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.
Thursday, September 30, 2010
That's when you're riding along in your car listening to an NPR story, and let's say you have a bag of groceries on the back seat, including maybe some ice cream. But when you finally reach your neighborhood and pull into your driveway, you don't want to leave your car until the story ends, even if it means letting the ice cream melt. THAT'S a driveway moment.
Nowadays, the BBC is regularly snaring me with a bunch of "doorway moments." Just when I have my purse and shoulder bag and all my other shit collected, and am about to call the cab to head to the office, something else catches my ear. But instead of my ice cream melting this morning, it was my heart. Not in the good way, mind you, but in the forlorn way, like when you're looking at that creamy puddle in the bottom of the carton, and technically it's the same stuff you bought at the store, but now it holds absolutely no appeal for you whatsoever.
Which kinda sounds like the trajectory of many relationships, no?? Which is what this morning's "doorway moment" was about. And it melted my heart with sadness and frustration, because it was only about the jillionth story I've ever read, watched or heard about educated Black American women being unable to find suitable Black male partners. They trotted out all the statistics, including the BIG GUN: One in every three Black American men will be involved in the criminal justice system at some point in their lives. Geez, seems like "just" 20 years ago, it was one in four, wasn't it???
I suppose it was totally unrealistic for me to ever expect that statistic was gonna change for the better in my lifetime. Numbers like that just can't, because they're about lack of access to quality education, and employment, and parental nurturance, and I certainly knew when I got on that plane in June of 2007 headed to East Africa that Black America was beyond the crisis point in that regard. I'd spent the past few years reporting on social policy, poverty and race-related issues for NPR, so if anybody knew that young Black boys and men in America are underneath the 8 ball, I did.
And of course, through the decades there've been all the stories about how if the average (White) American woman past the age of 40 had more chance of being kidnapped by a terrorist than getting married, then Black women could just call it a day FOREVER. I'd also read all the Essence Magazine articles suggesting we share a man, or join the "All Girls Team," or find an electronic solution, or just resign ourselves to raising our kids alone, or find joy and meaning in spending the rest of our lives alone. I think by the time I hit my late-30's, I had subconsciously accepted the possibility that I might never get married.
Of course, that didn't stop me from trying to find a man to share my life with, and if you've been reading this blog long enough, you know that most of those ill-fated attempts were with White men. I don't recall consciously excluding Black men, but I have to acknowledge that the same overwhelmingly negative stereotypes which sometimes impede Black American Male aspirations must have also steered me toward White men.
Fat lotta good THAT did me!!!! So, years later, I wind up on the African continent which is chock full 'o "Black" men, but where dramatic cultural differences, age, socio-economic status, and menopausal short-temperedness have made me even less inclined to traverse the Black Male/Female Relationship Realm. And most of the White men I meet here are already married, or they've brought their White girlfriends with them, or they're all, like, "If I AM gonna hook up with a woman of African descent, why not go for the 22-year-old lithe and limber Kenyan girl who will suck my brains out for $20 and a meal, and not utter a peep unless I tell her to, as opposed to, say, the (almost) 49-year-old, cranky, attitudinal Black American woman who's always gonna have to have the last word, and probably hasn't been able to raise her legs past knee level since the New Millennium started?"
Yeah, that's how I'M rollin' these days, my peeps! So it didn't exactly set a breezy tone for me this morning to hear yet ANOTHER dissertation on how utterly hopeless the Aspirational Black American Woman is, and always will be, when it comes to finding a life partner.
The more things change, the more I'm glad my ovaries are now permanently freeze-dried, and I don't have to worry about finding the mythical "father of my children." I'm just looking for somebody to hang out with, and maybe take a weekend trip to the Maasai Mara with. Is that too much to ask???
Wednesday, September 29, 2010
The reason I haven't written anything since September 21st is that shortly after that day, I started planning for a blow-out birthday/goodbye to a friend party. The friend is the young woman to the right of this picture. Her name is Juliette, and she will be leaving on October 1st to begin her Master's Degree studies in London. That's two days before my birthday, so I decided to mark both occasions a bit early, on September 25th.
