reasonable proximity to, a better life. Awareness that even if your life sucks ass, it doesn't have to be that way for your kids. From the first delivery to the 10th, my mother was determined that her children's lives would be better than hers. And she knew learning, and being aware of a better way of life...and making us believe that we could actually get there...was the only way to survive.
But what if you're born in abject, mind-bending squalor in a Western Kenya village, as opposed to a small town in Southern Illinois? I mean, in America in the 1940's, 50's and 60's, when Mama was having her children, the main thing keeping her and people like her from having a chance to succeed was black skin. Not a Third World government with limited economic resources, lack of infrastructure, no access to decent health care for the majority of its population, and scant access to education. She worked for many years as a maid for an affluent white family and knew that her own children were just as smart--if not smarter--and just as deserving as those white children. Eloise Jones was determined that her children would have just as much of a shot at America's version of success as they did.
So here's my official position on family planning, abortion, et al. Not that you asked for it or anything, but you're gonna get it anyway.
"If the women in that Kisumu clinic weren't almost starving to death themselves, and if they lived in minimally decent houses or apartments instead of squalid mud huts, and they weren't plagued by malaria and cholera and HIV and TB and a host of other ailments, and their husbands had jobs and could provide for their families, and their kids could eat and go to school, then okay, maybe I could open up a corner of my consciousness to understanding arguments against family planning, religious or otherwise. I might even be able to at least entertain the prospect of a world where the right to choose was completely eliminated."
But as long as those sickly, malnourished babies' faces remain in my mind's eye, I just can't get there. That's why I'm quite relieved that President Obama removed those Bush Adminstration restrictions around family planning practices. Heck, just because I'm glad Eloise Jones didn't pursue access to legal, safe birth control or abortion doesn't mean I'm glad there are millions of children in the world who not only probably won't even live until the age of 3, they'll suffer every single second of their existence.
For some reason, I just can't glean a drop of comfort from that thought.
Tuesday, May 19, 2009
"It's time to step out on faith, I've gotta show my faith. It's been elusive for so long, but freedom is mine today. I've gotta step out on faith, it's time to show my faith, Procrastination had me down, but look what I have found, I found strength, courage, and wisdom. And it's been inside of me all along."
"Runnin' 'round in circles, lost my focus, lost sight of my goal. I do this for the love of (writing), not for the glitter and gold. Got everything that I pray for, even a little more. When I asked to learn humility, guess what I was told? “It’s the little things, and the joy they bring.”
I guess part of the reason I'm feeling so good lately is obvious. Knowing that the kids at PCEA Muniu are able to have a decent lunch each day really makes me feel terrific! Just the other day, I was telling somebody that the poverty and despair here are often so overwhelming, you're tempted to buy yourself a big-assed calendar and mark off the days til the end of your stint with large red X's. There's so much that seems uncontrollable, unfixable, and hopeless, that when you find a way where you can actually make a positive impact, it is an incredible energy booster.
But I'm also thinking that generally speaking, I'm in a really good place. Not just physically, because of the Oasis of Graciousness, but mentally, and emotionally. I guess I'm just looking at the arc of my life, and where I came from, and really admiring who I am now. And I'm feeling blessed and lucky to be employed, what with all the bad news in the media sector these days. It's like I've been endowed with impeccable timing to have not only stepped out of the newsroom just before the meltdown hit, but to actually be living quite well in a foreign country during the Global Financial Crisis.
Granted, since I'm a woman, I can always find something to pick at. Fr'instance, I could stand to lose a few pounds. But then, that's also due to my being in a better place emotionally! When I feel good, I eat good. Even before heading back to the States recently, I'd noticed that my skirts and pants were starting to cut me off so bad, I would soon need major reconstructive surgery to hide the scars around my waist. Back in America, two weeks of snarfing down all the foods I can't get in Kenya left me with more junk in my trunk than I care to acknowledge. In the space of 9 months, I've gone from a size 4 to a size 10.
