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, December 31, 2010
Saturday, December 25, 2010
Thursday, December 23, 2010
And then it occurred to me that I'm just happy to be anywhere. Last Christmas Day probably scarred me emotionally, moreso than I've ever admitted. As long as I live, I will never forget the eerie silence in the Immigration Arrivals Hall at Detroit Metro Airport, where I queued for 4 hours AFTER having sat on a runway for 5 hours, in the plane that landed just after the one that ferried the Nigerian Nitwit whom I've affectionately nicknamed the "Underoos Bomber" from Amsterdam to Detroit.
Everybody, even exhausted babies and toddlers, seemed too stunned to make a peep by that point. People who had only an hour or so earlier cursed KLM, and the airport, and the Fates for ruining their Christmas Day were all of a sudden visualizing themselves splattered across the runway, or incinerated beyond recognition. It was probably the closest brush most of us will ever have with terrorism, even though we weren't on the same plane, and nobody got hurt. But somehow, we all really felt it. Deeply.
So, when I recall finally sinking into my bed at the Airport Best Western in Romulus, Michigan around 10 PM on Christmas Night 2009, having consumed my Yuletide feast of Fritos and Coke, I remember feeling an insane level of gratitude. Jetlag and shock kept me wide awake for a few more hours, which I filled by flipping through cable channels and being soothed by nasal American accents. It didn't matter that I didn't get any turkey or stuffing or gifts, or hear any carols or get to watch Rudolph or Charlie Brown or "A Christmas Story 24-Hour-Marathon" on TBS. I was alive.
That's why this year, it just doesn't seem like such a big deal that I'm not in America being ushered into the bosom of somebody's family on Christmas Day, or that I don't have a family of my own to cook for, or a kid to spoil. It doesn't matter that this little chocolate-colored Afro-centric angel is the only ornament on display at the Oasis of Graciousness, and the only card I've received so far came from the delivery guy at the grilled chicken joint I've subsidized over the past two and a half years in Nairobi.
Just like Celie said in "The Color Purple," I'm here. Dear God, I'm here! That's all the Christmas spirit I need, for now.
Wednesday, December 22, 2010
We both feel pretty lucky to be doing what we're doing at this moment in time. The American media business is going through major mid-life crisis, and that's putting it mildly. It's a perfect time to be a Journalist Without Borders, to travel to new places and approach our craft from a different angle. If the rest of my career plays out through helping other people become better journalists, that feels right, somehow.
Tuesday, December 21, 2010
Saturday, December 11, 2010
Wednesday, December 8, 2010
Tuesday, December 7, 2010
Sunday, December 5, 2010
Friday, December 3, 2010
I lay curled in the fetal position in the center of the bed at my beloved Mnarani Club at daybreak, and even the thought of lying by the pool brought no pleasure. So much had gone wrong, I just wanted to evaporate, maybe stand out in the middle of a Kilifi Road without a hat and sunscreen until I melted into a puddle of chocolate flopsweat.
One day, I'll tell you why. It'll be part of my weighty ruminations about the challenges of journalism training on the African continent. But here's one scene that made every minute of the past week worthwhile. Getting reporters past the official press releases and the sound bites, and the pharmaceutical company PR, and into the wards where the real impact of diseases like pneumonia and HIV/AIDS plays out is absolutely critical. I can only hope the experience ignited the reporting instinct for one or two of them.
What I do is about connecting the dots until they form a bigger picture. Call it my "peripatetic pointillism," if you will. Or just say that for some reason even I don't fully understand, all the bad stuff is worth it if one person embraces a deeper journalistic vision for him or herself.
Sunday, November 28, 2010
".....at least it's not for me. And if the wind is right you can sail away, find tranquility."
Saturday, November 27, 2010
I feel like, well, like Sasha Obama whenever I ride in one! I can't help smiling! They sound like they're operated with an electric can-opener engine, and you could probably outrun one if you had to.
But every chance I get to ride in one of 'em, I am SO there! And I probably have about 10 pictures of me standing next to one during my African travels. I mean, seriously, when am I ever gonna grow up and stop being such a rank touriste??
Prolly never. Just consider it part of my insouciant charm!
