Aug 17, 2012

Birthday Words To Live By

At 10:10 am, 40 years ago on a remote island in the Pacific Ocean, I made my debut into this world.

Growing up, I don't remember ever dreaming about where I'd be or what I would've seen by this age. Whatever I dreamed, I'm sure it didn't involve sitting on the couch in a modest townhome on the outskirts of Washington, DC watching "The Curious Life of Benjamin Button." But as luck would have it, that's exactly what I was doing on my 40th birthday.

Anyone who knows me knows I love a great quote and I'm always on the look out for "words to live by". My journal is filled with sayings by Rumi, Christ, Plato, Thich Nhat Hanh, philosophers, thinkers, sages & satirists.

I was semi daydreaming, when Mr. Daws (a character in the movie who'd been struck by lightning 7 times) said this:  "Blinded in one eye; can't hardly hear. I get twitches and shakes out of nowhere; always losing my line of thought. But you know what? God keeps reminding me I'm lucky to be alive."

At that moment, the curtain sheers billowed in, lifted like angels wings, suspended long enough for me to look back and forth twice & smile at the coincidence as I repeated the words softly to myself:

God keeps reminding me I'm lucky to be alive.

I felt the words sink in. A smile curled my mouth.

Amen. If I forget all else, may I never forget this: how lucky I am just to be alive.

Jul 19, 2012

The Naked Face of Evil

If I ever cross paths with Keith Richburg, I'd ask him if he still believes Africa is a lost cause. By the end of his book Out of America: A Black Man Confronts Africa (1996), he was through - and I do mean through - with Africa. It had frustrated him, horrified him & nearly killed him several times. But that was the 1990s. After 15 years, I wonder if he still feels the same.

* * *

In 1991, Richburg had the heart (if not the bright eyes) of an optimist. At the time he touched down in Kenya, I was in college & my pro-black Pan-African racial identity phase was just dawning. Even with above average academic & personal interest in Africa while attending a historically black university, I can’t remember ever discussing what Richburg documented as the Nairobi Bureau Chief for the Washington Post.

From the moment Richburg arrived, Africa began to dismantle his personal hope to reconcile with his ancestral homeland. He wasn’t prepared for the real Africa - its deceit (I got my first lesson in Africa... I learned how to lie),  its frenzied episodes of senseless violence (watching the endless cascade of human carcasses toppling over a waterfall downriver), its brutal & corrupt leaders (they are good at saying what others want to hear then do whatever the hell they please), and the ironic fact that his blackness made him more likely to be killed (I’ve got a guy leveling a machine gun at me because I’m black and he thinks I’m an African).

But God bless Richburg, he remained reluctant to admit that he would never be able to bridge the cultural gulf between him and native-born Africans. He got there eventually, but it took a while.

As Black man wanting to patch the hole in his identity and document the rise of Africa, timing just wasn't on his side. As a journalist, his timing couldn't be better. The 100 days of bloodlust in Rwanda ranks as the most grotesque convulsion of savagery on the continent in the 20th century. And Richburg was there to cover it, as well as conflict in Somalia, Liberia & Sierra Leone.

Although his chronicle is fueled by anger, I connected with it on a personal level. I too have longed to reclaim an ancestral homeland. I too have wanted to attain some missing piece of my identity so that my search would be over, my journey complete, and I would be whole.

Like Richburg, I too have been frustrated & wondered why the same story keeps getting told over & over again across the African continent. Poverty. Violence. Tribal conflict. Over and over again, power-hungry strongmen keep playing the tribal card to hang onto power. And the people keep falling for it. Why do they keep falling for it?

I too can admit that I have experienced a guilty sense of gratitude that my ancestors were captured into slavery so that I was born in 20th century America not Africa. I have been to a "museum" owned by a man who claimed to be descended from a chief who sold other Africans as slaves. In that little
hut located close to a beach in West Africa, the man put shackles & chains on his wrists & neck & we took a picture together. Next to his scruffy leanness & ill fitting clothes, I imagine few would guess I was the descendant of slaves, not he. I wondered where I would be today if my ancestors hadn't been kidnapped & sold to slavers.

And so I understand why Richburg’s journey lead him to turn his back on the continent where his friends & colleagues were violently murdered by a mob in Somalia, where he was repeatedly at risk of being killed because Africans thought he was a Tutsi or a Hutu or a rival Somali clan member.

