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, July 31, 2009

Happy Trails To Me

Okay, after a hot stone massage and an oxygenating facial, today I feel more like the Golden Monkey pictured here, all cute and cuddly and stuff. Sure, I still haven't finished packing, and the workshop program is, shall we say, "evolving" (aka being pulled outta thin air), but at least some of the stress of the past few weeks has been pounded out of me.

So, I'm drinking a fuzzy navel, relaxing at the Oasis, and feeling actually pretty excited about the upcoming week. Besides, there's plenty of time to finish packing. After all, I'm not heading to the airport for another 11 hours. I just hope I remember my toothbrush this trip.

"I'm Just Sayin' Dawg...." Part 8

Can I just say that after following the Saga of Skip Gates and His House Arrest, for the first time in a year I'm actually GLAD to be living outside America???

And remember, this comes from a woman who has been profiled, dissed and dismissed on 4 different continents now. This comes from a woman who walks into every situation expecting to be treated with respect and professionalism and politeness, and after all these years is still shocked when she is perceived as anything other than fiercely intelligent, grown-assed, law-abiding and NOTHING like the long list of stereotypes that are associated with women of African descent.

Yes, it still happens. I wish it didn't, but it does. I can still go to certain venues here and either be considered a "working gal," or as someone who should know better than to open her mouth unless given permission. I can still be followed, accosted, yada, yada, yada. (Incidentally, it hurts even more when I'm being treated that way by people with the same skin color as mine.) I imagine that even though the guards at my apartment complex know that I live by myself and pay my own rent, other people seeing me enter those gates probably assume I'm there as a carnal companion for some white male NGO employee.

Sure, it bugs the shit out of me, and I won't deny uttering some occasionally bitchy sentiments to get those situations straightened out. But from the moment I heard about the Gates arrest, I had a gut suspicion there was more to the story. When discussing it with a couple of other white Americans a few weeks ago, I could see the surprise on their faces when I mused, "If I had seen two guys I didn't recognize forcing their way into a house in my neighborhood, I might have called the cops, too." That feeling deepened when I learned that the woman who'd placed the call hadn't described them as black men. Just as two guys whotfor whatever reason she didn't recognize, and who were forcing their way into a house in her neighborhood.

I've followed all the sturm and drang that's unspooled since with a strange detachment. Yes, my heart ached a bit seeing a mugshot of the esteemed Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Yes, I know what it's like to be disrespected or accused of something just because of your skin color. It started happening to me shortly after birth in Southern Illinois. And even though I've had a bit of a breather, YES, I KNOW THAT RACE IS STILL A FLASHPOINT IN AMERCAN SOCIETY.

But if it's true that Skip Gates invoked the policeman's mother in a derogatory fashion during the incident, he's lucky he didn't get an ass whooping. I think that's what shocked me most of all, that someone of his stature, with his intelligence and deportment, could have responded in such an asinine way. I know he'd just gotten home from China, and was probably exhausted, and yes, it's kind of outrageous to be asked to show your ID in your own home, but none of that matters.

The bottom line of this story is not about race. It's about taste. Poor taste. Let's hope the learned professor is thinking about it that way.

"I'm just sayin', dawg..."

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Living My Life Like it's Golden, Schmolden

For some reason, I've been thinking a lot about Jill Scott's upbeat anthem, "Golden" lately.

I'm taking my freedom
pulling it off the shelf
puttin' it on my chain
wearing it 'round my neck
I'm taking my freedom
puttin' it in my car
wherever i choose to go
It will take me far

I'm living my life like it's golden
living my life like it's golden
living my life like it's golden
living my life like it's golden
living my life like it's golden

When I'm in a strong, rested state of mind, this is my anthem, too. I'm fully aware of how blessed I am, and how the "storehouses of the heavens" have been opened to me so many times in my life.

But sadly, after a year of maneuvering the mean streets of Nai-robbery, I am golden only in the sense of being deep-fried and crispy around the edges. My nerves are plucked, and I'm scattered to the four winds. I've got soooo much on my plate, it's a side hustle in itself just making sure nothing falls off. And then the other day, I remembered that a few months ago, Jill Scott's partner and father of her newborn child left her a few days after said child was born. We're told Jill has moved on with her life, but I'm sure she also must have had moments when her life felt more like fool's gold.

So as I was doing some online research into the Golden Monkey Tracking tour I'll be taking next Saturday in Ruhengeri, Rwanda, I came across this picture that sort of summed up where I am these days. Oh, I'm golden, all right, but I've also got some sharp-assed fangs, too. These days, I'm just hangin' on til vacation week after next. But even with all the stress, I'm still pretty danged excited about heading to Kigali on Saturday, to lead a health reporting workshop. Another African country "notch on my belt", another group of journalists to interact with, some more amazing vistas to explore. I ain't got no car in Nairobi, but I'm putting my freedom in my taxi and heading to wherever I choose to go. My mind will take me that far.

So maybe in another week or 2, I'll morph into one of the cuter, cuddlier versions of the golden monkeys I just saw online. Until such time, just don't make any sudden moves around me, and no flash photography, please.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

"The Best There Could Ever Be"

Now, you might conclude that a person who's eager to read the evaluation forms from a training he or she organized and conducted is a either a glutton for punishment or is fairly certain they'll like what they see.

