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, August 28, 2009

Blonde Ambition


The aforementioned woman is named Kelly, and she's fast becoming one of the coolest people I've ever met....and I only just met her about 6 months ago! She'd been a friend and newspaper design colleague of my Zanzi-buddy Ron for years when we finally met in, of all places, Nairobi.

Anyway, once again it's like the Universe knew to send her my way. Kelly spent 3 years doing newspaper consulting in Mexico City, so she knows what it's like to live and work outside the US in, er, "challenging circumstances." She's also a food and wine connoisseur, so I considered it a major coup to introduce her to the feta cheese and coriander samosas at one of my favorite Nairobi restaurants, and to have my own insane fetish for them affirmed. But here's the best thing...Kelly will be coming back to Nairobi frequently over the next year for projects, and is more than willing to ferry stuff over for me! Health and beauty products galore, a French coffee press, whatever I have a craving for, she's more than happy to be my "mule" because she knows what it's like to long for those little slices of home!

But the best thing about Kelly is something I mentioned a few posts ago...she's as dangerously fun as me and Ron! When I try to boil it down, I guess I've always been drawn to people who retain a measure of youthful joie de vivre no matter how old they are. It's always been fairly easy for me to be immature and resistant to the shackles of responsible adulthood because I never married or had children, or owned property, or run a business, or spent a lot of time doing anything that required sober, measured concentration and commitment.

So it's always a kick for me to meet people who HAVE done those things successfully and who STILL are a hoot to hang out with! People who don't walk around with big neon signs on their foreheads that blare, "I am A BIG FRAKKIN' DEAL, AND YOU NEED TO TAKE ME EVEN MORE SERIOUSLY THAN I TAKE MYSELF."

People like that give me a ginormously honkin' buttache, and I usually avoid them like the plague unless absolutely necessary. And then I wind up mocking them behind their backs and soon as is remotely convenient. Kelly and Ron are like that, too, which makes it really cool to hang out with them. And that worldview REALLY came in handy last Friday night, when we were both having dinner with this...

But wait, I'm not going to go there. We both decided that episode brought a short burst of chaotic energy into our lives that is best left unexplored. Kelly even had travel plans for a side trip to South Africa completely derailed after that ill-fated rendezvous. I secretly feared I would be obliterated by a matatu or something, but the negative energy soon passed.

In fact, today is Kelly's birthday, and she's at home with the Love of Her Life and their 3 year old cherub, and this photo reminds me to stay focused on the good stuff, too. And to remember to laugh as much as possible. For example, Ron came up with this nickname for us:

"Blonde Ambition and Dark Desires." Ron is one sick puppy, but at least he's funny. And as long as you can laugh, you're ahead of the game.

Happy Birthday, Kelly! See you next time you're in Nairobi! That is, if you're still willing to come back...


"Has Anybody Here Seen My Old Friend Ted?"

It's been a cruel, cruel summer for Americans my age. One by one, the icons of our childhood are dropping like autumn leaves, and we're being forced to sober up in ways we hadn't really prepared for. I mean, you could have 6 kids, 2 mortgages and a metal hip joint and STILL remember where you were when you first saw the "Thriller" video, and STILL feel like you're 21 and life holds all the promise in the least until you heard that Michael was dead at 50.

I'll admit to letting a serious funk creep up on me lately, in part because my friends left last week, and it's still chilly enough to wear socks to bed every night--in FRAKKIN' NAIROBI(!!!), and last Friday I had a disastrous clusterfuck of a "reunion" with a guy I'd had a date with a while back, and all of a sudden it feels like life BLOWS and I don't know what the hell I'm doing over here by myself with no close friends or family to give a rat's ass what happens to me.....AND I'll be FORTY-FRAKKIN' EIGHT in about a month.....

That's how I was feeling the other morning, curled in the fetal position in bed, when I logged onto the Macbook and saw that Ted Kennedy had died. Of course I knew it was coming, but it didn't make me feel any less gutted. Somehow, instead of pulling the covers over my head and calling it a day, I managed to get up and drag myself into the office. But I couldn't understand why everybody in the building was carrying on like nothing monumental had just happened. I think my Kenyan colleagues understood why Michael Jackson's death hit me so hard. But for the past few days, I've felt really hollow about Ted Kennedy. A man I didn't know, yet somehow felt like I knew, all my life.

