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

When I Think Of Home....

....thank GOD I don't have to think of this. I take so, so much for granted. Every time I go to Kibera and then return to the Oasis of Graciousness to peel out of my muddy, grubby shoes and jeans and into a hot shower, I am overwhelmed by a sense of profound good fortune. I'm also slightly guilty that I am just one woman living in peace and comfort, with more than enough room, when nearly a million people are crammed into squalid spaces like this one.

Especially a pretty little girl in a pretty yellow dress who who probably wonders why so many people walk by with cameras and tape recorders, and yet nothing ever changes. Still, I can't stop believing that while I'm on the Continent, it's worth my time and effort to keep going back to Kibera, when an opportunity arises.

Duly Corrected

No woman should EVER have to see herself from behind. And let's not even mention the burden of having photographic evidence of said horror. But I figure it's penance for making some mistakes in my recent posting about Rye Barcott.

I went back to Carolina for Kibera this afternoon, with a young freelancer named Sabina, hoping to help her develop a feature story about the program. I hadn't been there 10 minutes before Rye called me Princess Rachella, and said he'd read my blogpost!! (I should have known a guy like him would be techno-savvy and hook himself up to get an email alert anytime his name gets mentioned on the Web!!!) He seemed thrilled with it, had even emailed it to his wife and mom and God knows who else back home.

And he was gracious enough to wait until after thanking me before mentioning the errors. First, he only lived in Kibera for 5 weeks, instead of a year. (Guess I was just doing a bit of projecting. For me, one night in a room in Kibera by myself would feel like a year.) And Nurse Tabitha, who inspired Barcott's project, died in December of 2004, not in 2005.

Mea culpa. Can't go around mentoring journalists if I don't get it right myself.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Cereal-ly Bamboozled

In keeping with yesterday's food-related rant, I may have just spent $13.40 on two boxes of potentially fake-assed, "Sweep It Up Off The Factory Floor and Ship It to The Third World" breakfast cereal, and the more I think about it, the more it's pissing me off.

If, in theory, these boxes actually DO contained authentic Kellogg's Frosted Flakes (one of my favorite cereals from childhood--when we could afford it) and Honey Nut Cheerios (the only real way you can choke those puppies down is smothered in some kind of sweet substance), then why the &^%# don't they have the same name as the boxes in America??? Right off the bat, you're suspicious. What, did they run out of stencils and have to just call 'em "Frosties?" Or did the suits in Battle Creek think adding the words "Nut Cheerios" after "Honey" would be so daunting that anyone outside the US would avoid purchasing the scary alien foodstuff??

And speaking of purchasing, I guess what I paid is not far off from the cost of cereal on American soil these days. I remember back in 2007, before I left for Gulu, the only time I bought my beloved Raisin Bran Crunch was when it was on sale AND I'd snagged some coupons. After the way I grew up, the thought of spending 4 bucks on cereal was just morally repugnant. I can't imagine how much a top-of-the-line tooth-rotting breakfast treat costs back home lately.

Anyway, I'm almost afraid to open these wretchedly mocking parcels. But maybe now you finally understand the core of my existential expat trauma as I negotiate a hostile gastronomic terrain?? And I'll tell you this--If I just spent 7 dollars apiece on 2 boxes of styrofoam-tasting quasi-crap, there's gonna be a "Battle in Battle Creek" the next time I hit the Midwest, trust me.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Boom Boom POW!

That's the noise my heart made when I saw this small plastic bag in a local health food store this afternoon. I've made my peace with Kenyan cuisine these past 19 months, and try to satisfy my cravings for down-home African American soul food with hearty local fare. I've found a few places that serve really tasty Kenyan greens, or "sukuma wiki," and I've learned to tolerate the glutinous ground corn-based substance call "ugali." The savory stews of beef and chicken often hit the spot, and I've appeased my barbecue Jones with roasted goat or "nyama choma."

But you can't even buy the basic staples to try and perpetrate Dirty South cookin' over here. These were the first black-eyed peas I've seen since I got off the plane in June of 2008, and I felt my pulse racing as I grabbed the bag. It doesn't even matter that I'd never be able to find smoked neckbones or ham hocks to cook these bad boys with. Hell, I'm probably not even going to try and cook 'em. I just wanna to cradle them, lovingly.

