Monday, November 10, 2008

Giving Thanks for the Dawn of a Beautiful New Era! YES WE DID!!!

November 5th, 2008

I was in Guatemala in 2004 building houses with Habitat for Humanity when the Republicans stole the last election.

I remember having faith in our political system when, at a 2:30AM press conference the morning the votes were being tallied, Democratic Vice Presidential nominee, John Edwards announced, "John Kerry and I made a promise to the American people that in this election, every vote would count and every vote would be counted. Tonight, we are keeping our word."

While searching for answers to the debacle of the 2000 election, I found myself watching the documentary Unprecedented. It chronicled how George W. and Jeb Bush engineered and hatched a plan which systematically denied thousands of registered African American Floridians their right to vote. The African American disenfranchisement and hanging chad fiasco in Florida was essentially what allowed the Republicans to steal the 2000 election. With scenes of the film haunting my mind, a Democratic commitment to counting every vote and exposing fraud was exactly what I wanted and needed to hear.

According to ABC-TVs exit polls during the 2004 election, John Kerry, the Democratic Presidential nominee, was slated to carry Florida, Ohio, New Mexico, Colorado, Nevada, and Iowa. He was supposed to be in command of a landslide victory. Yet, somehow, Bush carried all of those swing states.

I didn’t want to entertain rumors about how John Kerry and Bush were distant cousins, but I became completely disillusioned with our political system when Kerry conceded defeat less than 24 hours later. There had not been enough time to investigate reports of voting machine malfunctions in places like Dixie County, Florida, where 77.5% of the 4,988 registered voters were registered as Democrats (compared to a mere 15% registered as Republicans), but 4,433 votes were cast for Bush.

I found it impossible to believe that a US American public, which saw the largest federal budget surplus in US history turn into the largest federal budget deficit in US history, would re-elect the man responsible for our downward spiral.

If some tragedy hadn’t befallen them personally, every US citizen knew someone who, during Bush’s tenure, had become unemployed, could no longer afford health care or college, or was killed in Iraq. How could the party which created these travesties be re-elected? I concluded that the parties were in bed together, and that our political system was broken beyond repair.

It made me physically ill when I considered that my tax dollars financed the death and maiming of countless soldiers and innocent Iraqi children in an illegal and unjustified invasion of a sovereign nation, a nation which had done us no harm, nor posed any threat to us. In my mind, we invaded Iraq to make the rich richer, at the cost of making the poor poorer. And not just in terms of money. Yes, we were losing jobs, health care, and financial aid, but this time, whether disadvantaged US American soldiers or disadvantaged Iraqi civilians, the poor were paying with their lives.

Still in Guatemala, shortly after Kerry’s concession speech, I awoke with tears in my eyes from a terrifying dream featuring cities turned to rubble, with blood and dismembered and disemboweled bodies everywhere. I decided right then and there that I would not live in the US again until we had a president that I could be proud of. One who worked on establishing peace in the world through trying to create a level playing field, instead of stepping on the poor and defenseless to make the wealthy more powerful. I could NOT have my tax dollars support Bush’s evil regime for another four years.

I’ve enjoyed traveling and living abroad ever since. Sure, I wished I could have been home for the birth of my niece and nephew, a couple of weddings and a handful of other specific events. But generally speaking, since the beginning of my self-imposed exile four years ago, I’ve wanted to be in whatever country I was visiting or living in more than I’ve wanted to be in the US. That was, until last night.

I have finally made it to Africa, where I realized a childhood dream, photographing lions, giraffes, elephants and gazelles while on safari in the Serengeti. I am finally on the continent which gave birth to humanity and civilization; the land of my forefathers. I am enjoying the embrace of brothers and sisters, and mamas and babas on this continent of abundant warmth and life. In fact, I’ve been planning on staying here for at least a year so that I can visit as many countries as possible before I leave the continent.

Gettin' high with the Maasai!

However, for the first time in YEARS, as of last night, I actually found myself wanting to be home more than I want to be any place else in the world right now.