Here's what it's like to be living outside of the US when major icons pass away. You spend the whole time wanting to turn to somebody and say, "Can you believe it? Omigod, how sad! Do you remember when he/she did this/or that?" And every time you get that urge, you have to squash it because not only do the people around you NOT share your feelings, they secretly question your sanity for caring so much about the death of somebody you're not related to. I mean, maybe if it was an infant, or a child, in some kind of horrific scenario. But even then, infants and children die every second of every minute of every day here.

So why get depressed when a 77 year old man dies? Or even a 50 year old, for that matter? The average life expectancy in Kenya is 57. Just when Americans are starting to exit their "Mid-Life Crisis, 2nd Divorce, Red Sportscar and Inappropriately Youthful Fashion Phase" to actually consider the possibility that they may indeed be getting older, people in developing countries are either long dead or considered elderly.

So it was when I read a colleague's Tweet yesterday, where he mocked a 50 year old man hitting on a 21 year old woman by calling him an "old fart." It reminded me that in Kenya, I'm pretty much an Old Fart-ette. What's worse, I'm one with no husband, kids, or grandkids, a Grade A Freak O' Nature. So instead of wasting time feeling sad about Ted Kennedy, they would suggest that I need to find myself a man to, as my dear friend Simone put it, "knock the dust off that thang......."

But I'm going off on a total tangent here, so let me try to get back to the main focus of this posting. Though I haven't been able to bear glueing myself to CNN International this time around to watch coverage of Ted Kennedy's passing, there has been a bit of local news coverage in Kenyan media. Today, one columnist explained how Sen. Kennedy even managed to keep African issues on his radar screen, along with his legion historic American social policy efforts. Reading that column, I realized that's what I long to share with someone here, somebody who gets it. Growing up poor and black in America, the name Kennedy was just as familiar as the name King. Sure, you knew John, Bobby and Teddy came from an extremely wealthy white family, but somehow you were convinced that those guys cared, and wanted to help you and your family succeed in spite of obstacles.

I've written before about my experience as a Head Start kid, and how grateful I was for the free meals and other programs that evolved from the War on Poverty. I also know that Jack, and Bobby, and Teddy, and hundreds of men and women like them, developed those programs not because they had to, but because they believed it was the right thing to do. They didn't spend a lot of time condemning poor, brown-skinned, "lazy" people for reproducing like bunnies. I guess they realized their time was better spent trying to make sure that the children grew up to be responsible, educated, contributing members of society.

I hope I've become that. And I'm so grateful to my "Old Friend Ted" for helping make that happen. And so even though the one time I actually bumped into Ted Kennedy in person a few years ago, at a movie theatre in Washington, DC, and felt really shocked at how old and even feeble he looked, I'm picturing him now looking young and dapper and laughing his ass off because he's finally back with his two best friends.

Monday, August 24, 2009

"Ou Est Didier?"

What is it about me that makes the Universe hunt me down like a dog in the streets???

But then I guess I should have known I hadn't seen the last of a little Francophone boy named Didier when I met him in Kigali. I mean, look at his face. Really.

There's a fierceness. There's a determination. I knew that from the minute I introduced him to the group of Rwandan workshop journalists and asked if we could interview him, and he inquired what was our "aim in talking to him." I mean, most kids either clam up in those kinds of situations, or timidly do what they're told.
Didier wasn't havin' it. He was, like, "Whatcha gon' do with the information I give you?"
That boy fronted me off so bad, I wound up leaving him my business card. I wanted to make sure he knew we weren't just wasting his time. But walking away, I couldn't help feeling a bit sad. I know I shouldn't have even considered the faintest possibility that this HIV positive boy from Rwanda who wants to grow up to be a pilot for Boeing might not live to reach that goal.
And then I get an email. Out of the blue. Kinda. But then again, look at this boy's face again. What made me think Didier was through with me???? Here's what the email said:
"I want to greet you for to explain me for you,

I'm children from KIBAGABAGA Hospital , I wans found your email but I happy to send to you my adreess email.

Name is RUGWIRO Didier from Remara- Kigali

I'm student in 5eme primaire at REMERA Catholic B

I have 13 years olds . My Father's number is ------. if you want you can colled my father on this number. and send to me a messege .

thank for your answer.