Sigh. Can't wait to haul my ham hocks to Raleigh, Charlotte, Atlanta, N'awlins or Memphis, SOMEWHERE below the Mason Dixon, later this year. Y'all break out the Jiffy Cornbread, the Sweet Tea and the Red Velvet Cake, too! And the Mac and Cheese! And the Peach Cobbler! And Catfish Nuggets! And the Turnip-Mustard Green Medley, with a side of Collards! And do not even get me STARTED with the chitlins! I'll Make the Sweet Tater Pie myself!

"Dear Lord, please stop me before my ass needs its own Social Security Number....."

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

There's No Ham On Rye

I met the guy in the center of this photo this morning. It's an old picture, so Rye Barcott looks a bit different these days, rockin' a mustache and beard that add a few years to his clean-cut, baby-faced demeanor. Even so, I couldn't stop thinking that I'm old enough to be his mother.

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.

"I'm Just Sayin', Dawg"...Part 14


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

Youth Is Wasted On The Young

I usually make a valiant effort to avoid the innerworkings of Kenyan political and media drama. To be honest, it's too demoralizing. There's just too much I don't understand about the cultural and socio-economic imperatives at play. I can only use my American imperialist template to try and explain and assess, and that usually leaves me frustrated and sounding a bit too dismissive.

But this past week, I'm as guilty as the average Kenyan of being mesmerized by the fate of one Ms. Esther Arunga. The face above belongs to East Africa's modern day Helen of Troy, a young woman considered the epitome of Kenyan beauty, grace and sophistication. From the moment I landed in Nairobi, Esther Arunga's name was invoked as the hottest thing since pili pili pepper, the one woman that every man would do anything to have.

Until about a month ago, Esther was one of the most popular television newsreaders in the country, written about in every Who's Who column for being prettiest, best dressed, most desirable, etc. Many young girls wanted to grow up and be her, and her parents were bursting with pride over this glowing young jewel, who not only was a talented media darling but also held a law degree.

Yesterday, Esther Arunga was arrested, and today her face was plastered on the front page of a local newspaper. She didn't do anything illegal that we know of. If she's guilty of anything, it's of being criminally naive. You see, like millions of others before her, Esther appears to have succumbed to the lure of what's alleged to be a local cult, and has behaved in ways that startle even a seasoned, seen-most-of-it journalist like me.

I'll just hit the highlights for now. It seems that about a year ago, Esther moved in with this local jazz saxophonist who had started his own "Finger of God" church, and who claims to be a protege of American evangelical preacher Benny Hinn. He also allegedly encouraged her to quit her newsreader job because she wasn't being paid enough. (You know, that's the only part of this saga I can relate to. I'm positive that Esther not only wasn't being paid what her fame and persona are worth, she was probably getting a 3rd of what her male colleagues get.)

This twisted tale gets better. Esther also broke off her engagement with a guy whom she then claimed was a member of the Freemasons, and who planned to ritually sacrifice her on Valentine's Day. She announced her plans to run for Vice President in 2012, as a running mate to Mr. Saxophonist, and accused many local politicians and powerful leaders of being in league with Satan. And she publicly pledged her love for another guy who is alleged to have faked emails claiming that Benny Hinn had anointed him the 123rd most anointed human on the face of the planet, and that Pepsi Cola had dropped Tiger Woods as their spokesperson and was considering him as the replacement.

You can't make stuff like this up, people. Well, I suppose you could, but it wouldn't be nearly as bizarre. And I've only given you the bare bones. Honestly, I've found myself eager to get my hands on the morning paper to see what the latest installment will be. I also find myself praying that whatever happens, Esther will emerge from this story whole and healthy. My gut tells me she'll never, EVER be taken seriously again, and that makes me tremendously sad. From one woman of African descent to another, I know how hard she worked to be taken seriously, to be viewed as professional, talented, poised and confident. All that effort has been obliterated, thanks to a week's worth of media coverage.

Granted, I'll never know the full details of why Esther made some of the choices that led her to this place, but I'd be willing to bet that Mr Saxophonist saw his opportunity to latch onto a high-profile young woman's frustration and emerging sense of self worth, and he twisted it into something impulsive and self-destructive solely for his own benefit.

