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, May 28, 2010


This is why I need a vacation. At first when I saw the way this photo of rush hour in Nairobi turned out, I was pissed. I had hoped it would clearly depict how 5 different cars coming from four different directions were trying to nose into one tiny opening on a rain slicked roadway.

But this blurry image does an even better job of illustrating the madness of Nairobi's highways. It's time for a timeout, which is why I'm ripping this post off in the departure lounge of the KLM Flight 566 to Amsterdam.

I'm warily scanning the crowd. After last Christmas, just one false move, and a sister will SERIOUSLY drop a dime up in this joint. I don't need any more drama. Just wanna touch down on US soil in one piece.

Bye Bye, Nairobi! See ya in a month!

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Last Maasai Memory

Just got turned onto this AMAZING new album by Nas and Damian Marley! My office buddy Phil, this Kompletely Kool Kenyan Kid (well, I call him a Kid--he just turned 26, but he's 6 foot 5) who's an entertainment writer for the paper tries his level best to keeep me current about music, movies, culture, etc. In fact, he always seems to know more about what's hot in the US than I do.

I knew the name Nas because I'd read a few stories about his nas-ty divorce from singer Kelis, she of "Milkshake" fame. And of course, who doesn't know the name Marley? So when Phil told me to check out their new release "Distant Relatives," I figured it was a good bet. He took about 3 minutes to download it onto a flash drive for me, and then I took about 3 days to figure out how to download it into my iTunes library.

And then I took about 3 WEEKS to finally listen to it, just yesterday. And lemme tell you, it completely blew my mind! To try and boil it down, "Distant Relatives" is a neo-soulful, hip-hoppy collection of brilliantly written and arranged tunes that celebrate the triumphs and struggles of the sons and daughters of Africa and the diaspora. In simpler language, that Nas-Marley joynt is off the chain!

I'm considering it the soundtrack for my life over here, as a distant relative on temporary tour. I'm African, but not really. I'm American, but undeniably of African descent. My home is 8,000 miles away, but everybody here keeps wondering why I don't just stay. I'm of the same color, but not of the same mind. And yet the moments when I've felt most alive, and been most accepted over here, have been on the dance floor. It's like, when Kenyans see me dancing, they get it.

And it's just like this picture up top. You might look at it and see the beads and the spears and the cow's horn and think, "alien and strange." But look again, more closely this time.

This ain't nothin' but a Soul Train Line, y'all. If you don't know, you betta ASK somebody.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Graduation Day

How's this for a Graduation Group Shot? I bet these guys will never forget the crazy Black Mzungu Lady who crashed their Moran ceremony.

I know I'll never forget them.

Now, THAT'S a Fashion Statement!

This photo captures the biggest irony of being the only woman in a throng of Maasai men. While I was ooohing and ahhhhing over their glorious beaded necklaces, bracelets and headgear, they probably thought I was nuts for raving about things they consider as mundane and functional as the watch I wear every day. (Meanwhile, the whole time, I'm calculating how much I could charge for that stuff if I set up my own little import side hustle at Eastern Market in DC.)

But there was one piece of adornment I couldn't have begged, borrowed or paid every shilling in my wallet for. It was this Obama belt buckle, worn proudly and prominently by one of the young men, and it almost made me a bit misty-eyed. Just think, these young men reveling in an African forest have a closer link to President Barack Obama than I do.

Now, when it comes to fashion, this is what I call class, not trash.

Moran Memory 4

....and these. Especially check my young hottie in the forefront, the kid who kept jockin' me while holding the ginormous spear.

You know, the more I look at him, he's actually kinda cute!! Maybe the next time an African warrior prince checks me out, I won't worry so much about dying a bloody death and I'll listen to what he's actually trying to communicate to me.

Moran Memory 3

Just look at these amazing young faces.....

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

"Get a Grip, Girlfriend..."

You know, I stared at this picture a looong time before I could even bring myself to formulate an opinion.

