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.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Free to Be Me

So August is almost over, but I finally got to see my rainbow. Sasha Obama embodies the spirit I hope to carry through the rest of my life. Baby girl is still a child herself, and yet somehow managed to unleash the ultimate Inner Child in this pose, in her typical bold, adorable Sasha-esque fashion.

This was Julie's spirit, too. Stubbornly willful, impish, lively, playful, vivacious. Girlfriend definitely knew how to work it. I'd like to think I do, too.

Monday, August 30, 2010

A Stitch in Time

As usual, I just spent the past week in Rwanda so busy running around, I didn't get to write about it! The main event was a reporting workshop sponsored by the US Embassy, and once again, I have to say I always wind up learning more than I could ever teach, and being inspired by the people I meet.

Rwanda remains a really fascinating place. Very much an East African vibe, but I think what most outsiders can't grasp is that most people there are still very palpably affected by the 1994 Genocide. Literally, the overwhelming majority of the adult population has vivid, often devastating memories of the brutality. Most people lost multiple family members. Most people remember the rivers of blood and often witnessed the horrors.

Like this 19 year old genocide orphan. She landed a spot in a training and leadership program for young women, and she's learning the tailoring trade. Now, since I can't speak Kinyarwanda, I couldn't understand her responses to the journalists' questions, but you didn't need a translator to recognize the dedication she's developing in her craft.

I had to wonder if maybe she remembers what happened when she was three. I had to wonder if maybe those memories haunt her at times, keep her awake, fill her quiet moments with pain and loss. Just like the man who's interviewing her. It was only on the last day of the workshop that he told me that both of his parents, his 4 brothers and 2 sisters were all slaughtered. He escaped death only because he was studying English in Uganda during those hellish months in 1994.

So how do you keep it together? How do you trace a pattern for your future. when most of the major players have already been cut away?

If I travel to Rwanda 100 more times, I'll never understand how people keep on moving. It's just the most astonishing thing I've ever witnessed.

Kickin' Kilos to the Kurb in Kigali

This is why rich people are rarely fat and sluggish and unmotivated.

It's the view from the treadmill at the Kigali Serena Hotel's Maisha Spa. I'm familiar with the Serena Hotel spas in Kampala and Nairobi, but the only time I've actually stayed in a room has been in Kigali, during last year's US Embassy Reporting Workshop and this time around.

Last year, half the property was under major renovation, and the pool was closed off. Post-construction, this is the view from the treadmills, and I found myself so inspired, I worked out 4 times during the past week.

I HAD to. I'm starting to understand why the salesgirl in Kisumu picked out a pair of XXL jeans for me to try on. I would love to say I'm embracing my curves, but basically, I'm just dreading the daily ritual of wrassling my way into a pair of unforgiving Spanx. I know it's payback for all the times I laughed myself silly in disbelief at all the medieval girdles my mother used to buy, but there you have it.

Besides, I also knew I was headed to the hike of a lifetime on the weekend, and I needed to keep up the momentum I launched on August 1st, when I rejoined my local Nairobi gym. And man, am I ever glad I did.

Strike A Pose

Let me be clear: the fuzzy image in the background of this shot is an extremely large Silverback gorilla, in the Ruhengeri mountains of Northern Rwanda. He is about 20 feet behind me, and I and 7 British tourists had just spent about an hour hiking at high speed through rough terrain to catch a glimpse of Homey G and his crew.

Naturally, I shoved my new Grown-Up Girl Canon 550D camera at our tracker guide, to obtain the obligatory souvenir photo of my once- in-a-lifetime Rwandan Gorilla Trek. I mean, who wouldn't want a totally kewl shot like that?


For the first time in my life, I seriously acknowledge and appreciate the value of adult diapers.

This is the shot of the tracker guide telling me to stay completely still, because the Ginormous Silverback Gorilla was heading directly towards me. We had all been warned not to panic if that happened. We had even been advised to seriously search our souls, and if we thought we wouldn't be able to deal with being near a mammoth specimen of monkey-type might, we probably shouldn't go on the hike.

