Goodbye, Brand #Uganda, Not #SoUg nomore!

So, I part ways with #BrandUganda! There is no value or satisfaction in defending an indefensible, intolerant, denigrating establishment.
I have been a good self-driven ambassador for Uganda, from my Diaspora location. Regardless of the habitual condemnation of “Diaspora nationals,” [of any country] by “those who stayed behind”. I am part of the African Diaspora, or “The New African Diaspora, herein referring to those who can trace their specific origin to any of the 54 states/countries of present day continental Africa, but live [permanently] outside their countries of birth or ancestry. We are often reminded that, “we abandoned our countries of birth/ancestral for “a beautiful life” elsewhere,” and dismissed as culturally ‘corrupted’ by cultures in our new countries of residence, unrealistic, and not attuned to events as they unfold in our countries of origin. We are often told off, by “those who stayed behind,” to stop unnecessary and undesirable interference in the national affairs of our countries of origin, which we supposedly abandoned on relocating elsewhere.
Even African Americans are often accused by Africans [including those in the Diaspora], of trying to force an ancestral link to continental Africa, yet they have no deep knowledge about it and are incapable of tracing their origin to any specific country. Plenty of Africans insist that African Americans are “Black” not African; the latter denotes “authentic” connection to the continent, while the former distinctly emphasizes descendants of slaves in America!
The fact is geography does not determine belonging to a particular social group or political entity. African Americans are as connected to Africa, as “the new African Diaspora,” by virtue of their ancestry, and preferred identification with the same geographical space. In fact, many Diaspora nationals globally, have played an important role in the welfare of their countries of ancestry or origin.
African Americans were a formidable force in the struggle for the decolonization of Africa, lobbying their United States and other western government, and through fundraising and financial donations to continental anti-colonial struggles, scholarly activism, and solid partnerships with continental African leaders and regional organizations. African Americans funded and facilitated the training of notable African leaders and scholars within the United States, hosted conferences denouncing colonial aggression and oppression, and participated in the then, Organization of African Unity (OAU) activities that culminated into eventual decolonization.
Today, the New African Diaspora, is very active in the economic, social and political development and advancement of their home countries. Diaspora remittences to many African countries supersede foreign direct investment or foreign aid, contributing greatly to the national treasury. Diaspora Africans also transfer and transmit technologies and social experiences from countries of residence to home countries. Moreover, they maintain lasting connections through family and friends “left behind,” and keep abreast with news and developments in their countries of origin. In some countries, Diaspora Africans are able to vote in national elections through their embassies or foreign missions.
True, we the Diaspora nationals are the unsung ambassadors of our countries of origin within their new countries of residence. As students or residents in our little corners here in the United States, African immigrants bring a new face of their countries of origin, among an American population that has never traveled beyond their zip code. We help undo the popular untruths among Americans that Africa is a wild jungle of war-torn countries, with poverty stricken, HIV/AIDS infected people, and potty-bellied begging orphans. Instead, Americans gain exposure to “a different African” —educated intellectuals, with a good command of the English language, healthy, and from wealthy family backgrounds. Resultantly, we, the African Diaspora alter the images about Africa, attract curiosity and potential tourists to our countries in Africa, often more effectively than our foreign missions in the United States.
Indeed, I have played my part, on flying the beautiful flag of Africa, and Uganda —my country of birth. I have embraced the mission of “undoing popular negative imagery about Africa,” in every country I have traveled to or lived, outside Uganda, most especially here in the United States where I have lived for nearly two decades. I am a self-propelled Afro-optimist, speaking and sharing my “Africa the beautiful”. As a Ugandan, I always challenge those who still identify Uganda with Idi Amin, reminding them that he left umpteen years ago, before I had an idea of who he was! In response to those who attack Ugandans as anti-homosexuality, I provide evidence that gays in fact have a vibrant social life in Uganda of weddings, funerals, parties, nights out about town, an annual gay pride, and registered civil society organizations defending LGBTQ rights.
True, slums sit side by side with upscale residential neighborhoods in the country, corner shops with tall buildings and sparkly shopping malls, and luxury sports cars cruise the city roads and country highways. Still, there is so much to celebrate about Uganda, inter alia, voted “Best Tourist Destination,” by Lonely Planet, and the “Most Entrepreneurial Country,” by Approved Index.
Exactly why, I had no hesitation jumping onto a #BrandUganda campaign, by a group of tourism and corporate Ugandans, dedicated to marketing Uganda in-country and to the outside world. The hashtag #Ondaba went viral, t-shirts printed with #Ondaba, and selfies shared of Ugandans wearing the t-shirts. Another hostage #IAmSoUg, also went viral on twitter, posted by was used by any Ugandan engaged in ‘patriotic’ activities, like tourism in-country and abroad. The #BrandUganda group, took the campaign to Spain, as Uganda’s self-propelled ambassadors seeking to entice Spanish soccer players and politicians to add Uganda to their tourist and business destination. I cheered them on.
Now, I am done! After the sham elections of February 18, 2016, I do not want to put my energies and my name to a gangsta mafia that grants itself the privilege of ruling Ugandans with an iron fist! I am not going to sink my might into an entity, stolen from me. I am not going to smear a project with sweet perfumes, when it is stinking rotten.
To those who will ask me about Amin, HIV/AIDS and Ebola, I am no longer going to boast about the progress Uganda has made since the days of Idi Amin. Nor quickly remind them of the resilience, enterprising spirit and hospitality of Ugandans. I will not interest them in visiting Uganda, no more!
Not when my Uganda is stolen by a thieving political machinery, hanging onto power by any means brutal and corrupt! I shall no longer attract opportunities to Uganda, to be robbed by a blood-sucking dictator, killing Ugandans, for demanding change and a chance to participate freely in choosing their preferred political leaders. There are no more praises to sing about Uganda; I am no longer interested in any #BrandUganda initiatives. Plenty of those posturing as #SoUg are in fact fetching heft rewards from nurturing and maintaining a monster in power.
No longer will I say that the political evil is in the nation’s past, when the evil, abusive and monstrous government of Museveni torments my country and my peoples. I will let all who ask, about the tear gas and live bullets, sprayed, clobbering, humiliating and murdering political activists, peaceful demonstrators and active citizens. Simply because they “Say No” to corruption, demand accountability, show up to vote, or dare to match peacefully for justice and peace for all Ugandans.
Goodbye #BrandUganda. No more no more No More!
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My Uganda 2015