The good news is that as of today, Esther is out of jail. Whether her family and friends can get through to her remains to be seen, but the situation instantly reminded me of another reason I'm glad to be who I am and the age I am. I swear, just let some little bandy-legged musician even think about asking me to quit my job, move in with him and his wife, and start announcing my State House ambitions.

The only finger involved in that scenario would be my middle one, right after I recommended a radical new way for him to play his saxophone. And I think I'm speaking for grown-assed women around the globe when I say that.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

I Say Love, It Is a Flower, And You, Its Only Seed

As someone who spent the first 18 years of her life NOT celebrating holidays, I think I've finally figured out my general attitude about them. Bottom line? I can quite honestly take 'em or leave 'em. Oh, sure, I love opening gifts and quaffing adult beverages and eating myself comatose as much as the next person. But unless I'm around a critical mass of friends and family, holidays are no different than any other day for me. Oh, and here's another thing: any holiday created solely for the purpose of making you feel like a loser if you don't celebrate it exactly as scripted is just hype, and as I mentioned in the previous posting, I HATE HYPE.

Christmas and Thanksgiving are primarily about families getting together. Most people have families, or have cobbled together some semblance thereof. Sure, for Christmas some folks get absolutely possessed about spending money they don't have and trying to outdo their neighbors, so it's probably the most disgustingly commercialized orgy known to man. But at it's core, it's a time for families to get together and be grateful for another year together. Even if your family is completely deranged and the whole experience is a stressful psychodrama, at least you were together.

Now let us consider Valentine's Day. I guess it's safe to say that globally, most people have mates of some kind. It's hard to know the exact ratio, but it's probably a majority. Out of that mated group, maybe half are content in their relationships, not being mistreated, and are fully committed to staying together. The other half of that mated group are in varying degrees of confusion, frustration or apathy, and just haven't gotten around to ending it.

And then there are those of us who aren't mated up. At this time of year, no matter how successful, or content, or at least non-suicidal about that situation you might be, the first two weeks of February are patently designed to make you feel like a useless lump of phlegm. If you're a woman who doesn't own some red drawers and you don't get a dozen roses or a piece of jewelry, you're a reject. If you're a guy who hasn't arranged a romantic weekend getaway or fancy dinner reservation, and the only way you'll get your brains screwed out is if you pay for it, you're a heel. In short, if you're not celebrating Valentine's Day, in the classically approved Hallmark Card style manner, there is something very wrong with you.

Well, who does the day really benefit? Let's get back to that majority of people who have mates. Perhaps the day helps them show their appreciation in an extra special way. Who could object to that? And maybe for those who are unhappily mated, if the right gift or gesture is made on that day, maybe it can help get things back on track. But.....what if you choose the wrong gift, or one that's just tacky? What if you aren't sufficiently romantic and emotive on that day? Or what if you love the heck out of your partner, but simply forgot to get a gift, or mail a card, or make a dinner reservation, period? In short, what does the day really mean?

By this point, you may have concluded that this missive is just my way of rationalizing yet another Valentine's Day spent alone, and you'd be right. Thinking back, I've probably only actually celebrated it a handful of times. On balance, I've been remarkably adept at starting new relationships after February 14th, and making sure they ended well before the next one rolled around. During my longest relationship of about 3 years, the Hapless Haitian decreed during the first V-Day that he was philosophically opposed to it. I knew that just meant he was cheap as hell, but I didn't kick up a fuss about it. On the second V-Day, after we'd gotten engaged, I expected some romance, dammit.

When we got together at the end of that day (of course I'd made the effort to cook a great meal and buy scandalous lingerie!!!), I expected he'd at least show up with flowers. I think I shocked him by just how much I could pout after his empty-handed entrance...AND when I announced my sudden onset migraine. Homey ran out to Kroger's and bought a handful of scrawny-ass blooms, and came back with a sincere apology. After a few glasses of wine, the migraine disappeared and all was forgiven.