I guess Life has spent the past 7 years preparing me for this kind of situation. I've been overtaken by things far more scary than this gorilla. So I just stood up, tried not to notice that even on all fours, that gorilla was almost as tall as me, and held my breath until he loped past. Now, if he had stopped and looked at me, or touched me in any way, I would not be alive to write this posting. My heart would have stopped dead cold, of that I'm certain.

So, in the safe, comfortable hindsight view from my couch at the Oasis of Graciousness, I can wax nostalgic about how thrilling and exciting my Saturday morning jaunt was. And I'd encourage anybody to try it. Just make sure you're packin' some serious Pampers, for realz.

Rachelle et Gorille

Fortunately, I did manage to compose myself and get the tracker to capture this image, from a slightly safer distance.

You know, one of the security guards at the U.S. Embassy gave me the Kinyarwandan name "Mahirwe" (Mah-HEAR-way) on the last day. It means "lucky." So, when I add it to other names I've been given since traveling in East Africa, my full name is "Rahel Vuyanzi Nyaboke Mahirwe Nyaguthii," which means "Rachel Joyous Sweet as Honey Lucky Traveler."

And considering that I didn't get my head yanked off by Magilla Gorilla, I think that's pretty appropriate.

"I'm just Sayin', Dawg," Part 23"

Here's all I have to say about Rwandan President Paul Kagame: he needs to come over here to Kenya and be President for about 6 months. Sweet Lord Jesus, that's all I'd ask of him.

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

Sunday, August 22, 2010

"I'm a Rwand-erer..."

As I was filling out this month's Immigration card at JKIA, these lyrics ran through my head...

"I'm the type of gal that likes to roam around, I'm never in one place, I roam from town to town..."

Of course, the rest of Dion's 1961 song is about all the different girls he meets and vanquishes along the way. Sadly, that old-assed ditty is completely out of line with today's realities. The 2010 version would have to end with Dion's plaintive description of his strict compliance with daily ARV's if he was screwing around that way.

And yes, I DO realize when I call it an old-assed song that it was written the year I was born. But hey, I'm still a pretty hot tamale, filled with the energy and drive to explore the world. Especially the East African Region. Let's see, last month it was Kampala, last week, Kisumu and Kakamega, this week Kigali, and on Sept. 2nd, Kilifi.

You know, when I'm not focusing on what I don't have, I realize I'm an extremely lucky person. Just think, two weeks ago I witnessed a peaceful, historic election in Kenya, and today I'm traveling next door to Rwanda, where another globally-scrutinized election took place. Basically, I've had a mezzanine seat to history since I plopped down in Gulu 3 years ago. After all, it was just a year after the peace treaty between the Lord's Resistance Army and the Ugandan Government had been signed, and things could have gone either way during my 7 months there.

Yeah, I'm a wanderer. Or considering where I'm headed today, I'm a "Rwand-erer." And somehow, I can't escape the feeling that I'm here for a reason. Hopefully, it'll involve bundles of cash and my Divine Right Partner, but even if neither of those things happen, DANG, it's a hell of a ride!!

Thursday, August 19, 2010

"This Little Light of Mine...."

I think I've written before that the only formal religious affiliation I've ever pursued was with the Unity Church. Though I haven't attended one in years, when I did, I always felt spiritually fed, not clobbered.

After breaking free from Jehovah's Witness doctrine in my teens, I did some pretty thorough religious exploration. LOVED African American sermons and music, but couldn't stomach the calls to salvation and unvarnished threats of eternal hellfire at the end of service. Unitarianism was intellectually appealing, but I just couldn't get past the service led by a Wiccan. (I believe in religious freedom, but just don't want to be standing too close to a witch if it turns out God really doesn't play THAT -ish). Catholicism is just too danged solemn and ritualized, which is ultimately the LEAST of its problems.....