P1070530-001No day goes by for me without thinking of Uganda! I haven’t been back since I left in May 2013 to return to the good ol’ USA. I have fond memories of the joyous time I had, when I took a two years hiatus from “The Home of the Brave,” carrying with me Child of Mine. Truly, Joie de vivre! I made new friends, new adventures, new discoveries, and new lessons learned.

I realized then, that I was born a “Hasher,” something I never caught up on, living my childhood in Uganda! I traveled to the most remote corners of Uganda, as a ‘donor,’ a tourist, a runner, and a community trainer and mobilizer.  Plus, a “DIY Expert,” bringing back those golden days of “Bulungi Bwansi” and “Gwanga Muje,” before the NRM government and international [in]humanitarians messed up the country with “brown envelopes/handouts culture”.

Nowadays, Ugandans wait for Mzungu — white people— to come from Europe, North America, Japan or South America [Yes, in Uganda even South Americans and Japanese are “white”] to run their common sense errands. Like, plucking their jiggers, building pit latrines for them, teach them how to rear chickens or raise their kids, even if the “trusted white saviors” have never seen jiggers or a pit latrine, themselves, do not have or have never raised children or chickens! Did I say, there are white people teaching Ugandans, “The importance of hand washing after using the toilet” or “the Right to Play”? Yes, somebody, sadly ‘retired’ common sense, among a large section of Ugandans.

Still, I had an amazing experience re-living Uganda. I re-learned some ’truths’ I had taken for granted, growing up in Uganda. Since returning to my “Wild West,” I have not been able to re-live My Uganda, except bits and pieces of recaptured memories, here and there, meeting Uganda connections, or hanging out with Uganda-like social circles. Very limited!

Of course I am not romanticizing My Uganda, whichwas not without challenges and frustrations: the hustle and bustle of Kampala City can get to you, the disfunction of the public service, the excessive abuse of power by the arms of government — especially the Executive – the President’s State House, under the Executive Branch, and the police —under the Judiciary.

The President and the Police literally hold the entire country and its citizenry at ransom. The President allocates himself unfettered powers to spend the tax payers money at will. Not on provision of public and social services, but to reward political patronage, and bribe anyone who dares to oppose his “long hand” dipping in the National Treasury – including the Legislature. The Police, commanded by a military general, works not for the maintenance of national law and order, but to safeguard the interests of the President. Instead, the Uganda Police Force is embroiled in abrogating the expectations in a multi-party dispensation, and the constitutionally stipulated mandate!

Perhaps that explains why I no longer habitually keep myself abreast with news from Uganda via the national dailies. Decades ago, after changing my habitual residence from Uganda, I regularly read the national dailies online to catch up on news about Uganda. I participated in national debates, by submitting electronic letters to the Editor, or posting commentary on online news. Not anymore; too much sad news in the papers! One can sponge up so much pain and agony in their lives!

No wonder, a quick “Google” or “Bing” search about Uganda is flooded with negativity: anti-homosexuality; police brutality against opposition politicians, opposition sympathizers and civil society activists. This news travels as far as Nigeria, from where a friend recently sent me a news piece on Uganda – about the controversial “undressing of a woman under police arrest, on the streets of Kampala City,” in broad daylight!

Then and now, Uganda is positively broadcast internationally: among CNN top 16 tourist destination; the World Linguistic Agency best English-speaking country in Africa; the Lancet Global health Journal top five health diets, and many more.

For the most part, I source most of my news about Uganda via social media – Facebook, twitter, blogs, and via personal friends who keep me posted on exciting happenings in-country. Of course, I am spreading My Uganda, in my global orbit, whenever I have a chance — via cyber communication, within Child of Mine’s social circles, personal encounters and

As I close off the year, take a look at what captivated My Uganda 2015

  1. Wakaliwood, the brainchild of Isaac Nabwana, a self-taught film director, and owner of Ramon Film Productions, located in Wakaliga [from which it derives its name], one of the rough-tough slums of Kampala City. I learned about Nabwana, dubbed “Quentin Tarantino” when he was featured on a BBC World Service Radio, and later on CNN Inside Africa, for using locally improvised equipment, material and skills in his movies. While Ramon Film Productions is not an official member of UgaWood, its products and the ingenuity of its founder are a force to reckon with, that put the shine on Uganda, and definitely caught my fancy!

  2. Uganda Freestyle Kayaking team came to me via my Facebook feed, as participants in the 2015 ICF World Freestyle Kayak Championships in Ottawa, Canada in September. After numerous failed attempts, the Canadian Visa Consular ran out of excuses for denying them visas, and allowed them travel to the country. Thanks to the indefatigable efforts of their British Manager and a supportive community in Canada, through fundraising and numerous visa letter petitions to the Canadian Visa Consular in Nairobi. They had great reception in Canada from the local Ottawa community. Hopefully, next time, the organizers will reach out to Ugandans in Ottawa.

  3. Queen of Katwe, starring the instantaneously world magnetic Lupita Nyong’o, is a biographical drama movie produced by Mira Nair (Mississippi Masala),  about the real life of Phiona Mutesi, Uganda girl from Katwe slums in Kampala City, a Chess prodigy, who becomes an international Chess Master candidate after performing at the World Chess Olympiad. It is a real-life story about rags to world fame, that could inspire any girl growing up in the hard-knock slums anywhere!