I got chills reading that email. My eyes welled up. My heart felt like it was gonna burst from my chest. And I knew that if this little Rwandan boy with a potentially life-threatening condition, but who also possessed long-term life goals, could make the effort to reach out to me, I had to respond.
So I'm brushing up on my French conversation tapes. They remind me of the very first French lesson I took at Cairo High School, back in 1977. Here are the first few sentences I learned:
"Ou est Sylvie?
Au lycee."
"Ou est Didier?
A la piscine."
"Avec qui?
Avec Anne."
Now I have to change it up a bit.
"Ou est Didier?
"Au coeur de Rachel."

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Safari Njema, My Friend

My Zanzi-buddy is gone, but the memories still linger on. The lemongrass and ginger vodka he discovered at Nairobi's version of Wal Mart. The snorts of laughter. The supreme snarkiness. The relaxation. The sense that you've known somebody so long, you don't have to "perform," you can just be.

Our friend Kelly says this particular photo looks like it was staged for a New York Times wedding announcement. Perhaps in a parallel universe, but here's what you need to know about Kelly: she's as dangerously fun as we are. I'll tell you more about her later.

Here's one more thing you need to know about Ron. I'm sitting here at work when he sends me an email from the airport, where he was parked in a coffee house waiting for his boarding call. From that "poor man's business lounge," Ron reported,

"It is exhausting ignoring the baleful stares of the elderly, pregnant and limbless who are coveting my perch. (and that's just one lady!)

You just gotta love somebody with a warped brain like that. Granted, it's hard work, but after 25 years, I reckon I've signed up for the long haul.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009


I caught the Number 1 Local Crazy Train today, instead of the Express. This means it made all 50 stops, and experienced an extended mechanical delay.

That's all I'll say about my re-entry into reality, 'cuz I'm try to stay all Zen and shit.

Welcome Back, Welcome Back, Welcome BAAAAACCCKKKK.......

When You Wish Upon A Star....

.......And to spend a lot of time wishing upon a star. THIS star, to be exact.

(Be patient with me, ya'll. I'll get over Excedrin Elphaba eventually. Like, when I'm 98 years old, maybe.)

It's Off To Work I Go

When you think about it, I've had a pretty good run. The past few weeks have been really exhilarating, even with all the travel and work. Vacation was glorious. And I've truly enjoyed the past few days with my Zanzi-buddy Ron and our friend Kelly, who's in town doing some consultant work with the Daily Nation.

So I'm not sure why I damn near unravelled last night at the Thai restaurant where they just couldn't fathom our request for several copies of the receipt. It was as if we'd asked them to perform delicate eye surgery on each of us with a fish fork.

I think I'm just being a big whiny brat who STILL resents the fact that she wasn't born a trust fund baby. If I had been, I'd spend most of my time in a hammock like this. But since I wasn't, I still gotta go to work, like I'm getting ready to do this morning, after seeming ages away from Nation Centre. So I vow to try and take frequent mental retreats to a place and time just like this........

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

"I'm Just Sayin,' Dawg...." Part 9

All-righty-THEN! Today's Kenyan newspapers offered me just the bracing dose of reality I need to climb back on board the Crazy Train called "Life in Nairobi" tomorrow morning.

On the front page of the Star, we learned that Prime Minister Raila Odinga is miffed because he gets the same salary as Vice President Kalonzo Musyoka. At about a million and a half shillings per month ($19,000 USD) , it's less than President Kibaki's haul of 3.2 million shillings, so I reckon Mr. O wants to land somewhere in the middle.

He 's SO miffed, in fact, that he would rather not be paid at all than settle for less than what he deserves.

Meanwhile, on the front page of the Daily Nation, we learn that in some parts of drought-stricken, famine-plagued Kenya, people have resorted to using pig feed to make the Kenyan dietary staple called "chapatis." They're sort of like pita bread, FYI. Those pig feed chapatis are making children sick, and some officials have warned that they might contain pesticides or other chemicals harmful to humans. But starving parents don't have any other options.

Wrenching choice, huh? But, hey, at least the Prime Minister has the option of refusing his salary unless he gets an appropriate raise.......