Y'all feel me on this, right??? So when somebody handed me a copy of the "Daily Word" years ago, and I was mostly uplifted after reading it, I decided to dig a bit deeper. Now, I know I'm wildly simplifying Unity's tenets, but here's what I came away with after a few sermons: With Unity, you believe in a Higher Power called God, but you also believe that the same energy dwelling in that Higher Power exists in YOU. And you don't go around threatening people with damnation to get that point across.

I liked that. A lot. I especially liked the song they sang at the end of the service.
"The Light of God surrounds us. The Love of God enfolds us. The Power of God protects us. The Presence of God watches over us. Wherever we are, God Is, and all is well. And THAT'S the Truth!"

So it might have been preordained that a woman named Ellen just provided me with the correct interpretation of my sister Julie's Celestial 60th birthday message to me. Ellen used to be one of my editors in the Clearwater bureau of the St. Petersburg Times, back in the mid 80's. But now she's the pastor of a Unity Church in Texas. She read my Tuesday posting and sent this message...

"Rachel! Julie wasn't giving you a man, she was giving you backbone! Her gift was that you didn't take crap from anyone that day. A pretty good gift, if you ask me."

August 18, 2010 7:43 PM

Ellen, for the first time in my life, I would seriously consider moving to Texas, just to be a member of your church! In one brilliant flash of enlightenment, you've reminded me that the Archangel Julie's spirit is always all around me, and I don't need a rainbow to prove it.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

"And THEN, To Top It ALL Off......."

....So I'm standing in a dressing room in a Kisumu clothing shop waiting for the sales girl to bring me a larger size of jeans. You know how it is, when you're shopping in foreign countries and you can't quite do the math on sizing.

For example, I'm a 44/46 in Italian clothing, depending on how it's cut. Which makes me about a 10/12 in US sizes. (Not to be defensive or anything, but I'm fine with that...I like a little meat on my own bones.) Anyway, I grabbed a couple pair of jeans, size 44, just to give 'em a try. Having left my can of Crisco at home, those suckers didn't get much past my knees. Fortunately, the polite young clerk rushed to my aid when I asked for them in larger sizes, draping the articles over the top of the curtain rod.

Clearly, she mistook me for the ballet-dancing elephant from "Fantasia."

So, this year's bout of August Blues is "fleshing" out quite nicely!

"Any day now, Archangel.....I'm still waiting for that sign......"

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

"Seriously, Julie? SERIOUSLY?????"

Though I'm loathe to admit it, the above picture closely resembled my facial expression throughout most of today.

Just think...yesterday, I was waxin' all poetic about today being my late sister Julie's 60th birthday, and how much I missed her, while waiting to board a plane to Western Kenya. Well, I spent most of
today bouncing across the rain-slicked rutted roads of Bungoma District in a wildly backfiring RAV 4, desperately praying I wouldn't be seeing Julie again before sunset.

The day had started off weirdly enough. Now, I am in no way, shape or form a morning person, so having spent another mostly sleepless night huddling under my thousandth dingy mosquito net that only served to provide a breezy canopy for the greedy little bastards while they feasted on my flesh, my phone rang at 6:45 AM. After my strangled "hello," a lilting Kenyan male voice wished me a "Good morning, Rachel." At first I thought it was someone in the group I'd checked into the hotel with, but this dude said his name was Michael, and he'd met me at some conference in Nairobi.

Maybe the line was bad, or my ears were clogged, but he said the name of said conference
3 times and I still didn't know WTF he was talking about!! He kept on being relentlessly cheery until it occurred to me that unless you are fine as HELL and lying right next to me, you ain't got no danged business playin' on my phone at 6:45 AM. And I told him as much. I was all, like, "Dude, unless you can provide a bit more info, I gotsta go." It suddenly dawned on him that his prospects for a dawn booty call were fading fast, and he muttered something about calling later. Although the way I'm sure my voice sounded, I'll never hear from Homey again.