  4. Kampala Fashion Week, is growing like a storm, year after year, with amazing fashion designers, new models, new creativity and just a new, juicy, illuminating fashion, defining Kampala, and bringing joie de vivre and creativity that I know about my peoples. I was awed by pretty much all the runway fashion, particularly Jose Hendo’s collection “Resonance,” a revival of barkcloth an original Ugandan clothing material from the inner bark of a Mutuba tree (Ficus natalensis), worn before western-designs infiltrated the country, and destroyed the local garment industry.  Add to that, the photo genius of Giulio Molfese, top fashion photographer in the country with a golden eye to bring camera pictures to life.

  5. GirlGeekKampala made international news, as a hub for Ugandan women passionate about establishing their footprint “Geeking-Out” in a male dominated info-tech industry.  The host incubator is Outbox, Kampala’s “Silicon Valley,” thanks to partial funding from Google. Also check out AfriGal Tech, a team of four Ugandan women software engineers building Mdex, a SickleCells app, and Hive Colab, the first collaborative Tech Hub in Uganda.

  6. Yoza, the equivalent of Uber for Dirty Laundry, falls in the same league with tech-ingenuity coming out of Uganda. Yoza [“Wash” in English], is a locally developed app to find laundry services providers around Kampala, from the comfort of your home. Now one can nurse a longer hangover on Saturday, without the worry of laundry!

  7. The Gay Community, deserves a special ululation here, for its continued unapologetic mainstreaming of its presence, in a society still highly bigoted toward gays. Uganda society generally views homosexuality as an immoral, abnormality, and a threat to “children” and “the ‘normative’ institution of heterosexual marriage”. But the landmark court ruling in 2014, which overturn the Anti-Homosexual Act (AHA), 2013, boosted the gay community with renewed confidence.
    Highlights of the Uganda LGBTI community is the annual Gay Pride, and this year, the first SMUG (Sexual Minorities Uganda) Gala and Equality Awards held in December to recognize its supporters and allies. Thanks to its indefatigable and unabashed LGBTIs, like Kasha Jacqueline Nabagesera [who in my opinion was more deserving of the Glamor Woman of the Year Award than Caitlyn Jenner], an internationally recognized Ugandan gay, feminist and founder of the first gay NGO, Freedom and Roam Uganda. Kasha has bolded stated that while LGBTIs were until very recently a total taboos in Uganda, she never had to come out, because she was never in the closet. She has always lived openly gay, even in high school, where she got expelled from numerous schools, for her attraction and intimate fraternity with the same sex. Kasha was one of the petitioners for repeal of AHA, 2013.

  8. @ImSoUGANDA a revolutionary twitter account invented by Ugandans, on a mission to positively branding of their country. Using #Ondaba, Ugandans share their “SoUgandan Moment,” while on adventure or tourism in-country. T-shirts with #ondaba are often worn by Ugandans traveling abroad, and pictures shared.

  9. #UgandaInSpain, is closely related to #Ondaba, an effort by a small group of Ugandan, perhaps inspired to reverse the backlash against #SpainIsNotUganda, a hashtag from the pronouncements of Spanish Prime Minister demeaning their country. This group of Uganda tourism, sports and media personalities, took Uganda to Spain in 2015, to promote “sports tourism,” made connections with Spanish politicians, and world renown Spanish Soccer League players, and successfully lured them and their supporters to add Uganda to their tourist destinations in 2015 and beyond. #SoUganda!

  10. Uganda wins CECAFA 2015, on Saturday, December 5 when Uganda Cranes, the national soccer team, beat Rwanda 1-0, taking home their 14th Confederation of East and Central African Football Association— title. An exhilarating moment, especially after that heartbreaking failed attempt to quality for the 2014 Confederation of African Football Cup last year, after losing to 2-0 to Guinea.

  11. Running and Physical Fitness continue to blossom in-country, with more people taking seriously healthier lifestyles, safety-first approach or social exercising. Fundraising and fun running has caught on following the success of MTN Marathon Kampala, with a growing number of annual marathon/half-marathon/10K or 5K runs, in Kampala such as Hope Ward Run to raise money for the International Hospital Kampala, the Rotary Cancer Run to raise money for the Cancer Ward at Nsambya Hospital, and the Kids of Africa Run, toward support for a Swiss African Children’s Village. Running and fitness clubs are growing, notably Kampala Hash House Harriers, an internationally inspired Drinking Club with Running Problems, whose laid-back, no membership style, non-social stratification attracts any Kampala. Don’t be fooled, because these Drinkers run are also serious international marathoners. Fitclique Africa is the first ever women-only gym in Uganda, founded by Mildred Apenyo, a 2014 Mandela Washington Fellow Gym; Fitness 4 Life-Uganda, a gym that that offers military-style group workouts and drills in Kampala, amazingly sliming waistlines and ‘magically’ disappearing potbellies of many among Kampala’s drinking and eating spendthrifts. Triathlons and Duathlons are also catching up, as well as biking, mountain climbing, adventure parks and many more!

  12. Pope Francis visited Uganda in November 2015, shortly after his US trip, exciting into ‘penitence’ even the bitterest enemies into lovers! His presence in country, miraculously induced a handshake between arch political rivals President Museveni, and his stingy rival Kizza Besigye! Turns out, “It was Politics, STUPID!” But the biggest accolades went to the Ugandan public, notably Media CEO and public personality, Robert Kabushenga, who led a successful fundraising drive toward support for the renovation of Uganda Martyrs Shrines in Namugongo, where the Pope was schedule to visit and conduct mass. In true Ugandan spirit of “Bulungi Bwansi,” the drive attracted Ugandans of different religions, in-country and in the Diaspora, and raised a total of UGX1.3billion [USD 384,618], through sale of rosaries, those sacrilegious Catholic prayer beads, and a Charity Walk.