Perhaps a week earlier, before I'd witnessed the pageantry of a Maasai Moran rite of passage, I might have just dismissed Venus Williams' French Open outfit as straight up tacky and completely unredeemable. I would have argued that no African American mother with good sense and more than a passing acquaintance with the Lord would sanction her daughter going out in public with her lacy drawers showing. I would have said it was inappropriate, completely devoid of class, and just plain ig'nint to wear something like this in a professional setting of any kind...unless there is a stripper pole or a red light in the vicinity.

But then I remembered that there's something in the African DNA that seems to lead many of us toward the colorful, the daring, and the flashy when it comes to fashion. I've lived in East Africa 3 years now, and traveled to 8 African countries so far, so I know that we tend to favor bright colors, fabric flourishes, and body-skimming creations. And I also know that most African women wear the hell out of those creations, and make their counterparts of European and Asian and Hispanic and any other descent look like timid nuns while they're doing it.

I've followed the Williams sisters since their careers began, and I've raved over their successes, and chastised them when they've "showed out," as my mama used to say. I've also frequently sided with them against what I believed were racist penalties and accusations. And when people have called them ugly and mannish merely because they are beautifully brown and superbly muscular, I've rushed to their defense. I KNOW what it's like to be dismissed and disregarded because of the color of your skin, no matter how much you've achieved. America simply still isn't ready to acknowledge the beauty of a dark-skinned woman of African descent, as is clearly demonstrated by some of the negative perceptions of Michelle Obama.

So I took all these things into consideration while staring at this photo of Venus Williams at the French Open. Sadly, I simply could not stifle the voice of Eloise Jones bellowing in the recesses of my mind. And here's what she was shouting:

"That child's outfit is outfit is straight-up tacky and completely unredeemable! No African American mother with good sense and more than a passing acquaintance with the Lord would sanction her daughter going out in public with her lacy drawers showing. That outfit is inappropriate, completely devoid of class, and it's just plain ig'nint to wear something like that in a professional setting of any kind....unless there is a stripper pole or a red light in the vicinity."

So it seems my first instinct was spot on, regardless of my deepening connection with my African aesthetic sensibilities! Venus, girlfriend, when it comes to fashion, you need to get a grip on more than that tennis racket.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Maasai Men CAN Jump!

I'll never forget the grace and enthusiasm and athleticism of these young morans as they danced and chanted and jumped. You could tell it was more than just a coming of age ritual. These young men moved to a higher level spiritually during this rite, and the jumping was their way of expressing their pride and joy at having made it through.

I almost felt like joining them, after thinking about how far I've come over the past decade. In those dark, brutal moments when you don't know if you even want to endure, what a gift it is to awaken to a new dawn with a new perspective on life.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

"I'm Just Sayin', Dawg," Part 19

This might not be the most appropriate photo I've ever posted, but hey, it's not every day you get to see a Maasai moran demonstrating how to use a condom.

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

Moran Memory 2

Standing in the forest clearing, in the center of a ring of red-haired, beaded warriors who were dancing and shouting, snapping away with my little pink camera, I just couldn't help thinking that 20 or 30 years ago, I would have been chased away from this scene...probably after I was beaten and worse.

The world is indeed changing, even if it feels incremental most days. After all, I was there doing a story about a program that teaches young Maasai males about the importance of good sexual and reproductive health practices. In most African cultures, that's considered a woman's business, and her only role in the family is to do as she's told, in the fields, the kitchen and the bedroom.

The program is trying to teach the guys about HIV prevention, the dangers of female genital mutilation and early pregnancy, among other things. In the larger scheme of things, it's a drop in the bucket, I suppose, but it's a start.

Moran Memory 1

After a harrowing 5 hour drive over a non-existent road into the Magadi forest, I half crawled out of the Land Cruiser and headed to an open clearing, where this was scene was unfolding.

Five minutes later, I had forgotten how exhausted and dusty and achy I was. I knew this was gonna be once in a lifetime stuff.

Warrior Pose

If I ever get my butt in gear and actually commit to yoga, I'll have this image to keep me inspired.

This is me and a Maasai Moran chillin' in the forest near Magadi, Kenya, during a rite of passage ceremony.

I think you could call this the ultimate "Warrior Pose," eh?