In other words, I was channeling Miss Julie. That woman could take on the crispest, iciest, bluntest tone that would fall on your ears so hard, you'd wind up with a closed head injury! People have told me for years that I sound exactly like her, and I think it's most true when I'm tired or just seriously not amused.

Anyway, I spent most of the
rest of the day wondering if I had just rebuffed my only chance of catching a case of Jungle Fever during my remaining time in Kenya. That is, when my brain wasn't being jarred from its moorings in the back of that RAV 4, while some chromosome-missing mofo gunned the sputtering motor on that god-forsaken hoopty. After stifling a few screams, I finally queried the dimwitted driver about the safety of speeding in driving rain in a vehicle that sounded like it was about to explode. As the only woman in the conveyance, my question was quickly dismissed with a side of laughter all around.

Enter Julie, Stage Left.... "Frankly, I don't see what the hell is so funny." Dead silence followed, as those men contemplated cutting my tongue out before or after pushing me out of the moving vehicle. Quite frequently, I suspect that even the most evolved Kenyan men are stunned when a woman speaks without permission, or expresses any kind of opinion. But the way I felt at that moment, for 10 cents I would have given everybody in that ride a DC style beatdown before they ever got ahold of me.

Anyway, I'm safely back in my hotel room, bracing myself for another night as a blood donor, and I can't deny that I'm considerably miffed. I mean, come
ON, Winky!!! Where's my birthday sign from you that you're okay and I'm okay, and that things will only get better?? That love still swirls around me, and that the best of life is out there for the taking???

SNAP...maybe Mr. 6:45 AM was your sign!! Maybe you were serving me up a hot hunk o' Mandingo meat, and I basically pissed it away with my bitchy attitude!

"I mean, seriously, Julie?
SERIOUSLY?? Did you run out of rainbows or something???"

Monday, August 16, 2010

"Will You Still Need Me, Will You Still Feed Me, When I'm...."

No two ways about it. August will probably be the toughest month for me for the rest of my life. Lots going on. Estranged younger sister Rebecca's birthday is August 1st. 'Nuff said. Father Lewis's birthday is the 7th; he died on the 14th. And this year, of all years to have to endure the August Blues, when Nairobi has recorded its "coldest" winter in decades, my eldest sister Julie would have turned 60 years old tomorrow.

Seriously, I didn't intend to let it wallop me. Truth be told, there's been so much travel and work and other assorted activity going on these past few weeks, I wasn't even aware that it had gobsmacked me until this morning, when a calendar declared it was August 16th. If Julie was alive today, I'd probably be in Hawaii, or somewhere else she really loved. I'd have begged, borrowed or stole to make tomorrow one of the best birthdays of her life. Even though her energy and life force would have made it hard to believe she was actually 60, I would have orchestrated the biggest BIG 6-0 blowout in recorded history.

But then, just this morning, I thought of an even bigger gift I could have given her, one she would have cherished more than a week at a Maui resort or a piece of her beloved spangly jewelry. For some reason, this morning I was focusing on the fact that she was really pushing hard there toward the end for me to have a kid. While I still had fully-functioning, "set your clock by 'em" ovaries, just before I turned 40, she had even started to relax her rather rigid moral code about out of wedlock birth. She just wanted relatively unfettered access to a child she could spoil beyond human comprehension. When my menopausal symptoms kicked in a few years later, and Julie actually witnessed the horrific flop sweats and depressive episodes, she started gently suggesting adoption.

More than the actual presence of a child, I think Julie just wanted to see me settled. With a family of my own. I don't know, I suspect maybe she just wanted to hand off the baton! She knew I considered her heart my home, and that no matter how far I traveled or how low I may have fallen, I'd always have a home wherever she lived.