But another Valentine's Day stands out even more, and recalling it, I think it's why I'm writing this post. The guy I was dating was out of town on business, so I wasn't expecting any windswept romance, per se. A card, some flowers at the office, or even a phone call, would have sufficed. I got nuthin', and it hurt. But the next day, this huge bouquet of beautiful roses arrived. My office mates did the obligatory "oohs" and "ahhhs," but deep down I knew they were pitying me for my insensitive clod of a boyfriend. When he called later on, I remember being frosty as hell. Those roses might as well have been stinkweed mixed with poison ivy for all I cared. It was too little, too late, because I'd been robbed of the thrill of getting them on the actual holiday.

Flash forward a decade or so, and now I realize how petty I was being. Sure, it's important to make an effort in relationships, and remembering actual dates of things like anniversaries and birthdays can indicate that you care. Making sure that the flowers arrive on Feb. 14th instead of 15th can also mean you take things seriously. But is it a deal-breaker if you don't?

A few weeks ago, a 28 year old woman here in Nairobi told me she's holding out for the flowers, the candlelight and the romance in her search for a husband. Given how hard that was for me to find on American soil, I was fascinated hearing an African woman, in a culture where you're considered an ancient freak if you're still single after 25, say she intends to wait for that Knight in Shining Armor. I couldn't help playing devil's advocate. I asked her if she would reject a man who is strong, kind, loving, who wants her to bear his children, who's financially responsible, makes her laugh and is great in bed, but who thought roses and candy and candlelight dinners were a silly waste of time and money.

She didn't know how to answer, but I could almost see the tectonic plates shifting in her brain. I just know that young woman will start to view the search for a life partner a bit differently, in part because that question was posed by a 48 year old never-married woman! But I think she'll also start to consider that love and commitment can be expressed 365 days a year without a single flower being proffered. Your man can buy you roses til the cows come home, but will he be there during a job loss, or severe depression, or a terminal cancer diagnosis?

I think I'm pretty lucky, because at this point of my life, I've seen what true love looks like, and I'm 98 percent certain I'll recognize it when it's my turn. Besides, yesterday I bought myself 3 dozen perfect roses for 7 dollars!! After I move back to the US, I will long for the days when gorgeous flowers were so cheap and plentiful. And you know, I think I appreciate these roses so much more, because I truly know, admire, and accept the person they came from, flaws and all.

Happy Valentine's Day to me!

Saturday, February 13, 2010

"I'm Just Sayin', Dawg," Part 13

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.

I HATE HYPE. I hate commercially-manufactured excitement and enthusiasm. (But we'll talk about Valentine's Day tomorrow.) I hate feeling obligated to see a movie because if you don't, you'll seem tragically uncool. Just think, as absolutely manic and pressed for time as I was when I was back in the States during the holidays, I actually considered trying to see "Avatar" in an Imax theatre, just for the heightened street cred.

Anyway, I thought the movie was incredible. Awesome, even. It could have been about 30 minutes shorter, but still well worth my time. But during the screening, I keptwaiting for something overtly racist to happen that would offend me. I'd read all the online debate about the movie being one more tired example of white folks galloping to the rescue of helpless (blue) colored folks. Well, frankly, the Na'vi are the fiercest colored folks I've ever seen on screen, so it wasn't like they were meek little pawns.

Besides, these days, also based on what I read online, it seems like there's more racism in the US Congress than onscreen.

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

That Magic Moment

I had forgotten that my brother-in-law Ron scanned the photo of my fateful handshake with Nelson Mandela--that is until he emailed me the image. Of course, he also couldn't help raggin' me out a bit about not forgetting where I came from!

How could I? In fact, I have another picture from that day over here with me in Nairobi. It's of me and my sister Julie. She flew out to DC to attend the private Mandela event at the National Press Club with me. It was one of about a 100 times Julie visited me while I lived in Washington. We both look like stunned deer staring directly into the headlights. It was one of the most amazing moments of our lives. Neither one of us could believe that two gals from Cairo, Illinois were actually in the presence of one of the greatest freedom fighters the world has ever known.

I'll never forget this moment. Or the fun I had whenever Julie came to visit. OR where I come from.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

What a Difference 30 Years Makes

About 30 years ago, the subject of my 12th grade English paper was Apartheid in South Africa. It was appropriate, because I’d grown up under some of the finest racist segregation America had to offer. What I remember most was my prosaic teenage outrage over the fate of Nelson Mandela, and how incredibly unjust it was that he would probably die in prison.