I'll post a few pictures from this recent road trip to underscore why I'm so eager to get my hands on a professional camera. Even though I do fairly good job with my pink point and shoot Fine Pix, I want to do justice to experiences like these.

Oh, I should say that this particular kid kinda took a shine to me. He kept charging at me and rushing away. The first time I froze, hoping the spear he was holding would at least pierce my heart and kill me instantly. But then I was told this is the Maasai mating ritual of sorts.

Hey, put him in a suit and some gators, and I'd at least think about it....

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Snap Judgement

I have spent the last 24 hours trying to recover from the prior 48.

Nearly 2 years after moving to Kenya, I realize that I've spent about 2/3rds of that time inside the Nairobi city limits. Sure, I've got a built-in excuse; as a woman traveling alone, it wouldn't be exactly prudent for me to go swanning around in the Kenyan bush trying to play Dora the Explorer.

To be blunt, I think my time in Northern Uganda kinda topped me off in terms of curiosity about rural Africa. Been there, done that, and really quite grateful to have survived. Plus, though my gig in theory requires me to do as much outreach as possible around the country, there's more than enough in Metro Nairobi to keep me occupied.

But when I decided to stay in Kenya for one more year, I realized I'd need to make more of an effort to broaden my horizons. Sadly, the picture above doesn't even begin to capture the extraordinary horizons I traveled over the past few days, accompanying a Daily Nation reporter on a story assignment about men and reproductive health. At first glance, this image probably looks like a bunch of trash or tufts of cotton floating on the surface of a pond. It's actually a picture of the famed Lake Magadi flamingoes, one of the top tourist attractions in Kenya.

Now, I'm not trying to totally diss my trusty little pink point and shoot Fine Pix camera. It has really served me admirably these past few years, and I've actually taught myself a lot about photo composition and lighting with it. But when it comes to images like this one, it simply ain't up to the challenge.

And when you see some of the next shots I'll be posting, you'll understand why I gotta get my hands on a grown-up girl camera ASAP. Hey, if I'm only gonna be living here another year, I wanna capture the real deal, as much as possible.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

"When The Student Is Ready, The Teachers Appear"

You know, I was so happy to see the two people sitting next to me in this shot, I didn't even mind it when Gloria proclaimed, "You have gained much weight! You must be very happy!"

I had to keep it in proper perspective. When Gloria and Sam first met me in Gulu back in 2007, I had only been living in Northern Uganda about a month. But between the stress of trying to set up a radio training facility, and gnawing on emaciated chickens whenever I was lucky enough to find one, I had probably already lost 10 pounds. Five months later, I had also lost my beloved sister Julie, and very nearly my will to live. By the time I left Gulu in February 2008, I had shrunken to my prehistoric, 1979 Size 4.

And of course, in African cultures, skinny means hungry, desperate and poor. Plump, meaty, and boob-y means prosperity. Based on the image above, I'm mighty damned prosperous, no matter what Bank of America says. Anyhoo, I digress. I've just gotten home after a lovely reunion with Sam and Gloria here in Nairobi, and I've probably never felt prouder of two people, or myself, in my entire life.

Back in 2007 Gulu, Sam was working as a news reporter at Choice FM in Gulu, and Gloria was a freelancer, based in Kampala and hustling for assignments wherever she could find them. But like many of the amazingly resourceful and earnest reporters I met in Uganda, they didn't have a clue about how to produce a radio feature story. During my time in Gulu, I was able to nurture, nudge, cajole and guide them toward doing just that, and it appears to have paid off wonderfully.

Sam eventually left Choice FM and now works as a feature writer for the Daily Monitor, which is owned by the same company I'm working with in Nairobi. Gloria is a features editor for the government-owned radio station in Kampala. Between raucous laughs and medicinal gulps of cold Tusker Malt tonight, these two wonderful people kept giving ME credit for what they've been able to accomplish. It was just so incredibly touching.

I mean, you couldn't wrap your mind around some of the hurdles most African journalists have to clear to practice their craft! Hell, before Sam walked into Choice FM and volunteered his services, he had been a soldier. A child soldier. I'm talking with the Lord's Resistance Army, folks. I interviewed him once for a story, and when I asked if he had been forced to kill anyone, he calmly replied, "Of course." Like I would say, "Of course I had to go to Google to track down this report I needed information from."

