Sunday, November 9, 2008

Africa's Election

This election year wasn’t the first that I’ve spent overseas—in 1992 my family was living in Japan when Clinton was voted into office. But this year was the first time I’ve voted abroad (although in the end write-in ballots don’t count unless there’s a tie) and it’s the first time my voting milieu has been non-Americans.

Honestly, there were many some moments that I felt less of a loyal American citizen than my Beninese neighbors. When, for example, they would feed me updates on the election campaign (when I for example had grown tired of fighting shortwave radio fuzz). Or on the evening of November 4th when many pulled all-nighters to watch the results come in while I slept soundly.
Granted, staying current this year hasb been a bit tricky: I have no television, and my comprehension of French news broadcasts shuts down pretty early in the evening.

But I was quite surprised at how fervently my town, Benin, and the rest of Africa followed the elections. Of course, it was with just as much fervency that Africa embraced America’s new president. This realization was settled by the many felicitations that I received; by the news footage I saw of Kenyan’s dancing; and by the BBC radio call-ins I heard enthusiastically supporting a “son of Africa” in the White House.

I was actually taken by surprise by how powerful a thing it was for many Africans, a product of several factors: Obama's skin color, his direct biographical roots to Kenya, and the newness of his political ethos. I think that for the Beninese this last factor (which Obama and supporters has chosen to sum in the word "change") might have carried special weight: Benin's popular president Yayi Boni has also self-stylized his politics in one word: changement.

An American leaving abroad couldn't help but be moved by how emotive and engaged Africans were over the U.S. elections. Of course, much of this was due to the symbolism of it all. For all their interest, most Africans (along w/ Americans) know little how Obama's presidency will practically affect their lives, especially in the areas of trade and U.S. Aid policy.