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

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Take Me To The River

During the recent flood threat in Cairo, I saved a bunch of pictures from the wires, and planned to write a lot of blog posts about what my hometown means to me. I guess now I'll just save them for the memoir.

But I DID want to write about this one right away. It's because I spent sooooooo many hours staring at the Ohio River along the levee road, where this kid is. I've even climbed those metal "stairs" like he's doing, in earlier centuries during my childhood when the river rose above its banks.

I simply can't tell you how many times I find myself marveling at how far I've come in this life. I recall pedaling down to this river on one of my various rickety bikes, or driving down in one of the family jalopies, either with one of my sisters or alone, and just sitting there. Some OTHER Cairo teens drove to the levee road to have underage sex, or do drugs, or anything more risky than just staring at the water and hoping that one day, they'd have great adventures, and travel the world, and make a difference.

I never got to get pregnant on the Ohio River levee, or lost a few brain cells from chemical hijinks, but I guess all that dreaming paid off.

By The Book

Here's another place I spent a lot of time when I was growing up in Cairo, besides the local Kingdom Hall of Jehovah's Witnesses, or my sister Julie's house. I'm probably the only pre-teen who spent hours in the Cairo Public Library reading back issues of Popular Psychology.

I SWEAR I used to devour that publication trying to figure out what was wrong with me, why I was so melancholy, why I didn't want to party and hang out and do the fun stuff other kids wanted to do. I won't divulge the specifics of my self-diagnosis, but I learned a lot from that magazine. I also used to rip out the Betsy McCall Paper Doll pages and take them home with me.

Yeah, I said it. I'm a thief. Come and get me.

Anyway, I also did some legal stuff at the library. I read all of the Oz books by the time I was 8 or 9, and then moved up to the teen romances, and then eventually Science Fiction. I was probably the only teenager in Cairo who could tell you the difference between "I, Robot" and Isaac Asimov.

Come to think of it, I guess I was a really, REALLY strange kid. But like I said earlier, I think it paid off.

Thank you, Mama, for taking us all to this building and signing us up for library cards by the time we were five or six.

Thank you, dear sweet Library Ladies like Mrs. Ogg and Mrs. Seavers.

Thank you, David, and John, and Julie, and Fred, and Peter and Reuben, and Sarah, and Marilyn, for setting good examples for me and Rebecca about why reading was so important.

Living life "by the book" isn't so bad, after all.

Monday, May 16, 2011

The Breakthrough

A few weeks ago, I think I the Universe sent me the first sentence for my long-debated memoir. Here it is:

"I woke up from a dream that I was dating Arnold Schwarzenegger the morning after the night they blew up the Mississippi River levee in Cairo, Illinois, and two days after Osama Bin Laden was killed."

You'd wanna keep reading a book that started like that, wouldn't you????

That's my way of explaining one of the OTHER major reasons I lost my blog-writing mojo: I was worried sick about flooding in the Midwest, and the possibility that my hometown would get swept off the map. I probably would have written a lot of really brilliant postings if I'd been able to harness the emotions swirling through my brain, but I was just too busy and too angst-ridden.

But I can recall how absolutely skeeved-out I was after waking up from the Schwarzenegger dream. I was all, like, "WTF was THAT about??" Actually, I've figured it out by now. I was flipping past my paltry DSTV channels at home one Saturday afternoon and stumbled across the brainless "comedy" with Arnie and Danny Devito, "Twins." Now, I've never been attracted to Arnold on any level, but I had to admit the scene of him warbling the song "Yakety-Yak" while wearing only a bath towel kinda worked for me. Normally, I think most body builders look like they're suffering from terminal anaphylactic shock with all those grotesque bulges, but Arnie was looking kinda hot in that scene.

Anyway, that must have fueled the dream. And it was quite PG rated, at least what I can remember of it. But the fact that I had been so obsessed with following details from Cairo, and that the whole world was buzzing with news about Osama Bin Laden, made it seem kinda weird that I'd dream about being Arnie's girlfriend. And it was even more disturbing to hear a week or so later that he and Maria Shriver had announced their separation. But I was happy for her, because Maria really needs to cut ties with negativity and embrace life in her Golden Age years, and stop being "The Good Wife" to a 'roid-fueled, ass-grabbing megalomaniac.

Strap yourself in, dear readers. When my Muse finally reappears, watch out.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

"If It's Worth It, Let Me Work It....."

I've probably spent most of the past two weeks trying to come up with valid excuses for why I've completely blown off the blog for nearly the past month. Really, the only one that even comes close to being worth the time it takes to type it up is that I have been working harder than a 1-legged, two-dolla 'ho these days.

But that is so INCREDIBLY inappropriate, I knew I had to find another way to communicate just how busy I've been. So I'm using the picture up top. It's from a half-day briefing I led this past Monday in Nyeri, Kenya, about 3 hours north of Nairobi in Central Kenya. This was a quick turn-around event that followed the BIG EVENT: the 4-day, Child Health Research workshop and the last thing I wrote about briefly last month.

I swear 'fo GAWD, I meant to write a bunch of posts about that experience. It was fabulous. It was the best thing that's happened during my nearly 3 years in Kenya. It renewed my faith in this work. It made me feel so proud and influential. It made me feel like I am really making a difference.

It also put me in bed for about two and a half days. Other than going to a friend's place for Easter Dinner, I spent those two and half days in the fetal position with the fan pointed at me, drifting in and out of consciousness. I was ZONKED LIKE A MO' FO', and for a while there, I thought I'd finally reached that point in life I'd always vowed to avoid: the moment when you must admit to yourself that "I AM TOO OLD FOR THIS SHIT."