And it’s not just because I was robbed the night before last.


November 4th, 2008

So it's shortly after midnight. Curry, my housemate and co-leader on this 3-month experiential learning tour of East Africa, has gone to bed. I've just finished making a huge pot of chili for the appreciation/farewell party we’ve planned for the Tanzanian families who’ve hosted us for the past 10 days. I've bolted and padlocked the iron gates to the front and back doors, as well as bolted the wooden doors from the inside. As I was doing so, I found myself wondering if I'm just paranoid, since in my 37 years of life I've never had to deal with burglars or robbers in any of the 30+ countries in which I've traveled.

I'm at the dining table listening to my iPod on my mini speakers as I trace and cut the letters spelling out "Asante Sana," which will be hung on the wall to express our gratitude to the families.

All of a sudden I hear a commotion outside the front door; there are loud banging noises and flashlights shining through the kitchen window just before men start pounding on the gate and door.

I yell, "Who is it?!"

"Police! Police!" they thunder.

But I know better. I reach for the large kitchen knife I had just borrowed from Mama Nema to cut the vegetables for the chili. Now I've got a knife in one hand and mop handle in the other, and I'm standing in front of the door, ready to attack whoever comes through.

Interestingly enough, I'm quite lucid, and actually thinking this is either a joke or a misunderstanding. They couldn't possibly be coming to harm us.

I had recently read in a Kenyan newspaper (I bought it for the Obama cover story), that a mob had hacked two elderly women to death who were accused of being witches.

I know it doesn't make much sense, but I was actually thinking that once they came through the door and saw that I wasn't a witch, they'd run on to the next house. (leaving me alone to alert the proper authorities)

OK, so again, I'm in front of the door, first trying to bolt the bottom latch while they're steady trying to kick it down. Then, after realizing it was futile, I was again poised to attack, but hoping I wouldn't have to.

Then there's a loud, "BANG!!" which sounded like a gun shot. I figured I shouldn’t be directly in the path of blazing guns, So I sidestepped out of the hallway, and into the kitchen, still holding the knife, but trying to call Frida, our Tanzanian contact, at the same time.

All of a sudden, four thugs break down the door and rush in. The first one has a machete and comes straight at me. He thumps me rapidly, twice on the chest with the side of the blade before I can react with anything more than yelling, "NO!" over and over again.

The next thing I know, the machete wielding thug is picking up the cell phone I just dropped, there's another guy with a machete in the living room stuffing my iPod and speakers into his pockets. In an instant there are three guys who have me cornered in the kitchen. One has a machete and is blocking the doorway to my right. Another has a mini sledge hammer in one hand, and a regular hammer in the other. I can't see what weapons the third guy has because he's standing behind Hammer Man, and their both blocking the doorway in front of me. They’re all yelling, "Put down the knife! Give us money!" I'm in a corner trying to determine the best thing to do.

On the one hand, dropping the weapons and letting them take everything they wanted might have saved my life. On the other hand, being weaponless meant they could kill me and still take everything they wanted. I felt like I was in a movie, and I could hear the peanut gallery saying, "Don't put down that knife!"

I didn't see any guns, so I advanced the knife toward Kitchen Machete Man, who was advancing towards me. He knocked the knife out of my hand with the machete. Now weaponless and truly fearing for my life, I lost my mind. I attacked him just as he was raising the machete above his head. Grabbing his right hand (the one holding the machete) with my right hand, and forcing his arm behind his back, I was able to wrest the machete from his grasp.

Living Room Machete Man rushed in from the adjacent room to help his accomplice, but when he realized I had the machete, he dropped the boom box he was trying to make off with, and lost his hat as he bolted from the house trying to catch up with his 3 accomplices.

I was dumbfounded that they scared so easily, but I’m guessing the crazed look in my eyes must have had something to do with it as well…

I ran behind them, hoping to somehow get the gate and door bolted again, and yelling, "Curry, call Frida!"

