Notes From a Native Daughter

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, August 5, 2011

"I'm Just Sayin', Dawg...Part 30"

You know, it's kind of comforting for me to look at this picture and know that even though I'm not wearing a speck of make-up, and I felt like a bloated sow that day, something inside of me radiated happiness. Contentment. OKAY-ness, if you will.

I have spent the past few days in Kilifi, preparing for the next
Kenyan Alliance of Health and Science Reporters workshop. It could be one of the last events of its kind, if the Universe decides it's time for me to move on. Like I said in the last posting, there's a lot about my life that's uncertain at this moment.

But I guess it's because this image was captured on President Barack Obama's 50th birthday that I notice something special about it. Whatever else you think about him, he looks pretty damn fit for a 50-year-old. He's helping me set a new standard for what 50
should feel like.

I guess all I'm saying is that when I look at this picture of me, I detect a bit of contentment, of certainty that no matter what goes down, somehow I'll be okay. There is something inside so strong, so resilient, so able to shake it off or laugh it off, whatever the situation requires, and just keep on keepin' on. There is something so Eloise and Julie-
ish about me; I see both of their faces in this image.

I reckon for the rest of my life, I'll keep seeing them more and more. Knowing that I carry them around inside me, and that I don't really
HAVE to wear make-up to throw some serious inner fire, actually feels really great. After all, I loved them just the way they were.

And I love
me that way, too.

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

Saturday, July 30, 2011

A Whale of a Decision

I guess I never realized that whales get very little sleep, but I probably should have. I mean, when you're surrounded by salty fluid that could literally suffocate you if too much of it enters your lungs, you kinda have to stay moving and alert at all times to keep from drowning.

Which is a good way of describing my life at the moment. In exactly two months, the main reasons I have spent the past three years in Kenya will be moot. Done. Finito. No more support from afar, in the form of wire transfers and "organizational identity." If I stick around in East Africa beyond that time, it'll be under my own banner. Fueled by "Pure Princess Rachella Power"--that same Teflon-plated will, determination, and utterly naive, borderline reckless ability to step out on Faith with absolutely no visible means of support.

Of course, I'd be rather coy if I didn't also mention that at about that exact same point in time, I will turn 50 years old. Which prolly makes me a bit of a chump to be using a big-assed WHALE as the imagery for this particular turning point in my life! But I realized it was actually the perfect metaphor earlier this week, when my "Daily Om" email message landed in my AOL inbox. The title of that day's inspirational message was "Spirit of the Sea," and it offered the analogy of whales and their underwater existence to transmit a powerful message to me:

"It is through the vibrations of their unique sound that they release ancient wisdom to us. At the same time, their sound carries across such great distances that whales can enter the realm of the future where they can acquire knowledge of what is to come.

"Every whale sings a song, and they never repeat the same pattern when they sing their song. Since whales must be conscious at all times in order to breathe, they cannot afford to fall into an unconscious state for too long. Never completely asleep, their brain has constant access to the collective unconscious where all answers lie. Whales float peacefully, secure in the ocean environment that supports and sustains them."

I guess middle-aged female whales never struggle with menopause, because the cool depths of the ocean must help regulate their body temperatures. DAMN, that sounds fantastic!! Anyway, I totally grooved to the imagery of having constant access to the collective unconscious where all of Life's answers lie. I visualized myself floating peacefully and secure, knowing that my environment would support me and sustain me.

And then I ran the financial numbers and realized that I will be utterly screwed and homeless in no time flat unless I find another job immediately.

But once that temporary freak-out subsided, I went back to "The Whale Place" in my mind. I recalled two other times in the past five years alone when I was told that one job was about to end, and when I walked out the door or hung up the phone and literally articulated that "When one door closes, another one opens."

Without having the slightest idea of what I would do next, both times I just held my nose and stepped off the sheer side of Life's cliff. I did it for the right reasons, I think, because I knew I wanted to keep myself available to do work that mattered, and that would make a difference. And I'm visualizing myself remaining in East Africa a while longer for the same reasons.

