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

All the Single Ladies

Looks like I'll be writing at least one BBC-related posting every week until I leave this freaking continent!! Every other morning, they're dragging me into the radio waves, in what NPR calls a "driveway moment."

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.

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 Sukuma Sisters

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

The Sukuma Sucker

I've said it before--when I'm extremely happy, I smile with my whole head. It's like I'm in a race to see just how much of my gums I can expose. I used to hate that about myself, but I think I've finally made peace with that aspect of my personality. In fact, this picture helped me get there.

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 t
o 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.

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.

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

The Audacity of a Dope

Here's what I have been able to assess about the political and economic climate in America today, from my 8,000 mile vantage point:

"Err-ybody has lost they damn mind." Including this poised, passionate, articulate woman who spoke at President Obama's recent Town Hall meeting. Now, I wanna go on the record here as saying I used to bristle when people called me poised and articulate, because I interpreted it as an expression of surprise that a black woman could complete a sentence without rolling her eyes, snapping her fingers, wiggling her hips and saying, "YOU 'bout to get on my last nerve!"

Thank goodness, I got over that. I AM poised and articulate because I'm very smart, I've gained a lot of experience in life, and I'm just a pretty cool person in general. Like the woman pictured in this posting probably is. She was at the recent Town Hall meeting, and she stood and made a powerful, forceful comment about the struggle she and her family are enduring in Post Global Economic Crisis America. While I admired her passion, reason, and heartfelt commentary, I'd like to fly back to DC tonight, stop by her workplace, roll my eyes while snapping my fingers and wiggling my hips, and hiss,

"Girlfriend, YOU bout to get on my last nerve!"

That's because this woman had what I've just now coined as "The Audacity of a Dope" to stand there and say she was exhausted by defending President Obama and his promise of change. She and her husband have two kids in private school, and they're working harder than ever for less money, and they're frightened and facing the harsh possibility of reverting to what she called "the Franks and Beans Years" of their early life together.

I get that. I honor that. I'm living a lifestyle over here in East Africa that would likely be impossible in the US right now, and I'm fully aware that unless I hit the Lottery the moment I set foot back on US soil for good, I could be looking at the dreaded "cardboard refrigerator box over the heating grate, daily diet of Fancy Feast on a Ritz cracker"scenario in 20 years, based on my lack of serious planning and foresight about retirement issues. So I ain't just hatin' on a sister because she expressed real fears about a scary financial climate

But to me, this woman embodies what I consider an ASTONISHING disingenuousness about what an apocalyptic mess Barack Obama inherited. As someone on a blog site characterized the situation, people like act like they voted for Barack Obama because they expected him to morph into a combination of Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and Underdog and instantaneously set America right and make everybody's pockets fatter. How someone as seemingly smart and sincere as this woman could stand there and publicly suggest that President Obama has "failed" them, or lied to them, or disappointed them because America is not yet morphed into "Who-ville" on Christmas just blows my mind.

It makes me wanna just stand on top of Mt. Crumpit and shout, in the Grinchiest growl I can muster, "Yo, Dah-hoo Dor-ay, Mutha-f-----s, wake up! When Barack Obama said he would bring about change, he was not promising to build a bloomin' time capsule and wipe out the past 13 years or so to transport us back to 1997 when there was a budget surplus and no policy that would eventually draw us into TWO billion dollar per week wars!! He said he would try and change the direction the country was headed in, and change some of the mindlessly punitive policies and practices."

I know I'm not being as articulate as I need to be in this screed because I'm NOT living in the US, and I haven't followed the President's policies as closely as I would need to in order to mount a truly effective defense. I also haven't had my job outsourced or been laid off, as many of my of my friends and acquaintances in the media realm have. We're all about the same age as "Ms. Town Hall Exhaustion," some with kids and/or grandkids, ALL of us with bills to pay and retirement to brace for. But here's what I CAN state: People like this woman need to stop looking for scapegoats for a tough situation which, if they need to blame somebody, they better start looking in the general direction of Texas. Or let me rephrase that, they need to stop making President Obama the scapegoat.