  13. Etofali Lya Buganda, which preceded Kabushenga’s Pope Fundraiser, started as an initiative to raise money for the completion of Bulange Plaza. Building on its success, popularity and public commitment among in-country and the Uganda Diaspora, Etofali extended its mandate to include other projects of Buganda Kingdom continued on various building projects of Buganda government. It caused lot of excitement, pride and prestige for Buganda!
  14. Makerere University improved its international prestige and rankings, ascending 22 places from 891st in 2014, to 869th position, according to the Center for World University Rankings 2015, based on the quality of education and training of students, prestige of faculty and quality of research. Talking about Makerere University, I wouldn’t be doing myself justice, if I did not give a shout-out to my favorite academic and best scholarly mentor of all time, Makerere University Professor J. Oloka-Onyango, who was finally rightly honored to deliver his inaugural [ironically close to his retirement] lecture. No doubt, he has served the world renown institution with the highest prestige, dedication and distinguished honor and integrity!

  15. And if you just wanna catch up with all things inspirational, mind boggling, challenging, or gossipy about Uganda, I recommend “scare-a-hero,” a blog by Simon Kaheru, a self-described “Professional Communicator”. Simon is an indefatigable activist for all things, deeds, thoughts, products, taught, learned Ugandan. He is a PR machine, an entrepreneur, and employer, and an innovator. He is a much sought-after “go-to-person,” and brains behind a lot of Uganda branding breakthroughs, including #UgandaInSpain, #Ondaba, #IamSoUganda. He’s truly #SoUganda No! I am not getting paid for this PR plug; I wish 😃

Ok, I will it at this. Feel free to add to the list….and let’s see what 2016 brings in My Uganda……hopefully ….really hopefully geographical proximity!
Meaningfully Yours,

Weareallafricans

Kids are Cultural “Whores”: Wait, can you say the “W” with Kids…?

It is amazing how quickly kids switch cultural identify. Well, if like me, you believe that “language is culture”, that’s what I am talking about. Last summer we returned to the US, after three-and-a-half years globetrotting. We left the US immediately following my child’s first birthday, for a much deserved break and scholarly experience around the world.
About last Fall, I noticed my child’s accent changing, become less  “Ugandan” and more “American”. My friends did not help me feel better; they said it would be gone by December. I felt a ‘teeny weeny sadness’, at the thought that my son would no longer “be a Ugandan” with ‘the brand’ accent gone. Alas! I have not been good at making the accent stay! I did not realize how tough it is to teach a child another language in another country with a predominant language. Especially with my multi-national child: African [by ancestry] and American [by birth and ancestry].
Power to parents who succeed at nurturing multi-lingual/multi-national children. Sadly, not many of us Africans are good at keeping children fluent in our first languages, especially when born or raised abroad, but even when born and resident in our own countries to same nationals or foreigners. We get into the stupid “western culture superiority” complex, and deny our children a chance to become fluent in our Africans languages, arguably because ‘they will not develop’ or ‘compete in the globalized world’. Forgetting that we were born and raised speaking our mother tongue, or of parents who spoke our mother tongue.
Yet, many like me, become surprised that our children are ‘losing our culture’ or are becoming culturally distant and lost! I am always shocked when talking to my child, that recollection of our time spent in Uganda are not forthcoming! At times, he cannot even remember part of my family, the playmates he had, we had bathrooms or a kitchen, or that we ate food similar to what we have here in America. The worst, but without blame, he does not remember that we lived in South Africa (before Uganda) during the last couple of years abroad.
So, I decided to give him a “Lesson about South Africa” while we were at our local library recently. I pulled out a book, “South Africa by Pat Ryan”, which talked about how “Africans lived happily” [of course there is an element of romanticization typical of a western writers about Africa]. Then white folks came to South Africa and began fighting with the blacks, took their land, culminating in a system of “Apartheid”, where whites lived, worked, played segregated from blacks.  Black people became poorer than whites, lived in terrible housing, and could not shop in the same places as whites. I showed him the grass thatched huts where black people lived, and still live in the countryside; he thought they were “Weird”.  [btw, thanks to this young man, my love for the word “weird” no more!]; I showed him clothing of f the black people made with beads, which was strange, as well as the men racing on Ostriches. That made him laugh so hard! Well, at least he laughed; which means he learned something, right?
We discussed the book after reading, and I asked him what he had learned from the book. He told me that “brown” [not “black”] people were poor, while white people were rich. “Why did he swooped “black” with “brown”?” I asked him. He said, “Black is like darkness, when you cannot see properly or like the black shoes. But the people in the book were not black; they were brown.” I asked him, whether he knew of any black people, and he said, “I am black.”[ If you know my son, he is not “black like darkness”.] Surprising to me, since he has thought of himself as white, until our conversation not to long ago, about “black-and-white” in America’s racial conception.
Kids are smart ‘cultural whores’; telling it as it is, using their wit to make sense of nonsensical labels. To him identity is defined by color not the labeled per race. He sees brown, chocolate, and pink, He has protested before when I said his playmate “C”, classmates “M” and “S” are white, because “they do not look as white as paper,” he said. For now, he has accepted that label, since the conversation with mom following a class reading about Martin Luther King Jr.
Anyway, happy to inspire a young generation of thinkers, readers and critics. We hope that the reality of his eyes is followed by the reality of race relations when he comes of age. I hope he does not become a victim of racial profiling and racial injustice blatantly metted out against black folks in America, particularly our young black males. I think I am doing all I can to keep him openminded, culturally international in thoughts, ideas and experiences, and innocent to the brutality of life. Yes, I do agree to myself sometimes that “Ignorance is Bliss”!
Still, as a parent of a young black male growing up in America, particularly suburbia America, I worry very often whether this country will allow him to live and grow up without the preconceived injustices? Will he still be that “cute boy” at 12, 13, 14, free to skate around the neighborhood without anybody calling the police on him? Or would he be a sense of uncomfortable curiosity, that even the neighborhood dogs bark uncontrollable at him, just like they do with me. Would he still comfortably ware his jacket or sweatshirt hood over his head? Or walk in the neighborhood without an encounter from nasty neighbors. I believe this is the beginning of a lifelong education about the American culture, that he so innocently takes on as part of him, but that one day, he will fully recognize that it labels him [in fact labeled him since childhood], as a person to be feared, dreaded and be monitored all the time! Perhaps then, he won’t have as much luxury to ‘whore up’ this American culture, and would have to find another geographical and culture to experience and become a part of….?