So to HELL with false modesty. I know how utterly zonked I was when I got home from Dar es Salaam Saturday, after the media training for malaria researchers, and how I had no idea where I'd dredge up the energy to tackle another one for radio reporters in less than 48 hours.

Actually, every time the alarm went off at 6 AM these past 3 days, another little piece of my soul withered. I've never been a morning person, and don't feel the need to apologize for it. For example, it's almost 10 PM in Nairobi now, and I know I won't be hitting the sack until after midnight. And it's okay, because that's the cycle my body is most comfortable with, for better or worse....

...AND because I leave for Kigali, Rwanda on Saturday morning to lead yet ANOTHER workshop. (Can I just interject here that I work hard for my money, so HARD for it,

So, again I declare, "False modesty, BE GONE!" I have spent the past 3 days working the room, flashing my dazzling smile, hustling my butt, cracking jokes, chiding when necessary, sharing reporting war stories, poking, prodding, encouraging, pacing back and forth, lugging a big-assed backpack full of audio equipment and another shoulder back with my laptop, signing restaurant bills, chasing down hotel IT guys....

Just like I did in Gulu, and Addis, and Abuja, and Accra, and Zaria, and every other place I've worked as a media trainer and consultant, I knocked that bad boy outta the park. So when I poured my weary bones onto the couch at the Oasis after work this evening, I considered it my reward to carefully review those evaluations. Basically, I couldn't imagine that any of the reporters would say, "Rachel sucked, and we never want to endure her pompous rantings again." I just needed a little pick me up.

Well, my wish was granted. I snagged all fives--"Top O' The World, Ma!!" But one comment really jump-started slightly shredded, sleep-deprived soul. One of the reporters, in typically formal, reverent Kenyan English, embellished his superior ranking with the simple statement,

"She is the best there could ever be."

Now, that's sweeter than the gelato in my freezer, so I think I'll skip it tonight. Besides, I've got a coupla hours work ahead of me.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Random Travel Observation 2

I'm actually disappointed in myself for taking the picture above this posting, and not just because it's blurry after I snapped it on my Black Berry like a sneak thief.

In fact, I can't believe how unnerved I felt sitting right across from 4 young Muslim men wearing their long white gowns, at a Nyerere Airport departure gate on Saturday. Even though realistically, these days people strapped with bombs are more likely to blend into crowds, instead of sticking out like sore thumbs.

Come to think of it, my unease was probably heightened because one of these men was wearing an army fatigue cap. On a dude rocking blue jeans and a leather jacket, I'd have dismissed that cap with a cynical "Rebel Without a Fashion Clue" thought. But on this young man's head, my mind started racing, and I wondered, "Should I get on this plane, or wait for the next one?Why is everybody else NOT noticing these guys??"

Obviously, they weren't terrorists bent on mass carnage or I wouldn't be typing this "confession of sorts. And I'm doing it as a reminder to be vigilant about rejecting the dark, soulless path of fear and stereotyping that creates demons where none exist.

Random Travel Observation 1

I've been back in Nairobi, after my whirlwind malaria conference trip to Dar, since Saturday afternoon. As usual, running errands took up half of the rest of the weekend, and prepping for a 3-day radio news reporting workshop that began this morning consumed the other half. Today's sessions went really well, and I'll probably write about the workshop eventually. But thanks to this recent burst of activity, I'm a complete marshmallow head lying here on the couch trying to decide if I want another glass of wine or a scoop of the Malaga gelato that's beckoning me from the freezer.

But I wanted to share a couple random observations while I'm waiting for something really pithy and intriguing to occur to me. First, as I headed to the boarding area for the return flight to Jomo Kenyatta International, I snapped this picture because it reminded me that after a year of living in Kenya, I still only know some bare bones basics of Kiswahili. I know that "Safari Njema" means, roughly, "Have a Good Journey." I know how to say "My name is Rachel", and I can tell you to sit down in this chair and relax.

This sign reminded me that with all the travel I'm starting to do in this region, and the strong possibility that it will increase dramatically over the next 12 months, there's really no excuse for me to not learn it. People in parts of Uganda speak Kiswahili. It's the second official language of Kenya, and it's Number 1 in Tanzania. So what's stopping me?? I'd guess that subconsciously, I'm resisting because I'm telling myself, "What's the point? I'll be back in the US in a year, and the only language I need to know there is Spanish. I mean...English."

I tried to take a few lessons awhile back, but my schedule, and a none-too-dynamic though earnest young teacher, made me lose interest. But I'm determined to make a serious effort to learn enough Kiswahili over the next year to sound more like the Kenyan some people think I am anyway, at least until I open my mouth and they hear my nasal, "black Mzungu" intonations.

One day at a time, Sweet Jesus. Just don't ask me to learn how to speak Kinyarwanda, the official language of Rwanda, in time for NEXT week's workshop in Kigali...

Oi VEY!!!!

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Grass is Always Greener--Right Before the Revolution

One of my Kenyan colleagues read yesterday's posting and wondered when I was gonna get a clue. Or a grip. Or basically just get over myself, for chrissakes.