It makes me wonder if the so-called "Greatest Generation," the men and women who fought and lived during the World War II Era, and who gutted their way through the aftermath, sat around blaming Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman for how tough their lives were. I would bet they didn't. I'm not saying that every American back then loved Frank D. and Harry, but I'm guessing that the majority of them acknowledged just what a bloody frakkin' mess the ENTIRE WORLD was in after the war, and they got on with it. They didn't do it without fear, anxiety and yes "EXHAUSTION," but they got on with it.

I think I know why some Americans feel the need to blame President Obama for everything. He's a black man and they hate the fact that he's in charge. I know why other people hate him; he's poised, articulate and "uppity." And I know there are people who think he's too pragmatic, and needs to exhibit more "fire in the belly" about the problems our country is facing.

Oh, to hell with it. Just give ME a crack at making a comment at a Town Hall meeting, and I would go straight-up Madea setting "Err-ybody" straight! Because blaming Barack Obama because he hasn't magically solved every problem our country is facing is just appallingly dopey.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Not-So-Sudden Impact

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

One More Hormone-Fueled Culture Rant

The only Lady Gaga song I've ever heard (and knew it was her singing) is "Pokerface." It was actually the day after New Year's 2010, and I was at a seriously rockin' house party where most of us were old enough to be her parents, but we acquitted ourselves quite credibly on the dance floor.

A few months later, I managed to catch her interview with Larry King, and thought it was kinda snarkishly cool that she wore suspenders and glasses and slicked her hair back like his for the gig. But otherwise, I guess I've just lived outside the U.S. far too long, and haven't heard enough of Lady Gaga's music, to understand her seemingly hypnotic appeal.

Whatever the case may be, I think her recent meat dress stunt was some sick, twisted shit. It makes me nauseous just looking at it. I know, I know, anybody this desperate for attention probably isn't interested in my long-distance critique, but Gaga, you ain't nobody's Lady as far as I'm concerned.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Princess to Princess

Once again, the BBC World Service has managed to thwart my daily plans with one of their captivating interviews. I swear, they need to quit messing with my head AND my schedule.

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..."

But I digress. This south African singer is a living legend, for a lot of reasons. I just learned through a Google search for her photo that she was the first black South African child to appear on National TV in 1981, on a talent contest. It reminded me of my 1979 High School Senior Year Thesis/Outraged Lament about Apartheid.

So to hear that among her myriad accomplishments, Nelson Mandela calls Yvonne Chaka Chaka "daughter," feels pretty vicariously amazing. I bet that little girl belting her guts out on her path towards history never could have imagined that day would come. And just like with Sierra Leone's Foreign Affairs Minister Zainab Bangura, Yvonne's mother insisted on education, even though she was a mouthy little rascal who almost got her mother fired from her job as a maid.

Again, I could relate. Not with being mouthy, but with having a mother who who was a maid. Apparently, little Yvonne had the audacity to ask the white South African lady of the manor why she and her mother lived in one-room squalor, while Mrs Afrikaaner and her Krew were rocking a spacious crib. Yvonne recalled her mother snatching her up and warning her not to make "her White lady" mad.

I like a kid with spunk. I mean, she wasn't being bratty, she just noticed the blatant inequities and inquired about them. I was such a mute, shy child, I would never in a million years have done something like that. Sure, I've made up for it in recent decades, but back then....

Anyway, there are two main reasons I admire Yvonne Chaka Chaka, based on what I've heard about her in recent years and on today's BBC report. First, the woman seems intensely sincere about wanting to use her fame and fortune to help improve conditions for women and children in Africa. Everything thing I've read and seen about her always leads me to that conclusion. She seems to work just as hard raising awareness about issues like HIV/AIDS and fistula and poverty, and girls' education, as she does when performing her powerful African melodies.