Everyday, I have to understand Racism

Dr. Jeremiah Gibbs, a white married christian male shared his “coming of age with racism in America”, when he wrote, The Day That I Started to Understand Racism, inspired by his experience as an adoptive/foster parent (with his wife) of a black child.

“Our first weekend together we were on our way to a birthday party and had to stop to get a last minute addition to our gift. We had to stop at a store that was in a town not far from our own. That town had a long and well-known history of racism. So as we got out of the car to walk into the store, I began to run scenarios through my head. What might I do if someone in this store makes a racist remark to this boy that has been given to my care? Should I just ignore it as if the comments don’t matter? Surely I cannot let that be OK for my new son. Should I confront the racist jerk and tell them how ludicrous their comments are? I couldn’t imagine what I might say. Would I just respond with violence and stand up against injustice? That didn’t seem like a Christian response and no one likes to go to jail.(March 18, 2014, http://jeremiahgibbs.com/2014/03/18/the-day-that-i-started-to-understand-racism/. Accessed May 13, 2014)”

I can perfectly related to all these questions, even though I am neither white nor a parent of a white or multi-racial (white and black) child. I am a black woman of continental African origin, living in suburban America. I am a mother of an African American child of lighter skin color than myself, that he has sometimes thought of himself as white. Well, he is five-years old, and recently returned to America from living abroad where racism or race was not a fronted identity or discussion. He is just a lovely baby, an American baby, and since I have lived in America for most of my adult life, I consider myself an American.To my friends and family back in my country of origin I am an America, though not the same with my American friends here. In a way, this is a good and a bad: good because it gives me “a pass” with white friends (“You are not like those black people,” I have been told more than once). A bad because it allows me that uncomfortable pass, which I ride with, because I do not want to “disturb the status quo”. Partly, this is why I can relate to Dr. Gibbs’ story, most especially when I am running outdoors, and when I go around looking for work.

Let me tell you why running in my neighborhood revokes feelings of fear, anger and insecurity in me, similar to Dr. Gibbs’ experience. I love running and jogging in my neighborhood, through the trees and waters. I barely see anyone running in my neighborhood. Perhaps they do, but not at the time I go out at 8:30am, when many are either out for work or are on their way, during the week, or sleeping in over the weekend. My neighborhood has plenty of older retirees, who got tired of the back and forth vacation travel up here, and decided to settle for good. The neighborhood is within a ski mountainous zone, attracting plenty of winter sports and vacation in the mountains. There are, as well, middle-age couples who got tired of the bustle and hustle of city life in New York and New Jersey, and settled here with family. Many commute everyday to work in New York City and New Jersey. That group is for the most part open-minded to folks from all walks of life; in typical NYC experience. Then there are the “original settlers” or long-term residents, some who still have the confederate flag on their big trucks. That group scares me.

Generally, I run around my neighborhood with no incident of disrespect or attack on me. I run mostly along the roads/streets but without pedestrian walk/run platforms, most motorists politely move over to allow me running space. Sometimes, I get a High-5 or honk, and sometimes I catch a smile. Most often I do not make eye contact, in respect of the “societal taboo” against staring at people, but as well due to my inner “insecurities” of running in a predominantly white neighborhood. I fear offending anyone, if I am caught looking at her/him. True, I get the rude pushovers. I have been honked at rudely, literally ran off the tarmac, given a finger, and near spat at by a drive-by male in a passenger seat. I have also been intentionally hit with leftover foods. Please believe it! One Winter Sunday, while running back home on my last leg, a car slowed down while approaching me with two middle-aged white folks. They threw leftover foods out of their window targeted at me, and drove off. Fortunately, it missed me by a thread, but I did not survive a bruised ego. I cried running my last leg home, and I wished that I had recorded the registration plate, said something or chased the vehicle to the stoplight and told them off. Since my instinct is not to fight, especially when dealing with a people of ‘higher’ societal privilege, I let it burn. Still, it haunts me, and I cry again sometimes when I remember that incident. I ask myself similar questions like Dr. Gibbs, how can I let such evil acts flyby? But I did.

But there is another very vocal resident of in my neighborhood that repeatedly outwardly disapproves of my presence in the neighborhood – “Holy dogs”. That fact that white people’s dog generally hate and bark at black people is hidden in plain view. That these dogs generally do not like black males or look-a-like males is also an established truth, especially if you are walking or running in their neighborhood. And if like me, you have low cropped hair, typical of a male, I wonder if that is an additional disadvantage. It is so humiliating when dogs – small, large, old or puppies bark at me through their house windows, fences or chase after me from their yards when I am running on the main street, not on their property. I have been bitten by dogs, so I do not take “my dog is sweat, nice to us and our cats and eats from our plates” crap. I also believe that dogs are trained and socialized to respond differently to different people. Most white people’s dogs are socialized [intentionally or not] to respond to black people harshly. From experience running in my neighborhood, I have witnessed a white person walk past a home in front of me without the dog(s) barking at her. When I came in sight, they started barking. There is a house by the road, where dogs chase after me from their yard, even after seeing me run past multiple times. Another time while running through the neighborhood, a dog charged me and barked at me repeatedly, while its owner sat on the front porch merely calling it back. I stopped running but the dog would not bulge. Each time I tried to move, it charged toward me. I begged the neighbor for what seemed like five minutes to come restrain his dog, until he felt ‘kind’ enough to get up and call his dog back home, by throwing a bone or play toy at it.