Gloria is married, has had some health challenges, and now has 2 children. All along, she's had to stand toe to toe with mostly male editors who thought she had no business being in a newsroom. I KNOW she's put up with the kind of severe harassment and abuse that would have sent me screeching all the way to the Supreme Court. I know she's had to reach deep inside herself for the courage and persistence to keep going, in ways I just can't fathom.

Like I said in the last post, I'd been feeling kind of "BLECH-y" in recent weeks, neither fish nor fowl, not sure where I belong or why I'm here. But while these two talented journalists were telling me how much I had taught them, they couldn't know what the real deal was. Two of my absolute favorite sayings of all time are:

"Through the fire, fine metal is made."

(That would be 8 months in Gulu, thank you very much.)

The other saying is,

"When the student is ready, the teacher appears."

Sam and Gloria think they're in Nairobi for a UNESCO training about peace and reconciliation in Northern Uganda. Nada. They came to lead me to a deeper understanding about myself and why I'm doing what I'm doing. I couldn't be more grateful if I were holding THREE cold Tusker Malts in this photo instead of just two.

Thanks for the memories, y'all.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Bouncing Back

Okay, I've spent the past week trying to think of a credibly creative excuse for why I haven't written anything since April 30th. Why I haven't even been motivated to force myself to write something lame. Why I've sort of breezed past a few queries about that silence, and why I've been low-energy and disaffected and detached about this blog.

It's not like things haven't been happening. For example, last week I went to Dar es Salaam to do a reporter training and had a great time. My friend Kelly is back in the Mamaland, this time redesigning a paper in Tanzania, and we had a brief blast over a couple of days before I had to come back to Nairobi. When I did get back, I got stuck in a 4 hour traffic jam in the rain coming home from the airport and almost lost my damn MIND from fatigue and frustration. Oh, and it's been cold and rainy and gray and dreary the past few weeks in this neck of Sub Saharan Africa, and I'm wearing socks to bed these days, and I'm feeling at loose ends, and frankly, I have not been feeling even remotely witty, insightful, or sharp.

But today, I finally got the inspiration I needed to connect fingers to keyboard. Ironically, it came from a source that may be related to my overall psychic ennui. While reading one of the local papers earlier, I came across a wiseass sports analogy about women. I'm probably forgetting quite a bit of it and paraphrasing the rest, but what it boiled down to is that an 18-year-old woman is like a football because she gets chased around by 22 men. A 28-year-old woman is like a basketball, because she gets chased by 10 men. A 38-year-old woman is like a golf ball, because she gets hit on by a 3 or 4 men at a time, but a 48 year-old-woman is like a ping pong ball, because she gets pushed back and forth between just two men, before falling off the table and likely getting stepped on.

Now, I'm not entirely humorless, even while in the throes of another patch of grueling hot flashes, so it was funny at first. And then it just wasn't, dammit. It was yet another reminder that no matter how you feel inside, or even might look on a day when you're rested and wearing something appropriately professional-yet-sexy, it's chronology that counts, especially in African cultures. So even when I think I'm looking fit and firm, a lot of people, both male and female, look at me and see "Past Prime" instead of "Grade A Prime."

What's worse, there's this one young woman in the newsroom who turned 30 a few months ago, and who makes a regular sport of commenting about my "elder status." We mostly joke around, have even hung out for drinks and dinner a couple times, and when she's not being obnoxious, she's a lot of fun. Never mind that a half dozen other folks have rushed to reassure me that she's joking...AND that she's actually wildly jealous of me, and my looks, and my brains, and my class. I've taught myself to brush her jibes off, but it can be a challenge at times.

Here's the thing: Even when you know you're not what people might be thinking you are, sometimes their verbal bollocks can't help seeping through your armour. Still, most of the time, even in Kenya, I'm certain I am NOT a withered old mama whose best years are decades behind her, dammit! Six days out of seven, I feel like my life is literally just beginning, and the best things in life...the best job, the best home, the best man, the best LIFE, are waiting for me just around the bend.