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.

Sixteen years ago, I actually met Nelson Mandela. Well, at least I got to shake his hand. It
was at a private National Press Club Reception, where we weren’t supposed to bring cameras. Naturally I sneaked one in, and shoved it at the guy in front of me when it was my turn to stand next to him. If I had to leave my burning apartment with only one of my belongings, it would be that photo.

Four years ago, I stood in the Nelson Mandela Museum in Umtata, South Africa, drinking in the story of his life and struggle. Afterwards, the journalists’ group I was with got to drive past his home, and we were told he was there. It was almost as thrilling as the day I got to shake his hand.

Today, I am living on the same continent as Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela. I consider it an incredible privilege. After all, he was one of the first people to directly fuel my outrage over social injustice, and to give me a voice to weigh in on it. Mandela was also was my first link to the fate of Africans. Come to think of it, maybe he’s why I wound up over here doing what I’m doing in the first place.

Thank you for the inspiration, Madiba. And for a life that truly has been “well played.”

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

"Oh What A Beautiful Morning, Oh What a Beautiful Mzee..."

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 University of Nairobi. I saw him speak a few weeks ago at a debate about the status of Science and Technology in Kenya. 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 Nairobi. 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 President Kibaki. I think he’ll be able to help me get my project off the ground.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

What You Resist, Persists

I was thinking about that blogpost title yesterday, as I read a news item about slums in Kenya. It reminded me of my plaintive rant last week about visiting Kibera, one of the biggest slums anywhere. Re-reading that post, I realized it came from a deep well of frustration, even helplessness about the level of poverty in this, and many other African countries.

Yesterday's stats didn't help. It seems Kenya ranks among countries with the most slums in the world. In fact, 70 percent of urban dwellers in Kenya live in slums like Kibera. Nairobi alone has 160 of these "settlements," where about 55 percent of the city's 4 million residents live...or I guess I should say they exist.

To stay sane, I try to keep reminding myself of the Biblical reminder that the poor will always be amongst us, and maybe it's healthiest to just accept that a percentage of the world's population will always struggle and suffer. Or, maybe I should just do like so many other people have done, roll up my sleeves and help when and wherever I can, like so many folks are doing in Haiti at the moment. One person can't eliminate the problem, but if you're doing things that make you feel like you're easing the horror for just one person, maybe it helps you sleep better at night.

I'm still struggling to find the right formula for myself in that regard. But in the near term, I realize that instead of dreading the Kiberas of the world, I need to stop resisting the reality of urban Third World poverty--at least while I live in such close proximity to it. AND when I keep being drawn back to witness it. I'll be going back to Kibera later this week, and this afternoon I realized I was already clenching my jaws and tensing my muscles and steeling my nerves for the journey. I'll be visiting a radio station there, and eventually conducting a workshop for journalists.

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

Movin' On

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.

NOTE TO SELF: When the sign on your hotel bathroom mirror implores you to PLEASE don't drink the tap water, you probably shouldn't even brush your teeth with it. For the past couple years, after Gulu and Nairobi, I've considered my stomach fairly cauterized, because I haven't really had any major intestinal distress. But I'm pretty sure I just saw one of my kidneys swirling down the toilet bowl. The good news is there are a couple of pair of jeans in my closet that I'll probably be able to wear again this week.

But the short jaunt to the East Coast, for a town hall meeting for teenagers about HIV/AIDS and sex, helped clear my head of recent memory lane drama and got me refocused on the work for a minute. One thing I've learned since living in Kenya is that if you really want to get the most out of these kinds of discussions, you probably need separate groups for girls and boys. Kenya's coast is heavily Muslim, which makes it even more hard-core traditional and conservative than the rest of the country. That meant the boys dominated the discussion. I'd say only 3 girls out of a group of 40 teenagers even dared raise their hand. But it was a good session, and all you can do is hope some vital information got through to at least one young person.