Once again, I asked myself why I did not notify the police? I guess my hesitation to involve the po po comes from my internalized understanding of racism in America, and fear that racism could prevent the police from responding to me. Even as an educated woman from an elite US university, sentiments about the unfair US criminal justice cannot simply fed away. So, I keep on running, hoping my neighborhood and the dogs would get used to my face and body, and accept that I am not gonna stop running unless they knock me over or eat me up. But for now, I keep on the main streets, and wear bright neon colors, to avoid giving anyone an excuse to run me over because, “they did not see me; I was too dark”. As much as I would love trail running, I keep away to avoid stirring anyone from shooting me for “trespassing” in their backyard. It is a privilege white folks can risk, well, unless you are a German exchange student at a high school in suburban Montana (http://www.nydailynews.com/news/crime/father-german-exchange-student-killed-montana-homeowner-slams-u-s-gun-culture-article-1.1775600).

Similar thoughts came to me once, while trail-running with a team in a predominantly white neighborhood or Marietta, Georgia. We run through woods and streams, and in people’s backyards, without anybody shooting or shouting at us or calling the police on us. Well, I was running with a predominantly white group, and the only one of two black folks. A week later, while running in South West Atlanta, I did not feel brave enough to trail-run by  myself, ironically in a predominantly black neighborhood. Why? Randomized surveys done on street racism have showed that blacks are as much likely as whites to profile black people. In a staged “bike theft” in a public park, part of ABC TV series, “What Would You DO?”, results showed that when it was a young white male cutting a bike chain off a stand,  people looked on, asked questions and expressed shock when he told them the bike did not belong to him. All except one (out of 100) continued on without confronting him or calling the police. Even more revealing, when the “staged bike thief” was a white female, as passerby’s offered her immediate help to free the bike from the chain. Only one woman protested to her husband helping free the bike, and another called the police after she had left the scene. However, when it was a young black male wearing identical clothes as the white male, passerby’s immediately (white and black people) confronted him, congregated, confiscated his tools or immediately called the police. When asked to account for their actions, both blacks and white people pointed to their biases against “personal appearance”. Black people said “first impression matters”…..and…”they thought the white guy worked in the park.” White people generally said they were looking out for private property, some even claimed race did not matter. So, there you have it!

Sometimes I worry about running into a serial killer or kidnapper along my route, especially while running new, quiet and isolated neighborhoods. I guess it comes from watching too many “Forensic Evidence”, “Unresolved Mysteries”, “20-20” and “48 hours” TV shows. Pretty much all of the crimes featured happened in suburbs similar to where I live. I have heard from moms at my son’s bus stop that they are plenty of drug users in the neighborhoods, and some have been busted in the police. Then I worry whether, being a black person, anybody driving or walking by would care if they saw a guy forcing me into his car? On my recent Saturday long distance run, while trying to discover a new running route in the neighborhood. I got onto a new street with a few houses. From a distance, I saw three white males and a white woman standing by the road and “burning something”; there was smoke likely from a fire. My heart skipped, but I was scared of showing my fears by turning back. I worried they could chase after me, so I proceeded on. I guess they sensed my fears and said, “hello”, when I got close to them.

Perhaps I am too paranoid, but that goes to show how institutionalized racism is experienced differently by black folks. I always wonder whether a white person would have to skip a beat at such an encounter! The feeling of “I do not belong here” is so real to me everyday in this neighborhood, even when I am inside my home. I hate it when sometimes I say hello to person across walking or running in my neighborhood, and they do not respond.

Similar experience and sentiments with finding work in this neighborhood. I took a break from online application and decided to walk-into several professional establishments in the neighborhood. As the black people in the “bike theft case” said, first impressions matter. Pretty much every place here is staffed with white folks. Like I say, “You know the place is white, if McDonald is predominantly staffed with white people.” Welcome to my neighborhood! Although, I did not look for work at McDonalds. I went to Doctors’ Offices, Departmental Stores, Restaurants, Grocery Stores, education institutions, and several small businesses. At most places, I was asked to apply online, or bring a resume – including restaurants! I know times are tough, and jobs are not coming by easily. However, when you do not see anyone who looks like you in most workplaces, including the front desk, it is hard not feeling unwelcome. Still, I did all as requested, with follow-up call back and walk in, but no rewards yet.

I bet some of you are wondering, why I am still living in this neighborhood, if it is that traumatizing to me? In the words of Dr. Jeremy Gibbs…

“This isn’t the only thing that we learned from raising our son (that we gladly adopted last year). We also have learned that parents that want the most for their children are often faced with a dilemma (even when they have the means to make educational choice) about whether they will give their kids a school environment that is supportive of their identity. Or shall we choose a school where lots of children look like him and he can learn about being black in America? Usually the schools with large African-American populations are struggling and under-resourced. Do I use the means that are within my reach to send him to a school with opportunity that will ensure that he has very few friends that look like him? Is that somehow better? The thing that I’m learning here is that racial minorities have to ask questions that majority populations get the privilege of ignoring. I still don’t know all the questions that I need to be asking.”

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America the Beautiful!

It’s been a while, since I sat down to write something thoughtful. Forget about the daily email traffic, and posts on social media. WordPress is where I share my self-inspired “non-chatty” thoughts.