But sometimes, I get so down-to-the-bone tired of being constantly on the move like whales. And I could definitely relate to the non-sleeping analogy, because I've battled insomnia over the past decade. I literally cannot remember the last time I slept through an entire night. And when I do wake up in those wee, dark hours, my brain is usually racing. I'm thinking of all the stuff I need to do, should have done, WILL do, can't do, don't want to do, etc.

Whales might be pretty chill about that kind of lifestyle, but it takes a toll on middle-aged humans. I was talking with another female expat last week about this same thing. She's single, never married, about my age, and committed to being here at least another year, but she has an apartment in New York that she would LOVE to go back and settle into.

We both nailed down the biggest hardship of this life we've chosen: the lack of visible support. The cordial, casual, occasional networks we access when we get so bored we think we'll go completely batshit loopy, but the lack of soul-deep, heart-strung connections. We both concluded that the ONLY thing that would keep us here permanently would be to find "The One," but then we also admitted that we'd have just about as much chance of finding him here as we'd have back home. Which wasn't MUCH of a chance, by the way, but at least over there, we'd have our friends, family and other comforts of home

So. We keep swimming into the breach, like the aforementioned whales, with no other choice but to keep moving, making a few spectacular leaps every now and then, but mostly just hoping we'll access this alleged submerged, subconscious wisdom that will make it all make sense. I hope I'll be here doing great work for the next few years, but at this very second, I have no idea what I'll be doing next month.

It's a whale of a life, but it's the only one I've got.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Saying "Yes, Yes, Yes" instead of "No, No, No"

Earlier this week, I had the most fun I've had in AGES rocking the house with a couple of 50 and 60-something American expat friends. We were at a Nairobi club known for playing smokin' old-school tunes, the kind that are almost guaranteed to make you squeal "WHOOOOH! That was my JAM!" after the first few chords are played.

This particular night, the anonymous Kenyan DJ was killin' the Otis Redding catalogue. I mean, I thought I knew there was so much more to Otis that the classic "Dock of the Bay," but I was just blown away by the depth and range that brother possessed! Turns out I recognized about half the songs I was hearing, but there were a bunch I'd never heard before. They ALL got me movin' and groovin', in a deep down in your toes kinda flow.

For a while there, though, I was feeling kind of wistful. I mean, admitting you know the lyrics to quite a few early Staxx tunes, and that you know who Sam and Dave were, and that Isaac Hayes did a lot of the back-up horn arrangements on those classic early-mid 60's tunes, can age your ass in a heartbeat. Finally, somebody forced me to sing the lyrics to Joe Tex's "I Gotcha," and all pretense was lost. I was my old-ass self, and lovin' every minute of it.

"You promised me the day that you quit your boyfriend/That' I'd be the next one to ease on in./You promised me it would be just us two,/And I'd be the only man kissin' on you./Now KISS me, hold it a long time, hold it/don't turn it a-loose now, hold it...."

I skerred MYSELF by that point! But hey, when you're almost 50, and you had a lot of older siblings who got off on that Staxx/Motown/R&B groove, ain't no sense in perpetratin'. Anyway, I'm rambling, so let me get to the point. After that recent funk-fest, it felt really hollow and ironic and sad last night when I learned that Amy Winehouse was found dead at 27. I'm not claiming to have been a rabid fan, but I did really, REALLY like "Back to Black." Of the latest crop of British Neo-Soul singers, I personally thought she was the best--or at least had the most potential to become a powerful influence in the musical world.

Sure, I also heard the stories about the drugs and booze and erratic behavior. But I guess my mind always drifted to Whitney Houston, and how somehow SHE managed to survive a severely dark decade or so with drugs and insane behavior. Of course, now it's rumored that she's slipping again, but hey, we can always keep praying.

Come to think of it, I guess most folks didn't consider propping up Amy Winehouse in prayer because she was still so young. Even though her addictions were ravenous, I guess everybody thought it was just her fumbling, stumbling way of coping with enormous fame. We all hoped that once she finally got tired of bad press, bad men--and just plain got sick and tired of being sick and tired--she would pull herself together and fully embrace her god-given talent.