Friday, November 26, 2010
Now, don't get your knickers in a twist just yet. I ain't sending out gold-engraved invitations anytime soon. Hell, I may never even see the dude I met on today's Kenya Airways flight to Mombasa again. It's just that for the first time ever, I had an incredibly interesting conversation with a guy on an airplane who wasn't a borderline, or COMPLETE, schmuck.
Guess I should take that back, because on the Detroit to Amsterdam leg of my flight back to Kenya in January, I spent several hours talking to the Auburn University student who made me laugh, think and question my worldview all at once. That was a fascinating conversation, albeit with a virtual infant. At 20, there wasn't gonna be any frequent flier credit earned in the Mile High Club with him.
But today, when the guy sitting in the window seat to my left made a crack about the radioactive "croissant" we had just been handed, I had an instant choice to make--and I've made the same one 97 percent of the time on scores of airplanes. I could have twisted my mouth into a wry grimace and then proceeded to completely tune him out, while pretending to focus even more intently on my copy of Oprah Magazine, or the newspaper I'd brought along. You see, I have this tendency to size guys up fairly quickly, and if they don't get the engines revved within the first 10 seconds, I'd rather check my horoscope than jibber jabber through hours of flight time.
Besides. when 8A finally showed up to take his seat, I was already in a mildly pissy mood. I usually make a point of asking for a window or aisle seat, but for some reason, it didn't occur to me this morning. And since Mombasa is only 45 minutes away, I don't see the point of making a big deal about it. For whatever reason, I've always gotten a window or aisle seat. This morning, I was in a smack-dab middle "B" seat, and gritted my teeth waiting for a porker on one side and a deodorant-challenged dude on the other. Well, 8C showed up first, and at least he was a hygienically correct, if stiff and reserved white Brit.
8A turned out to be a man of Asian Indian descent, about my age I'd guess, average height and build, casually dressed in that "I'm a businessman heading to weekend meetings at a golf resort" kind of garb. Absolutely no hormonal activity was flared. So yet again, it was one of those cases where I stretched my face at him and then tucked into my copies of the Daily Nation, Standard and Star newspapers. Then the "breakfast" service began, and I knew I could concentrate on slurping my yogurt and granola until we began our initial descent. That's when 8A cracked wise about the roll.
8A has a deep, sultry British accent that could spontaneously combust the elastic in your drawers. He was also wearing some really cool glasses, and he had a pleasant smile. He's also an apparently EXTREMELY successful businessman, with many contacts and references I've heard of, and one we have in common. And even when I tried to shut down the conversation at various points, when it seemed like he kept asking questions about what I do, and what I think of President Obama, and how I liked Kenya, and what I'd be doing in Kilifi, he was still interested.
By the time he offered to carry my bag off the plane, I was completely gobsmacked. It has been SOOOOOO long since a guy thought I needed help, it took a second for me to even translate what he was saying. And as we walked to the baggage claim, he did that quintessential "guy on the prowl" thing--asked if I was living here with my family. I said I was single. He added, "And ready to mingle?" I just laughed. Like I said, it's been so long since anybody cared, I didn't have any flirty replies at the ready.
We parted ways when I had to wait for my usual gargantuan suitcase at the carousel and he headed off with his sleek carry-on. And then he did the cutest thing...the thumb and forefinger "I'll call you" gesture. I just smiled. I mean, I'm still way too much of a cynic to NOT believe that he has a wife named Padma and 8 children under age 6 living in a Nairobi suburb. I actually don't expect to ever hear from him again.
But something about the encounter felt like another sign that my life is shifting into high gear. I mean, I'm launching this really cool new project that could turn out to be a big deal, if the Universe cooperates. In a lot of ways, I'm more at peace with who and what I am than I've ever been. And even though this morning's encounter was only an incremental step, it was an important one.
So, if I can score a seat next to a stimulating, successful man who seems totally into ME on one flight, I can do it on another one. It's never to late to cash in some frequent flier miles, I guess.