Now I'm trying to regroup and get ready for next week. When not clutching my gut, I've been following some of the news about the epic snowstorm in the Mid-Atlantic (my favorite nickname so far: "snOMG 2010"). What is it: 6 or 7 feet so far in some places???? I'm feeling pretty lucky to have missed it--in a way. On the other hand, if I'd been there, I would have seriously tried to join some of the massive snowball fights that occurred all over DC. They sounded like wicked fun!

And I'm also kind of bracing for a potential nostalgia blizzard of my own, a sort of "Emo-mageddon" that might even rival "Snow-mageddon." You see, I just got another email from Denmark, from one of my online liaisons of a few years back. We never met in person, just phoned and emailed before losing touch. Now he just wants to know what I'm up to, and whether I've "found myself a good man yet."

Who knows--maybe the Universe is launching a "Old Skool Relationship Rewind Tour" for my benefit. Perhaps, if enough viable entries re-appear, I should consider poking over old embers to see if something sparks.....

NAAAAAAH! Onward, upward and forward.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Catalytic Converter

Man, when the Universe starts unloading blog post material, it's like, "WHOA! Let me at least catch my breath from the last one, already!"

If you will recall, last night's email stroll down memory lane left me in a bit of a tizzy. A man from my past, whom we shall simply refer to as "Mr. DeFlowers" and leave it at that, reached through the Internet Cyber Mists to say hello and find out what the heck is going on in my life. It was a completely innocuous exchange, and at least until the toxic blend of red wine and lemongrass and ginger vodka made me pass out, I spent a lot of time reminiscing about "The Way We Were."

At the moment, it didn't matter that I had dated him 23 years ago, before we were both even fully formed psycho-social beings, and that no promises were made, and no child custody battles ensued. It was "just one of those thangs." So why did his contact freak me out so badly?

I'm not entirely sure, other than it seemed to be yet another example of how other folks seem to be a lot more skilled at collecting meaningful life appendages than I am. Sure, I've got most people beat in terms of world travel, amazing experiences, and some impressive professional accomplishments. But for some reason, I seem incapable of bringing anybody along with me for the ride. And so when Mr. DeFlowers mentioned the wife and kid, I completely lost my shit for a minute. It was like, "What are you trying to do, rub it in?? Well, I hope you've aged really badly, and your wife is a dragon, and your spawn is entirely incapable of getting hooked on phonics!!! So THERE!!!!"

But then, after about 4 Advil Liqui-gels and the clear light of dawn, I awoke to discover something amazing had happened. It seems Mr. DeFlowers had also tracked down this blog. And read last night's posting. And it appears he's much more of a grownup than I am. Because instead of dismissing me as a bitter harpy, which would have been an entirely appropriate response, he sent me one of the loveliest emails I've ever received! I won't share the entire contents, but I will say that he started by saying I'm still one of the best writers he's ever read, and mentioning that he STILL keeps a few of the newspaper features columns I wrote in the late 80's. (Okay, that's either slightly stalk-y, or just plain sweet). He said knowing me had made him a better person, and that I had been one of the "great women of his life."

I'm actually kind of stunned. Not so much that he thought I was a great woman, but because he didn't rip me a new one for being such a bitch in last night's post. But I'm also reminded that he's the 5th guy in recent years who's reached out after a break-up to basically say I was one of the best things that had ever happened to them.

Clearly, there is still much work to be done for me to evoke that state of consciousness DURING MY ACTUAL RELATIONSHIPS. But wait.....I take that back. In hindsight, I think that mindset may have been part of the problem. With most of the guys I pursued, I was like a cheerleader O'D'ing on Red Bull, doing furious backflips trying to get them to prove that they cared. Maybe if I'd just relaxed and been myself, things would have been different. (In fact, maybe if I'd treated them like shit, they'd have slobbered at my feet...)

But that's just "Stinkin' Thinkin'," and I refuse to go there! As I told Mr. DeFlowers in my carefully considered email response, I'm ultimately very grateful to him for contacting me. Initially, I'd decided not to respond directly, but then I connected with my Better Angel, who is a hell of a lot more mature than I am. After all, I had at least indirectly put his business out there on the Internet, so why be a chicken about it now? So I sincerely thanked Mr. DeFlowers for what he'd expressed. I wished him well, praised the picture of his adorable little boy, and said he'd been one of my first great teachers.

