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.
Sunday, February 28, 2010
Friday, February 26, 2010
Thursday, February 25, 2010
Wednesday, February 24, 2010
Now, don't start haranguing me for being overly-obsessed with my middle-aged status! The only reason I'm even mentioning it in this context is because at 30, Rye Barcott has accomplished more than most people achieve in twice as many years. And you can't really measure the impact of his work in dollars. You'd have to do it in Kenya shillings. 2,000 of them, to be exact.
You see, it was in the year 2000 that Rye Barcott moved to Kibera. I am not making this up. He was an anthropology student at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, on a Marine Corps scholarship. (Take note of the "Marine" reference; it'll be relevant later.) He rented himself a room and lived among the Kibera residents, recording what they told him about their lives.
For five weeks.
One of the people he met was a woman named Tabitha, a registered nurse who basically got all up in his grill and made him ask her about her life. They talked awhile, and when they were through, Tabitha asked him to give her 2,000 shillings, which at today's exchange rate is about $26 USD. She told him she would use the money to buy vegetables, which she would then resell at a bit of a profit to fend for herself and her 2 children. Rye hesitated, because for one, a mzungu (white guy) crazy enough to live in Kibera would be dangerously suicidal if he walked around handing out money. But something about Tabitha made Rye Barcott step out on faith. He gave her the money, fully expecting to never see her again.
Well, Rye came back to Kibera a year later, and who should he bump into but Tabitha, who led him by the hand to the health center she had opened, using his vegetable loan as seed money. She called it the Rye Clinic.
I swear, that story raised the first set of goosebumps I've felt in....well, since meeting the Mystical Mzee Munavu a few weeks ago. In part because when I heard it this morning, I was sitting in the very first Tabitha Clinic in the heart of Kibera. It's a rustic, typically Kiberan collection of tin-roofed, crude cement exam rooms, pharmacy, and open air waiting room that became a lifeline for people living in that part of Kibera. It opened about a year before Tabitha died, at age 38, in December of 2004.
That was also before Rye Barcott, community organizer Salim Mohammad, Tabitha, and Barcott's mentors at the University of North Carolina's Center for Global Initiatives, in partnership with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, opened the brand new, modern, 3-storied Tabitha Clinic in the heart of hard core sewage and garbage and hopelessness-filled Kibera. Compared to the original Rye Clinic, it is an absolute miracle. It is St. Elsewhere crossed with General Hospital, with a little Seattle Grace thrown in, for thousands of desperately poor Kenyans, a blessing straight from God.
There's just too much I could say about Rye that would make me sound like a totally annoying suck-up. So I'll just mention a few things. First, after having met one too many young, white "Poverty Tourists" in various African countries, Rye is the most genuine, authentically empathic person I've met in 6 years of doing this work. Trust me, my ears and eyes are finely-tuned for any hint of patronizing, profiteering, or ego-preening when it comes to humanitarian ventures. I've known and heard of too many "volunteers" who launched big bucks government or philanthropic programs solely to line their own pockets, or otherwise exploit astronomically desperate people.
This man is the real-deal Holyfield, you best believe. He speaks fluent Kiswahili, and Homey don't stutter in either language. He interacts with a sincerity that can't be denied, but which doesn't send your blood sugar levels through the roof. And even before you know he's an ex-Marine (or I guess a "Marine for Life"? I mean, you know how sensitive those Jarheads can be!!!), his whole aura exudes a discipline and focus that can't be faked, and usually comes after years of military service.
In short, Rye Barcott has single-handedly adjusted my attitude about Kibera, and about the intractable nature of extreme poverty, in ways I never dreamed possible. I'm rolling up on 3 years living in Africa, and I can't pretend that my spirit hasn't run a quart low at times lately. But after a few short hours of hanging out with Rye, my outlook changed. Instead of obsessing on all the barriers and challenges to interpreting life in Kibera, the fog blew away, and now I'm focusing on the all the possibilities.