DAMMIT!!!!! I am not going to let this devolve into a maudlin, self-indulgent pity post! Instead, I'm choosing to remember the goofy times, and we had plenty. Like in this picture. Clearly, this was back before I knew I had a killer smile. Or more to the point, before I even really knew how to smile. It was right before my Junior Prom, when Julie and Ron were my "dates." And while I awkwardly bared my grill for the camera that night, I was probably very hopeful that the lime green polyester dress I'd borrowed from Julie would magically transform me into an irresistible "Chocolate Cinderella," and the captain of the basketball team would ask me to dance, clasping me in a swoony embrace, and he would hungrily kiss my upturned lips and we would fall in love and we would live happily ever after.

But we all know there ain't no happily ever after, as was evidenced by the fact that several hours after that picture was taken, I found myself as part of a Soul Train line of sorts consisting of me and every teacher at Cairo High, without a randy teenaged male humanoid in sight. No, in this life, there's just living from strength to strength, and that's only if you're lucky. And if that strength includes somebody to hold your hand through the tough stuff, then that's better than any golden carriage and 4 white horses.

That said, I still miss my sister Julie. Insanely so. And at some point tomorrow, I hope she sends me a sign that turning 60 in Heaven is just as cool as the party I would have thrown for her. If nothing else, I just hope she sends me something to really smile about.

Friday, August 6, 2010

"I'm Just Sayin', Dawg...." Part 23

Is it just me, or am I making too much out of the fact that Kenya's successful, peaceful vote for a new Constitution occurred on President Barack H. Obama's birthday?????

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

Thursday, August 5, 2010

"Die, Ugly American, Die!"

You know, I was starting to think that besides a handful of relatives and friends who've been faithfully following this blog, my most loyal fans are a bunch of Taiwanese call girls.

Hear me out. I'm not exactly a borderline fame whore, or anything. I don't need to know that hundreds of people are reading this blog to motivate me to keep writing. I've said it often enough: this exercise is my personal, highly affordable mental health regimen. If I didn't do some regular purging during this era of my life, I'd go starkers, for realz. I'm writing more for myself than I EVER could for my readers.

That said, I've noticed a recent, disturbing trend. At the bottom of each posting there's an option for leaving comments. During the first year or so, the main person who left comments was my brother-in-law Ron, usually after I'd written a column about my late sister Julie. Since then, some of my friends have chimed in occasionally, or a few strangers who've stumbled across it and left a kind word, but nothing very consistent. However, over the past few months, I've started noticing 1, 2, or 3 comments at the end of quite a few posts. accumulating a few days after they went up. I'd eagerly click on the items, only to notice they consisted entirely of Asian language characters. And then when I clicked on the embedded link...

That's right, you guessed it! Ads for Asian call girls. So now I have to check every day to see if some chick named Mai Shen is commenting so I can hit "delete." It's rather a humbling experience. And I was about to do it again this morning, to a comment on the bottom of yesterday's posting, when I decided I'd better read it first, just to make sure.

I'm so glad I did! It was written by a Kenyan woman, born and raised in Nairobi, but now living in the U.S., on the "Left Coast." Her main reason for writing was to set me straight about how I'd translated the term "pole" in yesterday's post. Apparently, instead of meaning "Sorry," it's an expression of empathy that roughly means, "I feel your pain." She said the Swahili word for "sorry" is "samahani."

"Samahani, girlfriend!" I was actually really grateful for this correction, but then I got
to the gist of her comment. As an occasional reader of the blog who appreciates some of my foreigner's insights about Kenya, she wanted to know, "Why are your views of your current host country (and continent) frequently laced with condescension?"