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

Monday, August 17, 2009

Fire and Rain

It's getting to the point where I'm mixing rainbows with sunsets these days. Every time I see one or the other, I'm always looking for a sign of some sort. Usually, I'm hoping that sign will be from my sister Julie.

Today would have been her 59th birthday, and it's the second year in a row when I haven't been able to pick up the phone and call to tell her I love her, or send her a dozen yellow roses. These days, I'm starting to feel a bit guilty about how okay I am, and how I've somehow managed to get on with my life, when there were plenty of times I couldn't imagine that possibility.

So last week during lazy evenings in the hammock or out on the Kipungani Explorer Lodge's dhow boat, I would search the sunsets for a message from Julie. It's like I wanted to see the actual words written out, "Good job, girl. Keep it up."

But I know she feels that way. I know she's still with me. Still, there are those moments. Like earlier today, when I used a James Taylor lyric as my Facebook status update:

"Oh, I've seen fire and I've seen rain. I've seen sunny days that I thought would never end. I've seen lonely times when I could not find a friend. But I always thought that I'd see you baby, one more time again."

I think that's what I keep searching those fiery sunsets and those gleaming rainbows for. Just a glimpse of her sweet face, one more time again.

Happy Birthday, Winky.

Well En-Dhow-ed

I am so happy that I totally got to indulge my "Dhow Jones" last week. I am unapologetically
obsessed with those boats! They're so simple, angular and sturdy. And they're powered by something you can't see, or touch, but you can feel: the mighty wind.

I couldn't help comparing it to the breath in our lungs. It fills our chests in gusts and keeps us moving forward, until it stops, for whatever reason. But while it remains, we must go with the flow.

Here's a link to my Facebook photo album "Dhow Jonesing, Part 2":

Gimme a Reason

Okay, here are the three most important things you need to know about why I continue to travel with my Zanzi-buddy Ron Reason, who I met 25 years ago at the Washington Post when we were both greenhorn Midwestern interns with no possible clue that we would both be media consultants working extensively throughout Africa one day.

*Last week during our Lamu Island idyll, one evening we were enjoying a delicious dinner highlighted by grilled red snapper so fresh, it almost still had a pulse. We'd already had yummy fried snapper coated in a delectable coconut batter for our first day's lunch, so I just couldn't help extolling my heartfelt passion for that particular genre of fish.

Ron looks up, stares a few seconds and says, "I didn't realize you were such a snapper whore."

*About the only thing missing from our relaxing, peaceful stay at the Kipungani Explorer lodge was Idris Elba reclining in my hut, ready to rodger me senseless at a moment's notice. I'll admit to being a bit obsessed with Mr. Elba lately, since seeing him in the movie "Sometimes in April" while I was in Rwanda, AND reading about him in the August Essence magazine. Just like for millions of women around the world, at the moment he is now my ideal dream lover.

Well, Ron is clearly no respecter of passionate middle-aged girl crushes. He refused to remember the correct pronunciation of my beloved's name, and wound up referring to him as "Excedrin Elphaba."

*In recent years, Ron has become obsessed with the fact that elephants can swim, after seeing some documentary about the phenomenon. Lately, a major life goal for him would be to photograph a herd of elephants swimming towards a shore, with fez-wearing monkeys astride their backs. If Ron said it once, he said it a dozen times during our vacation. I had to repeatedly threaten to stab him in the eye with a fork if he didn't shut up. But he wouldn't. So I wound up admitting that it WOULD in fact be cool to witness that sight. And if we hadn't run out of the gin and lemongrass and ginger vodka we'd smuggled in empty water bottles, we probably would have seen it eventually.

Other than those three major reasons, Ron is just cool peeps. So we've decided until our respective Divine Right Life Partners show up, we're just gonna keep on exploring the world at every available opportunity. And the best news is that Ron is really cool with the fact that when Excedrin Elphaba shows up to claim my heart, I will drop him from my travel itinerary like a bad transmission.

Lamu Daze

This is how I spent most of the past week on Lamu Island, off the coast of Kenya. That is why there's been no activity on the blog lately. But I'm back in Nairobi, savoring these last few days of vacation and steeling myself to climb back on the out-of-control rollercoaster of life here on Wednesday.