(And NO, not just in THAT way!)

You see, he was the first guy to decisively demonstrate that trying to force someone to behave like they want to be with you is a sucker's game. As I explained, it took me two decades to fully grasp that lesson, but I'm happy to anounce that it's now emblazoned on my brain.

Meanwhile, I take no small amount of comfort in realizing that for quite a few guys, I was the ultimate "catalytic converter," the engine that propelled them to a higher level and perhaps even made them treat the next terrific woman they met with a lot more thoughtfulness and appreciation. For that heroic effort, there's gotta be some kinda Karmic green stamps coming my way real soon.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The Blast to End ALL Blasts

Okay, what would YOU do if the man you lost your virginity to at age 26 on a foldout single cot next to the deep freezer in the back room of his sister's house just sent you an email out of the blue with the subject line, "Blast From The Past" to tell you that you that he still has fond memories of you, and that you look just like the Jehovah's Witness lady he currently works with, and he's been married for ten years now and has a 6 year old son?

You'd do exactly what I'm doing, which is switching from red wine to lemongrass and ginger vodka shots. And you'd be damned glad you're still somewhat svelte and smokin' for a middle-aged perimenopausal spinster, and you'd picture him with a hideous paunch and a half-bald head and a fat-assed, surly wife who hasn't boinked him in 5 years and who makes his life a swirling nightmare of existential misery that will only end with the sweet release of DEATH.

Period, end of sentence.

But that's just me.

Nothing Really Matters, Anyone Can See

I'll admit I use the word "squalor" quite loosely since I began living in East Africa. It just seems to be a handy catch-all descriptor for some of the things you encounter in a developing country.

That probably sounds really elitist and snotty, so let me step back for a minute and try to regroup. You see, I spent part of this morning in Kibera, a place I've successfully found hundreds of reasons to avoid visiting over the past year or so. If I'd been of sounder mind and stronger resolve, I might have spent more time exploring one of the largest, most mind bogglingly poor slums on the African continent, looking for health-related stories or even ways that I could help personally.

But my first trip there, in August of 2008, disturbed me so profoundly, I've only been back one other time since this morning. And I've seen American slums, and Mexican slums, and Caribbean slums, and slums in 5 other African countries besides Kenya. But so far, nothing has gutted me like walking through Kibera. Or should I say tip-toeing through Kibera, praying with all your might that you won't trip over what scant broken pavement exists and fall face down into the mud mixed with sewage that lines every passageway.

A friend on Facebook just asked me to expand on my latest update, which described how sobered this morning's visit left me. I'll just repeat what I wrote to her:

"It's just so overwhelming, and heartbreaking. Imagine a scene from Mad Max's Thunderdome, and then add about a thousand rusted tin roofed shacks. Throw in several tons of garbage, and streams of raw sewage flowing through the unpaved, narrow pathways. Add many precious babies stumbling through those fetid streets, and fill the air with a stench that would bring you too your knees. Then before you go, toss in just a bucket full of abject hopelessness, neglect and despair. THAT'S Kibera, and even that doesn't quite capture it."

I can't recall the exact moment I started losing my nerve about these sorts of things, but I'm thinking it must have happened before that first Kibera visit. Probably in Gulu, which had its share of hard-core poverty and...well, squalor. I'll always remember picking through the piles of steaming garbage to get to the market, where slabs of freshly hacked cow and goat hung from stalls, covered with flies and dripping rank blood. And the filth, and the smell.....

I fought my way through 8 months of life in Gulu, even wound up appreciating the lesson it taught about what real poverty looked like. So I guess that's why I am just so utterly devastated by Kibera. Because a life-long liberal bunny-hugger like me has to believe that within every impossible social injustice, there's a lesson to be learned, a way to move forward, the slimmest chance at a solution, even if it's a long shot.

But Kibera just cuts you off at the knees. You can't explain it. You can't learn anything from it. You just want to get away, and if possible, never, ever return.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Next Chapter

Damn, my January blog post output was paltry! I mean, I know I can get distracted at times, but that was pitiful even for me!

