Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Some Mo Stories to Tell

Cake and ice cream aren't the kind of food that's likely to lead me to places worse than temptation. On June 5, hours before i turned 28, i gorged on both as i smiled like a fool and joked with my editors that i was happy to be making 18 in America. There's a picture of me moving a spoonful of ice cream to my mouth, the plate from which it was drawn nearly full, as if i am about to concede defeat at the hands of junk beauty. It's now a lost battle.

The cake and ice cream had been a gift from my colleagues at the Kansas City Star, whose local page that day carried the story of a little boy recently run over by a fire truck. He was known to all as Momo, short for Obarimomoya, the gifted son of a family of Nigerian immigrants whom i had met the day before at the school the boy used to attend. Momo, the victim of a fire truck responding to an emergency call, never lived to celebrate his eighth birthday, but his friends at Woodland Elementary School had set in motion plans to remember him, including mounting a plaque that would forever celebrate him as an "excellent student..." His father told me he was not sure he himself would ever get that kind of honor.

The story of Momo was still on my mind as i devoured the cake and ice cream, pondering all the good things that had been said about the life of a boy who might have lived to accomplish great things. A part of me was really doing a Momo celebration, recognizing the important ways in which reporting that story made me a better journalist. Listen, listen, listen. Then, listen up: Kids can be so much fun to listen to.

Momo's sister, initially reticent, was able to open up when she thought she could trust me, and his brother was able to tell me just how much he missed Momo. Listening to nearly 10 people recall their memories of Momo is just about the best reporting experience i've had since i joined the Star, where my broad goal is to talk to as many people as possible in the course of my reporting. It's the only sure way to learn something new -- and have fun along the way. And these people need not include a corrupt mayor or a useless police chief. Back home, at the Daily Monitor of Kampala, a story similar to Momo's is not one that many staff reporters would be keen to tell. As a matter of fact, several human-interest stories that open wide windows into failed public policies often go untold. Sometimes, especially if there's space to spare, they might get briefed.

This story can be rewritten.

Friday, June 12, 2009

No Country for Black Men?

My passion for country music goes back many years ago, when my father was still alive, when Jim Reeves was all the rage in Kampala, long before i knew the way back home. Now, just a few hours after i saw a Larry King special on country music, i realize that i still haven't grown up: I love country music as much as i did when i first heard "Danny Boy" as the curious son a country fanatic.

As a grown man, my collection features such icons as Kenny Rogers, Rodney Crowell, Sweethearts of the Rodeo and Tim McGraw -- artistes whose music has since been poisoned by funky variants and, even more painful, knocked out by cultural currents on both sides of the Atlantic. The charge that my taste in music is outdated and uncool is probably fair, but the idea that music made in Nashville is crazy is one i am unkindly disposed to.

I've been told that country music has long been associated with the vanity of southern white males, especially those who have little or no interaction with blacks. In that regard, country has subliminally been known as the music of white racists, even if most country songs treat the whole gamut of every-day subjects far removed from the friction between black, white and everything that falls between. As i have discovered, the allegation is long on perception and short on fact; the connection is tenuous, and the oxymoronic equation is akin to some white people pigeonholing hip-hop as the language of tomorrow's criminals. It doesn't fly.

While my music collection has become eclectic in recent times, only country music ever manages to let me "confess like a child." Many country records out there were intended to speak to the unintelligent, but i am lucky to have known country songs that are as spiritual as they are enlightening. Sean Hannity, the FOX News commentator whose views i rarely agree with, said in a recent edition of his daily show that he loved country music because it's "about real people, real ideas." I agreed reluctantly, in large part because he was making a deliberate attempt to link country music to the ideals of the GOP in a virulent examination of the Obama administration. I would feel much better if the claim is made by, say, Colin Powell.

It's true that i am bothered by the constant risk of having to explain how it came to be that a black man from Africa so loves country music. And it's also true that i don't own a pair of cowboy boots or a fedora or tight-fitting jeans. But guess what: I am going to Nashville.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Why Africa's Liberals Can't Spell "Obama"

Barack Obama's army of African fans is incredibly long. Among his African admirers, he counts millions of Facebookers who categorize themselves as liberal, millions of teenagers who think he's cute and, of course, millions of men whose pride was fed by his historic presidency. Although Africans, like black Americans, have long associated with the Democratic Party, and specifically with Al Gore and John Kerry before Obama, the rise of a black man to lead the Democratic Party cemented that relationship. But, if a man with Obama's credentials, charisma and looks ran somewhere in black Africa on a platform that includes enhancing gay rights and legalizing abortion, he would lose in a free and fair election. While these are two of the most enduring cultural issues that helped John McCain lose to Obama, they do not in any way account for the U.S. president's popularity among millions of Africans who now find it cool to "liberal" themselves on social networking sites. They are jokers, and their real crime is to give liberalism a complicated definition.

Exhibit A: I went to school at Makerere University in Kampala, where quack doctors run illegal abortion clinics that count students among their regular clients. By 2004, when i was graduating from college, so widespread was undergound abotion that most young men had to do background checks on the women they were dating just to be sure they had no abortion record. To do an abortion check was the beginning of wisdom, and, as it were, some girls were the victims of malicious rumors that left them isolated. To be sure, even today in Kampala, i don't know of any young man who would stick with a girl after he's heard tales, true or false, that the woman he's dating has in the past aborted another man's child. It's a deal breaker.

Exhibit B: To say the very least, it's tough being gay in black Africa. Literally and physically. In fact, the best treatment gays really get in a country like Uganda is tough love, with some activists calling conferences to counsel them or impart "skills" that would ostensibly prevent young people from becoming gay. The sometimes-rabid crusade against gays, championed by a so-called minister in charge of ethics and integrity, often goes unchallenged. Uganda's Penal Code Act still categorizes homosexuality as an offence "against the order of nature." And most Ugandans, including thousands of young people who help entrench homophobic language, seem to agree. A 2007 study by the Steadman Group, a respected research firm in East Africa, found that 95 percent of Ugandans did not support demands to decriminalize homosexuality.

It's futile to postulate that Obama's African supporters, even if they are incorrigibly conservative, love him essentially because he's a black man. Such an argument would be as bogus as the claims to liberalism of his African supporters. What's true, however, is that Obama's African fans do not know him well enough.