Now THAT stung! For a minute anyway. And then I re-read yesterday's post. For the most part, it was sincere expression of support and enthusiasm about the vote for a new Kenyan Constitution, but then there was the line about me being a "tourist taking photos of the natives" during a rock-throwing incident back in January. And the section where I rebuked Kenyans for basically being nice to me when something goes wrong (cringe). Reading that on a screen isn't the same as seeing and hearing me say it, with all the irony, sarcasm and eye-rolling I can muster. If you don't know me, I can definitely see how it would come across as condescending. And because I don't expect my Kenyan-in-America reader to closely scrutinize three years worth of my postings to develop a better overall understanding of my psyche, I had to honor her perception.

She doesn't realize that I was weaned on the withered teat of bitter irony, and that sarcasm is my life's blood. She doesn't know that in about 70 percent of all my interactions, I lead with cynicism. She doesn't know that one of the mainstays of my sanity is my ability to laugh at just about every foible Fate visits upon me, but that over time, that behavior causes you develop a significant emotional callus, which if you're a writer, renders you increasingly insensitive to how other people interpret your musings. You're totally focused on going for the satirical "kill."

So I'm offering this posting to that Kenyan reader on the US Left Coast as a "mea culpa." I've probably been condescending more times than I'd be comfortable admitting, and had more of my witticisms fall flat than I care to consider. But while I'm acknowledging those things, I also need to explain what's fueling some of those seemingly elitist critiques. Basically, I've concluded that EVERYBODY thinks where they come from is better than where they are, in some way, shape or form. Even if it's only in one way, at some point nostalgia for home tends to influence your perceptions of where you are.

That probably sounds really strange coming from an American, because everybody else in the world thinks every American arrogantly thinks America is the best place in the world, and that everybody else in the world would rather live in America than where they're originally from. (I HOPE that made sense...) But I had a real eye opening experience when I was back in the US in June. I spent an evening with four Kenyan women, laughing, joking and sharing stories. And then at one point, one of the women started talking about Black American "soul food," and how greasy and unpalatable it was, and how she missed having ready access to Kenyan food. Another woman mentioned some insidiously stoopid cable program about teen pregnancy, and issued a blanket condemnation of American culture for glorifying it, adding that this would NEVER happen in Kenya.

I sat there quietly as these women opined about the superiority of Kenyan culture, religious values and social mores, and somehow managed to keep the snark at bay. I didn't invoke female genital mutilation at age 8, or early marriage at age 12 to some 50 year old with 3 other wives, as being a wee bit more problematic than teen pregnancy. I didn't mention the rapacious political corruption that locks more than half of the Kenyan population in poverty. And I didn't mention the green, starchy glop with maize kernels in it that is a staple of the Kenyan diet, and which I would rather eat stewed pig intestines any day than consume.

I didn't mention any of that because I knew exactly how those women feel. Even though most of them had lived in the US for years, they were still Kenyan, and proudly so. And they didn't consider the fact that slamming American culture in front of an American might be condescending. They weren't going out of their way to be mean or to look down on me. They were expressing their opinion from a wellspring of identity so deep, it trumped the personal nationalistic sensitivities of anybody who might be listening.

Now, I don't share this as a way to cover my ass, or to deflect responsibility for how I express myself. I think going forward, I WILL be more mindful about whether I'm being patronizing about some aspect of life in Kenya, or in any of the African countries I'm privileged to explore. I want to sincerely thank Ms. Left Coast Reader for that wake-up call. It's just that when you get right down to it, I consider myself a daughter of Africa, whether I'm viewed that way by the people in a particular country or not.

Or maybe a niece of Africa. Or a second cousin. Whatever, you get my point!


The Kenyan People have spoken, loudly, and clearly. And this is very cool. Onward...

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Come "Yea" or "Nay"

It takes a lot for a woman like me to admit to being a snivelling coward, so I need you to promise you'll give me credit for that before I continue.

.....Okay, I'm assuming you've given me that credit, so it's safe for me to admit that I've spent the entire day in my apartment in Suburban Nairobi, while the entire country of Kenya is experiencing one of the most profound moments in its history. Instead of wandering the streets and soaking up the atmosphere on this day when millions of Kenyans are voting for a new Constitution, I'm at home performing my expat elections monitoring in front of the TV.