Granted, there was some significant drama last month, what with the ankle incident and all. But I really don't think that was the problem. No, I've just been intensely preoccupied lately with next chapters. Not in books, but in lives. Well, in a life, anyway. My life.

You see, my Kenya stint ends in June. I've known this for a while now, but all of a sudden, that fact feels like equal parts gift and threat. All things considered, and especially after my recent New York/DC break, I'm extremely ready to return to America permanently. And yet........

I know some of you are shaking your heads right about now. You're also probably thinking, "Rachel, your problem is, you really don't know WHAT you want, and you're afraid of committing to anything." Well anyway, if YOU aren't thinking it, I'm thinking it about myself.

Usually during the wee small hours of the night when Insomnia clasps me in its loveless embrace, I spend a lot of fevered monkey-mind moments wondering just exactly what I have to return home to. (Besides lots of people who love me and would be very happy to see me, which is nothing to sneeze at, of course.) But at this point in my life, what kind of--for want of a better term--"Life Structures" will I be returning to? After all, I don't own a house or apartment. I don't have a job waiting for me. I don't have a husband, boyfriend, potential mate, or even a smoldering crush in the wings. I'd be returning to...


I've started the process of sorting that out, employment-wise, which is good. But a funny thing happened today, and it sparked an evocative end to my recent case of blogger's block. I was talking to an American acquaintance who's married to a Kenyan man about the new constitution that's being drafted here now. Surprisingly, under current law, being married to a Kenyan does not confer automatic citizenship, or even the chance at getting citizenship someday. As it stands now, you simply can't become a Kenyan citizen. Even your kids have to eventually declare one citizenship or another...they can't be both Kenyan and American.

The new constitution may change that. Near the end of that discussion, I startled myself by saying, without the slightest bit of hesitation or irony, "I gotta find myself a Kenyan man to marry." Well, my acquaintance laughed and automatically committed herself to the task at hand. Since I'd started the whole schmear, I played along as she explored my requirements for a potential mate: Age, educational background, professional status, etc.

Oh, we both acknowledged my challenges. At age 48, it'll be hard to find an African man of my era who isn't already married with grown kids and grandkids. Or if he's divorced or widowed, he's probably considering having another set of kids, and is looking for a woman at least 20 years younger than me. Still, I get the feeling this woman might actually line me up a few Kenyan prospects before my stint ends.

Anyway, I've been thinking about my impulsive declaration ever since. What made me affirm I wanted a Kenyan husband? Back in the States, most of the guys I dated were white. Besides, even during the height of my online dating obsession, I rarely vocalized a desire for a husband, per se. Over the past decade or so, prior to living in East Africa, I'd have been quite satisfied with a committed long term relationship, with a man who was as devoted to me as I was to him. While I suppose subconsciously that could have meant I wanted a wedding ceremony, marriage was never really as top of mind as the emotional and intellectual connection I craved.

Now, I've gone on record as saying I simply haven't been overly attracted to Kenyan men. Oh, there've been a few crushes, even an intense one, for that matter which recently died on the vine. But on the whole, there are just too many cultural hurdles to clear, and I'm not as emotionally spry as I used to be. I've lived alone far too long to contemplate making the adjustments, concessions, and alterations to my independent psyche required to tackle African cultural norms about a woman's role in marriage. And yet....

With only about 5 more months to go in Nairobi, what on EARTH made me say I wanted to marry a Kenyan?? Was it just sheer vulnerability, the fear of being greeted in America by.....nothing? And given my slightly dated packaging, am I finally ready to do whatever it takes to snare myself a husband? Furthermore, am I considering the possibility of feeling more protected by being with a man who would expect to rule the roost? After all, I've been making all my own decisions, rightly and wrongly, for the past 3 decades or so. Wouldn't it be just the teensiest relief to defer that process to somebody else, within a cultural framework that demands it?

"In other words, have I lost my damn mind???"

I don't know. On the one hand, I guess it's a good thing that I can still surprise myself in relationship matters. Trust me, it would be very easy to give up on the whole marriage thing at this point, for a lot of reasons. But as I become more consumed by figuring out what the heck my next life chapter will be, I'm kinda happy I'm considering more than just another resume entry. Wonder of wonders, after all these years, I'm finally starting to envision a much more fully rounded plotline.