In July, 2008, I, Princess Rachella, Intrepid African American Girl International Journalism Consultant, pulled up stakes once again and headed to Nairobi, Kenya. Through my various adventures, I've concluded that if I get any MORE explosively fabulous in these prequel years to "THE BIG 5-0," I will have to register myself with the Pentagon as a thermonuclear incendiary device.

Friday, December 31, 2010

Cottage Industry

Now that I think about it, this innocuous little pink and green cottage is where some of the worst times of my life took place. And I've had some really horrible times over the past decade, you best believe.

But for purposes of this blogpost, let's start with the Holiday Season, 2007. I'd been in Gulu, Uganda for about 7 months at that point, except for the time I spent back in the US when my sister Julie died. The only thing that saved my own life that Christmas was the fact that I was completely numb. Shock and extended trauma can be a blessing sometimes, I guess. When I remember opening the last box Julie ever sent me on the day after Christmas, and DIDN'T completely lose my damn mind, I can only conclude that my nerve-endings were completely blunted, by a mixture of cheap Ugandan banana gin and grief.

And then there was the New Year's Eve generator explosion while I was in that cottage, on that compound, by myself--except for the guard who was a former child soldier for the Lord's Resistance Army. If you asked me today to go spend three weeks on a lonely acre with him, I'd cuss you out. But I did it back then, because I honestly felt like I had nothing left to lose.

And then a few hours after the generator was mended, I battled a huge-assed moth that kept dive-bombing while I cowered under a mosquito net. I think my time in Gulu made me a bit less afraid of all creatures that creep, crawl, and flutter--but not much. I had to battle the damn things on a daily basis, so after a while you tend to develop a bit more nerve.

In fact, I stopped being afraid of a lot of things during my time in Northern Uganda.

I left Gulu in February 2008 with mixed feelings...grateful to be heading back to "civilization," but sad to be leaving the kind of work I'd come to love. And the solitude and quiet of that cozy little cottage was actually quite restful in hindsight. Lonely more often than not, granted, but that kind of quiet nothingness forces you to either go crazy or work through some thangs.

And now three years later, I'm spending another quiet New Year's Eve, alone. But hey, at least there ain't no ex child soldiers around! And for some reason, I feel like I'm breaking the holiday curse that began in this little pink and green cottage three years ago. On New Year's Eve 2008, I was too stunned to care what the future brought. Twelve months later, the numbness had worn off, and while I've never told anybody, I was so depressed, in so much pain, I wasn't sure I wanted to see what 2009 would bring.

I spent last New Year's Eve watching my beloved Twilight Zone Marathon in Brooklyn, after spending a wonderful evening with my sister friend Marcy. As I've recently explained, this was just a few days after my Christmas Day brush with terrorism at Detroit Metro Airport. I was probably still a bit dazed, but for all the right reasons. I was alive, and I was in my homeland, and I'd consumed several corned beef sandwiches by then, and was really content with my life. It didn't matter that for one mo' 'gin, I still wasn't going to be kissing a man, my man, at midnight.

And now, here I am winding up another holiday season. I spent a really marvelous Christmas Eve dinner with my "Cousin George," his wife Carole and their family and friends. Christmas Day was spent with my buddy Monique and her next door neighbor, Rev. Phyllis, an American married to a Kenyan man, and who knows how to burn in the kitchen! I'm talking turkey and dressing, mac and cheese, candied real live "AMERICAN" sweet potatoes, the whole nine yards. We even sang Christmas carols, and I remembered most of the words to "The Little Drummer Boy," which really impressed the crowd.

At present, I'm lounging on my couch in suburban Nairobi, hoping I can stay awake long enough to experience Midnight at the Oasis, 2011. Still alone, still not entirely certain about what the future will bring. Will I usher in 2o12 on American soil? Will I be a 50-year-old newlywed? Will I be alive and healthy, employed and overjoyed, or poor in pocket and spirit?

Will I be able to completely close the door on the cottage industry of focusing on what I don't have, or will I find a way to be perpetually grateful for what is????

Saturday, December 25, 2010

O Hear the Clarion Call!