But I guess the good news for me at this point is that I really don't even have time to ponder that possibility. There is always so much going on these days, and there are truly so many opportunities being tossed at me, I would be a plumb fool to not spend every available second pursuing them.

So a lot of times these days, I find myself standing in front of groups of reporters telling them about my "mission": getting policy makers and the public to realize that health reporting, and improved health care access and infrastructure, are as much a part of national development as improving tourism or luring business to Kenya. I've decided that whether I'm here two more months, or two more years, or TWENTY more years, I'm gonna give it all I have.

Now, I might not "put my thang down, flip it, and reverse it," like Missy Elliot advised a few years back, but I have decided that if' it's worth it, let me work it!

Born on Third Base

Here's another reason why I can't waste time whining about how hard I'm working these days.

When I saw these 4 terra cotta figurines at a roadside market recently, I HAD to buy them. They depict a man selling roasted maize on the side of the road, the typical "Mama" stooped low hauling a huge bundle of firewood, a crowded matatu with people jammed inside and hanging on for dear life outside, and a woman braiding a girl's hair.

I see these kinds of images every day in Kenya: hardworking, decent, salt-of-the-earth people who start work LONG before I begin the daily negotiations about when I'll stop hitting the snooze button. These are people who work like dogs every day, for less than what I spend on a bottle of sparkling water. These are people who, for whatever reasons, repeat this routine every day, year after year, while their so-called "leaders" exploit the sweat of their brows, tax them beyond belief, raise the price of fuel and food so high that they might as well stay home, because they won't be able to get to work or feed their families on what they receive in wages.

I found these figurines shortly after reading a comment on a friend's Facebook Wall that I haven't been able to forget. The conversation was about conservative legislation in the US, and how the "Haves" keep looking for ways to nickel and dime the "Have Nots" back home. The commenter completely rang my bell when she wrote,

"Some people who were born on third base go around acting like they've just hit a triple."

To me, that meant that some people who through a set of circumstances they were either born into, or who had the right connections---or even simply because they WEREN'T born in a struggling, developing country--walk around acting like they are justified in condemning other people, or like they are more deserving of the right to live in dignity, or have enough to eat, or a warm bed to sleep in.

I ain't gon' lie--I have my moments when it's downright overwhelming to be living in my really nice two-bedroom Oasis of Graciousness, all by myself, with a full refrigerator, and the ability to call a taxi to take me wherever I need to go by my damn self, and not squeezed like a sardine into a noxious rolling death trap. I live vastly better than the nearly 60 percent of the population who demographers say live at or below the poverty line in Kenya, and I think part of what keeps me over here doing the work I do is bottom line guilt.

Even though I was born in poverty in the United States of America nearly 50 years ago, compared to people like the ones these figurines portray, I was "Born On Third Base." But I'm grateful that I don't walk around frontin' like I hit a triple. I take it one base at a time, and I try to wave a few people in behind me as I go.

"I'm Just Sayin', Dawg..." Part 28

Since I mentioned crowded matatus in the last posting, this seems like a good time to introduce you to my efficient, organized, and very talented young journalist/assistant Sarah, who almost got herself fired this past Tuesday.

Not really, but it was touch and go there for a second! Overall, Sarah is the literally reason I have been able to accomplish ANYTHING with the Kenyan Alliance of Health and Science Reporters. She's focused, hard-working and totally committed to the idea of improving training resources for Kenyan journalists. She's computer savvy, which helps when I get frustrated and want to fling the organization's lousy laptop against the wall. And she'll arrive early, stay late, organize invoices, work with vendors, race across town to pick up tee-shirts--and THEN find time to do her own reporting, which is always very good and very well-written. The most important thing is that her brains are so much younger and fresher than mine, and she remembers things we're supposed to do. She's like my spare brain.

But here's the thing. For our recent trip to Central Kenya, Sarah insisted that we take a matatu. An 11 seater death sled on wheels that usually travels at top speeds and is more likely than not to be driven by a 20-year-old guy who probably spent the night before gulping Tuskers and chewing the local hallucinogenic Miraa.

I was about to tell her to "talk to the hand," but then I felt a brief surge of fiscal responsibility. A 3-hour matatu ride to Nyeri costs 350 shillings, or about $4, whereas renting a car would cost 8,000 shillings, or $92. To Sarah, it was a no-brainer--take the matatu, like millions of other Kenyans do every day, and save the organization a lot of money. So on Monday at around 2:30, Princess Rachella boarded what was only her second matatu during nearly 3 years in Kenya.

By the time we were settled in for the return trip on Tuesday around 3:00, I was exhausted, my lower back ached from having been jolted over long stretches of bumpy roads the day before, and I was in AGONY thinking about the now 4 hours it would take to get back to Nairobi, because we'd encounter Nairobi rush hour traffic this time. Seriously, I would have paid $920 for a car with a clean interior and good shocks. So I pretended to whine about wishing I was back in DC, with the efficient, fast Metro system, with no bumps and crazy drivers. We both laughed at my antics, but then Sarah said, "Stop acting like a baby!"

Many things occurred to me after I finished being stunned. First, I am old enough to be Sarah's mother, so there's probably really something wrong with me if Sarah perceived I was acting like a baby. Second, when I first met Sarah, she was so meek and skittish and desperate to please, I could barely get her to look me in the eye, no less have her speak to me. It felt kinda nice that she has become comfortable and confident enough to tell me to get a grip.

But here's the thing: why wouldn't my youthful employee, raised in a culture where respect for elders is almost a LAW, view me with a mixture of nearly paralyzing, awe and reverence which would stop her from ordering me to quit being such a whiny little bitch??

I'm still processing this situation, but for the most part, every time I think about it, it makes me smile. By the way, coincidentally, I suddenly find myself in the market for a new assistant! (*just kidding!*)

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