So I arrived in London 3 weeks ago now and though I’ve been here many times before, it’s been over 25 years since I spent 21 or more days here in a row. You encounter a place very differently when you live there than if you are here on a short visit. You are more on alert, paying keener attention to street names, bus routes and train stations, where the doctor’s & dental practices are, the different ways you can top-up your travel card, what events the local library is hosting, who the families are that live along your street beyond the neighbors down below and on either side, what day the rubbish gets picked up, how late the corner shop stays open, the list could go on and on. Yes, the ordinary aspects of every day life — many not germane to someone on holiday — become very relevant to a new resident.

When I lived in New York, I frequently heard that it was the “greatest” city in the world. I’m not going to take that on here, but from my observation alone, London seems far more multicultural than my experience of NYC. Though there isn’t a significant Latino presence here, I’ve been struck by the wide variety of southeast Asians, many different kinds of both Western and Eastern Europeans, and a greater variety of Caribbeans & Africans. The Nigerian presence is very high, from hearing Yoruba (one of the 3 main languages) spoken at the airport, to meeting a young Buddhist Londoner at church. When she heard I was part Nigerian, she didn’t hesitate in trying to guess which tribe I was from! In all my years in New York City, many Americans barely knew where Nigeria was located– even some close friends had trouble locating it on a map of Africa — and hardly any could name it’s 3 largest ethnic groups. The reach of the British Empire accounts for much of London’s heterogeneity but so does the UK’s proximity to the refugee crisis that has gripped the middle east but spills across Africa and western Europe. As both mainstream political parties consolidate their leadership here, there is much talk of how to curb immigration which is not unrelated to concerns about what it means to welcome ” the other.”

Living in a new country is exposing my heart in new ways too: It’s surfacing grief at leaving the life I had come to love — especially the many rich and varied friendships — along with generating deep gratitude for what that was. And there’s some sadness lurking because I didn’t fully appreciate that community while I was a part of it.

The experience of being new here is also extremely humbling:

  1. There is far more that I don’t know about how things work than I’m used to and that’s not a very comfortable place for me. I, like most of us, feel more myself when things are familiar.
  2. I know few people and have fewer friends (2 @ this point!) –though am v grateful for those precious few and the wonderful network of people they’ve brought me into contact with already.
  3. I don’t have a job. And I’m not sure what that will be or look like here. Or when it will materialize but I’m OK with that so far.                                                                                                                                                                                  In being humbled, I find myself having greater compassion: for those who are lonely and without any family or friends; for those without a job, unable to work, or those who’ve been looking without success for what feels like a long time; for those uprooted from their homeland due to war or famine or some other crisis and forced to navigate a new culture in a country that has welcomed them with reluctance.

My current situation requires patience and perseverance but it’s stretching me in ways that are healthy and good, and for that I give thanks. It also gives me a small sense of what I share with the millions of displaced people across the globe and helps me to see many glimpses of just how fortunate I am.

 

 

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I flew into JFK 26 years ago this month from London with 2 suitcases. Tonight I fly out of JFK and back to London. I take another 2 suitcases (+ 22 boxes that are on a ship somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic).

I leave behind a varied and rich tapestry of friends and neighbors. Incredibly, some of these dear people I’ve known for practically all of my time here, others for a decade or more, and then others I’ve only known a few months. Many friendships were formed and deepened through my tenure at Redeemer Presbyterian Church, first as a timid church goer 18 years ago, and more recently as a staff member for the past 8 years. Others developed in the different tennis leagues I played hard in and those folks generally didn’t know anything about the work I did and it didn’t matter. And with others, relationships developed at Uptown Writers and in the writing groups I joined as we critiqued each others’ pieces and encouraged one another with our craft.

I will deeply miss this web of extraordinary people who I’ve had the honor and privilege of knowing & walking beside.( But am so grateful for the world-wide web and the wonders of technology that will allow many connections to continue, albeit in new forms.)

There are other significant losses too.

I’m grieving having to leave my apartment – though grateful for new friends who will be moving in here. I’ll miss living in my building with the 24 hour security guards, a crew of hard-working folks who don’t make a whole lot of money but who always made me feel welcome especially at the end of weary days. I’ll miss the neighbors on my floor, particularly 90-year-old P. She and I wept together last night as we said goodbye and she articulated what I didn’t have the courage to say: “I’m sad because may not see you again.” Perhaps not in this life, I reminded her, but in the next one, where God is waiting for us both. I’m sad that daily walks in the spectacular Ft Tryon Park won’t be possible anymore. And I’m already missing Redeemer’s worship services, and the incredible classical concerts we’d hear following the benediction every Sunday morning with some of the most accomplished musicians this city has to offer.