'Twas the day before Christmas, and joy dawned at noon,
'Cuz I won't be Bugle-less any time soon!!!!

Wishful Thinking

God, how I wish my sister Julie and my mother Eloise were alive to see this image! Two beautiful, proud, elegant African American women presiding over the nation's Christmas celebrations as the First Lady and First Mother-in-law.

Now, I know the past few years haven't been a carefree thrill ride for the Obama-Robinson clan. I got this picture from a fashion blogpost where the very first commenter condemned her for wearing vintage couture. It's the first time a First Lady had ever done that for a holiday affair, and the dress cost about $2,000, instead of 3 or 4 times more for an original holiday gown. The writer suggested she made the choice as some sort of mockery, as if wearing a "second hand dress" made her some kind of hero in these tough economic times.

Spoiler alert: I am about to switch to my automatic race card default setting, which I only use sparingly. Now, I know Michelle Obama is no saint, and I know she's made some not-so-wise comments and some questionable fashion choices. But leveling that critique come from a place of nothing but puredee "Who does that uppity n----r b---h think she is?" And you couldn't give me a million dollars to change that opinion. Trust me, if Laura Bush had done it, she'd be hailed as fashion forward and sensitive to the public zeitgeist.

But don't let me plunge too far into the abyss. All I really wanted to say with this posting is that I wish my mother and sister were alive to see this picture. They would be so astonished and proud. As I will always be, to hail from a country where a scene like this could take place.

"I'm just Sayin', Dawg," Part 27"

You mean to tell me they couldn't find a single black elf in Washington, DC??????????

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

Thursday, December 23, 2010

All I Need For Christmas

I've spent the past few days wondering why I'm NOT feeling bummed about another Expat Christmas, a good 8,000 miles from the nearest sweet tater pie or Honey Baked Ham. In fact, I woke up this morning feeling great, and it had nothing to do with the wine from the night before.

And then it occurred to me that I'm just happy to be
anywhere. Last Christmas Day probably scarred me emotionally, moreso than I've ever admitted. As long as I live, I will never forget the eerie silence in the Immigration Arrivals Hall at Detroit Metro Airport, where I queued for 4 hours AFTER having sat on a runway for 5 hours, in the plane that landed just after the one that ferried the Nigerian Nitwit whom I've affectionately nicknamed the "Underoos Bomber" from Amsterdam to Detroit.

Everybody, even exhausted babies and toddlers, seemed too stunned to make a peep by that point. People who had only an hour or so earlier cursed KLM, and the airport, and the Fates for ruining their Christmas Day were all of a sudden visualizing themselves splattered across the runway, or incinerated beyond recognition. It was probably the closest brush most of us will
ever have with terrorism, even though we weren't on the same plane, and nobody got hurt. But somehow, we all really felt it. Deeply.

So, when I recall finally sinking into my bed at the Airport Best Western in Romulus, Michigan around 10 PM on Christmas Night 2009, having consumed my Yuletide feast of Fritos and Coke, I remember feeling an insane level of gratitude. Jetlag and shock kept me wide awake for a few more hours, which I filled by flipping through cable channels and being soothed by nasal American accents. It didn't matter that I didn't get any turkey or stuffing or gifts, or hear any carols or get to watch Rudolph or Charlie Brown or "A Christmas Story 24-Hour-Marathon" on TBS. I was

That's why this year, it just doesn't seem like such a big deal that I'm not in America being ushered into the bosom of somebody's family on Christmas Day, or that I don't have a family of my
own to cook for, or a kid to spoil. It doesn't matter that this little chocolate-colored Afro-centric angel is the only ornament on display at the Oasis of Graciousness, and the only card I've received so far came from the delivery guy at the grilled chicken joint I've subsidized over the past two and a half years in Nairobi.

Just like Celie said in "The Color Purple," I'm here. Dear God, I'm
here! That's all the Christmas spirit I need, for now.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Temporary Transvestite

I had to wait until I made it back to Kenya safely to write this post, just in case I found myself waking up on a dirt floor in a Sudanese prison for sneaking into the country under false pretenses. It wasn't until the day before I boarded the flight to Juba that I noticed a tiny, gender-based error on my temporary travel visa.