Upon review, I can see where he's coming from. I've been coming to Africa for 6 years now, and have actually lived in the continent for almost 2, yet I'm still commenting on how incredibly poor a lot of people are. I'm still struck by the depth of poverty and squalor you can encounter. In fact, most of the time, I'm pretty much horrified by it. So it's still pretty much a surprise when I encounter a lovely, sophisticated setting like the Kunduchi Beach Hotel nestled in the midst of it.

Basically, my colleague wanted to know when I was gonna just accept that there's more to Africa than pompous dictators and killer diseases. But here's the thing...obviously I get that. In fact, I get it more than about 90 percent of Americans. Just because Africa's poverty disturbs me doesn't mean I'm not acknowledging how limited the prevailing stereotypes are.

What I was really trying to communicate yesterday, albeit in a rather shallow, sarcastic way, is that I wonder what keeps the folks on the other side of the "Kunduchi Wet N' Wild Water Park" gate from storming through? What disturbs me more than the abject squalor is how frequently it's located right next to relative splendor.

Actually, that's something I think about while I'm back home sometimes, too. I'll never forget going to report on a brutal murder on the Detroit city limits, on a street full of mostly abandoned, dilapidated houses and sidewalks littered with broken bottles, hypo needles, and other garbage. But right across the street, in plain view of the crime scene, was the rolling, manicured playground of a large well-equipped school, behind a high, secure fence.

I wondered how a parent dropping his or her kid off at that well-equipped school explained the conditions in the surrounding neighborhood. And I wondered what the kids who pass by that newer, well equipped school, tiptoeing through those garbage-littered streets to their own struggling, decaying neighborhood schools, must be thinking.

It seemed to me then, and whenever I see a similar setting anywhere in the world, that I'm viewing the recipe for an imminent, massive revolution. For example, the girl who was cleaning my room this afternoon reeked of body odor so strong, I gagged. I had to ask her to just leave a few towels, it was so bad. But I realize it's not just because she has bad hygiene habits. It's because she doesn't have water in her home. Or if there is water, she or one of her younger sisters had to walk for miles each morning to fetch it from a filthy stream, and it has to be used for cooking, not for luxuries like bathing.

"What keeps that girl from hopping into my shower and cleansing herself? She deserves to be able to do that."

And what keeps the people who cook the buffet meals for hotels like this one, and then go home to a bowl full of ugali and beans if they're lucky, from just sitting down and eating their full? What keeps the guards who are lucky if they make a dollar a day from jacking everybody in sight?

I don't know, but I must confess that I hope I'm not on the African continent when those people finally realize the answer is, "Not much." Because one day, very soon, the "Keep Off Private Property" signs just won't do the trick.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

...Another Window Opens

Okay, I'm not gonna deny being a teensy bit apprehensive about what the Kunduchi Beach Hotel in Dar es Salaam would be like. After all, during the drive in from Mwalimu Julius Nyerere Airport this morning, I realized I might as well have been in any of the other African countries I've visited so far.

Oh, sure, the roads were paved well enough, but as an American, you just can't help noticing the stark poverty in developing countries. It's everywhere, from the crude huts to the roadside vendors, to the ragged, beseeching children, and the tin roofed shacks. It looked like the drive from Entebbe Airport to Kampala, and the drive from the airport outside Abuja, and the drive from the airport in get my drift.

I started having the gnawing suspicion that the word "Kunduchi" was Swahili for the painful crotch itch I'd develop if I sat on any of the beach lounge chairs. And any last drop of hope vanished once the hotel's mildew-y airport shuttle pulled up to a gate with the words "Kunduchi Wet n' Wild Water Park" on it.

Oh, great, I muttered under my breath, with no small measure of bitterness. The conference organizers have chosen Africa's version of Branson, Missouri for their meeting venue.

So imagine my surprise stepping into a quaint, pristine, lovely hotel that's a classic example of Swahili architecture--open air patios, high ceilings, moorish furnishings. The lobby alone is fantastic. And then I got to my charming room, pulled open the curtains and...

WOW. I was at a loss for words, but when I was finally able to characterize the view from my room balcony, all I could come up with was, "This is the SHIZZ-nit, for RIZ-eal!!"

Seriously, I'm due. In fact, I'm WAAAAAAAY overdue for this little bright spot. I've been feeling kind of crispy around the edges lately, for a lot of reasons. And the next 3 weeks will be a slog, thanks to a radio workshop I'm leading in Nairobi next week, and then a health reporting workshop in Kigali the week after. So I'm gonna try as much as possible to relax in yet another Swahili oasis, and I'm gonna dip my toes in the Indian Ocean and I'm gonna keep looking for even more fantastic open windows in my life.

The Road to Dar

I'm feeling a bit less gob-smacked today, after last week's pensive revelry. If you're lucky, you really are able to draw some comfort from thinking that someone who's been ill for a very long time is in a better place once they die. Let me just put it out there now...I don't consider it stoic or brave to suffer for the sake of hanging on, and want anybody who might give two figs when my time comes to remember this one important message,


Anyway, part of the reason I'm coming up for air is that I'm sitting in Jomo Kenyatta International Airport at the moment, headed to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. I was going to use the "Another Notch On My Belt" analogy until I remembered I've already been to Tanzania. Zanzibar, remember? (Man, newsheimers is really stalking me these days...)