But there's even a hidden blessing in THAT! Except for my pooch-y stomach, I like being a bit fleshier these days! Sure, I need to work on flexibility and getting my ass to the gym, but I like almost having my pre-Gulu butt back! I like having some pretty significant cleavage on display! Although I need to check myself in that respect. The other day, while driving to Maai Mahiu to deliver the food for the PCEA Muniu kids, I bent over to get something out of my purse and one of "The Twins" damn near fell out of the low cut blouse I was wearing. I wasn't tryin' to flash nobody that day, just attempting to stay cool during a recent round of hot flashes.
Without missing a beat, the woman I was travelling with, an African American named Dawn who's married to a Kenyan, reached over and pulled my wrap across my chest. "We're not trying to see all your business today," she gently admonished.
Anyhoo, back to the main point of this post. For some amazing reason, I feel really great these days. In fact, the only thing "missing" is what my buddy Simone mentioned recently on my last night in the US, which I will restate using less crude syntax. It would be really wonderful to meet a nice man to spend large amounts of my free time with! And I'm hoping that what people have been telling me all along really is true...maybe I needed to get to where I am now emotionally, or some close approximation, before that man shows up.
Now, 0ther than the recent good "first and only" date I wrote about, there aren't a lot of prospects.....at least not in my age range. But the good news just keeps on coming, because if I was ever gonna consider the Cougar route, Africa is the place to be! For the first time in my life, I could actually afford to be a really formidable, highly-competitive Sugar Mummy!
All, right, all right, don't get your knickers in a twist, dear readers. I am NOT thinking of actively pursuing some guy young enough to be my son. But then again.....just yesterday, a young freelancer I've been working with said something profound. Rose reminds me a lot of me at age 28...or at least the me I SHOULD have been at that age. I was just as cute and slender and smart and talented as she is when I was 28, but the difference is that I didn't know it.
Anyway, while heading to an interview, Rose started talking about one of her ex-boyfriends who keeps popping up hoping for another chance at a relationship. She likes him and all, but there's just too much drama. My first instinct was to try and advise her to keep that door closed, but then I just sat and listened. I know better; you can't infuse the young with the wisdom you paid such a steep price to own. Rose has to put herself through that madness enough times before she decides on her own that it ain't worth it.
But the other half of me admired her. Rose is vivacious, and confident, and receptive. And she's certain of one thing..she just wants to have fun at this point in her life. She gets bored easily, and knows herself well enough to know that a settled routine is not for her. Not a husband, or a gaggle of kids, or a serious relationship. F-U-N, that's it. And then, like out of the blue, she said something that rang my bell big time.
"You have to be able to surprise yourself every now and then, to know you're still alive."
I literally turned in my seat to look at her. Once again, I was receiving a profound message from an unlikely source. At this point at my life, when it comes to men and relationships, it's more likely than not that I'll HAVE to surprise myself if I'm gonna be successful. I mean, in all seriousness, there's an extremely high probability that I could wind up with someone younger than me. Significantly younger. At this point, there's even a chance I could wind up with an African man, something I would have flatly refused to acknowledge even being remotely possible a year ago.
All's I'm saying, y'all, is that I'm feeling so good these days, I'm seeing things a lot more clearly. My life is humming right along now, and about 3/4ths of it is really fantastic. Now, I gotta shift the focus a bit and work on "the REST of the story," as Paul Harvey used to say. And thanks to young Miss Rose, I'm starting to embrace the possibility that sometime really soon, I might wind up surprising myself in the romance department.
"More later, as this story develops....."
Friday, May 15, 2009
Keep in mind, I was listening to the audiobook while driving from Cairo to Atlanta in November of 2007, following my sister Julie's funeral. With each passing mile marker, I was getting more and more irritated by Gilbert's explanation for why her marriage and life had begun to unravel. Between my own crying jags, all I could think was, "Oh, cry me a river, wench." To me, it sounded like Gilbert "just wasn't that into" a faithful husband who loved her, a beautiful house in the suburbs and a great career.
"Bitch needs to be livin' MY life right about now," I mumbled.