But here's the funniest thing of is mind-bendingly ironic that I'm sitting here in Kenya bracing myself against all sorts of perceptions and opinions about who I am as a 48-year-old, never-married woman, and what I'm capable of, when back in the States, a 50-year-old, never married, INSANELY qualified professional woman is starting to be put through the wringer about who she is and what she's capable of, largely because she never got married.

Seriously, I'm absolutely fascinated by all the debate about whether Supreme Court Justice nominee Elena Kagan is gay or not!! I guess I've been away from the US so long--and immersed in a deeply religious, traditional, 3rd world culture where there's no doubting that people are flabbergasted that I'm 48 with no husband and no kids--that it was just too easy to believe that America has gotten past that kind of narrow, ass-backward stereotyping of an accomplished, older single woman.

Okay, I know it's a lot more complicated than just being branded an Old Maid, which I've sort of processed and wrapped in purple tissue paper and stored away in a corner of my brain. Really, I've made my peace with it. I have. But this whole Kagan Kerfluffle has introduced a new element, one that has probably been fluttering through the old noggin without me being fully prepared to confront it.

For years now, I've joked about people back in my sleepy little Southern Illinois hometown suspecting that I'm a lesbian; it's just part of my shtick. But if I'm really, REALLY honest with myself, I've probably fallen back on the default mode of concluding, "Of course people know I'm not gay!! I have too many bizarre stories about tragically hilarious dates, and epic failures in online dating--all with bona fide members of the male gender! I've been in there pitching for the girl-boy team my whole damned life, and just because I've batted 0 for a 1000 so far doesn't mean I'm going through some inexorable metamorphosis where I'll eventually give up the charade and admit I want the pole position on the Double X Raceway!!!"

But based on everything I'm reading about Kagan and this whole process, I can't help concluding that because of my age and never-married status, a lot of people would conclude I'm gay. A lot of American people. And you know what? Given everything else I have to worry about, that ain't no thing but a chicken wing. What I am wondering about is why the Obama Administration is being so batshit evasive about Kagan's private life.

I mean, let's all be grownups here....the very fact that they're being really squirrelly about her personal demographics, and getting all publicly hinky about the asinine speculation--AND according to some sources, forbidding people from talking to her family--means that she probably is gay. Trust me, if she were just a 50-year-old never married, six cat-having Susan Boyle clone, the White House wouldn't have hesitated a minute to put all that out there for public consumption. And when I say that, I realize it probably sounds like the same sort of ham-fisted stereotyping I've been musing about.

It just adds up, that's all I'm saying. But here's the other thing: If you're gonna have the balls to nominate a lesbian to the Supreme Court, don't get all faint-hearted when the rubber meets the road. Because while you might think you're protecting her privacy, you're only further heightening the mindless demonization of being gay. Of COURSE her qualifications for the job shouldn't hinge on her sexuality in any way shape or form. But refusing to acknowledge it only makes it seem like some sort of disability that shouldn't be "held against her."

Now, I know this is a lot of self-righteous, fancy-pants pontificating from somebody who's been blissfully spared direct contact with the seriously warped American Obama Era Teabagging Coulter/Limbaugh/Palin/Beck-ish Zeitgeist--and the Good Lord KNOWS I am not trying to dump on My President and his policies. Basically, the First Brother can do no wrong in my eyes, so this is just a friendly long-distance critique from another stereotypable single woman of a certain age trying to do some complicated shit in a Krazy Kulture that thinks I'm a flippin' freak. Just consider me "out and proud" as a 48-year-old never-married straight woman who, when it gets right down to it, has also had to do her thing in spite of the cliches and the snickers about her pitifully unattached state, and has done a pretty damned good job of it.

If Elena Kagan had the guts to get where she did before all this confirmation tomfoolery, I suspect she can handle some people's narrow-minded, bullshit Witch-Hunt attitude about who she might or might not love. I oughta know. After all, I AM a 48-year-old single woman who has been batted back and forth a few times, and I may have fallen off a table or two, but I keep bouncing back, higher than ever before.