Three of them ran away while the fourth guy threw rocks at me, presumably to keep me from pursuing them.

Frida called her brother, Peter, who lives in the other house in the compound (and whom I don't know why wasn't already awake and investigating, especially considering the ruckus being made withhin the walls of his compound).

Peter and his nephew finally gave chase, and returned a few minutes later with a Maasai and another brother who patrolled the yard until sunrise.

All said and done, I'm pissed about having lost 7,000+ songs, a good portion of which will be extremely difficult to come by again (Nope, most of them aren't stored anywhere, since my inferior laptop doesn't like iTunes.), however, I'm glad that there was no harm done to me or Curry, and that they really only made off with the iPod, speakers and cell phone. The damage could have been much much worse. Especially if they had busted in while we were both asleep.

I was harboring a bit of negative energy for most of the morning after the robbery.

I was trying to purge it from my system on the way to town, where I was hoping to activate my personal cell phone since my work one was stolen.

To make a long story short, I wasted 45 minutes with a couple of guys who were trying to help me get my phone operational. According to the one who took me to his friend, I needed to have my phone "flashed" so the new sim card would work. In the end, not only did the new sim card not work, but to make matters worse, they somehow erased ALL of the phone numbers that were in the cell's memory, DESPITE the fact that my new “friend” promised me that wouldn't be the case. These were phone numbers from Korea, the US, Brazil and Italy that I don't have saved anywhere else. So needless to say, I was in a funk on my way back to Bangata.

At first I began to entertain that whole "bad things happen in threes" superstition that folks like to talk about. I found myself worrying about the elction, and thinking I am NOT feeling Africa right now!

Then I reminded myself of the power of the mind, and committed to looking for the positive sides of all of this. I took long deep breaths, breathing in Obama's victory, and breathing out negativity. Sure, I had good reason to be in a funk, but that's not where I wanted to be. After all, I'm the proud African American leader of this group of US youth, not some helpless victim.

I can't judge Africa, Tanzania or Bangata by the thugs that robbed me. I'd rather remember the smiles and genuine concern and condolences from Mama Neema, Mama Frida, and the host families at the farewell party, just as I'd want them to see Obama in me or me in Obama, rather than judge me according to the actions of a dim-witted Bush.

Mama Neema

Carpe Diem Africa '08 & Bangata Host Families

Reflecting on the break-in makes me give thanks for the considerable amount of security I have in this world. I'm grateful that unlike so many people in the world (e.g. The Congo, Palestine, etc.), I'm not so vulnerable as to have to fear for my life, or those of my loved ones, on a daily basis. Yes, I am indeed counting my blessings today.


True, while in Brazil my credit card was cloned and my camera was lifted from a friend's house, but in all my travels, I had never been assaulted before two nights ago. In fact, whenever people asked whether I ever feared for my safety abroad, I always answered that I had never encountered a situation overseas which struck more fear in my heart than seeing red and blue lights in my rearview mirror while driving in the US. Until two nights ago, I had never feared for my life while overseas the way I had when cops approached my vehicle, guns drawn and shouting, because I supposedly ran a red light.

But it’s not fear which makes me want to be home right now. It’s hope and pride. I wanted to be among the 200,000 people celebrating in Grant Park, Chicago. I want to hear the morning announcers on Black radio stations, watch talk shows, and engage in barber shop discussions.

A Black man with an African first name and middle and last names eerily similar to some of the US’s biggest "enemies" (Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein), has been elected President of the United States of America!

This truly is a glorious time. I've always trusted that if I believed in objectives I mentally conceived, I could achieve them. But there was always that tiny notion of limitations. Not anymore. Brother Barack has shown us that with determination and innovation, in this day and age, even Black men in the US of A can accomplish whatever they want to.

AND, during his acceptance speech, the brother channeled two martyrs who paved the way for him!

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr: “The arc of the universe bends slowly but it always bends toward justice.”