So this'll be my first time on mainland TZ. But don't get any funny ideas, cuz this ain't a vacation. I'm headed to a seminar for malaria researchers, where I'll participate in a media panel. Basically, I'll be trying to help them learn how to talk like regular folks when they're explaining their research.

Hope to get a little exploring in at some point, though. Ooops, there's the boarding call. More later!

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Measure of a Woman

Karen Cathey taught me the key to making perfect risotto. After you've sauteed the chopped onions and garlic for about 3 or 4 minutes (in olive oil, not butter, because butter burns too quickly), add the risotto and about a half cup of chicken broth. After a couple of minutes, add another half cup. Wait, then add another. And then another. Stir constantly.

This is opposed to dumping the 4 cups of broth in all at once. That doesn't give the risotto time to absorb all the chicken-y goodness of the broth. It robs the dish of its full flavor potential.

It's a simple bit of advice that made all the difference in the world. And I remembered it last Sunday when I was making butternut squash risotto for a dinner party of 10 people. Along with the squash, I made an eggplant casserole with tomatoes, peppers, mushrooms and parmesan, tomato/avocado/mango salad with sundried tomato basil vinaigrette, and chicken breasts sauteed in lemon, garlic, tarragon and butter, and garnished with roasted red peppers and green olives. It was my "personal best" menu so far in Nairobi, and I was chopping, sauteeing, peeling and grating literally until the first guest knocked on the door.

It's a good thing I didn't know at the time that Karen Cathey had died on July 6th. Of colon cancer. Just like that other gourmet guru in my life, my sister Julie. Because the way I felt last night when I got the news, I'd have been far too sad to play hostess with the most-est.

I met Karen in the summer of 1998, when she was a PR consultant for a couple of DC restaurants and I was doing some freelance travel writing. Just like with my friend Simone, I basically went to that lunch meeting with her hoping to get the basic information and move on to the next assignment. Just like with Simone, Karen and I clicked.

We bonded over our love of food, and cooking, and our innate sense that we were both Princesses in a previous life. I think her view must have been informed by having spent her early years in India, where her father was in the foreign service. She managed to retain an appreciation for the exotic that made it easy to envision herself surrounded by luxury, having her every need catered to.

On the other hand, I was intimately familiar with poverty and lack, so when I was able to provide for myself, I was determined to treat myself like royalty, even if nobody else did. So we could relate. And when we met, we were both in our late 30's, single, and probably both bore the faint whiff of desperation when interacting with men. Many a night and many a bottle of really good red wine were spent bemoaning our fates and berating our dates.

Our favorite lament was, "Don't they realize how truly FABULOUS we are?" And with her Virginia drawl, nobody could say "fabulous" like Karen could.

But our bottom line was food, pure and simple and complex and gloriously delicious. Next to my friend Simone, Karen had the most incredible connections and contacts in the Metro DC dining world, so I got invited to many stellar culinary events through her. I even sat next to Jacques Pepin at one of those dinners, and allowed myself to believe that his patented French flirtation was sincere. I learned to love gorgonzola at an amazing cheese industry event with Karen. I hoovered chocolate mousse until I gave myself a bellyache at another event. I learned how to make a divine cherry reduction for foie gras at another.

Speaking of foie gras, it was through one of Karen's connections that I gave Julie an extremely coveted Christmas present one year, a nice bloc of that demonized delicacy. Personally, I am not without sympathy for the poor birds who must endure the agonies of involuntary gorging so that we humans can revel in the tastiness of their innards. But just like I say about pigs, "If the good Lord hadn't meant us to eat 'em, She wouldn't have made 'em taste so freakin' delicious." Julie made that foie gras last for months, and got huge kick out of creating different sauces and ways of cooking it.

Anyway, I wish I could say that Karen and I were in contact throughout her illness. The truth is that a few years earlier, I had allowed a misunderstanding and a perceived slight to come between us, and we stopped communicating. Eventually, I learned Karen had had a heart attack, and that while she was in the hospital, doctors had diagnosed colon cancer.

I absolutely, totally, and completely cravenly shut down after hearing the dreaded "double C's." I just couldn't deal with it. I had seen what colon cancer can do. Besides, I (ir)rationalized, I was heading to Nairobi, and there was no time to try and connect with her.

So I guess now there's only time to measure and chop and peel and saute and bake and simmer and stew and sift through the meaning of life. Remember when I said dying at 50 was unutterably cruel? Well, dying at 47 is even crueler. Like me, Karen was 47, but she lived her life to the fullest. And somehow, I'm managing to draw a great deal of comfort imagining her and Julie stuffing themselves with foie gras up in the clouds, while the angels hover around hatin' about how fabulous those two are.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

President Obama's "Cousin Pookie Problem"

President Obama blew through his first visit to Sub Saharan Africa in grand style. It's been fascinating observing my President's historic visit from the same continent, instead of from an apartment in Washington, DC. I've eagerly watched the recaps and the highlight interviews with Anderson Cooper, but my main source of analysis has been through reactions from Kenyan columnists.

Surprisingly, many have commented in measured, temperate tones, considering that most Kenyans would have preferred he visited his father's ancestral homeland instead of Ghana. Several have suggested that personal feelings aside, their ardor is fading because Obama hasn't announced any substantive strategies for Africa. Others have criticized his comments about how his father's career was derailed by corruption, suggesting that Barack Senior's problem was more linked to wine and women than tainted bureaucracy. Still, I can sympathize with the fact that it had to sting watching him be feted in West Africa, when he's of East African descent.