I am glad though, that I am breaking this writing block with something dear and exciting. About America the Beautiful! There are so many reasons I have come to love America. Obviously, there is an ounce of sad news and sad people that shape this nation. But there is so much beauty in and about this country, its peoples and societal norms.
Especially today on this snowy day, I am reminded of the generosity and uniqueness of the American spirit. The huge snowstorm that started last night, with sleet and frozen ice, left some places in the North East without power. I live in The Independence State of Pennsylvania, which is among the areas caught up in these snowstorms. Exactly as I thought out loud the night before the storm, “I hope these indefatigable snowstorms do not leave us without power. It’s freezing up here!” But Lancaster, PA folks are not that fortunate;  left without power! Trees fell and damaged cars! Some colleges have asked students to return home until the weekend, when hopefully the power cuts will be sorted out. Terrible!
Yet, the American spirit is already alive and kicking. True, the State government is up and about, reassuring its peoples that help will come through as fast as possible. Good job and comforting! But the American social spirit of good neighborhoodliness is rolled out already, too! A good friend, in Lancaster posted on her public profile, an offer to any Lancastarians who need a place to warm up or charge their phone. The America Red Cross has set up soup kitchens and places to warm up and charge phones. And many more folks are coming through. This is America! This is the collective spirit that defines America, transcending individual(s) sentiments of bitterness, xenophobia, discrimination and hate. Those negative spirits do not define America!
Personally, I take moments like this to reflect on and ponder over the American Spirit of giving, reaching out, sharing and positive healthy living, both in my neighborhood and my American family. I live in a suburb in the Poconos. My neighborhood has plenty of “stay-at-home moms”, who I have met and interacted with, while waiting at the school bus stop. They are pretty much of mixed identity: Latina, Black, White and Arab. They are wonderful people. If I got to the bus stop late, after my son came back from school, I would trust that one of them would not leave him on his own. At times, I get a call from any one of them, in case were are late to the bus stop in the mornings. Plus, they usually help out anyone with kids who need a ride to the bus stop, for instance, if there is a 2-hour delay and mommy has to go off to work before the bus comes around, or when kids get off the bus and need a ride. They are sweet people.
Then, there is my American family. With all the drama of each family, there is a beautiful spirit among  my [son’s] American. We laugh, we share, and we party together. There is an openness among them that is beautiful and welcoming. They do not make me feel like “a foreigner”, typical of plenty of folks with whom I have interacted. Perhaps because, they are well traveled, or because they lived in New York for-ever, the most multicultural US city. They have met and interacted with folks from all walks of life, I assume. Of course the “open secret that, Grand dad – my son’s father’s step-dad, who raised him, is Puerto Rican.
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Perhaps a better illustration of  “America the Beautiful” is its diversity in food, clothing, languages, culture, origins, beliefs, recreation activities, tastes, fashion, interest, power, knowledge -endless list! I have endless experiences of things  deemed “archaic” by some in this country and other “modernizing geographical spaces”, making their way “back to the future” as trendsetters and ‘PC fads’. Goes to prove that, it is often the innocence of limited knowledge or the individual(s) dogmas that make that make people shun any experiences alien to them and/or pass judgement. For instance, the mothers at my son’s bus stop and I were talking about women stuff, when one recalled ‘the olden days’, when mothers delivered at home or on the road before they got to the health center. I told them, those ‘olden days’ are ‘now’  in my country of origin, Uganda. Indeed true as well, here in the United States, where “young trendy mothers and couples” now choose home births with Doula or midwives. Another friend in Georgia told me about ‘the olden days’ when people used kerosene lamps for light. I let her know that those “olden days” are still “present days” in Uganda, and I bet in rural America. Yes! Some parts of this country, folks use boreholes as a source of water, and wash their clothes from the barks of trees without access to a washer!
It is amazing that plenty of stuff often deemed traditional, archaic or rudimentary are now en-vogue! Picture this, folks are paying more money for membership to co-ops instead of shopping in large chain stores, for the love of easier access to more“farm fresh” or local farmers produce. Others are spending extra monies for organic produce at Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, Earthlight, and other large chain store that have an “organic foods section”. Ironically,  American food producers, large funders and their intellectuals activists are pushing GMO into countries of Africa in the name of “creating food security”, without issuing the same caution to consumers that is availed to the American public.  While more Americans are embracing “small [eating or shopping] is beautiful [from organic section or co-ops], plenty of Africa is moving toward mass quick production and large chain stores, including in Uganda.  Some of us have taken trouble to concern and inform ourselves of “what we eat or where we shop, and are carefully and consciously picking what we eat, so we can live longer cleaner lives, sans health disasters that have befell America, especially, high obesity and high heart diseases. Though, it is still a challenge to communicate the dangers of fast food eating and colored juices to many in Uganda. Last year, 2013, Kentucky Fried Chicken open its first franchise in Uganda to divided opinions: screams of “hell no” from plenty of Ugandans in the Diaspora vis-a-vis “bring it on” by plenty in Uganda. In South Africa, I noticed a huge consumption of deep friend fast food and colored and sugary goods, especially in the “most affordable” Shoprite supermarket, which has also set up shop in Uganda. While McDonalds and Coca Cola, two of the largest brands of quick and fast food/beverage addiction are losing market share in America, they are reaping huge sales outside the United States.
Fortunately, America the Beautiful, one can get a wide net of fresh, health, conscious and fairly-traded products. Almond, hemp or flax milk is available, so is Tofurky in place of real Turkey meat. We have access to gluten free pizza, meatless anything for the meat lovers with real meat problems. It is possible to eat food not fried in oil, but if one wants to, there are plenty of options of non-animal oil – canola, coconut, olive, sunflower, vegetable and more. We can fill our refrigerators with a variety of fruits and vegetables, and our shelves with plenty of nuts – almond, cashew, pistachios, walnuts, groundnuts, to feast on daily. We can stay gluten-free forever, and feed on raw food effortlessly!
And if you heard that “traditional marriage and family is out of vogue” in America the Beautiful, don’t believe the hype! No! Marriage is not about two people coming together, making a decision to love one another through sickness and health! Marriage is a family affair, and family as a community and clan affair. I recently witnessed a beautiful moment of two families of their soon-to-be married children coming together to review the marital contract that their two children were about to enter. The families went over what is expected of children to each other as a married couple, and to their families;  how to conduct each other once married, and what each owes to the other and to their families.  It was beautiful! It reminded me of what marriage was always about in Uganda, where I am from. Not about “blissful everyday moments”; in fact plenty of folks found themselves and found love after they were married, and stayed together as lovers not for convenience till death separated them. It was about, the meanings of marriage to the family the newly-wed were to form, and to their families of origin. It was also about their belonging in society, not “behind self-gazetted closed doors”.
At heart, I am a traditionalist, when it comes to culture and community. But then again, I am only human after all. We all pick and choose what appeals to us, and how to make it work for us….And, that’s what defines America the Beautiful!