Malcolm X: “We declare our right on this earth to be a man, to be a human being, to be respected as a human being, to be given the rights of a human being in this society, on this earth, in this day, which we intend to bring into existence by any means necessary.”

Barack Obama: “It's the answer that led those who've been told for so long by so many to be cynical and fearful and doubtful about what we can achieve to put their hands on the arc of history and bend it once more toward the hope of a better day.

It's been a long time coming, but tonight, because of what we did on this date, in this election, at this defining moment, change has come to America.”

So I’m fine now. Nay, I’m ecstatic that the regime has finally come to an end! AND that we have a conscious Black President to boot!

I am overjoyed that I no longer have to make excuses for an apathetic US public or a warmongering President. I am once again proud to be a citizen of the United States of America.

And I am finally ready to go home.

But…not just yet… Since finishing my manuscript is priority #1, and seeing as much of the continent thereafter is priority # 2, I probably won’t be home until after the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

However, I must say that being in DC for the inauguration is VERY enticing…we’ll see.

I’m open to suggestions, but right now, I'm here in Tanzania celebrating the dawn of a beautiful new era with African brothers and sisters, volunteering at a children's home in Moshi(, and looking forward to scuba diving from Zanzibar, visiting friends in Kenya, and finishing my book in Ethiopia. I am happy, healthy and loving life!


The Thursday Before Election Night

I've just arrived at the United African Alliance Community Center (UAACC), and I literally have goosebumps as Mzee Pete O'Neal is showing me around the compound. (Mzee means respected elder in Kiswahili.) Mzee Pete and his wife, Mama Charlotte, have built what I've been dreaming of building for years: A center which contributes to the positive development of the community through education and the sharing of knowledge. The UAACC supports the community, and in turn is supported by the community, as well as international volunteers. They offer free classes in everything from English and Spanish to computers and recording music. There are classrooms, a cafe, an auditorium, a radio station, dormitories and more, all painted with beautiful murals of notables like Malcolm, Martin and Mumia, and slogans like "Blessed be the Panther" and "The Revolution Will Not be Televised." You can find more information at

"Africa Unite," "UAACC," & "Power to All the People"

Forty years ago Mzeee Pete was the Chairman of the Kansas City chapter of the Black Panther Party. Due to J. Edgar Hoover's labeliing of the Panthers (as well as most organizations dedicated to the upliftment of African Americans) as anti-American, and his FBI's propaganda campaign, most people remember the Panthers as rabble rousing militants hell bent on starting gun fights with the police. That's a gross misrepresentation.

It's true that they bought guns and policed the police who were routinely brutalizing African American during the 60's and early 70's. However, in addition to offering free medical care and other services in disadvantaged communities, they were also responsible for starting free breakfast programs which fed 10,000 disadvantaged inner city youth across the nation every morning before they went to school.

The Free Breakfast for School Children program made such a powerful impact on low income communities that it was later adopted by the US federal government, even while the FBI painted the Panthers as communists and did everything within its power to destroy it.

During a time when leaders like Malcom X, Martin Luther King Jr. and Fred Hampton (A Chicago leader of the Panthers) were being assasinated while Huey Newton, Bobby Seale and Geronimo Pratt were being jailed on trumped up charges, Mzee Pete saw the writing on the wall when he was falsely accused of illegally transporting a firearm across state lines. He joined the ranks of Eldridge Cleaver and Assata Shakur. He fled the US, and has been living in exile here in Tanzania ever since.

In true Panther fashion, with the help of Mzee Geronimo, who became a neighbor shortly after he was released from prison, one of the UAACC's first projects was digging a well which now provides the community of Maja Chai with clean water. They've been uplifting the community ever since.

After showing me the orphanage they're putting the finishing touches on, Mzee Pete says, "If you don't have plans on Sunday, you should come on out. We're going to have traditional drumming and dancing to present the orphanage to the community. That's going to start around noon. But I've also promised the SIT students a pre-Thanksgiving dinner, and you are welcome too. You can bring the whole group, and it won't cost you a thing!"