Oh, who am I kidding?? A lot of Kenyans were just plain pissed. Obama's visit to Ghana had to feel like a slap in the face. But the funniest thing was Nigeria's reaction. Situated a couple of small countries away from Ghana, Nigeria's pompous potentates were miffed that THEY didn't get "The Big Visit". After all, it's the most populous African nation in the world, and a lucrative oil producer. It's also considered one of the most lawless, corrupt countries on the continent. (And frankly, I suspect President Obama didn't visit because he'd received one too many fake-assed emails from Nigerian "princesses" needing his help transferring the sum of 18 million USD to his personal account.) Anyway, one stuffed shirt politician on the BBC explained Nigerian dyspepsia using the analogy that if you're upset with your cousin, you don't go discuss it with his neighbor. You go and talk to your cousin directly.

And then it hit me. The cousin analogy was the PERFECT explanation for why President Obama is having to avoid countries like Kenya and Nigeria and Niger and Zimbabwe...sadly, the list is long. Basically, these countries, with Kenya at the top of the list, are like the President's "Play Cousin Pookie." For those of you unfamiliar with the "Play Cousin Concept," here's a quick thumbnail:

A "play cousin" is the kid who grew up in your neighborhood and started out as just a friend you hung out with occasionally. But then for a lot of reasons, like trouble in his home, or because your mother was a better cook, this kid started spending lots of time at your house. Pretty soon, he was sleeping over, and drinking up all the half powdered/half whole milk and eating more of your mama's Hamburger Helper than you did.

Pretty soon, you needed some explanation for why he was always hanging around, so you called him your "play cousin." You didn't share the same blood in your veins, but you damn sure had the same amount of Kool-Aid flowing through it. You and Pookie got into trouble together, and sometimes Pookie even took the fall for you. But then, somewhere around 10th grade, Pookie's behavior started skewing more criminal than mischievous, and by your sophomore year in college, Pookie had caught a case and was doing a dime bid in a state correctional facility.

When Pookie finally gets out, you sincerely want to be supportive. You wanna let him come over for the backyard barbecues and the graduation parties, but you can set your watch by the fact that Pookie is gon' get liquored up and "ack a puredee FOOL." He'll cuss out some older relative, or grope a young niece's friend, or spill his personal bottle of Everclear on your microfiber rug, and you'll wanna beat him like he stole from you. Which you'll eventually find out he did.

So all you can do is send Pookie love vibes, and maybe you even call him one evening to say you're concerned and you wanna help pay for rehab, but you sure as hell can't invite him to that fancy dinner party you're planning.

Basically, President Obama has been forced to pull a Play Cousin Pookie on Kenya. And I don't blame him one teensy little bit. After all, didn't most of these pompous potentates berate him when he came to visit as a Senator, for having the temerity to comment on their greed and self-interest? But now that he's the most powerful man in the free world, it's like, "Brother, come and pay obeisance to your father's homeland, and let us kill the fattest goat and proclaim a public holiday."

But see, you try and you TRY, but Pookie keeps blowin' it. For example, a few weeks ago in Nairobi, some bureaucrat ordered about 40 Mercedes limousines for President Kibaki's family and crew. When the media reported it, they were returned to the dealership, and a few sacrificial lambs lost their jobs. And today, we learned that Prime Minister Odinga is getting half million dollar renovations on his personal residence in Mombasa so that he can properly entertain guests like Kibaki gets to do. Oh, and NEXT month, Odinga moves into his new $8 million office building, because his current office isn't posh enough.

Meanwhile, the IDP's are still shivering on the floor of the Rift Valley, cholera stalks the land, and unless the rains come in Biblical proportions real soon, Nairobi will run out of water by the end of the year.

"Pookie, Pookie, Pookie. I love you, cuz, but we can't be down til you get yourself together. We'll videotape that backyard barbecue for you, though."

Friday, July 10, 2009

Princess Rachella's Ancestral Adventure

Somewhere, stored in a box in the back of a Suburban Maryland warehouse, there is a picture of me standing at the entrance of the Elmina Slave Castle, on Ghana's Cape Coast.

It was taken on the last day of my first journey to Africa, back in April of 2003. I had just finished leading my first journalism workshop for African reporters in Accra, and had a bit of extra time for exploring. I was determined to get to the Cape Coast, because at the time, I wasn't considering making a career out of this type of training. I was just hell bent on getting the most out of that introduction to "The Motherland," in case I never came back.

I remember wearing all white that day, a thin, long-sleeved linen shirt and cotton pants. I wasn't trying to make some poetic statement by donning ethereal garb to visit the place where one of my enslaved ancestors probably began a harrowing journey to America. A sistuh was just trying to stay cool, and ward off any pesky malarial mosquitoes.

The picture was taken at the end of my castle tour, and I remember thinking I looked very ashen and drawn, even haggard in that shot. No "cheesin' for the cameras" after what I'd just seen. In fact, whenever I looked at that photo, it was like I was seeing a ghost who'd just seen ghosts.