Wednesday, May 13, 2009
The first thing you need to know about the picture at left, of me and my dear friend Simone, is that it was taken with my US BlackBerry during my last night back in America recently. And though I initially cursed the grainy, poor quality of the resulting image, a few weeks later, I am so glad I thought to have it taken.
You see, there were so very many wonderful friends I had hoped to connect with during my recent trip home. I did manage to see fabulous gals like Deb, and Sarah, and Sharahn, and Wilma, and Dana, and Mary Ann, (and, briefly, Brenda, and my girl Allison, who I publicly acknowledge owing a sumptuous meal the next time I return home!!!). And of course I spent that weekend of culinary debauchery in Raleigh, North Carolina with two former Detroit Free Press interns who have morphed into two of the most terrific women I know, Joyce and Jamila.
But for every dear friend I was able to spend time with, there were 5 I didn't get to see. Would that I could have carved out 3 days in Chicago to see my "Road Dawg For Life" Veronica and her beautiful little daughter August (I left the country just days before Veronica won the prestigious Knight Fellowship at Stanford University...ARGHHHHH!!) Oh, and I don't even know if my friend Lisa in Portland, OR even still considers me a friend, given the fact that I have yet to lay eyes on her baby girl named...you guessed it...RACHEL!!
But here's the worst of it, y'all. I even managed to almost wreck a 30 year friendship by NOT getting my ass down to Charlotte, North Carolina to spend time with my best friend, Faith. It was such a tight turnaround, and I'd been hoping she could make the 3 hour drive to Raleigh while I was there, but her schedule was too jammed.
And then just as I was leaving the country, I realized that the reason Faith wasn't returning my calls is that she was using an old, pre-US BlackBerry number, which I haven't used since before Nairobi. By the time Faith sent me a salty email threatening to slap the shit out of me for not making time to connect, all I could do was apologize profusely. She was right...I had screwed up royally, and I felt lower than a snake's belly about it.
But at least there was my bon voyage dinner with Simone to look forward to, on that last night Stateside. She's the N'awlins belle I've written about before, the one who totally reminds me of Bette Davis's eponymous vixen in the movie "Jezebel," except Simone is not a selfish, manipulative Bitch From Hell. She just resembles the character, with her long strawberry blonde hair and waspish waist.
Anyhoo, Simone and I met about 11 years ago, when she moved to DC from New York to help usher in a Golden Era of DC Fine Dining, as the PR Director for some of the best restaurants to ever hit the region. (At least three of the pounds around my waist that refuse to budge are the result of all the restaurant openings, tastings, and other culinary invites Simone has steered my way. Oh, and let's not even MENTION the fact that's she's married to one of the hottest pastry chefs in America, for whom I would crawl over broken glass if he even just promised to make me one of his Lemon Doberge Cakes!!)
As I wrote before, I expected to hate this beautiful, skinny, high fashionista "Noo YAWK" PR whiz when we met, given my lowly status as a hustling freelancer. But by the time my 3 hour lunch with Simone ended, I had received a profound message, one that eventually wound up helping save my sanity. At one point during that marathon meal, we started comparing notes about various personal challenges, and I mentioned how much my sister/adjunct mother Julie was struggling with lupus and a host of other health challenges back in Illinois, and how agonizing it was to be so far away from her.
By the time Simone finished relating how she had lost her mother and sister within a year of each other, under incredibly difficult circumstances, I was too stunned to speak. How did this dynamic, poised woman sitting across from me manage to survive TWO tremendous blows with such indomitable grace? It just seemed impossible, and yet there she was.
11 years later, I've lost a beloved sister, and a mother...and a brother and father thrown in there for good measure. Now, I don't know if I have ever been as graceful and poised about those losses as Simone seemed on the day we met, but I survived. And yes, I daresay I'm even thriving, in most ways. Hell, six days out of seven, I even feel richly blessed.
(This from the same woman who'd had every intention of climbing into the aforementioned beloved sister's grave and pulling the dirt in on top of her.)