The young woman in the middle is Chanelle, a college student from California and friend of Juliette's family. She's in Nairobi working with a clean water advocacy group. If you detect a shiny, glow-y aura about all three of us in this shot, it's just flopsweat. That's because we had just spent two and a half hours slaving like three bald-headed stepchildren in my kitchen. We were just giddy to not be chopping, stirring and frying, at long last!
Mind you, I shall bear the guilt of making my party's co-honoree do much of the cooking for the rest of my life. But you see, I was responding to the specific request from one of my Kenyan guests, a reporter colleague at the Daily Nation. He was quite pleased to be invited, as were the dozen or so other Kenyan acquaintances I've made at Nation Centre. He even suggested I invite somebody I barely knew, an offer I deftly declined. But he specifically wanted sukuma wiki and fried fish and spaghetti. Made a big show of mentioning it on several occasions. Hell, I've been frying fish since I was old enough to reach the top of a stove, and spaghetti sauce is literally one of my all-around specialties, so I was game. If it would make him enjoy himself more in my home, so be it.
You see, I realize that I've been here now for more than two years, but most of the people I socialize with regularly are expats. Having recently embraced the possibility that I could wind up being here a lot longer than I'd originally planned, I decided to make a concerted effort to reach out to Kenyan co-workers, to extend myself beyond the expat comfort zone.
That's why I asked Juliette to make some sukuma wiki for my party. I LOVE that stuff!! It's essentially what we'd call a "mess 'o greens" back home, which is why I crave it. "Sukuma wiki" is Kiswahili for "push out the week." In other words, it's a meal that's prepared to last over several days. You just chop up a bunch of sukuma (kale) and spinach, boil it briefly, fry some onions, tomato and garlic and then saute the greens until they've wilted down into a tasty treat.
Anyway, I'd never tried to make it before, so I asked Juliette to help. Since Chanelle has been living with her for the past few months and has learned the "Ways of the Wiki", she took charge of the chopping while Juliette meticulously washed the greens, and then worked her magic on the stove.
It took two and a half hours. We were still sizzling and stirring when the first guests arrived. But it was worth the effort. It was the best sukuma wiki I've had since I got here!! I just ate the last batch of it last night. And though I probably should just release my post-party emotions to the Universe, I've also vowed to never again try and do "cross-cultural nutritional/social outreach," whether I'm in Kenya 10 more months or 10 more years. Read the posting below to learn why.
Tuesday, September 28, 2010
It was taken just before I announced that dinner was served at the aforementioned birthday/goodbye party for me and my friend Juliette. I think I was mostly happy it would soon be over! For example, I had started chopping the eggplant, zucchini, red, green and yellow peppers, tomatoes, onions, garlic and portobello mushrooms for this casserole the day before the party. Simmer it all in a little red wine, add breadcrumbs and parmesan cheese, then sprinkle some cheddar on top, and you got yourself some good eatin'!
That was in addition to the red snapper I marinated for four hours in garlic, thyme and oregano, white wine vinegar and soy sauce and then fried in olive oil. And the tomato, avocado and mango salad. And the Sukuma Wiki. And "Mama Rachella's Spaghetti." Am I forgetting something??? Oh well, it doesn't really matter. What DOES matter, and what I really need to let go of, is that eight--COUNT 'EM--EIGHT guests who said they were coming didn't show up.
And didn't call with their apologies.
And didn't text.
Now, I'm going to try and not let this devolve into a rant (knowing full well that it probably will). And I'm certainly not going to "out" anybody, other than to say that all eight of those guests were Kenyan. If you are a Kenyan reading this blogpost, please don't take offense. Actually--go ahead and take offense if you want to. And then post a comment explaining why this seemingly significant trend keeps occurring. I'm not the only expat sucker who's commented on this during my two years in Kenya. And this has happened to me before, only with just one or two people. Not EIGHT.