If he was conflicted at all before going to Africa, by the end of his stint, he wasn't conflicted one bit. He was American & damn grateful for it. And that was that.

* * *

Earlier this year, I sent a letter to a missions pastor working for an American charity I support. The pastor was en route to Uganda. I wanted assurance the charity didn’t support native pastors who incite violent homophobia. I wrote, “evil doesn’t always hide its face in Africa.”   

Unfortunately, the naked face of evil was something Richburg witnessed first hand. And most unfortunately, that evil has not ended. Since his memoir was published, Darfur, Joseph Kony, rape in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and piracy off the coast of Somalia are familiar topics to viewers of American news cycle.

Although Richburg lived to tell the horrific tale, he suffered a fatality. His optimism is in a grave in Africa.

I wonder will he ever reclaim it?

Jun 26, 2012

I (The Writer)

The landscape of the most valued literature in academia is often broad, dense and dry. 



I define myself first and foremost as a writer.

I (the writer) value the intangibles that make a written piece resonate.
I (the writer) desire to make writing beautiful.
I (the writer) craft every sentence so it is distinguished... so its rhythm, its allusions, the subtle structural & figurative elements are in place to transform a flat & informative essay into a lovely dance across a literary plane.

The author does not speak in academic essays. Nor should they. Indeed, the author is invisible. The essays of academics do not invoke feeling. Nor should they.

The absence of (I) the writer is acceptable and preferred.

I (the writer) am not only unheard or insignificant... I am dead.

Can I (the writer) live with that?

Mar 7, 2012

No One Outside Africa Believes Africa Can Fix Itself

Hoping is hard. I learned that in 2008 when a Black man whose middle name is Hussein & whose last name rhymes with Osama ran for US President. And won. I'll never forget it. Hoping is hard - sometimes there is nothing harder. But you can't give in.

Paul Theroux said all news out of Africa is bad. Indeed, the well-known narrative of Africa tells of a place that is regressing & riddled with corruption, disease & blight. But Ngozi Okonjo Iweala has identified reasons to hope.

Ngozi Iweala 

Iweala, the Minister of Finance in Nigeria, speaks with authority & certainty. With no visual aids, nothing distracted from her powerful story of an Africa many believe cannot exist. An Africa where the tolerance for corruption & government mismanagement is coming to an end. An Africa that is a viable market for international investors & private enterprise. (view speech here) She was unflappable. Her strength concealed how fragile the vision is... whisper a breath on it & it dissolves.

It was compelling and radical. It runs counter to everything that's being said about the continent. It's the kind of vision I love. Optimistic. Looking at an utterly hopeless situation... yet finding a kernel of hope.

Dambisa Moyo
Dambisa Moyo from Zambia has said much the same. A best selling author and one of Time Magazine's "100 Most Influential People in the World", Moyo says it's time to stop focusing on the old story because Africans are ready for change. Don't focus so much on the negative. There is a vibrant young population coming up who are eager to participate in the global economy & will do what it takes so their countries can sustain itself.

I was eager to share what I learned from Iweala's speech with the African I know best. Unfortunately, my husband (a Nigerian like Iweala) could not resist the impulse to crush the evidence that change is possible & already underway. He said "She is a politician. She's lying."

He has good reason to distrust Nigerian politicians. Nigeria sets the bar when it comes to corruption. He, like many, has become so cynical he can barely tolerate the words "hope", "justice" and "Nigeria" in the same sentence.

But his cynicism frustrates me (& pisses me off). I demanded: if you believe in your heart of hearts Nigeria is beyond redemption why do you want to live there? why do you pour money into constructing oversized homes there? why do you waste your time & money? (Actually, I wasn't that nice... I said he might as well take his money, wipe his rear end with it, & flush it down the toilet... that'd make as much sense as building homes in a country he hopes to see crumble).

After I fussed at him & he had a good laugh at my expense (after 18 years we know how to push each others buttons), he backtracked then & tried to offer his own examples that Nigeria still has potential.

Too late. Out of the heart, the mouth speaketh. Your thoughts become words, your words become actions.

No wonder people have such a hard time seeing Africa as anything other than a lost cause. Africans themselves are often so polluted by the endless examples of disorder & dishonesty, the default response to encouraging news is denial. The very idea that change is achievable is rarely uttered & so it gets aborted before the promise can form in people's hearts & minds.

Bill Clinton said “Pessimism is an excuse for not trying and a guarantee to a personal failure.”

