Wan Wathii Amerika!: Experiencing the Election in Africa

November 6, 2008

In September, I went to the Kenya-Namibia futbol game with JimmyJames, Dainty, Donut, and JimmyJames’ brother-in-law. It was every bit as rife with beer and somewhat jingoistic pride as any country’s national sporting event would be.  There were chants and cheers and songs and when a goal was scored by Kenya road flares burst alight across the stadium and empty plastic bottles and cans rained down from the upper sections.  

It was frickin great.  

One of the chants, I found to be particularly interesting:

“Obama! Odinga! and Oliech! Obama! Odinga! and Oliech!”

Odinga is of course the Prime Minister appointed in a power sharing agreement after the post election violence in January and Oliech is the star striker for the National Team.  Obama is this dude that world’s frickin’ obsessed with at the moment, you know, if you’ve been in a cave for the past two years.

Kenya won the game, and on our way out there were urchins weaving amongst the traffic hawking Obama shirts and DVDs chronicling his life.  As we sat in traffic listening to eurotrash music in Donut’s car, I wondered why Obama was first in the chant. . .

~

Two months later we have a United States President-Elect.  They say this was one of those, “you’ll always remember where you were,” moments.  Well, I was in Rumbek, South Sudan, waking up every half hour or so to check the results on CNN.com.  My first check at about 3:30AM GMT+3 yielded Kentucky called for McCain and Vermont for Obama.  I think that was the only time the whole night where McCain was in the lead.

In the coming intervals one by one, more and more states were turned blue.  

Pennsylvania.  

Ohio.  

I actually began to doubt it.  

“No way,” the InMo exhaled in disbelief.  “I bet Fox News reports different.”  Fox News.com, in fact, reported the same.  I drifted in and out of sleep until just before 7, when I refreshed the tabs I had open.  It was the Fox News website that reloaded first and I saw the headline, “President Obama,” splashed across the LCD as polls on the West Coast closed.  

I still didn’t believe it.  No way in holy living hell did the black guy whose name rhymes with Osama defeat the political machines of both the Democrats and Republicans.

More and more states kept turning blue and the effectiveness of Obama’s campaign became increasingly clear as he beat seven shades of shit out McCain in the electoral college tallies  

I knew the speeches were coming so I made way to the mess.  As Obama’s acceptance speech blared from the three TVs in the camps’ common areas cooks came from the kitchen.  I saw my maintenance staff running from all areas to stand and watch.  They were silent at first.  But eventually the din rose to levels where I couldn’t hear the historic speech.  I shot a couple looks at the offenders and they quieted.  

After the speech, It was business as usual.  My reliever arrived and I spent most of the day training him, offering advice and information on the site.  I did a round through the mess to make sure the staff wasn’t continuing to watch the Obamamania that was still emanating from the televisions.  I shooed them back to work and got on with the day.  

When I was in the bank mid-morning, I was taking out about 36,000 Sudanese pounds, or roughly $18,000.  In the US, we’d be talking 180 bills.  You’d stuff it in your wallet and no one would be the wiser.  The highest value note in Sudan is a 50 pounds, but the banks didn’t have any denominations above a 10.  As the stacks of bills bound with pastel coloured plastic were fed under the thick, bulletproof glass separating myself and the teller, the two gentlemen next to me dressed to the height of Sudanese style were inching ever closer to me and commenting on the amount of money I was withdrawing and stuffing into canvas bags.  

stack-of-sudanese-pounds“Dude. Dude.  DUDE!”  The man finally turned to look at me, his front teeth protruding from his mouth.  Can you back up off me?  You’re cramping my style here.”

“Just what I would’ve said,” approved the InMo.

But as I was receiving the cash the tumult in the bank died down as BBC interrupted the lauding of Obama for a special announcement from the Kenyan President.  Mwai Kibaki appeared on the screen confirming the rumour going around the staff and what was printed in The Nation newspaper: that November 6th would be a public holiday in Kenya.  

“I wonder if I was elected President if the British Government would mark the occasion with a bank holiday in my honor,” pondered the InMo.  

I returned to my office to find an email from a lady in the Nairobi Headquarters claiming relation to Obama because her family shared a fence with his family.

Everyone who stopped in my office that day, hearing my accent extolled their praise and support for Obama.  Away messages of my colleagues in Nairobi read like a patriotic headline reel: “America proves Democracy to the world!”  “GOBAMA!” “OBAMANATION!”

“I don’t think he thought that last one through,” smirked the InMo.

After a long day of training and explaining, it was time for a beer.  On the way I bumped into the CyberCafé technician asked who me if I was going to the bar.  I nodded, he said I should be sure to be there for 7:00. come 7:00 my pastry chef rolled out with a lusciously iced cake adorned with a red, white, and blue American flag.  A laminated photo of Obama was affixed upright behind the cake with dark chocolate.  

obama-cake-celebration“I just wanted a frickin cold beer,” sighed the InMo.

Orders for red wine and beer poured in as people took pictures of the cake.  The Cyber Café technician got behind the bar to make a speech.

“As a relative of Obama,” he started and I tuned out a little bit.  I mean, really?  From the same town, sure.   Same tribe, even more likely.  But relative? Two of my employees?

 C’mon. . . my neighbours back in Bethelhem are from Scranton.  Are they related to Joe Biden?  

“I am Obama’s father’s brother’s nephew’s cousin’s former roommate,” thundered the InMo.  

“What does that make us?” I asked.  

“Absolutely nothing,” bellowed the InMo.

“Who are you talking to?” asked the Irish dude sitting next to me. 

“Nevermind.”

As the Cyber Café technician carried on with his speech there were cheers at the bar.  Rumba music pumped over the stereo and they began to cut the cake.  

“Wait! Wait!”  The Cyber Café tech approached me and asked me if I would cut the cake. 

“No, I think the guy in the Obama shirt will do just fine,” I declined.  I wasn’t used to brandishing my nationality.  I mean, not like I’d pretend to be Canadian.  Not since I was in Bali, at least, but I was not used to this sort of attitude towards Americans.  

But the cheers and applause and the raising of glasses were for the election of my president, and the people felt honoured having an American in their midst. 

Any Yank who’s ever been outside the country knows that this is a rare occasion, no matter where one is.  

Myself and the guy wearing an Obama hat and shirt both holding the same knife cut the cake together for the flashes of cameras and the whooping and hollering.  

Now I was few beers in, and I got into the fun a little.  I was happy about the results of the election, and so was the rest of the world.  People around the bar came to me and asked to have their picture taken with me.  African songs with Barack’s name were blasted and people began to dance.  

They broke out into songs themselves singing, “Wan wathii Amerika!”

I smiled and drank and watched the whimsical joviality with amusement and a bit of pride.  This was my president they were cheering.

I turned to my accountant, one of my most trusted employees.  What does that mean?  What they’re saying? 
The accountant smiled.  He took a prolonged sip of Bell lager from a chipped glass. and sighed with smile, looking down at the bar pursing his lips and nodding his head.  He turned to me after a second.  “It means, ‘we,'” he said puasing for a chortle as if he knew what my reaction would be, and the ridiculousness inherent to the statement’s meaning.  “It means, ‘We are all going to America.'”

I realized this wasn’t a celebration for America’s president-elect.  The way it seemed, this was vindication for the botched election here this past January.

The way I think they saw it was neither, yet both.  

To the Kenyans, I think they see Obama as their president.

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