It just seems so simple to me. If you aren't going to be able to make it, just say so. Hell, I've had people text me an hour before the party started to say they weren't coming, but at least I knew I could start putting stuff in the freezer by that point. But just this morning, one of those MIA Kenyan guests sheepishly explained that she had gotten an out of town assignment on Thursday and knew she wouldn't be able to make it on Saturday. (She had even offered to help me cook.)
So....what prevented her from sending me an email, or texting (I get the whole "not wanting to back out in person or on the phone" thing) on Thursday to say she wouldn't be coming to the party?????
The good news is I was able to feed the guards at my apartment compound for several days after the soiree. It turned out to be a lot of fun, and both Juliette and I enjoyed ourselves immensely once we recovered. Most folks there were Americans, and my Italian friend Roberta who I met back in Gulu, and a Canadian intern from the paper, and four other Kenyan guests besides Juliette. And though it was an expensive lesson (hell, I even bought a few plastic tables and chairs to put out by the pool area for the "overflow guests"! HAH!!!!), I'm now able to permanently strike a few names off the lists of any future gatherings.
But most importantly, I've think I've learned quite indelibly there are some impermeable barriers that may just be a non-negotiable part of expat life. As I think about it, one of the reasons people didn't show up HAD to have been transportation. Matatus don't travel down the road I live on. It's in the suburbs, and the mostly Muzungu crowd living in that area simply wouldn't stand for those noisy, clattering death sleds creating a daily menace in that leafy enclave. So even if they could have gotten someone to drop them off for my party, maybe they'd have had trouble getting back home later.
Then there's the whole "culture" thing. I mean, the one guy who enthusiastically placed all those specific orders for food may have had second thoughts about my cooking abilities. One thing I've noticed about Kenyans is that many are somewhat hesitant about trying "exotic" foods. So even though I promised to fry fish and make spaghetti and sukuma wiki, maybe he got cold feet at the last minute and didn't want to risk having the Black Muzungu 'poison' him with her lame American cooking.
And speaking of culture, I have it on good authority that for the most part, Kenyans just aren't big on the whole "RSVP" thing. If they show up, good. If they don't, you shouldn't take offense. From my cultural perspective, that's a problem, because I like to plan ahead and make sure there's enough food and drink for everybody. Skulking over to my desk three days later to apologize for not showing up doesn't exactly put my party expenses back into my wallet.
Okay, I'm gonna start winding this rant down now. I'm gonna try and just focus on how happy I felt in this exact moment, when I knew that people were about to dig into my culinary creations and hopefully enjoy them immensely. I cook with a lot of zest and joy, actually. I love experimenting with flavors and textures. I adore a golden brown crust and a herb-y aroma.
I live to nourish.
And I know you can't force those things. Just like you can't force relationships. Lord knows I've learned that in my personal life! You have to let these things occur organically, so you don't wind up feeling like a Sukuma Sucker.
Tuesday, September 21, 2010
Monday, September 20, 2010
I’m thinking a lot about the definition of the word “impact” these days. When I reflect on my past two years in Kenya, the meaning might seem clear at first.
“Just what the heck is different about Kenyan media since my plane touched down in late June 2008? Wow, that question almost felt egomaniacal as I typed it! How can one person expect to exert enough influence to quantify a tangible impact on an entire country’s media? In one year, or two….or 10, for that matter?
Well, my ICFJ colleagues, and media consultants around the globe, have found ways to leave a mark, in even less time than my tenure. Right next door in Uganda, my colleague Chris Conte’s mentoring of several journalists resulted in major government policy changes and funding pledges. I even scored a similar “victory” just months into my tenure in Nairobi, when a Sept. 2008 Daily Nation feature about the poor state of Kenyan public health facilities resulted in a promise to spend more than $7 million to repair and refurbish them.
So that’s one definition of impact: grooming and training reporters who can produce journalism that pushes officials to make positive decisions on behalf of the public.