After arriving, I held my breath until the second I cleared the airport. Same thing on the day I left Sudan, praying security officers wouldn't check my papers too closely.

*Sigh.* Thing is, I don't know if I'm more upset with the person in Nairobi who looked at me and made the mistake anyway, or with the folks in Juba didn't catch it and loudly protest that there's no WAY someone as feminine as me could be mistaken for a man.

Either way, I bet they're still talking about the Black American transvestite journalist who dared flaunt her wickedness for a full week in Southern Sudan.

See why I love my life so much???? I am a laff riot with legs.

Another Moment In Time

I wish I'd kept track of all the group photos I've taken at African reporting workshops through the years. There must be at least a dozen by now. This is one of the best. Such a fine bunch of serious, enthusiastic, focused young people.

And I REALLY enjoyed spending time with the white guy at the far right of this shot. John is a former NPR colleague who's now coordinating training and programming in Sudan for Voice of America. We're both former "Nippers" as ex-NPR employees call themselves, who have managed to move on to even more challenging, more interesting gigs. When this training was coming together, John asked me to come up and help out, seeing as how it would take place in my neck of the woods.

We both feel pretty lucky to be doing what we're doing at this moment in time. The American media business is going through major mid-life crisis, and that's putting it mildly. It's a perfect time to be a Journalist Without Borders, to travel to new places and approach our craft from a different angle. If the rest of my career plays out through helping other people become better journalists, that feels right, somehow.

They Might Be Giants!

It's true what they say about Dinkas from Sudan. I wound up with a crick in my neck from staring up at guys like these all week.

I felt like a member of the Dinky tribe.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

"I'm just Sayin', Dawg," Part 26"

It's never a good idea to let guilt be a major motivating factor in your life. Still, I can honestly admit that most of the reason I haven't been blogging lately is that I'm stil processing my time in Juba, GOSS. Also, I think back-to-back journalism trainings knocked me on my butt, for real. I've concluded that the investment of emotional energy....the hope that someone will benefit from all the hard work and a bigger drain than the physical toll.

But my time in Southern Sudan also managed to inspire me, in so many ways. Here's the ultimate moment...when a Sudanese woman journalist walked up to me and tied this banner around my waist. It's the symbol used by folks who want the South to separate from the North and form a new country. After 2o years of war and strife, they think it's time for a clean break.

The vote for the new referendum will begin on Sunday, January 9th, 2011. And the name of the journalist in this picture, the one who tied the banner around my waist, is....Sunday.

YOU do the math. Once again, I am stunned by how I always seem to have these extraordinary opportunities for a ringside seat during historic moments on the African continent of late. There's GOTTA be a reason for it...

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

Saturday, December 11, 2010

"I Have To Admit, It's Getting Better..."

Introducing Ayuen Panchol, the baby-faced 6'5" Sudanese journalist-slash-rapper a.k.a. "T.S." from the group "Holy Crooks" and who is now my new best friend, and who COMPLETELY hooked me up with an elaborate collection of classic and new hip-hop music: De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, Common, The Beatnuts, Pharcyde. It's mind boggling how much edgy, super cool music this kid has.

As a result, I am happy again. My week in Juba, GOSS has completely recharged my batteries and realigned my worldview. The Sudanese reporters I've worked with are positive, enthusiastic, smart, professional, serious--it makes last week feel like a blip on the radar screen. I WANT to stay in touch with these reporters. I WANT to hear their stories and track their progress. I WANT to know what they experience during the historic election that's coming up next month. Mostly because I want to be sure they'll be okay if any there's any trouble.

And....I WANT to come back to Juba.

Two months ago, you couldn't have paid me a thousand dollars to believe I would ever feel that way. Or that I would agree to go clubbing with a baby-faced 6'5" Sudanese journalist-slash-rapper in a group called "Holy Crooks" next time he comes to Nairobi. But you always have to stay open to the possibilities....

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

"...Or Has Time Re-written Every Line???"

I prefer to remember the happy moments from last week's reporting workshop in Kilifi.