Yes I’ve been extraordinarily blessed here in this city that never sleeps. I have found places and spaces of deep rest here over the last quarter century and for that I am eternally grateful. As I result, I leave this city a little wiser (and with a head of grey hair to show for it!), but more humble, more joyful, more hopeful, and more courageous. And with a deep sense of how Loved I am.

I’m moving to live with my mother for the final stages of her life to show her how loved she is. She is hugely excited –a confirmation that this time has fully come.

So long New York. A new adventure across the sea beckons.

May God be with you ’til we meet again.

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familiar feb2016It may be the first time that 10 black female actors are appearing on Broadway (Eclipsed @ the Golden Theatre on 45th) or off Broadway (Familiar @ Playwrights Horizons on 42nd) at the same time in the space of 3 blocks. We have the award-winning Zimbabwean American actor (The Walking Dead) and playwright Danai Gurira to thank for that. I had the privilege of seeing Familiar last weekend and then hearing Ms. Gurira talk about the play after the show. In broad strokes, the play is a window into the tensions that are exposed in a Zimbabwean American family living in wintery Minnesota on the eve of the older daughter Tendi’s wedding to a “white boy” who works in international development. Like any wedding – not to talk of an interracial/intercultural one – family stresses that have remained contained bubble up to the surface when the joining of two people/two families is at stake.

The first act had me and my (Nigerian) friend Ruth howling through much of it and I’m talking belly aching laughter. Picture an African version of My Big Fat Greek Wedding and then add the complexities of trying to please Aunt Annie from Zim who’s flown in and insists that Tendi’s fiance pay a bride price, involving cows. Meanwhile, the girls’ mother, a fiercely proud MIT-educated college professor and Annie’s younger sister, is vehemently opposed to anything Zimbabwean having raised her two daughters to be as American as McDonalds. Throw in the daughters’ father, a successful lawyer, pining for home and his younger artsy daughter, Nyasha, who’s just returned from Zim, jazzed about having had a chance to be exposed to the Shona language and who’s brought back a stunning mbira (thumb piano). If that weren’t enough, the couple getting married are both Christians and virgins – facts that become relevant to the plot as well.

The themes are not just familiar, but it’s a hugely ambitious play. The second act turns far more serious than the first when tensions reach a breaking point and we come to learn the hidden reason for so much (though not all) of the tension in this family… And then we discover that the character that has been largely overshadowed in the run up to the wedding, Tendi’s younger sister, Nyasha – who’s name aptly means grace – is the one through whom redemption comes. The final scene with the daughters’ parents tentatively dancing to the sound to Nyasha playing Shona music on the mbira almost made me cry.

A review I heard on wnyc this morning criticized the play for having too many extraneous, undeveloped characters which meant Gurira “missed an opportunity to connect audiences with their point of view.” I disagree. At the speakout after the show, Gurira – before this particular review was aired – spoke about her intentionality in creating meaty, substantial parts for each character. A playwright who feels called to tell the stories of women of African descent, she’s committed to developing roles that an actor can really “sink their teeth into.” Bravo Gurira! It showed. The acting was first rate and the Zim accents and intermitent use of Shona was convincing. Familiar is not just funny but fantastic!

(Photo credit: www.playwrightshorizons.org)

Today, on account of the blizzard pummeling the east coast of the US, the city which never sleeps has ground to a standstill — and that includes Broadway. Yes, all matinees and evening performances were cancelled earlier today. The hope is that by tomorrow afternoon, the storm will have blown away, and the city will re-awaken, the subways and buses will begin to move again, in time for Sunday’s matinees.

But in the meantime, here’s a touching Broadway story…

Last Weds night, a group of us from our midtown office decided to walk over to the Richard Rogers Theater to try our luck in the popular lottery for a front row seat to the performance of Hamilton that night. (We were hopeful. After all, a work friend had won front row tickets to the show the previous evening (!), and several others from the office had been lottery winners too. Apparently, their success is not unconnected to how one folds their ticket, it seems, but that’s a story for a different blog post.) As I put on my coat, a friend and colleague, Jess, was heading out, and she, being a lover of all things Hamilton – she’s memorized all the words to the soundtrack – decided to stop by with us on her way home. We joined 300+ other hopefuls, wrote our names on a piece of paper, tried to fold them in that special way, flung them into the basket, and waited on a crowded sidewalk in the winter cold.

The first name was called and cheers went up as that person dashed through the crowd and up to the front to present their ID, hand over their cash ($10/tkt, 2 max), and pick up their tickets. The second name was called and there was more yelling – and this time some groans too. Then the third name was called – and as God would have it – it was our friend, Jess! She blushed with disbelief, her eyes got tearful and then she scurried off to claim her tickets.

The show was in two hours and with three young kids at home, she had some juggling to do: she texted her babysitter and asked her to stay later that evening and then rushed home. Together they got the two youngest kids (4 1/2 & 2) into their pajamas and ready for bed after dinner. With C, her oldest @ 7, since she was having a special night out with Mom, she got to put on a pretty dress.