But what are some of the other symbols of impact in this setting? After all, as exciting as those kinds of high-profile stories and responses are, they can be frustratingly rare. (Two years later, I’m still trying to organize the follow-up to that September 2008 package; more on that in a future posting.) A dizzying blend of culture, customs, a punitive media atmosphere, lack of societal and legal imperatives, and of course, low skill levels, may make producing consistent high-octane journalism impossible in the short term. That’s why on the most unlikely of days, September 11th, I received a cosmic sign that “impact” is a hydra-headed creature that must be constantly nourished to reach the larger goal.
Two Saturdays ago, a two-page spread of health stories in the Daily Nation gave me a powerful reminder of how far I’ve come in this Kenyan training journey. Page 10 carried a story about the increasing incidence of strokes in Kenya, produced by one of the best writers I’ve encountered since arriving in Kenya, Paul Muchiri Karanja. He’s the quintessential “shoe leather” reporter; knows which questions to ask and how to ask them, and has a strong feature writing instinct.
Page 11 of that same paper featured the print version of the convergence experiment I proposed, trying to get both NTV and Daily Nation to produce separate stories about the same topic. Kisumu Bureau reporter Stella Cherono is a relatively new journalist with a strong interest in health issues. But her writing and story development skills are still raw. In the first draft of her story about a new government policy to treat diarrheal disease in children, I found a hidden gem down at the very end. One of the mothers Stella interviewed at Webuye Hospital said some people believe children with diarrhea are “bewitched” with something called “Bhikumba”…a mix of bones and sand in the stomach, and that only a witchdoctor’s intervention can help.
In my edit with Stella, I helped her understand that this kind of detail can instantly draw readers into a story. They can’t help but want to learn more about a topic with an intriguing intro like that. The resulting story helped explain how children can benefit when the government relies on proven research to support a cost-effective, positive health policy.
Full-disclosure: the convergence project didn’t unfold as originally planned. Instead of the NTV story airing on a Friday night, with a suggestion that viewers read more about the topic in Saturday’s paper, the TV story got delayed by a day. Daily Nation could have included a teaser to watch the NTV story that evening had we anticipated that shift, but at least both stories ran.
Anyway, on this side of the dizzying amount of planning and pleading it took to get both stories produced, there’s time to reflect on impact in a more organic sense. It takes time for any “outsider” to earn the trust and respect of coworkers and managers, especially in a large, multilayered organization like Nation Media Group. Throw in cultural challenges and gender attitudes, and there are moments when I’m not even sure how I got editors to let me call these kinds of shots! But my helping produce two prominently-placed, full page health features means somebody up there likes me…they really LIKE me!
Ultimately, a story from last month has registered the biggest “impact punch” of all. It doesn’t even matter that it ran on Page 36. What does matter is that it ran at all, because before I came to Nation Centre, it would have been flatly rejected. It’s a simple, non-breaking news story urging Kenyans to ride their bikes to work. One of the most energetic young journalists I’ve mentored since my arrival, Joy Wanja, pitched the story after a conversation with a doctor she interviewed on another topic. She was able to convince editors that conversation was worth publishing, and it was given a full page.
Maybe that’s because the main topic, the need to exercise more to prevent heart disease, obesity and high blood pressure, probably resonated with an editor--most likely some guy around my age! But it’s also because after my two years at Nation Centre, that same editor was far more willing to carve out precious news space for health-related topics.
Now THAT’S impact, any way you slice it.
Saturday, September 18, 2010
Friday, September 17, 2010
Today's method of entrapment was an interview with the wildly popular songstress, widely referred to as the "Princess of Africa," Yvonne Chaka Chaka. Whenever I hear that name, I can't help think of "Chaka, Chaka, Chaka, Chaka Khan. Chaka Khan, let me rock you..."
Thursday, September 16, 2010
Sitting at his desk watching the video for Cee-Lo Green's "F..k You," I felt kind of silly. First, the song has been out for ages apparently, but beyond reading about it on a couple of US gossip websites, I hadn't tried to track it down. Plus, I was bobbing and weaving to the retro-soul sound, really feelin' it, until he crooned "F--k You and, uh, F--k her, too," and then the guilt crept in, like maybe my favorite teacher from fourth grade, Mrs. Flewellen, was peering down at me in utter shock and embarrassment.