Thursday, November 25, 2010
Actually, I should be getting ready to gnaw on a turkey leg right about now. I should be finishing the first batch of sweet potato pies. I should be planning which discount clothing store I'm going to hit tomorrow morning, to snatch up a few Black Friday bargains. Instead, I'm getting ready to head to suburban Nairobi, heat up some leftover pizza and finish packing for a trip to a research center on the Kenyan Coast.
If you had told me six months ago that trying to start a new journalism organization in Kenya would consume my every waking moment—and half my sleeping ones--I’d have chortled. I’d have accused you of excessive melodrama. I’d have told you to “talk to the hand.”
After all, I had helped set up a radio training workshop in Gulu, Uganda, a scant year after peace had been declared. I had stood toe to toe with abusive contractors and sexist station owners who’d refused to even acknowledge my existence. I’d bounced across some of the worst roads in East Africa for hours on end, traveling to radio stations no bigger than a medium sized closet—and with just about as much appropriate equipment. I’d planned, organized and led 5 weeklong workshops in 7 months, under conditions I still can’t fathom how I endured without going complete loopy.
So what is it about organizing formal trainings in Nairobi, which is a literal Nirvana compared to Gulu, that’s keeping me up at night? Why, all of a sudden, do the stakes feel so dizzyingly high?
I got the answer during the official launch of the Kenyan Alliance of Health and Science Reporters on Nov. 9th. Weeks of meticulous planning came down to the wire as speakers dropped on and off of the schedule, and carefully visualized logistics began to unravel. But I took comfort in the fact that the main theme for the launch, a critical analysis of Kenya’s “Vision 2030” development policy, was something I had envisioned for many months. During my one-to-one mentoring with reporters, I try to stimulate that kind of thinking about health-related topics. I encourage them to look beyond the press releases and the official government pronouncements, and to really think hard about what policies and responses mean.
The chance to instill that mindset in a broader range of journalists was a heady proposition. But I learned two very important things during the KAHSR launch. First Lesson--NEVER plan your event in the same hotel where the First Lady of whatever nation you may find yourself in is hosting a Photo Op. The food will be better, and half the staff journalists at every media house in town will either be assigned to cover it, or will fight for the chance. Sure enough, most of the reporters I’d enlisted to speak on my 3rd briefing panel were MIA.
Second Lesson: Out of the respectable crowd of 45 people attending the launch, there were more communications/PR people than journalists! Throw a press briefing or journalism training in Northern Uganda, and it’s a cinch that unless there’s breaking news, lots of reporters will show up. Organize a reporters’ briefing or workshop in a city like Nairobi, and there’s bound to be more NGO or Advocacy Types interested in learning how to attract reporters to their events.
The launch helped me realize that providing professional development "value" to journalists means different things in different settings on the African continent. Not a day goes by when I’m not reminded how much American journalists take for granted when it comes to practicing their craft. Access to computers, telephones on their desk, a librarian who’ll do half your research, reliable, affordable public transportation… even most Nairobi reporters can’t count on those things. Trust me, after you’ve seen a journalist walk through the newsroom with a sign-up sheet pleading for help to pay rent before he and his family are evicted, you realize that persuading him to improve his writing skill might be a hard sell.
I guess that’s what’s making me a bit more neurotic than usual about this extraordinary opportunity I’ve been given, to help Kenyan journalists improve their ability to report on health and science. Ultimately, it’s forcing ME to be more creative and analytical than the reporters themselves will ever have to be! It’s forcing me out of my comfort zone, and requiring me to think both locally and nationally.
Not only will I be planning week-long workshops at KEMRI Wellcome Trust facilities in Nairobi and Kilifi—like the one scheduled to begin next Monday—but I’ll be taking the show on the road to various cities around Kenya. I’ll be assessing the major issues and developing strategies for fine-tuning briefings and trainings for different regions. I’ll be trying to set up a specialized website, offer online training and “Rapid Response” email alerts that will nurture creative, authoritative reporting.
By this point, you may be wondering just when and where I had a big red “S” tattooed on my chest, or how much I’d had to drink when I decided I could accomplish all of these goals! Only time and truth will tell if I can pull half of them off. But when I think of the main reason it’s worth all the new gray hairs and acid reflux, I think of Judy Nankuni and her one and a half year old daughter, Naomi Mbuchi. They were featured in a Daily Nation article that ran on November 12th, which was World Pneumonia Day. It’s only the second event of its kind, highlighting one of the major ongoing challenges in the developing world: the staggering death tolls related to preventable illnesses like pneumococcal disease, HIV, malaria, etc.