Now, don't get me wrong. Princess Rachella ain't about to rent a room there, now or EVUH. A sister needs round the clock access to spa pedicures, mall-shopping and 24 hour wireless, and I wouldn't apologize for that if I was standing at the Gates of Hell with a shot at a free pass to Heaven. I'm also about 70 percent ready to head back to America the minute it's humanly possible. But maybe, for the duration, I'll remember Tabitha, and the 2,000 reasons she believed she had the power to make a difference.
If that were possible, through self-mutilation, I would break the nearest piece of crockery and use the jagged shards to gouge out my eyes after reading an online story about the puke-errifically unholy alliance between Ann Coulter and Jimmy
"J. J." Walker.
Apparently, it's an ongoing, genuine friendship. As least as genuine as anything involving this bleached blonde, hate-spewing neckbone with legs can be. In the article, Jimmy just gushed over how adorable Ann is, and dismissed her vile behavior as her "shtick." Clearly, somebody needs to take a shtout shtick to the back of Jimmy's head. But then, as career moves for a bloated 62-year-old TV-Land relic go, I suppose suckling at the withered teat of Satan's Publicist is as good as any.
The article's writer mentioned that the cozy couple attended one recent event with Bernadette Stanis, the woman who played Thelma on "Good Times." She hinted at something so foul, it chills the blood. The online comments in response to the article only heightened my existential horror. Thelma, as were most of the online commenters, is convinced that Ann and Jimmy are playin' "Hide the Dy-no-mite," if you catch my drift.
I just want to turn back the hands of time to about January of 1961, right before the reckless act of intimacy between Lewis and Eloise Jones that resulted in ME. If that's what it takes to eliminate the craptastic cranio-sacral crime created by that image, so be it.
"I'm just sayin', dawg...."
Monday, February 22, 2010
Sunday, February 14, 2010
Saturday, February 13, 2010
I finally caught the movie "Avatar" tonight, after most of the free world has already seen it. Truth be told, I really wasn't expecting to like it very much, for the sole reason that there's just too much hype around it.
Thursday, February 11, 2010
Exactly 20 years ago today, I almost got arrested myself, when I wouldn’t stop dancing and shouting while my sisters Sarah and Rebecca and I watched Nelson Mandela walk out of prison. We were living in a second floor apartment in St. Louis, and we raised holy hell all morning until the folks downstairs had enough and the cops came a knockin’. We settled down for a while, and then started right back up. After a second visit from the local constabulary, we finally got the message.
Wednesday, February 10, 2010
One morning about 3 months ago, I was standing in the lobby of Nation Centre waiting for an elevator, completely focused on all the reasons why the day was already shot straight to HELL and nothing would EVER get accomplished, when I noticed a man staring at me. His hair was pure white, and he had the rounded belly and stocky frame often associated with a Kenyan “Mzee," the Swahili word meaning “wise old man.” (It's pronounced "Ma-zay.")
I probably don’t even have to tell you what I was thinking, but I’ll do it anyway---“Oh, great! On top of all the traffic jams and computer problems and sporadic riots that might occur during the next 8 hours, I can add the inestimable pleasure of getting macked by a dirty old Mzee." I hoped a look of thinly-veiled disgust would cool the old coot’s jets.
And then he spoke. But he didn't ask if I was married, or offer a compliment on one of my body parts. He just said, “Relax. Don’t worry, everything will be all right.”
I had a choice at that moment. I could have kept riding the wave of frustration that had swept me into the lobby by suggesting that he mind his own damn business. But something made me pause and take a deep breath. And then I flashed that gent a big smile and thanked him for helping me slow my roll and keep things in perspective
That 20 second experience was powerful. Once I got to my desk, I even mentioned it in a Facebook update (after spending a couple hours trying to get the doggoned computer to work). It seemed to affirm one of my all-time favorite sayings: “When the student is ready, the teacher appears.” In that brief interaction, that stranger was my teacher, because I acknowledged the value of his message instead of dismissing it outright. If you’re in a pissy mood before your day even gets started good, you can best believe that bile will scald the rest of your day.
Sadly, that Zen-like state of calm only lasted an hour or so, and then I slipped right back into Prunella mode, a mental state I’m finding remarkably easy to adopt these days. I think one reason is there are just too many things on my plate, and I could really use an assistant to offload some of them. But until that happens, I just gotta keep plugging through that list, one step at a time.