I'll try to recap the highlights of the latest chapter of Rachel and Ron's Excellent Tour of Indian Ocean Islands over the next few days. In short, 5 days and 4 nights at the Kipungani Explorer Lodge were bliss. Just what I needed, exactly when I needed it. Well, almost, anyway.

After all, what is an island vacation without a well-oiled Idris Elba offering his personal greeting, and vowing to ensure that your every need and want will be enthusiastically met?

Seriously, folks, that's what was going on under the hat.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

On the Road Again, and Again, and Again, and Again...-

This is what I'm starting to feel like. The car in the Monopoly game. After just being home from Rwanda only 36 hours, in another 6 hours I'm off to Lamu, an island near the coast of Kenya. It's vacation time, and my Zanzi-buddy Ron just flew in from Lagos where he was doing design and newsroom trainings. We're launching another leg of our Fabulous World Tour--at least of the islands near the coast of Kenya, anyway.

We still can't get over how two Midwestern kids grew up to be kinda-sorta jetsetters. Deep down, a part of me expects to wake up one day and be riding a Metro train to my job at Target or something.

But I've come this far without that happening, so I guess this is my lot, for the immediate future. I'm keeping the engines revved, but am sure I'll need a tune-up eventually.

Umm, is there a mechanic named Idris in the house???

Monday, August 10, 2009

Reflections in a Golden Monkey

I was in the absolute worst mood in recorded human history last Friday night, after checking into the the Ki-Whozit Death Lodge in Northern Rwanda (NOTE 1: I made that name up, but somehow, it's ever so much more accurate.) This after a harrowing 3 hour drive through absolutely breathtaking scenery which I didn't get to focus too much on because of the Formula One reject assigned as my driver.

Robert was nice enough, even though I'd been assured he spoke English and wound up developing my own version of sign language to communicate that if I survived the journey, I would strangle him until his eyeballs popped from their moorings. He just grinned through it all, so I finally leaned back and shut my eyes, the better to concentrate on studying the images of my life flashing in front of me.

By the time we got to the "lodge," a term I use loosely and with tongue rooted deeply in cheek, I was almost hysterical. I'd neglected to consider that I'd be hiking in mountain terrain, which meant the night before the trek would be cold and that I'd I'd need to keep my limbs covered to prevent scrapes and scratches from wild underbrush. The accommodations instantly reminded me of Northern Uganda, so I knew there'd be no hot shower and sheets that would guarantee persistent fungal rashes within their loveless embrace. So for dinner last Friday night, I had a jumbo-sized bottle of Rwandan beer and 3 Bayer aspirin. And for the first time in ages, I prayed for the sweet release of death.

Okay, it wasn't that bad, but it was close. There was just too much time to lie there under the mosquito netting and wish there was somebody next to me to stave off the huge, flapping behemoths and the threat of wild animal attack, and to snuggle with to keep warm. Even the prospect of seeing some cute monkeys wasn't offering any comfort. I had my own Outback Pity Party up in that dank cottage room, and got only about a couple hours sleep, to boot.

So when the alarm went off at 5 AM, I sprang out of that bed and threw on my clothes and thought, "Okay, let's go check out those fucking chimps and get this damned thing over with."

And then I saw their faces.

Now I'm a believer.

Here is my new life mantra: "Golden Monkeys are Kewl!!!" The hike through the forest was a bit challenging, mostly because I was wearing cargo capri pants, and hadn't brought long socks to protect my lower legs, and my sneakers really weren't the appropriate shoes for the arduous trail. But it was a beautiful morning, and my ongoing hot flashes made a jacket completely unnecessary.

From the very first Golden Monkey sighting, I was completely and utterly hooked. They are so amazing. You think you've seen one monkey and you've seen them all, but these dudes are really different, somehow. Their faces are so expressive. They can leap like Michael Jordan.
Their coats are so, well, golden.

I'm telling you, a sister could get used to this outdoor stuff. I also have to get a grown-up camera, the better to capture the awesome splendiferocity of it all. (NOTE 2: I made that word up, so all you Grammar Police can just chill, AH-IIIIGHT???) I simply cannot wait to get back to Northern Rwanda to see the scary yet majestic, Silverback gorillas. I will know what to bring, where to stay, and how to speak enough Kinyarwanda to instruct the driver to "SLOW THE FUCK DOWN!"