The link between research and prevention is irrefutable. For example, science has proven that exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life, and vaccination, can lower a baby’s risk of developing pneumococcal disease. Yet lots of barriers to breastfeeding remain in Kenya—cultural, educational, and religious, to name a few. And while officials insist 80 percent of Kenyan children receive the first of three required infant vaccine doses, that percentage drops significantly by the time the baby needs that third shot. Again, lack of education, poverty, and fear play big roles in preventing access to better health care.
Shortly after I was awarded the Wellcome Trust grant, I learned that the KWT Kilifi program was involved in research that fueled the Kenyan government’s decision to launch a new vaccine programme next January. Instantly, I knew I had the theme for a workshop linking research to a positive policy development. During a recent planning trip, I met a woman named Tabitha Mwangi, a former malaria researcher who’d stepped off the career track to raise her 3 children. But Tabitha hd done some freelance writing, mostly columns, and needed guidance in developing newspaper features related to research.
Long story short, Tabitha met Judy and Naomi at Kilifi District Hospital and knew immediately she’d found the perfect “angle” for her story. Judy is a 26 year old Coastal resident eking out a living growing and selling vegetables. Her frail only child suffered fever and lethargy for weeks, and nearly died before a pharmacist “diagnosed” her labored breathing as pneumonia. Judy bundled Naomi onto the back of a motorcycle taxi and headed to the hospital, for what could have been Naomi’s first—and last—hospital stay.
Fortunately, Naomi did NOT become one of the 5,000 children who die of pneumonia each day in developing countries. And I helped Tabitha produce a story that not only marked World Pneumonia Day, but also alerted readers to the larger story that will unfold in Kenya next January, thanks to a positive collaboration between public officials and researchers.
People like Judy and Naomi are most of the reason I stay on the African continent, turning down dozens of invitations to sit at American tables groaning with holiday goodies over the past few years. And next week, 7 Kenyan journalists will spend five days learning about the Vaccine program, thanks to the Wellcome Trust Grant. And I’ll also use the lessons learned and information gathered at the launch to fuel everybody on the KAHSR mailing list, hoping to stimulate a really impressive body of journalism when the new policy launches in two months' time. It will be an internationally-recognized event, and for once, I’m hoping African media will be able to say that we covered “our own” accomplishments as well, or even better, than Western Media did.
In a way, next week’s KAHSR Workshop will feel like I’m celebrating Thanksgiving a week late, and Christmas a few weeks early. The possibilities really can feel endless, when you don’t sweat the small stuff!
Monday, November 8, 2010
Good Heavens, Y'all, I have been so incredibly SNOWED UNDER, I forgot to mention that tomorrow is D-Day. THE Day!!! The Day I've been corroding my stomach lining with acidic bile about over the past month or so. The day that's the reason I dang near pulled each and every one of my locs out of my head about back in April while writing my application for a Wellcome Trust International Public Engagement Grant.
Tomorrow is the Official Launch Briefing for the newly formed Kenyan Alliance of Health and Science Reporters (KAHSR). The logo above is just one of those things I about had 3 kittens over in recent weeks. I think I mentioned the first conceptual image I had for a logo in a post a while back. It was based on a compass, but instead of bearing the North, South, East and West elements, my organizational compass would contain elements of science, research, news gathering and final media product. You know, a brain, a microscope, a notepad, and a TV set, etc, etc.
Except that when my boss in DC saw it, she said it looked like "a mad scientist's vision of the Kenyan flag." My feelings would have been hurt, if I hadn't been laughing so hard.
I finally settled on this concept from a young graphic artist named Peter, who actually helped with the redesign of both major local newspapers, the Daily Nation and the Standard. I think it's really cool, and so does everyone else who's seen it--so far.
Regardless, the deal is done. We achieve lift-off tomorrow at 9 AM at the Nairobi Hilton Hotel. For some reason, I'm strangely calm. Eerily so. I find myself taking my blood pressure a bit more often these days, to make sure I am neither stroking out, or that I didn't die and somebody forgot to tell me.