The group enjoyed the show, food and hospitality so much that we opted to stay there on election night.

It's interesting to think that Mzee Pete and Mama Charlotte could have built the UAACC in the US, where it's just as needed, were it not for the fact that he's still a fugitive of US law. Just as interesting to me is that until Obama won Iowa in the Democratic primaries, I thought I'd have to build my school outside of the US too.

Mzee Pete

Now I have hope.

And so does everyone I know. In fact, I smiled, thinkiing, "My sentiments exactly," when my father's first words upon receiving the phone from my mother on election morning were, "You can come home now."

And it's not just hope that I can return to the US, but hope that we are entering an era where opportunities will help help diminish the divide between the haves and have nots, leading to a world with much less desperation; a world where justice, compassion and equality will come to replace violence, crime and despair.

Obama won his landslide vitory on a platform of universal education and health care. I'm glad the revolution is being televised. (Can you make out Malcolm and Martin celebrating the fruits of their labor?)

And I'm really happy Obama deployed 5,000 lawyers to Florida to make sure the election couldn't be stolen this time!

I stayed up all night watching the election results come in. When CNN projected: President Elect Barack Obama, I ran to my room to grab non-alcoholic champagne (no alcohol on the program), popped the cork, and shared it with the group and Tanzanians who were watching with us.

I’m not ashamed to admit I shed tears during his victory speech. I’ll leave you with the words which touched me the most:

“Above all, I will never forget who this victory truly belongs to. It belongs to you. It belongs to you.

I was never the likeliest candidate for this office. We didn't start with much money or many endorsements. Our campaign was not hatched in the halls of Washington. It began in the backyards of Des Moines and the living rooms of Concord and the front porches of Charleston. It was built by working men and women who dug into what little savings they had to give $5 and $10 and $20 to the cause.

Progress can't happen without you, without a new spirit of service, a new spirit of sacrifice.

So let us summon a new spirit of patriotism, of responsibility, where each of us resolves to pitch in and work harder and look after not only ourselves, but each other.

Building a chicken coop for a fanily of 27, Ft. Portal, Uganda

And to all those watching tonight from beyond our shores, from parliaments and palaces, to those who are huddled around radios in the forgotten corners of the world, our stories are singular, but our destiny is shared, and a new dawn of American leadership is at hand.

Tonight we proved once more that the true strength of our nation comes not from the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals: democracy, liberty, opportunity and unyielding hope.

That's the true genius of America: that America can change. Our union can be perfected. What we've already achieved gives us hope for what we can and must achieve tomorrow.”

I think about all that [106 year old Ann Nixon Cooper] has seen throughout her century in America — the heartache and the hope; the struggle and the progress; the times we were told that we can't, and the people who pressed on with that American creed: Yes we can.

America, we have come so far. We have seen so much. But there is so much more to do. So tonight, let us ask ourselves — if our children should live to see the next century; if my daughters should be so lucky to live as long as Ann Nixon Cooper, what change will they see? What progress will we have made?

This is our chance to answer that call. This is our moment.

This is our time, to put our people back to work and open doors of opportunity for our kids; to restore prosperity and promote the cause of peace; to reclaim the American dream and reaffirm that fundamental truth, that, out of many, we are one; that while we breathe, we hope. And where we are met with cynicism and doubts and those who tell us that we can't, we will respond with that timeless creed that sums up the spirit of a people: Yes, we can.

From high fives when I'm in my Obama shirt to wheel covers...

painted cars, murals, and street art, Obama Love is HUGE in East Africa!

PS - I just wanted to publicly thank Mama Shukuru, who put me intouch with Mama Upesi (Asante Sana to her too), who put me in touch with the O'Neals. Greatly appreciated, family.

FYI - According to Mzee Pete, the "gunshots" were actually little explosives raiders use to scare villagers into staying in their homes. Apparently it worked on our landlord. Mama Frida let slip that Peter was slow to come to our aid because, through his window, he saw even more men outside our house than the 4 who had me under siege inside.


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