This is about it. But it was a good one, for sure.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

To Coin a Phrase....

These are the earrings I plan to wear during my one-week stay in Juba, GOSS (Government of South Sudan). They are Irish Coins, circa 1961. I bought them at Eastern Market in Washington, DC probably about a decade ago, and I have lost and misplaced about a hundred pairs of earrings since then. But not these.

That's because, obviously, 1961 is the year I was born. It's also the year that Paul Lavery McGorrian was born. He was one of the first people I met when I started working at the St. Petersburg Times' Clearwater bureau back in June of 1986. I remember thinking that this tall, lanky, blonde, bespectacled Irish Dartmouth Grad was like a young Thurston Howell the Third, or something. He was almost a caricature of himself, all pseudo-serious and wonky. It was like he had watched every movie about journalism ever made since the dawn of cinema, and was trying to cram all the different celluloid personas into one package.

But for some reason, we clicked, probably after the first time I flat cracked his ass up in the newsroom one day. As long as I live, I'll never forget McGorrian's giggle. When he completely lost it, he also lost control of his limbs, flailed about, turned bright pink, took a few minutes to pull himself together, and then lost it again. When I realized I had that much power over him, it became a challenge to catch him off guard and make him blow his cool. Of course he eventually learned my comedic weaknesses and we started competing to break each other down. But I guess I knew I'd REALLY earned this Ivy League Yuppie's respect when he started recommending esoteric, boring-ass books for me to read, like about the history of the wars in the Middle East, or something, and I'd listen respectfully and then yawn in his face.

And he'd laugh.

Of course, as occurs quite frequently in life, I didn't realize I was in love with Paul Lavery McGorrian until his plane crashed somewhere between Islamabad and Gilgit, in the summer of 1989. I spent months torturing myself about our last phone conversation in June of that year, after I had left Clearwater and moved to Ft Lauderdale to spend a short, psychotic stint at the Miami Herald bureau there. That's where I learned that McGorrian had quit his job and withdrawn his savings and was headed to Pakistan to be a freelancer. I called to say goodbye and wish him well, and then there was this awkward pause. I didn't want to hang up. HE didn't want to hang up. We both mumbled something, and kept saying goodbye.

That was before I learned to tell people I wasn't related to, or hadn't slept with, that I loved them. Just because of who they were and what they meant to me, not because I HAD to, or because I hoped they would say it back to me.

Twenty-one years later, I realize I'm living the life McGorrian was trying to live all those years ago. I guess I really felt it tonight, when I was sitting in my hotel room in Juba, GOSS, a few weeks before an historic referendum that will either create a new country or reignite a dormant war, and I was watching an Arabic international cable news network program about that very referendum.

That's when I was reminded, once again, that I've come a loooooong way, baby. To coin a phrase....

Sunday, December 5, 2010

"I'm just Sayin', Dawg," Part 25"

Because I don't have time to get into details right now, all I can say is you know you've had a rough couple of weeks when the thought of landing in Juba, Sudan in less than 24 hours feels like a VACATION.

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

Friday, December 3, 2010

The Bigger Picture

There was a moment during this past week when I literally didn't think I'd make it to Friday. Seriously.

I lay curled in the fetal position in the center of the bed at my beloved Mnarani Club at daybreak, and even the thought of lying by the pool brought no pleasure. So much had gone wrong, I just wanted to
evaporate, maybe stand out in the middle of a Kilifi Road without a hat and sunscreen until I melted into a puddle of chocolate flopsweat.

One day, I'll tell you why. It'll be part of my weighty ruminations about the challenges of journalism training on the African continent. But here's one scene that made every minute of the past week worthwhile. Getting reporters past the official press releases and the sound bites, and the pharmaceutical company PR, and into the wards where the real impact of diseases like pneumonia and HIV/AIDS plays out is absolutely critical. I can only hope the experience ignited the reporting instinct for one or two of them.

What I do is about connecting the dots until they form a bigger picture. Call it my "peripatetic pointillism," if you will. Or just say that for some reason even I don't fully understand, all the bad stuff is worth it if one person embraces a deeper journalistic vision for him or herself.