Take this morning, fr’instance. I’d arranged a meeting with Professor Raphael Munavu, who chairs the Kenya National Academy of Sciences and has an office at the. I saw him speak a few weeks ago at a debate about the status of Science and Technology in . I’m actually a board member for the group that organized the debate, so I was really pleased by the quality of the speakers and the dialogue between experts and the audience. Specifically, Professor Munavu made a spirited case about the need to provide the public with accurate, thorough information about science as it relates to Kenya’s development.
I had to leave immediately after the debate, so I didn’t get the chance to introduce myself to Professor Munavu that day. But I decided he might be the perfect person to help get one of my other projects going, that of a regular, large-scale briefing and training format for Kenyan reporters. Since the Academy of Sciences is funded by the government, they could definitely afford to help me pull it off. It would just be a matter of selling myself and my idea to him.
Trust and believe that I was NOT feelin’ that goal this morning when I reached Professor Munavu’s office, which is only about a mile and a half from my apartment. Bottleneck traffic turned a 5-minute trip into a 45 minute ordeal. When the taxi finally reached the University's main gate, I was ready to turn right back around and climb back into bed. That mood was aggravated by the fact that just beyond the main gate lies the city’s mortuary. Since I didn’t know how to get to Professor Munavu’s building, I ducked into an open doorway to ask for directions and was greeted by the cheery image of a coffin-lined wall.
I had a choice to make at that moment. I could just decide that the day was already completely fucked, and I could have stomped my way to Professor Munavu’s building with my face twisted into a mask of piss-edness that would have poisoned the whole interaction.
But after backing out of the coffin chamber in mock horror, something made me look up and look around me. Today was an absolutely glorious day in. The sun was shining, it was in the mid seventies, and the air on campus was fresh and floral. And I had to admit, I feel pretty good these days. My ankle healed remarkably quickly, and I had a spa pedicure the other day to die for, and I’m extremely lucky to be exactly where I am at this exact moment, as opposed to, say, the Mid-Atlantic Region of the United States.
So I made my choice and banished the rotten attitude. I walked with my head held high, and I felt the sun shining down on me, and I was grateful for everything. Especially for the fact that this big-deal guy in Kenyan academic and scientific circles had agreed to meet with me. Whether anything came of it or not, well, at least I would have given it my best shot.
When I finally made it to Professor Munavu’s office, I flashed him my brightest smile and apologized for being so late. I told him I’d enjoyed his remarks at the recent debate, and was grateful for this opportunity to meet with him. He replied, “I think we have met before.”
I struggled to try and remember where. Maybe at a reception, or some a briefing about some new scientific research?
“No, I met you at Nation Centre.”
I said, “Hmmm, was it at an editor’s meeting, or some PR event?”
“No, I met you in front of the elevators one morning, and I told you everything would be all right. Is everything all right?”
I was in Professor Munavu’s office for about an hour this morning, but we may have only discussed my project for
15 minutes. The rest of the time, when I wasn’t absolutely trembling in shock at the coincidence, Mzee Munavu schooled me on the phenomenon of synchronicity, and why things often seem to come out of the blue, when we may have actually helped set the forces in motion long before.
Afterwards, walking back to the main gate past the coffins and such, I also considered what would have happened if I HAD rebuffed that Mystical Mzee’s comforting words in front of the elevators a few months ago. This morning’s meeting would have been a whole lot shorter, that’s for sure. Oh, by the way Professor Munavu is the guy on the left in the photo above, shaking hands with Kenyan. I think he’ll be able to help me get my project off the ground.
Tuesday, February 9, 2010
So it's probably time to just release the fear. Not of personal harm, but of psychological devastation. After all, if I fell apart, Kibera would remain, just as big and bad as ever.
Sunday, February 7, 2010
Well, this has been a great weekend! I spent half of it on Kenya's Indian Ocean coast, in Kilifi and Mombasa, and the other half on the couch in Nairobi trying to recover from the first half.