When the others were settled and in bed, Mom took C into the hallway and told her they were going to Hamilton. At first C couldn’t believe it. When she realized that it was really true, she started dancing and jumping up and down saying, “Nobody loves Hamilton more than I do!”

The show did not disappoint. They were in the front center – and C was given a booster seat so she could have a perfect view of the stage. She sat up, alert and awake, through every scene and rap.

By the end of the evening, both C and Jess were overwhelmed with tears. During the closing ovation, Lin-Manuel Miranda looked right at them, winked, and patted his heart. They were beyond ecstatic.

The next day, Jess couldn’t stop talking about their spectacular evening. I was both thrilled and envious. When she’d dropped C off at school, after letting her sleep in, C’s teachers told her how jealous they were too. Still on a high, Jess decided to tweet Miranda to thank him for such a special treat. And this was his response:

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How’s that for a sweet down-to-earth Broadway response: a 7 year old winking back at a star!

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Last Friday evening, almost on a whim, I went with a friend to see a play that was entering its final weekend. I was intrigued when I heard ‘Our Lady of Kibeho’ was written by Katori Hall, a young playwright whose ‘The Mountaintop’ several years earlier on Broadway had garnered awards and lots of attention. That play featured Samuel L Jackson as Martin Luther King, Jr and Angela Bassett as a maid whom Dr. King had an extended conversation with on what turned out to be his final night alive. While the performances were strong, the show included some supernatural elements at its conclusion which I found ruined what had come before. Still, I was curious about ‘Our Lady’ which was highly recommended by arts reviewers on my local radio station and which, I thought, might lend itself more readily to the supernatural. I was not disappointed.

Set in Rwanda, ‘Our Lady’ is based on a true story of 3 girls at a Catholic high school in the 1980s who claim visitations by the Virgin Mary. These sightings occur repeatedly over a period of  years and among the things she tells and shows them is a warning of the violence that is to befall this nation 10 years later. I was unfamiliar with this story which took place in the village of Kibeho (“chi be ho”), despite my keen interest in Rwanda and the subsequent ways forgiveness and reconciliation have been woven into the fabric of that nation following the tragic genocide of almost 1 million people over just 3 months in April of 1994.  Reports of visitations from Mary had occurred in several places in Europe but it was the first time this occurred in Africa which contributed to both local and international skepticism as to whether it was really true. In fact in the play, an envoy from the Vatican is sent to verify whether the girls’ accounts of seeing and hearing from Mary are credible. We as the audience observe some of girls’ experiences and are invited to decide this for ourselves. Is Mary really communicating with and through them or are the girls making the whole thing up to garner attention?

From the minute I walked into the 300 person space, one of three that is part of the Signature Theatre on 42nd Street, I felt as I was back in East Africa again. The set resembled many secondary schools I’ve seen in Uganda, banana trees framed the stage, and the horizon offered a view of lush rolling hills. Rwanda is known as “the land of a thousand hills”. Recall that the hotel featured in the movie ‘Hotel Rwanda’ was called Mille Collines – 1,000 hills. Turns out Rwanda is so spectacularly beautiful that Rwandans like to joke that its where God goes on vacation. The priest sent by the Vatican at one point in the play counters that, God may vacation in Rwanda, but he lives in Rome.

The two main characters were Africans and as a result, they were extremely convincing (which doesn’t often happen when African-American actors try to play Africans. They often struggle with the accent which is an immediate give-away.) A Kenyan actor, Owiso Odera, played a Rwandan priest, the head of the school, who struggles to come to terms with whether to believe these events. The main actress, Nneka Okafor, who played the first schoolgirl to experience the visitations, was Nigerian-American. She was outstanding. Her powerful performance conveyed an unusual combination of innocence, humility and courage. It was out her mouth that the words “truth is not afraid of the machete” were spoken.

Sadly the play’s two month run ended on Sunday. This was the play’s debut but it’s sure to appear somewhere else in the next year or two – and I wouldn’t be surprised if it becomes a film one day. Hall, the playwright, disclosed in an interview that she was looking for a fresh way to write about the genocide, to better understand for herself what led to those terrible events. She learned about the visitations during a trip to Rwanda in 2009 when she visited the shrine now built to Our Lady in Kibeho. Focusing on three poor, Rwandan girls in a small village in the most Christian of African countries, Hall has succeeded in giving us new ways to understand the complex intertwining of ethnic tensions, Catholicism, political power, and colonialism  – Rwanda was under Belgian rule – on the psyche of a nation.

Photo: Nneka Okafor by Joan Marcus, courtesy of Signature Theatre.