But something Yvonne related in this morning's story intrigued me even more. While her mother insisted she get an education and have a career, she would have preferred that Yvonne become a lawyer. Something a bit more respectable than being an entertainer. Still, I'm sure Mom had to be proud of her...but apparently, only up to a point. You see, Yvonne had already achieved a significant amount of fame when Nelson Mandela came calling one day, a few years after he was released from prison and was President of South Africa. He wanted Yvonne to sing at an ANC event, and even wrote her a letter afterwards, making the request more formal.

Yvonne's moher was absolutely terrified that someone would find that letter and link the family to the ANC. You can't blame the woman for being afraid...she had lived her entire life under the insanely cruel injustice of Apartheid. Even though it seemed those days were over, her mother wasn't taking any chances. She didn't want any evidence of an ANC affiliation lying around so...

She ordered Yvonne to EAT the letter from Nelson Mandela. To literally chew it and swallow it. Get rid of any proof it ever existed.

And Yvonne obeyed.

But from where I sit, it looks like that dramatic concession to fear may have been the ultimate fuel. Yvonne deepened her link with Mandela, and rose to stratospheric heights of stardom on the African continent. Something tells me she's not afraid of much of anything anymore, especially when you have friends like Madiba.

Sounds just like a proud, feisty princess, to me. Yet again, I can relate.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Culture Clubbed

Ever since my Kenyan buddy Phil-O hipped me to what I'd heard was THE "American Song of Summer 2010" a few weeks ago, I can't get the danged thing out of my head.

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 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

Mama Used To Say

Listening to the story of Zainab Bangura on the BBC World Service this morning put me a bit behind schedule, but I'm so glad it did.

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.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

How Can You Mend A Broken Heart?

It's funny how a chain of events can unfold sometimes. Just last night, I briefly watched part of a John Ritter movie on cable, the one where he moved his family into this Stepford-like cul de sac run by Hal Linden, and slowly has his life controlled and nearly destroyed by the evil suburb-bots.

Then this morning I read a brief review of John Ritter's widow's new book tribute. Amy Yasbeck wrote in part about how his fatal heart condition had been misdiagnosed. He'd apparently suffered an aortic dissection shortly before dying at age 54. Yasbeck tried unsuccessfully to sue his doctors for the misdiagnosis, but she was also determined to use the tragic event to get the word out about this condition.

I Googled "aortic dissection," and remembered all the times I've joked about something stressing me out so much, it was giving me an aneurysm or a stroke. Made a mental note to never joke like that again. After all, I'm not a 20 year old with a 10 percent body fat and 90 over 60 blood pressure anymore. I'm in the age range where it's distinctly possible that my high blood pressure could cause the walls of my aorta to thin out and tear, and lead to a stroke. One needn't tempt the fates these days.

And then about an hour later, I saw a posting on a former NPR colleague's Facebook page. It was about the man in the picture up top. I had worked at NPR for about 4 or 5 years before I connected the name David Rector to this man's face. He was just one of many engineers there, most of whom I never really got to know. But I do remember thinking David had a kind face, and that he looked like a really mellow brother.

Ironically, reading the Facebook link almost stopped my heart. It was entitled, "They Are Killing David Rector." I won't even try to relate the whole story, but I will include the link here.

Eighteen months ago, David Rector suffered an aortic dissection and a stroke. He was living in San Diego with the beautiful woman pictured with him above. His fiancee, Roz, has been devotedly caring for him ever since it happened...against horrifying odds. Long story short, because she's not legally related to him, his care is being decided by a cousin who lives on the East Coast. And apparently, there's not too much thought being given to those decisions.

This story is literally haunting me, people. I sometimes hate how I always manage to filter these kinds of situations through my personal life lens, but sometimes you just can't help it. I mean, what would happen to me in that kind of medical emergency? If I were completely incapacitated by a stroke while I'm here in Nairobi....God, I don't even want to think about where I'd wind up.