There was just soooo much that was hard to wrap my mind around during that tour of Elmina Castle. The tiny, dark stone "rooms" where human beings were stacked like cordwood, wallowing in their own waste, often chained to corpses, waiting to be transferred to the hold of a ship where they'd spend several months enduring the same conditions before reaching America. As a woman, what I remember most was the open court yard, where female slaves were chained, on display for the ship captains and crew who'd come out on their balconies, point to a woman, and then have her sent up to their quarters. If the female slave resisted, she'd be severely beaten and locked in one of those dank cells.

I've probably blocked out most of what I saw because it was just too agonizing to imagine what it must have been like. Before heading to Cape Coast, I'd vowed to hold myself together, no matter how hard it might be. But by the time the guide led me to the Door of No Return, I was sobbing, and I didn't care who saw me.

So I wonder what it will be like for President and Mrs. Obama and the girls when they visit Elmina sometime this weekend? Through the years, for some baffling reason, he has been accused of not being able to truly relate to "The African American Experience." After all, nobody in his family had ever been a slave. His mother was white, and his father's Kenyan family had never been enslaved.

But people, I'm telling you, if you have even 1/100th of an ounce of humanity in your soul, you could be a blue-eyed blonde from from Uzbekistan and still be deeply affected by a tour of Elmina. You just can't figure out how anybody survived such a horrific experience.

So while Ghanaian "Obamania" is spreading throughout the African continent, I can't stop imagining one of my ancestors passing through that hellish "castle" and somehow, deciding to hold on, some kinda way, so that all these centuries later, I could wind up living in my own faux Moroccan castle, on African soil, living my life like it's golden.

In a way, it's like I came back through the Door of No Return, representin' for the ancestors, and I'm giving thanks for their astounding strength and my myriad blessings.

Just One More.....

Er, Um.....

"Should a sports writer who looks like Fat Albert's short-yellow-school bus-ridin' younger brother REALLY be criticizing Serena Williams for having a butt like an overstuffed pumpkin?"


I'm reminded of something we used to say back when I was growing up.

"My people, my people. They 'jes won't do right."

Why we gotta be like crabs in a barrel, just pullin' each other down whenever one of us reaches the top?

Anyhoo, Jason, leave them fat burgers ALONE, and stop drinkin' that haterade! And if I were you, I would totally watch my back, because Serena could probably whoop your bloated butt with one arm WHILE she was winning another Grand Slam title with the other.

"I'm just sayin', dawg...""

Thursday, July 9, 2009

"I'm Just Sayin', Dawg...." Part 7

If you know like I know, you'll keep your men away from Argentina. AND all its women, wherever they might be working their fiendish wiles.

I know whereof I speak. One of those Latina hellspawn caused the painful demise of the last long-term relationship I was in. Oh, sure, the guy I'll call "The Addled Archivist" was 46 years old and didn't have a pot to piss in, and wasn't exactly curling my toes on a regular basis, but he was really smart, and hilariously funny, and knew all the words to every corny 1960's American sitcom theme just like I do, and on his profile, he'd quoted Jung, or somebody else suitably profound, and, dammit, he was MINE!!!!

But this heifer named Isis, whom he'd broken up with shortly before we met, kept popping back into his life. By email. She had moved back to Buenos Aires, and I guess decided the pickins down there weren't much better. Anyhoo, the Addled Archivist swore that at first, he rebuffed her email advances...until she mentioned there was a possibility she'd be returning to DC.

Eventually, I noticed he was starting to detach, particularly around Thanksgiving when he stuffed himself with my gourmet food and then went home, without even attempting to hook a sister up with some conjugals. And then two months later, Isis surprised him with a classic Argentinian bombshell. She'd just been transferred back to DC!

So the Addled Archivist shows up on my doorstep one night and announced he'd decided to give Isis just one more chance. Nothing personal. I suggested he leave my apartment before I stabbed him in the eye with a fork.

In hindsight, I realize I spent waaaaaaaaaay too much time torturing myself imagining some Salma Hayek look-alike beating me out, even if it was for a booby prize. But eventually, it dawned on me.

"It's bad enough that I put up with the Addled Archivist's lame-ness for as long as I did, considering he fact that he was a 46 year old guy who dressed like a Peace Corp volunteer, lived in a sparsely-renovated dorm, had minimal staying power and was cheap as hell. But how pathetic must THAT chick be if she traveled all the way from ARGENTINA for him???"

"I'm just sayin', dawg..."

"I'm Just Sayin', Dawg...." Part 6B

Say what you will about the challenges we single older women face when it comes to relationships, but you can best BELIEVE THIS...

Ain't a 47-year-old woman ALIVE who would endure the hard work required to keep an older, married sugar daddy entertained AND pay her own car note.

If you don't know, you better ASK somebody.

"I'm just sayin', dawg..."

"I'm Just Sayin', Dawg...." Part 6A

It's been a while since I wrote one of my "I'm Just Sayin', Dawg..." reality checks. I've got some stuff stored up from the last few weeks which got obscured by MJ Mania. So in rapid succession, here is the first of 3....