You see, it all started with a chunk of concrete that came hurtling through the sky and almost shattered my ankle back in January. I alluded to it in a few posts back then, but never fully disclosed the extent of my injury. It happened when my curiosity got the best of me, and I went outside the newsroom at Nation Centre to witness a rock throwing quasi-riot between Muslim protesters and Christian passersby. Decades of journalism training emboldened me, and I wanted to experience it first-hand, instead of observing it from 4 floors up.

When the missile connected with my ankle, I felt like Boo Boo the Fool, clutching the BlackBerry I'd been using to try and capture some of the images. The pain was searing, but even then it hurt less than my embarrassment at being the lone "tourist" snapping pictures of the natives. I had no business being out there and no use for any pictures of the event, and to top it all off, I wound up injured. I'll never forget how two men rushed to my aid and half carried me back behind one of the pillars in front of Nation Centre. And while one guy rubbed my ankle, the other kept saying, "Pole, pole" (Kiswahili for "Sorry, Sorry.')

That's one thing I'll never get used to over here. People always apologize profusely for things they aren't responsible for! If you trip and drop your handbag, five people will yell "Pole, pole." Break a fingernail and the woman next to you will go, "Oh, sorry, sorry." One day I wore a bandage over a small cut, and while I was waiting in line at the currency exchange, the guard asked me if I'd hurt myself. When I told him what happened, he said, "Oh, pole sana, madame." (Very sorry.) I literally had to stop myself from reprimanding him about apologizing for my clumsiness!

Anyway, that was just an aside to keep from addressing the main issue of this posting, which is that instead of soaking up the historic flavor of today's vote, I'm soaking up coffee and the electronic glow of my television set. In one sense, I suppose I'm entitled, because of Kenya's most recent history of post-election turmoil. Depending on which count you believe, at least 1,300 people died during bloody protests over the outcome of the December 2007 election. There are actually people voting today who still live in tents because they were driven from their homes during that horrific bout of violence.

Granted, there weren't any problems in the leafy suburb I live in back then. And my gut tells me that this time, there won't be any violence anywhere. This time, just like during the American 2008 Presidential election, I suspect there has been a tremendous national consciousness-raising in Kenya. I caught a whiff of the stink of desperation in some of the last ditch posturing and protests from the folks who are against the new Constitution, and it was actually kind of pathetic to behold. The days when you could buy votes with a couple of dollars and some bald-faced lies are waning fast, even amidst the extreme desperation and poverty in a country like Kenya.

You see, here's how I figure it. Today, Kenyans are being asked to vote for a new Constitution, one that seeks to create a more equitable society. I don't know all the nuances of Kenyan political history, and I'm not even going to pretend to explain precisely what the new document contains, or what's at stake. I can tell you that the main reasons some people are against it is because it contains language about abortion, and a provision for Muslim courts. In a predominantly Christian nation, those two items were sure to be flashpoints, and they've delivered enough drama and outrage to keep things interesting these past few months.

But from where I stand, you can strip away all the drama and get down to the bottom line, which is that Kenyans started lining up at 3 AM this morning because they wanted to have a say in the outcome. They're tired of a handful of guys deciding their futures, of carving up the spoils for themselves and disregarding their hopes and dreams. I believe the Kenyan mwananchi (Kiswahili for "public") has sensed that for the first time, they can use their vote to actually have a say in their country's development.

Now, I'm not saying that I believe most Kenyans think a new Constitution will solve all their problems. The vast majority of the country's 12 million registered voters will likely be dead and buried before any of the potential reforms heralded in this new Constitution are realized. And truth be told, given the Byzantine machinations of the forces aligned against it, there's still a healthy chance the new Constitution won't pass.