But what's even more depressing, the picture wouldn't be much rosier if I was back in the States. Don't get me wrong, I'm blessed with many wonderful friends and family, but who the heck would want to devote their lives to wiping my ass, for Christ's sake??? Blood relatives who legally could call the shots would probably look at my crippled bag of bones and mutter, "That silly bitch should have penciled a husband onto her schedule at some point, dammit! Hell, she could have at least gotten knocked up 25 years ago and had a kid who'd be obliged to deal with this crap!"

Okay, I'm being wildly sarcastic here to mask a really deep-rooted fear that I probably spend an inordinate amount of time trying to pretend doesn't exist. David Rector's story follows another one I saw back in March, about a CNN producer/camerawoman named Margaret Moth. Again, long story short, Moth lived this amazing, adventure-filled life, but was living alone in an Istanbul apartment filled with cats shortly before she was diagnosed with cancer and transferred to the Minnesota hospice where she died. Oh, sure, she was deeply respected and had many dear friends, but apparently, had no life partner to hold her hand at the end.

I guess that's why, even though David Rector's story is tragic and will probably keep me awake most of tonight, I can at least visualize this beautiful, radiant woman who is fighting against terrible odds to stay by his side. Roz is being disrespected and disregarded, but she loves him and she won't give up.

Which makes him one of the luckiest people I've ever known. Like I said, it's funny how a chain of events can unfold sometimes.

Yin and Yang

About 10 minutes after I finished the previous post, I got a Facebook email from another former colleague named Joe Ritchie, from my years at the Detroit Free Press. It was about our mutual former free Press colleague named Hugh Grannum. Two years ago, Hugh photographed artist Aaron Ibn Pori Pitts, an elder in Detroit's creative community. He was producing a pictorial story about Pitts' recovery from a stroke. During that story, Hugh met Aaron's younger brother Benjamin, and they became friends. In the interim two years, Hugh's kidneys began to fail, so much so that he had to stop working, and was placed on a transplant waiting list.

He was number 2,500 in line.

Last month, Hugh and his wife Carolyn got a phone call. There was a kidney available. It was from Benjamin Pitts, who was just 5o years old when he died of a stroke.

Hugh received the transplant on Friday, August 13th.

Last weekend, he went to the Detroit International Jazz Fest.

I'm smiling, because I remember how funny and nice and full of life Hugh Grannum was. Still is.

Read all about it in Detroit Free Press columnist Rochelle Riley's latest column. I'm too busy just meditating and praying about the yin and yang of life right about now.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

"What's Going On?"

Most times, when I think about what's going on in America these days, Marvin Gaye's lyrics are the sound track in my brain.

"Picket lines, and picket signs. Don't punish me with brutality. Talk to me, so you can see, Aw, what's going on."

So-called "Tea Parties," and Islamic Center protests, and laws requiring Mexicans to show their papers or get deported, and Quran burning, and just a lot of ugliness that frankly, I've been away so long I surprise myself by how much it shocks me. Let's see, I left for Gulu in June of 2007, but even with a 5 month-stint in DC in 2008, I've spent most of the past 3 years living in East Africa. Because I missed the direct impact of the financial meltdown, the election of the first black President, massive unemployment and layoffs, and now, the shocking demonization of Muslims, I almost feel embarrassingly naive.

I thought about that yesterday at one of the suburban Nairobi shopping malls. It was the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, and I have never been in any venue with that many Muslims before in my life, all of whom were preparing for today's holiday, Idd ul Fitr. As I walked through the mass of women in mostly black gowns and head coverings (very few hard-core burqas, by the way), and men in their traditional gowns and caps, I realized that most folks back home would have completely freaked out in that setting, mostly because of the highly-charged media images they're inundated with.

Americans who've never even seen a copy of the Quran know what the word "jihad" means, because they've seen or read or heard news stories that imply every Muslim wants to declare it against America. And when the idiot in Florida decides to go for his 15 minutes of desecration-based fame, the cable networks rush to illustrate round the clock coverage of his bombast by using either file tape of fiery anti-American protests in Muslim countries, or sending crews to film new examples of impassioned outrage.