You gotta hand it to developing countries and ancient religions that allow men to marry as many wives as they want. Some try to "make nice" by adding the codicil a man MUST be able to adequately provide for all those wives, and any children who may show up (yeah, RIIIIIIIIGHT). In fact, since I've been in Kenya, I read about some old goat in Northern Nigeria who had 86 wives and a couple hundred kids, or something crazy like that, and it made international headlines.
I've thought about polygamy a lot since I've been in Kenya. It's perfectly legal to have more than one wife here, and I'm told a lot of men take a second wife when the first one gets a little ragged around the edges, or puts on weight, or can't have kids, or stops getting freaky in the bedroom. And then of course there's the issue of girlfriends, mistresses, or as they say back home, "side pieces." To put it mildly, the practice is rampant up in this joint.

And let's not even mention a phenomenon I'm STILL trying to get my head around, the "Come, We Stay" arrangement, which basically means a guy can tell a woman, "Come, we stay together," and it gets counted as a marriage. No ceremony, no cake, bupkiss. Yeah, I know, I've summarized the hell out of it, but that's the basic principle.
In fact, the more I learn about these cultural practices around relationships, the more I doubt my prospects of EVER connecting with a Kenyan dude. First of all, I'm too damned old to be considered a viable mistress, or to bear children that don't come out with a coupla spare chromosomes, or something. Second, I'm also too damned mouthy for some Kenyan guy to bend his standards and take me on.

But then something like the Steve McNair tragedy comes along to remind me that this kind of male behavior ain't confined to the African continent. It's an unscientific conclusion on my part, but I'm starting to be convinced that most men, if given an opportunity, would juggle multiple, concurrent, long-term relationships. Notice I did not say ALL men. I know quite a few myself who as far as I can tell are faithful, and who have hung in there through the roughest patches imaginable. I also know men who once they realized they couldn't hang in there, at least had the grace to end one relationship either before or shortly after entering another.

So what makes a high-profile, revered for his good deeds family man like Steve McNair think he could get away with diddling a 20 year old girl on the side? Even going away on vacation with her, and allowing his picture to be taken with her? And if the police account is to be believed, one of the reasons he was killed is because the girl suspected he was seeing yet another woman?

Oh, NOW I get it!! He was rich, handsome, and could afford as many women as his appetites required. Which in Kenya is no big deal, for the most part, especially if you marry them all. But in the US, depending on how unstable the gal you pick is, it can get you capped.

"I'm just sayin', dawg...."

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

To Michael: "Peace, Be Still"

......though I know they'll never let you. They'll be picking over your bones and digging for dirt and trying to make money off you til the end of time.

I am so sorry it ended this way, but I am so glad you're not in pain anymore. Sleep, now and forever.You have earned the rest.

Acclimatized and Traumatized

I fully expect the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse to come galloping through the newsroom at any moment. That's because I'm sitting here in Nairobi on a Tuesday afternoon in July wearing a sweater, and pants, and socks, and I am actually shivering.

And no, dear smart-assed readers, it's NOT from symptoms of Swine flu, or my usual "Hormonal Hijinks." And it sure as hell ain't from air conditioning on blast, because last month I thought I would suffocate from the airless, hot atmosphere in the building. No, I'm sitting here blowing on my fingers and wishing I was home wrapped in a blanket because Old Man Winter has decided to "BRING IT" to Nairobi this week.

Now, I don't mind chilly. In fact, given the vicissitudes of my hormonal shifts, chilly is absolutely perfect weather for me. But yesterday and today have been downright cold. I'm talking "oatmeal with cinnamon, raisins and brown sugar" cold, which I would eat if I had any. It's the kind of cold where you huddle under the covers exploring all the "lies, damned lies and obfuscations" you can use to explain why you weren't able to get to the office today. It's the kind of cold where you wonder if an extra squirt of perfume will hide the fact that you avoided getting into a hot shower that morning, because it meant you'd have to exit said shower back out into the cold air.

For reals, y'all, I am cold and pissed. I feel so freakin' cheated! Clearly, one of the unspoken side benefits of moving to Sub-Saharan Africa is access to year-round temperate weather. Sure, it's gonna be hot as Satan's Buttcrack during summer months, but at least you can walk around in shorts and tank tops, while smugly envisioning your friends and family back in the States rockin' parkas and scarves on snowy, sub freezing mornings.

I totally never expected to find myself vulnerable to derision for freezing my tushie off in July! And I'm also eating crow for thinking my African brothers and sisters were kinda wimpy for walking around in coats during their "so-called winter." Cuz right about now, I could jack a sucka for their coat, I SWEAR I ain't lyin'.

Oh, here's yet another reason I'm awaiting the dawn of Armageddon. Between the cold weather and the burst of activity lately in the Fellowship, I occasionally find my mind wandering back to the relative peace, calm and tranquility of life in........GULU. Sure, I was hungry all the time, and lizards were my only companions, and you only had electricity and Internet 3 days a week, and, well, it was A FUCKING POST WAR ZONE. But when things start to get really crazy busy in mad-cap Nai-robbery, it's nice to remember a time when your most complicated decision was if you would have scrawny-assed chicken or scrawny-assed fish with your scrawny-assed chips.

Oh well, don't mind me. (Brrrrrrrrrr.) But please, somebody send me a Snuggie! Preferably one made of Kente cloth, adorned with Maasai beadwork. But I'm not particular, or anything.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

"Got Milk?"

It has been a LOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOONG week. Possibly the longest since I got off that plane at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport on the evening of June 26th, 2008.