Maybe if I'd used the words of this White man my husband admires rather than those of 2 African women, he would have had a more open mind. An irony which is not lost on me one bit...

Mar 2, 2012

Immigration and the Bastard in Me

If you were slapped, whipped, lied on, degraded, threatened, humilated, called a whore from the ages of 12 to 21, then you escaped & went on to live your American dream... you'd have a helluva story to tell. Your name would be Ola*. You started out inAmerica as a child slave trafficked from West Africa to cook, clean & nanny for your cousin's family of 5. You'd be my age now. You'd be my friend & neighbor. Our daughters would be BFFs.

After you became a US citizen, you'd want to file for your mom to come live in America. You're no different than any other immigrant from the "third world". Your mom would be in her 70s & her health is failing. If your mom is given a green card, she'd be able to work & eventually be eligible for medicare.

But "work" isn't what you have in mind...


When Ola told me she wanted to file for her mom to get a green card so she could get proper medical treatment, I was immediately torn.

On one hand, I support her. She's my friend, I want her to be successful & if I were in her shoes, I'd file for my mom in a heart beat. Anyone would. Ola is upbeat & giving & full of energy. A marathon runner whose life story embodies the power message: ENDURANCE, she's a hard worker & has the best heart. She deserves to have her mom with her especially after what she went through.

But if I'm brutally honest, in my gut, I thought... this isn't right. This isn't fair. In fact, it's f*cked up.


Because if you were my mother, you'd be 64 & you worked since you were 15. You always did the jobs a person with no high school diploma does. Nurse's aid. House cleaner. Janitor. And when your body started to break down in your late 50s, you wouldn't qualify for disability & your worker's comp claims were denied. So you'd have to retire early from your job with the county & start collecting a small pension you contributed to for 13 years. You can't live on $600 a month so now you live with me & my family. And you don't have health insurance. And since you're diabetic, your BMI exceeds healthy limits & you've been hospitalized twice for chest pains, you can't get health insurance either. What's more, you can't afford the high-risk pool premiums the state offers.

So if you're my mom, you're screwed until you qualify for Medicare. You pay out of pocket for all your prescription meds. You try to see your doctor as infrequently as possible to avoid that $240 fee (not including lab work).

If I'm brutally honest, I can't stand the thought that the same "system" that locked my mother out would open its purse strings & provide health insurance & maybe other benefits to Ola's mom, a person who has never paid U.S. income tax & most likely does not have enough productive years left to do so.

The stuff I was thinking & feeling caught me off guard. It was enough to make me wanna go OCCUPY something. I saw how easily I could crawl into the same swamp as all those Arizona or Georgia or Alabama conservatives who vote to pass immigration laws that make undocumented immigrants pack up & flee in the middle of the night.

The "stuff" is all fear-based. It came from a place I was arrogant enough to believe didn't exist in me because it's the kind of thinking I despise. It's all about lack & division & the "Uses" vs. the "Thems". It says there isn't enough to go around. It says if we keep giving to you & yours, that means there's less for me & mine. It says the same system that f*cked my mother over for the last 8 years better f*ck you over too. In fact, worse.

It says what right do your foreign relatives have to our stuff?

It's beyond ugly. And the conclusions were all pure conjecture. Fact is, when a US Citizen files for a non-citizen family member to become a permanent resident, she must prove she can can afford to financially support her relative so they won't become a burden to the government. And many social service benefits aren't available to new green card holders. They have to live here a minimum of 5 years.
But even if an immigrant does bring a relative to America who immediately begins to draw social service benefits, the problem is not the person who does what is legally allowed. The problem is the system that drop kicks its own citizens while allowing others to benefit in ways they may not "deserve" or have earned (Wall Street vs. Main Street bail out debates sound familiar?)
In any case, after I almost turned myself inside out over this situation, it was all ego-based speculation. And it's humbling for me to see the ego is far from slain. It's still in me (the bastard)... even after years of prayer & soul searching & wanting to be a bridge builder & show people how beautiful other cultures are & how immigration makes our communities & our society richer.
For now, I don't have any tidy conclusions except to say I'm still trying to reconcile "the me I be" with the best & highest "me I hope to be". And I'm lifting this situation up in prayer (sorry if I offend, but I'm one of those nonconformists who can talk about prayer & use the "F" word in the same post). 
I am, as always, a work in progress.
Thanks for stopping by.
* not her real name


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