I won't apologize for grooving to the music, or for absolutely LUUURRRVING Cee-Lo Green's smoky wail of a voice. Sometimes, when things get especially tense, I put "Crazy" on a loop until I calm down. ("I remember when, I remember, I remember when I lost my mind, There was something so special about that place...") But I think I do need to apologize for succumbing to the siren call of what I've been considering the coarsening of American culture in recent decades.
Even as I wrote that last sentence, I could feel a new crop of gray hairs sprouting from my scalp, and a surging tide of vinegar flowing through my veins. Yeah, I'm officially an old lady...deal with it! But I think I have some fairly credible evidence to back up that opinion. The first time it really hit me was about five or six years ago, when I was flipping through network TV channels and stopped at one of the 10 billion sitcoms where some fat schlub and his model-grade wife get caught in a web of hilarious hijinks each week.
Well, during this particular episode, the fat schlub and his pimply son were both drooling over the hot new single lady neighbor who'd moved next door. (Come to think of it, it may have been Bo Derek in a very special guest appearance, but at this rate it could be any of a broad range of bony, fake-boobed, cougarish, bleached blonde D-List actresses.) Since I can't remember most of the inane plot, I'll just invoke the one element I found particularly objectionable. At one point, the father and son stood outside the neighbor's window watching as she did some sort of yoga type exercise, and they both got, shall we say, stimulated to the point of nearly shouting their orgasms in unison.
Now, even though I don't have kids, and recall thoroughly enjoying sex back in the day, I found myself shocked that a scene like that was being depicted during what the networks call "The Family Hour." I simply couldn't imagine being a parent sitting there with an 8 year old kid trying to explain why the Dad and his son were moaning so loudly while they looked at the lady. But I COULD imagine feeling pissed at having to do that during a viewing time that's supposed to be "safe."
Then I happened to catch an episode or two of "Two and a Half Men," which is only missing One and a Half Horsemen of the Apocalypse as far as I'm concerned before the Lake of Fire opens up and swallows us all. Forget the fact that show's the jillion dollar per episode "star" is an erratic, allegedly sex-obsessed, knife-wielding drug abuser who gets paid handsomely to basically portray himself every week. What I understand least about that show is how the kid star's parents allowed him to utter completely inappropriate sexualized dialogue, or to be exposed to it, on a regular basis. And then I remembered that the kid probably shagged a six-figure salary every week himself.
I could go on and on with these kinds of examples, but it almost seems too quaintly absurd. I mean, I'm the gal who thought my best friend Faith would be surely singed by a thunderbolt for the poster of a half-naked, leopardskin wearing Prince in her Northwestern dorm room 31 years ago. The way musical lyrics have been sexualized and degraded since then, vintage Prince almost sounds like Mr. Rogers. Come to think of it, my boy Cee-Lo crooning "F--k You," is almost a balm to my ears.
But then the other day, I was wasting precious moments of my remaining lifespan watching another American reject sitcom on cable, and I had an epiphany about why most Africans blame Western culture for spreading its sinful influence around the world. It was a scene from some banal bulls--t program called "Romantically Challenged," already canceled but most notable for highlighting the tragic arc of the less-than-talented Alyssa Milano's career. Anyway, the scene was a couple in the bedroom, and she was on all fours on the bed, and to paraphrase the zany dialogue, she was ordering him to treat her like a dirty girl.
I sat there stunned into a sort of psychic paralysis. I mean, that show was on ABC. Free Network TV. Okay, maybe it ran during the 9 to 11 time slot, which I believe is beyond "Family Hour" (if that concept even exists anymore). But I'm sorry, I look for that kind of fare on Showtime or HBO. I can even appreciate the artistic value of such a scene if executed skillfully. Whatever, it just ain't appropriate for a situation-comedy on Disney-owned ABC. No way, no how.