Guess that means I know what I'm doing. We'll see tomorrow morning, huh?
Wish me luck....
Friday, November 5, 2010
When I think back on my life, if I had bothered to fully investigate the backgrounds of most of the distinguished people I've encountered BEFORE we met, there's good chance I probably would have been kind of intimidated. Not as much as, say, 30 years ago, when I spent half of my life mute with shyness and fear. But even though I think I'm a fairly saucy old wench these days, every now and then I can still be a bit reserved around people who are, to use a tired cliche, "legends in their fields of expertise."
I guess I'm saying that I probably wouldn't have been as much myself. I'd have been so busy trying to come off as poised, or at least not looking like a dummy. For example, when I first I met this man. It was at an advisory board meeting for the Kenya Science Cafe project. I've written about it before; it's where people come to coffeehouses or bars or restaurants and listen to researchers talk about all kinds of issues, ranging from reproductive health to climate change to fibre optics. The two young women who brought the Science Cafe to Kenya, Juliette Mutheu and Ruth Wanjala, are good friends, and they worked for the KEMRI-Wellcome Trust Programme as communications specialists (Ruth still does, and she just moved to Kilifi; Juliette's getting her Masters in London). The way they passionately articulated their vision for connecting the public with science and health information made me an instant believer. So when they asked me to join their advisory board, it was a no-brainer.
I met this man at one of those meetings. Oh, I guess at this point I should probably tell you who "this man" His name is Prof. Kevin Marsh, and he directs the KEMRI-Wellcome Trust research program in Kenya. He is an Oxford Professor who specializes in tropical diseases, and he came to Kenya about 20 years ago with his wife and children to focus on the impact of malaria on children.
Now, I obviously know the KEMRI-Wellcome Trust program is a big deal, because I’ve just received a big grant from the Wellcome Trust in the UK. I’ve read about KWT research ever since I arrived in Kenya. As I type these words, I’m sitting in the KWT-Kilifi library, waiting to meet with another KWT researcher I wrote about recently, Dr. Anthony Scott, who’s leading the KWT pneumococcal vaccine research.
Okay, we’ve established that I am rolling with some of the big dogs of the Kenyan science world thes days , right? Well on Tuesday morning, that audacious audio temptress I call the BBC World Service struck again. I was sitting on the couch trying to finish sending a raft of emails when at the top of the hour, a program called “Exchanges at the Frontier” began. The renowned British philosopher A.C. Grayling introduced the topic of malaria—and THEN introduced Kevin Marsh.
Here are just a few of his titles: Professor of Tropical Medicine, Director of the Wellcome-KEMRI-Oxford Collaborative Research Programme, Group Head / PI, Grant Holding Senior Scientist, Member of congregation and Unit Director. He’s probably also Emperor of something, but I was a bit too jazzed by that point to focus. But the bottom line is this: Kevin Marsh is one of the top tropical disease researchers on the planet. And until we find irrefutable proof of life elsewhere in the universe, he can make THAT claim, too.
Okay, I guess need to inject some full-disclosure here: when I met with Kevin a few months back, hem entioned that he would be featured on a BBC program in the near future. I thought it was pretty cool at the time.
But something about hearing the voice of someone you’ve actually met and interacted with on the BBC is really kind of thrilling! I guess it’s doubly so when that person has met YOU, and thinks your work is worth investing in.
So as I prepare to go sit across from another internationally-recognized researcher in about an hour, to plan strategy for ensuring nationwide reporting on important new research about the pneumonia vaccine that will be released in Kenya in January….
(….just another day at the office for a gal like me!!!)
….I just have to make sure that I can focus long enough to stop hearing a certain set of lyrics that have been running on a loop in my brain the past few days.
Just check the title of this post for a clue.
Wednesday, November 3, 2010
Well, from 8,000 miles away on November 3rd, I surfed into CNN at about 6 AM GMT +3, which was 11 PM on November 2nd in Washington, DC. Some results are still evolving in the US, and I think California and Oregon may have only just closed their polls, but it's pretty clear: "Tea Without Empathy" seems to have saturated the American Zeitgeist. Just like in the 1994 Mid-term Elections, the Republicans have regained control of the House of Representatives during the first term of an initially wildly popular Democratic President, fueled largely by Republican/Tea Party candidates. It's expected that Democrats will maintain control of the Senate, but I suppose it's still too early to declare that definitively.