Women Rule

The next time I go to Kigali, I hope to get a chance to sit in on a session of Parliament. Yeah, I know I sound like the typical Imperialist American, thinking she can saunter in off the streets and chill with the local political ruling class just because she's American.

It's just that I'd like to witness a governing body where there are more women than men in charge. Fifty six percent of Rwanda's Parliament members are women, to be exact. I think it's intriguing that it took something horrific like the genocide to make a country realize that you probably need to let more women run things. I know we can be real whack jobs at times, but we are infinitely less likely to hack each other to death than men.

Anyway, that's part of why I keep spending so much time on the African continent. As a woman journalist, I know what it's like to go up against the male establishment in American newsrooms. But my mind continues to be boggled at the challenges for young women who want to be reporters and editors in African countries. They put up with abuse, harassment, sexism and inequities in ways I can't begin to imagine.

So while I do what I do to help anybody who wants to improve their skills, I'm always rooting just a little bit more for the women. I always hope I'm giving them just a little bit of extra confidence and determination. I'd like to think that one day, some of them will be running their newsrooms, and then you'll see some REAL change.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

The Class of Kigali

The wireless at the Kigali Serena was down all weekend, so I'm a bit behind in my postings. I'm playing catch-up a bit today, because tomorrow my vacation starts. A much needed, well deserved, LONG OVERDUE VACATION, I might add.

Anyway, I wanted to share this "Class Photo" from the last day of the Kigali journalism. It's special to me for a lot of reasons. First, it marks the 6th African country where I've led successful journalism traininga. Next, it marks the first time I've worked in a country where a human tragedy of an epic scale occurred in the not too distant past, and where the remnants are still palpable. And third, it reminds me of the enormous possibilities that exist in what my friend Richard reminded me is a "benevolent dictatorship."

Before heading to Rwanda, so many people cautioned me about the strict government rule in Kigali. You can't speak out against the government. The government doesn't allow this or that. Okay, I've experienced that before, in some form or another, in every country I've visited.

And yet Kigali's streets are so clean, and people obey traffic lights, and you can walk down the street without risking robbery and assault, and (so far) there's water and electricity. But here's something else that really sparked my imagination. Rwandan health officials asked a group of researchers involved in a pilot cervical cancer screening study to come and do a study there. The country wasn't identified by some group like CDC or WHO because of their high rates of the disease. The officials themselves learned about the project and ASKED to be one of the research sites.

I don't think I need to explain how big a deal that is, especially since so many African leaders are characterized as being completely oblivious to anything other than their own self-interests. I find myself fascinated by Rwandan President Paul Kagame, who wound up martialing the will and the manpower to stop the genocide in 1994, while the rest of the world blinked. I don't know enough about him to label him a saint or anything, and you might scratch the relatively manicured surface of Kigali and see some pretty nasty stuff. But during my brief stay, I saw so many signs that Kagame is using the same focused energy to try and help his country.

(If you don't know who Kagame is, check out his picture on Google Images. While watching him on TV last week, I wound up concluding that relatively young men of East African descent with big ears make the best Presidents!)

That's the take home message I wound up leaving with this group of journalists. I told them they were pioneers, and that they now have the opportunity to learn more about the health related projects going on in their country. I told them they had a responsibility tell the stories and connect the dots in ways that will prod officials to keep seeking help for their challenges, to keep the urgent health needs of the citizens at least among the top 10 priorities.

I plan to keep working with this group of pioneers. I think I've finally found an African country that with all its challenges, scars, and complicated issues, actually makes sense.

Friday, August 7, 2009

This is Why I'm Hot....

...because I'm always standing in the sun somewhere lecturing African journalists. In fact, this morning, the Rwandan reporters started calling me "Teacher."

So far, while doing this work various countries, besides "Teacher," I've been called "Auntie," "Mama Rachel," and "Prof."

Guess I'll stay in there pitching until somebody grants me the title, "News Hottie."

Based on the width of my hips in this particular photo, that goal should keep me busy for a very long time.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Me and the Boys

What is it about talking to children that turns my face into a braying, rubbery mask of horrific hilarity??

Okay, maybe I'm being too hard on myself. It's just that whenever I smile around children, I don't think about trying not to expose all my teeth and gums like I do in other pictures. I never try to be demure, or pouty. Talking to kids just makes me peel back those lips and flash the old choppers, so seeing myself in those shots always makes me grimace.