But here's why I feel a bit foolish hunkering down in my apartment today. You see, my gut tells me there won't be any problems this time. My gut tells me that Kenya has matured. My gut tells me that Kenyans know the entire world is watching them, and they know that CNN and Al Jazeera are poised to capture the "money shot" of brother against brother, wielding machetes and guns and brandishing torches. They know that's not who they really are. And they're tired of the rest of the world believing that all you need to do is scratch the surface to reveal something monstrous.

So I believe that when the results are released on Friday, everything's gonna be all right. I believe there will be joy no matter which way the vote goes, and I believe the losing side will feel the sting of defeat, but they'll hold their heads high and get on with it, without lashing out. And I will probably wish I had ventured out to a few polling places today, taken a few pictures, talked to a few people and soaked up the same kind of electric energy Americans felt in November 2008. And like I felt at being fortunate enough to be back in DC to cast my absentee ballot for President Obama.

I don't know, maybe if I hadn't gotten clocked by that rock back in January, I'd be in a more adventurous mood. Maybe it's true that the older and more settled in your ways you get, the less willing you are to take risks. Whatever the case may be, I am feeling optimistic and hopeful for Kenya. I do feel privileged to be here while all this is going on. I do believe there will be peace in Kenya this time. But I guess I wanna hedge my bets and make sure I'm safe, just in case.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

"I'm Just Sayin', Dawg," Part 22

One of my first first-person essays as a feature writer for the Detroit Free Press was about Chelsea Clinton, and how young, vulnerable and coltish she looked on Election Night 1992, when her dad won the Presidency.

It was just one of the many times I've articulated powerful maternal instincts I've never really acted on. Watching Chelsea shivering on that stage on that cold Autumn night in Little Rock, I wanted to somehow protect her from what I knew the world could visit upon an awkward pre-teen girl whose every gaffe and growth spurt was about to hit the Associated Press wires on a weekly basis.

I shouldn't have worried. Whatever you think of their politics or personal behavior, you gotta give Bill and Hillary Clinton props for shielding Chelsea from the harsh spotlight. After a few early gibes on Saturday Night Live, the Clintons declared a moratorium, cut off access to Chelsea and demanded that she be allowed to grow up as normally as possible under the circumstances, without being mocked and harassed.

Considering that shy little girl spent 8 years living under that hellish microscope, it's kind of amazing to see how well she's turned out. She's beautiful and smart and accomplished in her own right, and she just got married yesterday, to a nice, handsome man named Marc, the son of former Congresswoman Marjorie Margolies Mezvinsky.

You know, if I'd been more of a power networker throughout my career, I might have snagged myself an invite to yesterday's $2 million nuptials. In 1996, when I was covering social policy on Capitol Hill for Knight Ridder, I interviewed Margolies Mezvinsky, and we hit it off Big Time. So much so that when I invited her to a party at the townhouse I lived in, a half a block from the Capitol, she actually came. And loved my cooking.

Marjorie even said she was going to try and set me up with one of her former colleagues from her stint as a reporter for NBC, a guy named Joe Johns. But it never came together, and we eventually lost touch. THAT'LL teach me. A little more schmoozing, and I might have witnessed that same little girl I wrote about in 1992 walking down the aisle towards her loving, hopeful future.

Oh, well. Guess I better get around to creating one of those for my damn self...

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

"What's Wrong With This Picture?"

"Or perhaps I should be asking, "What's right with this picture???"

If you're one of my handful of loyal readers, you may recall that I posted a photograph of my mantel a few weeks ago. Well, think of this as one of those magazine-style features where they post two photos of the same scene, but something's different in one of them, and you have to figure out what that is. This time, there's something new, and something missing.

While you're ruminating, let me just say that I've recently learned a powerful lesson about releasing fear of rejection and vulnerability. I've learned that when you give something from a place of genuine sincerity, without expecting something in return, it doesn't matter how it's received. The gesture alone is healing, and you should never be afraid to give for the right reasons.

That's all I'm gonna say for now. Discuss amongst yourselves.