Before the world knows what really went down, all we can do is speculate about what killed Amy Winehouse, based on her past behavior. In a way, it's like she signed her own death warrant by making millions of dollars through publicly admitting her resistance to getting clean. I remember it struck me as a bit skeevy the first time I heard "Rehab;" it was almost like the record company decided, "Well, if she's gonna be a fuck-up, at least let's all get paid from it." But like everybody else, I grooved to the funky rhythm and to her raspy wail.

But now Amy Winehouse is dead. At 27. Getting that news reminded me of last Tuesday night, shakin' my ass in that chair at that Nairobi bar, and also shaking my head at the incredible vocal power and talent of Otis Redding. It just seemed so damned impossible that the guy singing that amazing music had died at 26. It made me wonder if there isn't some immutable "off-switch" that kicks in for some extraordinarily talented musicians and singers at around that age: Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison....

But the main thing I take from this week's crazy arc of musical musing is that for the rest of my life, I want to say "Yes, yes, yes" to life, instead of "No, no, no." I want to affirm my power and expertise and energy in positive ways. I want to keep on contributing something worthwhile, and I want to help somebody along the way. I also want to achieve more of my own personal goals, which include finding the man I want to spend the rest of my life laughing, learning and loving with.

I guess all I'm saying is if I had died at 27, I would have missed out on 23 incredibly interesting years. I'm banking on at least 30 more. And I kinda wish Amy Winehouse could have visualized herself as an 80-year-old broad "sangin'" her guts out on a concert stage someday. Instead, my heart seized a bit as I heard Tony Bennett on the BBC describe recording a duet with Amy earlier this year, and recalling that he'd told her she sounded like Dinah Washington. Bennet said she'd been somewhat nervous until that point, but when he gave her that compliment, she instantly relaxed, and lit up like a firefly.

Apparently, poor, tortured Amy wasn't able to close the gap between how the rest of the world saw her and how she saw herself. I mean, if Tony Bennett paid ME a compliment like that, I'd have spent the rest of my life trying to prove he was right, instead of running as fast as I could in the other direction, screeching "No, no, no" all the way.

But don't just take my word for it. Here's one of Amy's other lyrics:

"I cheated myself, Like I knew I would. I told you I was trouble. You know that I'm no good."

I rest my case. Rest In Peace, Amy.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

These Boots Were Made for Caulking Creaky Knees

One of my many self-indulgent pursuits during my recent trip back home was the purchase of these supple leather, zip-up-the-back, kitten-heeled boots. Initially, I defended the purchase by declaring them an early 50th birthday present, a visual reminder that turning a half century old doesn't mean you start looking for orthotic inserts in your sensible shoes.

But okay, some of you may be thinking "WTF???? She lives in AFRICA, for Chrissakes...who needs leather boots over there, except maybe for stomping around in muddy forests??"

Well, in my ongoing attempts at promoting Afro-American cross-cultural understanding, please be advised that it is now Winter in Kenya, and of the four such seasons I have experienced so far, it is by far the coldest. OBVIOUSLY, it never gets as cold as, say, the Northeast in the US, or Michigan's Upper Peninsula. To my knowledge, there's never been any snow here. And I don't ever foresee myself investing in a down jacket while I'm on the continent.

But once you've lived in a different climate for a few years, your body recalibrates. Let's forget about my "Change of Life" issues for a minute; I truly believe my blood has thinned. I have been wearing socks to bed just about every night since I returned from the States. Most mornings are chilly and gray, and it's been a real struggle to get out of bed--just like the months of January through April back in DC.

Folks, SAD ain't just an acronym; Seasonal Affective Disorder is real, whether you're in Nyack or Nairobi. I've been plowing through somehow, and the other day I pulled on these puppies with some sexy patterned tights to help jump start the old positive endorphins.

Turns out these boots were a great investment, but sadly, not for the reason you might think. Oh yeah, I was smokin' hot in 'em, but by the end of a cold winter day here, I was forced to acknowledge the REAL reason I'm glad I own them. They covered my achy knees, and kept 'em toasty and snug. Helped cut my dose of Naproxen that day in half.

I swear to the Sweet Thorny-Haired Baby JAY-ZUS, you gotta laugh at this "Getting Older" crap or you woud cut your own throat 5 times every day.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Phenomenally 50--and Friends Forever

Behold 3 of the luckiest half-century old women of African descent to ever walk the face of the Earth.