Back to Boston with Big Dreams and a Heavy Heart

This past weekend I returned to Boston, after four years away. The last time I was in Boston, December 2009 was to visit my BFF Phina (R.I.P), and bid her farewell. My then 17 months-old son and I were moving to Cape Town, South Africa. Little did we know that would be the last time we would see Phina in person.

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My dearest Phina left this world last year in February 2012, for no justifiable reason other than a fibroid operation gone wrong! I had never imagined that she would be gone, while I am still here. In fact, she was my estate trustee, on behalf of my son. That’s how sure I was, she will still be here longer that myself. That is not true anymore.
The entire journey to Boston was a reminder of Phina’s soul, spirit and presence. I had dreaded going to Boston without her. See, we recently returned to the United States after four years abroad – Norway, South Africa and Uganda. We were not in the country when Phina passed on. This past Saturday and Sunday, I went into Boston to run 10 miles with the Tufts [Boston] Marathon Team (TMT). My son’s grandparents and uncle drove me to Boston. I had planned to take them to Phina’s former apartment but we did not have plenty of time left before they had to head back home. So, I let them leave me at my hosts’ residence in Roxbury, south of where Phina lived in Malden, MA.
It did not help that my hosts -Emma and Hope-were Uganda. Emma knew Phina, whom he had met through shared friends Dawn and Matt Wolfe also residents of Boston. Matt, Phina and I went to the same grad school. Emma told me that he went to Phina’s memorial service; the euphoria was emotional! Her brother gave a very moving eulogy of Phina. It was great to hear somebody who knew Phina…but equally painful. It made me so nostalgic for her! I wished she were still in Boston, it would have made life so much more fun. But then again, I would have missed a chance to meet Hope, Emma’s girlfriend. Or enjoy the comfort of their crib in Roxbury with hardwood kitchen cabinets, wooden refrigerator, center stove and built-in microwave, walk-in bedroom closet, rusty bathtub and shower, platinum looking taps and all things metal. It was magnificent. I caught myself saying, “Phina would have liked this.” she had a weakness for aesthetic. She was the “dandy girl”, my Ms. Pretty, as I often teased her:).
I woke up on Sunday morning and headed to my run at Tufts, about an hour to get to Tufts from Roxbury, with train and bus transport factored in. Unfortunately, I got to Davis after the bus had left, so I took a cab. That too reminded me of Phina, who loved taking cabs (with Jane) from our school dorm to Davis Square, a quick 30 minutes walk. I always made fun of them, “Princesses”!
While purchasing a Charlie Card to get me onto the “T” [Boston Train system], memories of Phina rushed back. She would have had a T-card ready for me to use. She always insisted on giving me her T-Charlie Card whenever I visited, even when I insisted that I would not be going out of the house and she would need it to go to work. She always insist that she had an extra Charlie Card, and would get me to keep it!
I thought about Phina on my run, and after my run. Tears came down so hard on me, after the run. I imagined how excited she would have been for me: packing me breakfast or a snack to eat on my way out to run. Coming with me to Tufts, before heading off to Church. Then planning to meet up and hang-out after the run. I thought of her cheering me on. She was always my biggest cheerleader. She understood me. For people like me with a strong personality, it is not very often that you meet a person who understands you all damn good! Someone who supports you and loves you no matter what. I thought of her, after running a good run – 10-50 miles at 7:37 minutes per mile! I thought of her as I stretched my muscles.
After the run, i decided to take a tour of Tufts campus and Fletcher. I re-traced the paths I remember walking with Phina: the Hall of Flags, Mugar Library, Institute for Human Security, Blakeley and the Green House. Some offices had changed location, but I found them. Blakeley, our hall of residence looked pretty much the same, as did our second home, The Green House. I sat quietly with tears flowing down my eyes in the Hall of Flags, as I remembered Phina walking through several times, with her backpack on her back, her brown winter jacket with the South African HIV/AIDS lapel pinned on. I remembered her black lips with shinny gloss on them. I remembered her curly hair weave. I remembered her giggle and her smile. I remembered her sitting in the Institute for Human Security, sometimes working too late into the night to put in as much income as she could. It was hard experiencing all that by myself. But I did.
I went to Harvard square, thereafter. To “OUT-OF-TOWN NEWS”, toured Harvard University, went bak to Harvard Law School, and The Coop. Fortunately, I got connected to the internet, so got a message about dinner plans with my hosts in time. I had to run through it. Finish up with Harvard Square and head to Malden – to take some flowers and Tiramisu to Phina’s to 30 Malden Place.  She loved Tiramisu, from her fav place in Harvard Sq! I got onto the “T”, and braved it to Phina’s apartment. Fortunately, there was a bus heading her way when I got off the T, and a cab had just pulled up to her apartment, as I was winding down. I delivered all that I had to. I missed her!
For the first time in a long time, I felt I was on my own, in the city of my best friend, without my best friend. She was really gone. Phina does not live in Boston OR Malden, no more. She lives somewhere in Uganda. Between bushes and trees. I had never imagined being in the US without her here. Moreover, never thought of her ‘resident’ in Uganda! Her absence and silence is deafening. The surreality of this is so bulky….We do not find so many people who love us for love!