But this time, it's not really about me at all. Part of the reason I was so giddy in this shot was that the boy on the left, Didier, had just astonished me. Yesterday, I was leading the Rwandan journalists I've been training on a field trip at a program where HIV positive children are taught to cope with their status. Many of these children acquired HIV from mothers who had been systematically raped and tortured during the genocide. Though Didier is 13, and the other boy in the photo, Francis, is only 8, there's a good chance their mothers were victims of the "genocidaires."

Anyway, the journalists spent time interviewing the counselors and program directors before meeting the boys. When they were finally ushered out to greet us, both were typically shy. I decided the best way to break the ice would be to introduce ourselves and then let the boys ask US questions first. Through a translator, Didier looked up at me, looked down, looked back up and said,

"What is your aim in talking to us?"

It was a brilliant question, and I laughed at his frankness. I explained that we were "journalistes," and that we wanted to write stories that could help children be healthy. He seemed to accept that answer, so the reporters asked a few generic, non-invasive questions. Then I asked Didier what he wanted to be when he grows up. He looked down and said he wanted to be a pilot. We all cheered, and then I suggested maybe he would want to fly for Kenya Airways, or Rwandair. Didier looked me directly in the eye and said, "I want to fly for Boeing."

I pray to God that one day I'll be a 75 year old woman reading an inflight magazine somewhere and come across a story about a Rwandan pilot named Didier. Or maybe there'll be a story about a Rwandan pastor named Francis who's making a difference in his country. With all my heart, I want these boys to grow up. Period.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Where the Rubber Meets the Road

Sometimes, the little things just jump out at you. Besides the visit to the genocide memorial, I have to say the next thing that stands out during my time in Kigali is the fact that you see green helmets everywhere you go.

I've traveled in 5 East African countries now, and lived in two. In each of them, motorcycles are a major method of transportation. Just like we in the US depend on taxis for brief trips around town, folks in Uganda and Kenya and Tanzania are just as likely to hop onto the back of a motorcycle for that ride home. In Uganda, they're called "boda bodas," and I still remember how terrified I was during my first ride on one, and how whenever we hit a bump, I just knew they'd be scraping me out of a ditch any minute now.

When I first got to Rwanda, I assumed all the guys wearing green helmets were policemen. After all, they were not only wearing them, they also had an extra one perched between their bike handles. Then I started seeing people riding along with the green helmeted guys, and noticed they were wearing helmets, too.

In Rwanda, those bikes are called "taxi-motos", and drivers are not only required to wear helmets, they must carry them for their passengers. The government demands compliance to this law. Before I got here, several people had mentioned Rwanda's political strict "regime," and I'm sure I don't know the half of it. But when I think of all the Americans who wind up donating organs because they refuse to wear motorcycle helmets, I can't help being impressed.

After a year in Kenya, where there seem to be no rules, I could use about a month of Kigali's quiet, orderly, clean streets. I could tolerate not having to worry about being car-jacked, mugged, or having people reach through my window to try and steal my phone (it happened). I could use a few weeks with "nothing to do."

For me, that's where the rubber meets the road.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

"Ne Marcher Pas Sur la Tombes, S'il Vous Plait"

Been doing a lot of processing this past 16 hours or so. I feel like I adequately prepared for the visit to the Gisozi Genocide Memorial, but soon learned that if you're a thinking, feeling human being, there's really no way to be fully braced for it.

Perfect example--outside the actual museum, there are serene, beautifully landscaped gardens and fountains, and I found the quiet and tranquility quite appropriate for psyching yourself into the actual tour. Along the various pathways, there were large cement platforms, sort of like what you'd expect to see in a parking lot or at a building site. I assumed they were stages for events or performances.

Then I got a bit closer and saw one of the small brown signs with white lettering. For once, my high school French kicked in immediately. The sign read, "Ne Marcher Pas Sur la Tombes, S'il Vous plait."

"Do Not Walk on the Mass Graves, Please."

Then I really looked around the tranquil gardens. There were about a dozen or so of those cement platforms.

That's when I learned that on the actual grounds of the memorial, approximately 280,000 of the 1 million Rwandan genocide victims are buried in mass graves. Those plain cement slabs are their grave markers.