They are partly responsible for yet another lapse in my blogging routine, because they just left Nairobi last Thursday. They landed here two days after I returned, from 3 of the most fabulous weeks I've had in a very long time. In fact, my recent stint in the US almost...ALMOST...made up for the 8 years of puredee personal and emotional Hell that preceded it. I had such a profoundly healing and joyous time while back in the US, I fully expected to pay for it by being totally depressed right about now.

Fortunately, these two women helped forestall the funk. Meet Faith and Danita, whom I've known since 1979 and 1980 respectively. I met Faith, the one in the middle, during Freshman Week at Northwestern University. She cemented our friendship by dragging my backwards ass out of my room in Allison Hall and insisting that I go to a frat party nearby. I probably expected Satan himself to be taking tickets at the door, and that I would get pregnant if a guy looked too deeply into my eyes. I remember trying to come up with a few excuses to get out of going, but Faith wasn't having it.

She's been all up in my grill ever since. Seriously, Faith is probably the one person who knows my tics and twitches as well as I do, because I've shared them with her ad nauseum. She's enough of a friend to never use them against me per se, but she also won't let me get away with anything. She's my guru; thank God for Skype, because it's kept us in check when necessary over these past few years.

Danita came to Northwestern the year after Faith and I did, and they bonded because they'd both been raised in suburban Cleveland. Danita's an engineer with the most disarmingly friendly, cheerful and personable energy of anyone I've ever known. I've spent more time with Faith over these past few decades, and yet once Danita and I reconnected, it was like we'd never missed a beat.

They spent about 9 days in East Africa recently, and as I told them in an email earlier today, "The Oasis of Graciousness" never felt more like home. Their being here reminded me of one of the biggest challenges of expat life: that missing sense of "family" and deep, knowing friendship.

There is something about being around people who've known you for decades, and who CHOOSE to travel thousands of miles to be with you, that is truly comforting. You laugh in ways you don't get to laugh with your expat friends. You don't have to explain stuff, and yes, you "exhale" in different ways. You're not always on high alert and with your guard up. You're more at home inside yourself.

That's also a pretty good way of describing turning 50. Faith accepted that glorious mantle in April; I'm next up in October, Danita's turn comes next year. And I think our African sojourn cemented something very important: We are blessed and highly favored. We have lives our own mothers didn't even imagine for us. We have professional role models like Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey to help us carry ourselves in the world in ways most women of African descent in the diaspora can never even pretend to imagine. We can set goals and dream dreams and take chances and say yes--or shout "NO!"--in ways our mothers couldn't.

So even though at one point these two innocent looking women did something so diabolical and treacherous to me that I can never fully disclose the details, they also helped ease my reentry into the Kooky Carnival that is life in Nairobi. They reminded me once again that true love and friendship don't fade across the miles and years, and that getting older really IS getting better, if you keep yourself surrounded by really great people.

Fair Weather Friends, That Is....

I think I've finally figured the secret to enjoying life fully:

Live in a dwelling with a balcony. And invite people you like to come over and sit on it and drink elixirs like apple martinis when it's mild and sunny and pleasant outside. And then, if they piss you off or betray you, you can push them over the edge of said balcony.

I mean, come on: LOOK at these two faces!!! Smiling like butter wouldn't melt in their mouths!! Who knew the depths of evil those smiles concealed???

Sukuma Wicked

...But then, I probably should have seen it coming. Especially when Faith pulled a knife on me. Well, not exactly, but it just sounds kinda edgy to make that sort of allegation.

Actually, though, I should have had more decency than to enlist their help in pulling off another of my legendary dinner parties. I made another of my batches of sukuma wiki, or Kenyan collards, and Faith and Danita helped carefully wash the greens...

With the emphasis on "carefully." I was, like, "What the HELL, girls??? It usually takes me about 30 minutes to get through the same batch it took THEM an hour and a half to clean. Granted, a forensic examination of my cleaned greens would probably reveal a few less than spotless surfaces, but all I can say is it's a good thing I don't have a separate water bill.

And oh, wait...THEN there was the "Croissant Conundrum"....