The details came out in pieces. First I learned that a young woman in an elite public high school in Manhattan had taken her life. She was a junior (15 or 16 perhaps?) and the inciting incident appeared to have been that a teacher caught her cheating on an exam. The press had vilified the teacher, publishing both her name and showing her photo. The girl apologized, left a note on her exam, ostensibly went to the bathroom, and disappeared from the school. She made her way to the edge of the Hudson River and waded into it fully clothed until she disappeared. She didn’t know how to swim, nor did the fisherman who watched her, in horror.

During the meeting where I heard about this tragedy, a woman who is the school’s PTA president got a text and quietly slipped out. The girl’s body had washed up the day before on the river bank 5 days after she disappeared. Family members were gathering for the funeral at that very hour. The PTA prez had gone to represent the parents, unsure if any other parents or teachers would attend.

At the end of the meeting, I learned more. The young woman was a Muslim so I thought she was from the middle East. Then I heard she was an African, though it wasn’t clear what her country of origin was. Knowing she was a fellow African, I felt a profound sadness for her family and community. I wondered what sorts of struggles this young woman had had as an immigrant or in having immigrant parents.

Later that afternoon, I couldn’t help myself. I sought out on-line stories about the incident to find out more. As soon as I saw the girl’s name in print, my heart lurched.

She had a Yoruba name which meant, to me, she wasn’t just an African. She was a Nigerian.

Though brilliant and probably destined for great things – she’d expressed a desire to become a doctor – and her classmates described her as witty and athletic, it seems she’d had a troubled past. There were reports from neighbors of loud arguments with her mother and another time when she apparently disappeared for 3 days. I wondered what other warning signs there might have been that were ignored, or more likely misunderstood, by those closest to her. I considered whether her fragile mind had been made more vulnerable given the sad state Nigeria is in right now and the backdrop of knowing several hundred high school girls had not been kept safe within the boundaries of their school compound. Or was there such intense pressure to succeed, up and out of the South Bronx neighborhood where her family lived, that added additional psychological weight to the struggles she was already wrestling with? We’ll never know.

This terribly sad event made me think of this encouraging piece written by public health physician Ike Anya that came out in Granta a couple of years ago: People Don’t Get Depressed in Nigeria, http://www.granta.com/New-Writing/People-Dont-Get-Depressed-in-Nigeria.

Nigerians, like people from anywhere else, despite what we might wish to think, aren’t exempt from the demons of mental health, regardless of where we happen to live. In fact to be living in Nigeria right now might contribute to higher levels of mental health dysfunction, given the extreme levels of stress and the damage being done to the national psyche, from the lack of leadership and the terror of Boko Haram’s tactics.

I grieve for this young woman’s lost life, for her parents, for her classmates and teachers, and for her extended Nigerian community. I pray her tragic ending will not have been in vain.

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A week ago today in Jos, at a gathering where people were watching the Champion’s League Final, a hotly contested soccer match between Real Madrid and Club Atletico de Madrid, another bomb went off. This time only 3 people were killed. Tragic, but fortunately the loss of life wasn’t significantly greater.

It was the third bomb in Jos in a single week, the first time I recall that ever happening in the town I was born in. Earlier in the week, two bombs about half an hour apart killed 118 people at last report. All attacks are thought to have been committed by Boko Haram, an Islamic fundamentalist group that is creating havoc, primarily in the north of Nigeria. Their attacks are unrelenting and now reported by the BBC to be a daily occurrence: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-27641730.

Next month will signal 15 years since my father, who was born in Jos, also died there. It’s hard to believe so many years have slipped away since then. I still miss him terribly, especially as the anniversary of his passing approaches.

Papa was born in Jos, which is in the geographic center of the country known as the “middle belt”, but had a Fulani mother who was from the northeast, near the border with Cameroon. In his early years as a lawyer, he represented clients from the then North Eastern State and travelled to its capital, the city of Maidugari, multiple times a year. I recall one such trip when he took me with him. Two memories stand out. It was by far the hottest place I’d ever been to and the whirring standing fan in our hotel room did nothing to lull me to sleep. With Papa snoring beside me, I tried to will myself to doze off but I felt like I was in an oven. The other thing I recall about that trip was how fine the sand along the streets was,  similar to that you’d find on a beach. Little did I realize then that the Sahara Dessert was already encroaching southward (and still is).

My father would be absolutely heart-broken at the violence and lack of religious tolerance Boko Haram seem to display. His mother was a Muslim and his father was a Christian from the southern Delta area. (Papa would also be appalled at the lack of leadership from Nigeria’s President, also from the Delta but that’s for another post). Such “mixed” marriages were common and Muslims and Christians co-existed peacefully within the same families.

Boko Haram apparently want to create their own Muslim state across the north of Nigeria and use a system of Islamic law, called sharia. But Nigeria is far too heterogeneous for that. They are waging a “war” they can’t win.

For this reason, I’m glad my father is no longer alive.