So it made sense that when I met up with Simone on the night before leaving the States, she was wearing an orange sweater and I was wearing an orange sweater. It made sense that Simone ordered the most perfect tempranillo I'd ever tasted, and forced me to have a second glass of it-- after she'd already forced me to have a mojito to start with! It made sense that we sat there for almost 3 hours getting caught up on her life and mine (including her insistence that I find myself a man to "knock the dust off that thang." Sorry, girlfriend, but you've known I'm a writer since the day you met me, and that everything you say around a writer eventually winds up in print!).
It even made sense when I started telling Simone about my reasons for launching Project Archangel Julie, and how I had visited the Maai Mahiu Internally Displaced Persons Camp on Friday, March 13, and she paused for a minute and then said that her beloved sister had died on March 13.
Yet one more piece of compelling evidence that if you're truly blessed, throughout your lifetime you will meet many women who with very little effort will become your "sisters from another mother." And you will cherish those friendships so much that you'll be able to look at a fuzzy, poorly lit and badly focused picture of you with one of those women and instead of obsessing over the flaws, it will make you feel happy every single time.
Tuesday, May 12, 2009
Monday, May 11, 2009
One of my more waggish loyal readers, who shall go unnamed because he really ought to be ashamed of himself, suggested that a possible reason the blog hasn't been updated lately is because I must have been too busy servicing Kenyan men who'd endured a week-long sex strike by women activists protesting rampant crime and corruption in the country.
Two weeks in my "Homeland" had ended much, much too quickly. I love America so much right about now, it makes my teeth ache. But while I was there, I'd noticed wire stories about a group of Kenyan women activists who'd urged women to withhold sex until the Powers That Be cleaned up their acts.
Or at least for a week.
My initial reaction was utter disdain. After living in Kenya for 10 months, and having read hundreds of stories about men beating and murdering women for any manner of reasons, real or imagined, I wondered how many women outside this group of female intelligentsia would have the power or courage to negotiate this sex ban. (In fact, the majority of females in the developing world don't even get to decide when they'll have sex, or with whom.)
My next reaction was relief at being away from Kenya, because I could just imagine the range of crude commentary that ensued after the ban was announced. (I'm told the newsroom I work in attained lockerroom status shortly thereafter.) Let's just say Kenyans have a less nuanced interpretation of the male-female dynamic. Women exist to fulfill male sexual needs, birth children, and keep house. Period. Beyond those activities, they should shut up and do what they're told.
That's only slightly exaggerated, unfortunately. That kind of attitude, along with some of the other psychic adjustments required to move from American society to African culture, had taken a heavy subconscious toll on me. My two weeks in the US reminded me of all the ways I've had to pull in the reins a bit to function here. Truth be told, one of the most taxing aspects has been pretty much dismissing the possibility of any kind of intimate relationship with a man here...at least, with a Kenyan man.
Now, I've been victimized by negative stereotypes, so I shouldn't automatically conclude that all Kenyan men are callous brutes. But the relentless sexual/cultural sturm and drang in this society, coupled with the appalling greed and selfishnessness of political leaders, just left me emotionally drained. By the time I returned to Nairobi, where a stack of newspapers awaited to reinforce all of those negative stereotypes in my jet-lagged brain, all I wanted to do was tune out.
What's worse, jet-lag kicked my natural ass this time. For four days straight, I simply couldn't sleep. I've battled significant insomnia off and on over the past decade, but there was something especially insidious about this stint. The grogginess and other adjustments your body clock has endure in a 7-hour time shift are bad enough, but when you can't even catch the occasional catnap, it's just agony.
But I'm pleased to say I've finally passed the worst of it. Last night I even managed about 5 hours of uninterrupted sleep! And I've decided that I'm NOT going to plow through that stack of newspapers, because all it's going to do is piss me off. Besides, there are enough new Kenyan corruption eruptions every day to keep me preoccupied.
In other words, it's time to get down to business, at work and in my personal life. I'm committed to being here at least until July 2010, so I need to make the most of this time. My recent trip was a good reminder that America is HOME, and no matter how long I live abroad, that won't change. Now the big challenge is being at home in myself, wherever I am.