And that's before you even enter the museum. Wait'll I'm ready to tell you how the tour ends.

Basically, I've needed some time to stop feeling mute with horror. I had just about reached that point this afternoon, when the one of the U.S. Embassy Communications staffers named Charles told me that his entire family had been killed in the genocide.

We were driving along one of Kigali's eerily quiet, clean, orderly streets when he mentioned this. I wasn't going to say anything anyway, but then he added that about 3 weeks ago, the remains of his mother and some other relatives had been unearthed and identified. A brief ceremony was held

Silence ensued.

Eventually, we found something else to talk about. And pretty soon, I'll be able to share some of my other insights about Kigali. After all, life goes on.

Always Idris

Couldn't stay awake last night, after having a terrific Indian meal at Khana Khazana Restaurant in Kigali. I was so stuffed, not even the stuffy heat in the room prevented sleep.

So as a pink a blue sunrise dawned, I popped in my DVD of "Sometimes in April." It just finished, ad I'm slightly shaken, deeply moved, and very thoughtful.

But I have to admit my main thought from that movie is that sometimes, a lead actor's absolutely astonishing gorgeousness can be a distraction. Don't get me wrong--Idris Elba was superb. I felt every ounce of his frustration, fear and pain at the loss of his family and the madness his country descended into.

However....DAMN, THAT MAN IS FINE!!! I felt the same way after watching "Hotel Rwanda", which I will discuss more at length when I actually visit the Hotel Des Milles Collines later this week. I mean, how are you supposed to concentrate on the gravity of a topic when all you wanna do is.... get my point. Anyway, lest you all wind up being totally disappointed by how shallow I can be at times, I'll just leave it at that. Gotta go get ready to visit the Gisozi Genocide Memorial...right after I go online and order every Idris Elba movie ever made.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

The Apple of My Eye

To paraphrase a sentiment from Angelina Jolie, "I am SOOO in love with my Mac Book right now!" But since I'm not referring to a biological sibling, it just sounds a lot less creepy.

It is such an incredibly handy toy! I've been in Kigali about 5 hours now, and have finished a report, caught up on email, done some vacation investigation, and spent a bit more time figuring this thing out (still can't use about 90 percent of its powers, I reckon). After years of hesitation, I finally took the plunge a few weeks back when one of the local mobile phone companies offered a special on Mac Books. I'd been eyeballing the 13 inch Pro, an upgrade from your basic Mac Book which would have cost an additional 8oo dollars. But since the shipments were taking forever to get to Nairobi, I just got too antsy and went ahead an bought a "starter."

Honey chile, once you go Mac, it's like that first hit of crack! It is BEYOND awesome. Downloads are a dream. It's small and easily portable. And I just about plotz every time I go online and all my bookmarks are arrayed across the screen in orderly rows. It is BEYOND KEWL.

Anyway, the events of the past few weeks still have me feeling kinda wiped. Supposed to go out to dinner with some Embassy folks and someone from CDC Rwanda, and then I'm gonna do something totally crazy, if I can stay awake. I brought my copy of the HBO movie "Sometime in April" with me on this trip, and I plan to watch it on my Mac Book tonight to prepare myself for going to the Genocide Museum tomorrow. I've never been able to bring myself to view this movie about the 1994 Rwandan genocide before now, but some melodramatic streak overtook me. We'll see if I'm up for it......

......since I probably won't be sleeping much tonight, because there's no air conditioning in the hotel. But then, menopausal misery should put me in just the right mood.

A Million Whispers

Once again, I'm sitting at Gate 4 in Jomo K airport, headed to another East African country. You know, for all my talk of Golden Monkeys and journalism workshops lately, you'd never guess that my destination is the site of one of the worst genocides in modern history. Rwanda may have a Thousand Hills, but 15 years ago, nearly a million people were brutally massacred there.

Tomorrow morning, I will visit the Gisozi Genocide Memorial in Kigali, and I'm bracing myself for the experience. A few weeks back, I wrote about how profoundly shaken I was during a 2003 visit to Elmina Castle in Ghana, where many Africans began their tortured journey to America 4 centuries ago. How will I manage a psychic journey through a brutal episode that happened just 15 years ago?

Time will tell. It always does.