I understand that most human beings need to have those kinds of markers, those kinds of black and white symbols of good and evil. "My religion is right, yours is wrong. My skin color is better than yours. My country is more humane." And those are only the grandiose themes. We're further bogged down by, "My house is bigger than yours. My clothes are more expensive. I'm hotter than you are. My job is better, and I'm a lot smarter. And skinnier."

What IS it about being human, anyway??? Why can't we learn from history? For example, why can't we Americans remember that the country was formed primarily because the founders wanted to escape religious oppression, and form a country where you could believe and worship however you wanted?????

Oh, wait, see, there's another example of my increasing Expat naivete. It's like I'm almost forgetting sitting at home 9 years ago watching those planes slam into the World Trade Center and thinking it was the end of the world. For the first couple of 9/11 anniversaries afterwards, the shock was still so real, I wasn't really focusing on the religious-political implications of the act. I was still horrified at the loss of life, and the loss of those iconic buildings, and the loss of our seeming invulnerability on American soil.

But I suppose it was inevitable that something would tear off the scab and reveal the ugliness and pain and fear, and I suppose the plans for the Islamic Center near Ground Zero were just the ticket. As I process it from 8,000 miles away, I have to wonder if the historical cocktail of circumstances over the past nine years made what's happening in America right now completely unavoidable. Heightened conservative rhetoric and bullying in the political realm. Two soul-draining, life-snuffing, budget-busting wars. Fear and resentment of immigrant "usurpers." The election of the first black President who happens to have had a foreign father whose weird name he shares and who happened to be Muslim. Just like those evil men who slaughtered thousands of Americans 9 years ago, and who prayed in ways that seem weird and threatening, to a God who doesn't look like ours.

It's a pity we can't turn back the clock to September 10th, 2001, and then somehow make that day never end, just like a 9-year episode of "Groundhog Day" or something. But even if you could, and at some point during that day somebody told you that tomorrow, the World Trade Center would be destroyed and the Pentagon would be dive-bombed and a plane intended to destroy the U.S. Capitol would crash in a Pennsylvania field, and more than 3,000 Americans would be murdered horrifically, you might not have been able to comprehend it.

Sort of like I can't comprehend what's happening in my country right now.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

"I'm just Sayin', Dawg," Part 24"

You know, it really pisses me off that I have been so busy and distracted lately (more on why that's the case at the appropriate time) that the only thing motivating me to resume blogging is yet another Satanic Sartorial Ensemble from one of the Williams sisters.


Here's the thing about these amazing young women. I am so torn between wanting to be able to say that as long as they're two of the greatest female tennis players in the history of the game, they can wear burlap bags if they want to. I'd love to be able to say that most criticisms aimed their way are served up with an ice cold glass of Hater-ade, and that as talented as they are, they still can't escape being viewed through a faintly racism-tinged lens.

And THAT'S where my ruminations go off the rails. This ain't about race. It's about class. Or lack thereof. It's about making peoples' eyes bleed with the tacky threads vomited up from the bowels of your so-called "creative fashion vision." It's about being excoriated ad nauseum through the years for said outrageous and mostly unflattering duds, and still thumbing your nose at the world.

But mostly, it's about being silly enough to wear something that you have to constantly pull out of the crack of your ass to be comfortable, during an imporant match being viewed by millions of people around the world.

Now, you might want to jump right on in here at this point to remind me that Venus won that match, and is likely on her way to snagging another title. That's not the point of this particular rant. What I'm trying to get across here is that the line between being avante garde and ridiculous is dangerously thin. And these brilliantly talented young athletes keep foot-faultin' all over it, out of some deeply-rooted need to thumb their noses at us and say, "We can wear whatever we want, and the less you like it, the more we'll keep doing it."

It's either that, or they actually think they have fashion sense. Frankly, I'm not sure which is scarier....

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