So, to use a phrase I've learned since living in Kenya, American culture needs to pull up its socks. But then, I suppose since I'm still groovin' to Cee-Lo every chance I get, maybe I need to pull mine up, too.
Monday, September 13, 2010
She had me at "Mother." That is, her description of how her mother sacrificed everything to make sure she received an education in their tiny Sierra Leone village. Her Muslim cleric father agreed--up to a point. That would be age 12, when he declared she had learned enough and needed to get married.
Zainab's mother refused to let that happen. She herself had never gone to school, couldn't read or write, and married young. She was determined it would not happen to her only child. She even threatened to end the marriage if her husband insisted. He took her up on that, and so Zainab and her mother were pretty much on their own afterwards.
I've lived on the African continent long enough to grasp exactly what being "on your own" here means. When you have nothing, and no way to change your circumstances, and you're scratching out a means of survival in ways that challenge your health, safety and dignity on a daily basis, when is there time to think about education, and careers...even the future in the most generic sense? And though tomorrow is not promised to any of us, some people have even less of a reason to believe they'll see one more dawn.
On the other hand, I DO know what it's like to have a mother who was willing to do whatever it took to make sure her daughters were able to fend for themselves on American soil. My challenges as a poor black girl in the Midwest seem trivial compared to what Zainab Bangura endured in war-ravaged Sierra Leone. But there was a common thread--we both had mothers propelling us forward. Making sure we got an education. Demanding that we hold our heads high, keep our legs closed and imagine a successful future for ourselves. Women whose own dreams had been literally strangled, but who damned sure weren't going to let that happen to their own daughters.
It's a fascinating thing, when you think about it. Now, speaking for myself, I'm not saying that matrilineal propulsion came without a significant psychic toll--on me. Frankly, Eloise Jones put a kind of a man-hating spin on all of her admonitions that inevitably left a deep subconscious imprint I'm still grappling with. It wasn't quite "Men ain't shit, so don't be a sucker and expect them to take care of you," but it was damned close. And considering that during my early years, she had given birth to 10 children was cleaning house and helping care for some white woman's kids on the other side of town, and was STILL poor while she was dispensing that advice, I was definitely programmed to take heed.
Besides, Zainab's father, and mine, were pretty much prisoners of their own lives and upbringings. Lewis Jones was born in 1916 Mississippi, without a single thing in his life to shape him into a strong, vocal, caring, interactive parent. Zainab's father was a Muslim cleric who was simply following his faith and a 1,000 years of cultural practice. Heck, Zainab was lucky he let her go to school at all, I suppose. Marriage at age 12, to some crusty old goat, was just the way life was. But somehow, without a supportive, interactive male influence, we both endured.
Guess I'm burying the lead a bit. You know who I am. Zainab Bangura is now the Minister for Foreign Affairs for Sierra Leone. The first woman to hold that job, I believe, and she was also the first woman to run for President (unsuccessfully) in 2002. She's married with one child, a son, and a lot of the people interviewed for the story describe her as pushy, impatient and egotistical. She may be all of those things.
But here's one thing I've become utterly convinced of. As long as the majority of women on the African continent are oppressed, subjugated, abused, exploited and denied opportunities for education and advancement, Africa will never--EVER--truly progress. I don't need to argue that point. Zainab's story proves it. If her life had followed its seemingly inexhorable pattern, she'd be a weathered, mute, bowed and bent grandmother by now...IF she was still alive.
Here's the thing. Tens of thousands of women die or are seriously maimed during childbirth each year on the African continent. An equal number are left mutilated by female circumcision. Exponentially more are consigned to early, polygamous marriage, which endangers their health and denies them education.
I don't know about you, but to me, that just translates into a horrifying waste of one of the most powerful natural resources on the face of the Earth. It doesn't make business or development sense--for example, women perform more than two-thirds of the agricultural labor in African countries. It doesn't even make common sense. I know I won't live to see this situation change significantly, but as long as I'm working in this region, I'm gonna do what I can to help move the ball in the right direction.
It's what my Mama, and Zainab's Mama, expected of us.