Let's review. Last Sunday, I was still quite jarred by the sad demise of Michael Jackson. I don't know why I hate to admit that, but I do. I guess it's because that as much death as I've encountered in my own family in recent years, why on Earth was I so upset about Michael??? Eventually, I figured out the answer. He was 50, which I'll be in a coupla years. And say what you want about him, but Michael Jackson died as the legal, emotional (biological status to be determined) father of three children. The cynic in my soul couldn't help musing that if a withered, pill popping, bizarre-acting, self-mutilated androgyne can be, by all accounts, a really good parent,

"I coulda been a contender."

That's the intensely wistful spirit I carried into this this past week, which cast a Schleprock-style cloud over everything. So when confirmation of Kenya's first Swine flu case hit on Monday, I was probably in the worst mood I've been in since I got here, too. Somehow, I was able to suck it up long enough to help out with the Daily Nation's coverage, which turned out to be the best of all local papers.

Incidentally, the experience was the perfect bookend to my first year, and gave me some great feedback about what the heck difference it's made that I came to Nairobi. First, in the planning meeting right after news broke, I ran my mouth so much, it's a wonder they didn't have me taken out back and horsewhipped for insubordination! I mean, I was interrupting people, gently correcting, and making suggestions like I was in charge of the whole damn paper! Thinking back to July 4th, 2008, the day I started working at Nation Centre, I realized that the only reason male editors were tolerating this kind of behavior from a woman is because I had proven myself over the past year. I had worked hard to help individual reporters improve their skills, and I had made some helpful, if pointed, critiques of their coverage of health issues which were actually taken to heart.
That's why I was so thrilled to get the following email from Nation Media Group's Managing Editor, Joseph Odindo:

"Hi Rachel,

There could not have been better proof of your contribution to improving the Nation's ability to cover science than our response to the Swine Flu story. We were able to marshall FOUR science writers, two of whom were a direct product of your mentorship. In the past we would have been lucky to have just two. Thanks, Rachel, and let's keep push. JO

Bottom line, I had behaved like a grown-assed woman who knows her shit and ain't scared to show it. As an American woman, I took that kind of behavior for granted long before I started coming to Africa, so it's hard to explain what it's like coming into an environment where, at least initially, you are likely to catch a colonial-style beatdown for acting that way.
That's just one example of the past week's challenges. Another major one was the fact that the trackball on my BlackBerry Bold 9000 got jammed on Tuesday, which means I couldn't scroll down, which means that about 90 percent of the reason I bought the damned phone was rendered null and void. It is ASTONISHING how quickly you start to depend on technology--or more accurately, how soon you start to take it for granted. Especially since voice phone and Internet service here has gotten so dicey lately, you at least want the ability to send text messages. Oh, and take pictures when things start catching on fire, or when The Revolution jumps off, 'cuz it sure as hell ain't gon' be televised up in THIS joint.

Anyway, after four days of begging, pleading, cussing and threatening a Safaricom retail manager, I began descending into a pit of despair so deep, I scared myself. And that was mostly because by Friday afternoon, it dawned on me that I was about to spend the third consecutive Fourth of July outside of the US, alone, with a jacked up phone. Even if I wanted to spend a few weeks' salary calling friends and family back home, I couldn't. And you can't beg borrow or steal a decent hot dog anywhere on the entire continent of Africa, and there are no fireworks, or barbecue, and...


The good news is that the Safaricom manager finally took my thinly-veiled threats seriously, and I got a call at around 6:15 on Friday evening, just as I was leaving Nation Centre. It was from a repair technician who was waiting for me in front of the building. The kid snatched the phone and darted off, and for a second I just stood there thinking, "Great! It figures. I've just been phone-jacked in the middle of a crowded street." But 20 minutes later he came back, and the jammed phone trackball had been replaced.

I've spent most of the weekend working on a year-end report, which is due on Monday. Gratefully, I didn't have as much time to dwell on yet another lonely Independence Day as I might have. And then yesterday afternoon, I got an email from Pius Sawa, the young man I wrote about when I was in Kampala a few weeks ago. He's one of my former Internews Gulu trainees, whom I'd asked to help me with the Kampala radio workshop I'd led.

Well, Pius was such a hit in Kampala, I asked him to come and help me lead a similar workshop in Nairobi at the end of the month. He graciously accepted the invitation, in a typically African way:

"Dear Racheal,

"It gives me pride seeing how you are lifting me on your back as your own child you groomed, mentored and brought up. To me i feel obliged that through your motherly care, i can have a smile on my face as i infuse in others that dose of the breast milk you fed me on in the name of radio feature production. Long live mum."

Okay, I'd be lying if I denied that the "breast milk" reference didn't creep me the fuck out at first. But then I realized this was Pius' heartfelt way of communicating the full impact I'd had on his career, in a way that touched me deeply.

So here's the deal. Some people give birth. Some people adopt. Some people rent-a-womb and a coupla petri dishes. And then some of us travel halfway around the world to infuse a spirit of sorts into the minds of young people that might eventually give them a new vision of themselves and their futures.

I've said it before and I'll say it again...if this is the only kind of "mothering" I was meant to do, I can live with that. But I can't help admitting that I hope to spend next July 4th on American soil, sucking down some cold brews and eating a damned hot dog drenched in barbecue sauce and watching some fireworks. Somehow, I gotta figure out a way to do both things.