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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A Lot in a Little

November 18, 2007

I returned to Nairobi with our biggest camp and distribution center successfully running near real-time actualization.

Now it was time to sort out automated ordering.

It was convenient timing. The Girl moved to Kenya in September when I was supposed to be there, but got held up with The New Restaurant.

So I was back.

And it was good

She had found a little place near the Karen Blixen Giraffe Center. IanJames and his wife had been instrumental in her happiness there. Just as they did with me, they brought her into their circle of friends, making rapidly the new country into a new home. We kinda owe them our lives in Kenya; without them, we wouldn’t be as happy there as we are. Thanks. We owe you more than can be repaid.

While the little place on Lamwia was nice, it was sorta off the beaten path. Sadly but luckily, Butcher was moving out. Butcher, a friend of IanJames, was a pilot for Kenya Airways. He was truly one of the coolest people I’d met in Karen, and believe me, there are a lot of cool people.

Now, I can take it and dish it out—and I get a lot of it for my East Coast accent—but I’ll throw it right back to all the Brits and Kenyan Cowboys. But Butcher never gave me shit. He was just down for a good time.

Butcher had a sweet two bed, two bath duplex within walking distance from a Karen Nakumatt and a couple bars and restaurants, right down the lane from IanJames and 10 minutes up Ngong from the company offices.

Bushwhack, perhaps the most rough and tumble man on the face of the earth lived nearby and so did Sapphire, with whom The Girl had become pretty good friends.

Butcher offered the place to us. We moved in a couple days after he moved out. It was bittersweet for everyone, but we were all jovial about the new beginnings.

The Girl and I got the place set up a little bit, bought plates and silverware and crap, but it still needs some personal touches.

We were just settling in to our new lives. I was working long days, and on the weekend we hung out with everyone.  While working, the two of us would have quite dinners together, I’d play a lot of guitar, and we’d go to bed early. The Girl’s job prospects looked good and I was looking forward to bouncing back and forth between Nairobi and Juba over the next couple months.

It was as close to a normal life as I’d ever known.

I had been back for about 6 days, and I had about three more weeks planned at headquarters to get some more groundwork in place. There I am, chugging along, sending out new directives, policy and procedure memos, getting ramped up for vehicle spare codes and the end of month, when bam, the CEO calls me into his office.

He and I had had some great talks the past couple days, he was championing by changes, and we were doing. We talked about design and me working with Director of New Business on proposals and profiles.

But that day he called me in, he said, ‘We need you to cover for Buckshot.”

I ’bout flipped my lid.

I managed to retain my composure for most of it, nodding silently, possibly scowling. I mumbled something and left.

I stewed in my frustration for a little before returning back to the executives.

No one looked up as I entered.

“Before I cover for another manager on their leave, I need mine sorted out.”

“Fair enough,” replied The Big Boss.

“December 13th, just like I’ve said in numerous emails.”

Silence.

“. . .I promised my mom I’d be home for Christmas this year.”

“You a momma’s boy?” chided the Director of Operations, looking at me from above the rim of his glasses.

I paused, collecting my cool.

“I wouldn’t say that. I like to deliver on commitments.”

“Never mind him, We can get you back at that time.”

Half joking the DoO adds, “Well, it’s only the married managers who get to go home for the holidays. All the single guys gotta stay in the field. Unless you can get married, in the next few weeks.”

“DoO, you know I’m not single. My girlfriend just moved here, but we’d like to be back in the states for. . .”

“You’re girlfriend is here?” cried the CEO, “Here in Nairobi?”

“Uh, yeah I think I mentioned this—”

“Does she want to work in Sudan? Is she in Hospitality?”

“Hmm, funny how that was worded,” pondered the InMo.

“Well, we’d talked about this, but then DoO and I chatted one night over dinner at Tamarind. He said it wasn’t a good idea.”

“No, I don’t think so. I don’t recall that.”

“It was me, you, Lex Luthor, and LouieLouie. I had the duck sachets and the prawns. You got a T-bone.”

“Oh that night,” remembered the DoO.

“Can we talk to her?” pressed the CEO?

In the next three days, everything was turned upside down; a lot of things were about to happen in a little bit of time.