I can't pretend to be shocked, though I must keep reminding myself that reading about what's going on in America, instead of actually experiencing it, makes it hard to truly weigh in. I can only form opinions based on what various news outlets consider is newsworthy, which of course skews toward the extreme. And I also have to rely on the shifting opinions and attitudes of trusted friends and acquaintances, some of whom are die-hard Obama supporters, others who've started expressing strong, cogent disappointment in him, and a few who are completely over him.
All I truly know is that these early election returns have made me a bit sad. So it was a truly lovely, blessed gift to have just gotten a Facebook message from my friend Joyce. She told me to check out a picture of her beautiful little 4-year-old daughter Talia, holding one of the Kenyan dolls I sent to her earlier this year. I collect African dolls myself, and take every opportunity to buy them for friends and/or their daughters. I stuck this one in a box of gifts for Talia and her big brother, my godson Ty, even though Joyce had told me that so far, Talia didn't really like dolls. Most of them just plain creeped her out, and she never played with them or asked her Mommy to buy one for her.
Well, apparently Talia came home from school on Election Day, 2010, picked up this doll and said, "Mommy, look at her. She's so beautiful. I'm going to take good care of her."
This makes my heart smile. Talia isn't suspicious about whether this doll was born in Kenya or America. She doesn't care whether it's black or white. It's wearing a red dress, and Talia lives in a "Red State" (North Carolina), but I know her mother's blood pumps True Blue, just like mine.
So, to get on with my life and stop obsessing over issues I can only speculate about from a vast distance, the only tea-related matters I'm going to consider for now will be the image of Talia and her Kenyan dolly having a tea-party on a crisp, sunny Fall afternoon in Raleigh.
Monday, November 1, 2010
It was such a relief!! What IS it about us women that automatically programs us to start worrying about these kinds of results? Okay, maybe it's not all women, maybe it's just me. It's not like I start planning my funeral or anything, but somewhere in the back of my mind, I always brace for the worst. I start imagining what I'll do if the doctor shuts the door, pulls up a chair directly in front of me and stares intently, with that "I'm gonna cut to the chase" look on his/her face.
So far, knock wood, Praise Jah, Thank you JESUS, that has never happened to me. No doctor has ever furrowed his or her brow while reviewing one of my test results. Most of the time when I've walked out of a doctor's office, I've almost felt guilty about wasting their time, because they've generally told me I'm quite healthy.
Of course now I've just realized that bragging about being healthy is like freakin' catnip to the fates. DAMMIT!!!! Anyway, when I left the doctor's office today and settled in for the long cab ride to work, I spent a lot of time thinking about health, and about how much we take for granted. It is so damned easy to do. Until that medical thunderbolt arrives, most of us just slog through our days without considering just how incredibly, wildly, insanely blessed we are to be able to stand under our own power, to see the traffic jam we're stuck in, to hear that annoying laugh over in the next cubicle, to inhale the fresh air after a rainstorm, be able to eat our food with a fork, instead of ingest it through a tube inserted into our stomachs.
Yes, I suppose I could be healthier. I could be more toned. I could improve my diet, and I could exercise enough to be able to drop the only medication I take, for the high blood pressure that runs in my family. But overall, in this day, in this moment, in this lifetime, I have been profoundly, extraordinarily blessed when it comes to my health.
And I think it's time to celebrate that fact. In last night's conversation with my friend Faith, she said something I've been thinking about ever since. She says that for these next few years, as we transition into this amazing Golden Age, she wants to thrive. Not just exist, not just survive from one challenge to the next. I immediately latched onto that as my own goal. I already do some PRIMO existing, no doubt, but from now on, I setting my phaser on THRIVE.
As I've told many a person, a morning when you wake up above ground is already off to a rousing start! And if you're not facing a major health challenge, you're in even better shape. I'm going to start reveling in that fact just as often as I can.