Friday, November 14, 2008

Yes We Can!


Normally I wouldn’t even consider blogging about politics. But this blog is about my journey as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Lesotho. And this election (whether or not you like the results) was very historic and it has been fascinating to experience it here in Lesotho. Part of me would like to remain objective in this blog, but Im not going to hide my feelings as this is the first time in 26 years of being able to vote that I’ve voted for someone I believe in, vs voting for the lesser of 2 evils. I realize this could have more to do with my heart and the condition it was in and the life I was leading vs the lack of a good candidate. But Im not feeling too introspective at the moment. So at this point, you may want to stop reading and come back to this blog in December.

I was able to travel to the town of Peka and watch the election at Kaye’s house. She lives at a clinic run by nuns and they have electricity. We had a little election party. There were 4 PCV’s, a Canadian, a Basotho and the wonderful South African nun who is in charge of the clinic. The nun has a rather large sitting room with a huge sectional couch and a large TV with cable. Kaye paid for a month of some extra stations and we stayed up all night watching election coverage on CNN, BBC and Al Jazeera. It was interesting for me to watch election results with coverage from around the world. BBC and Al Jazeera did interview with people from different countries to get their reaction. Im sure most in America saw coverage of the village in Kena where Obama’s father was born. Some of the interviews were positive and full of hope. Some were apathetic and some were negative. But it was good to see how many people around the world were paying attention. And it was nice to see (at least for now) countries waving American flags rather than burning them.

Many Basotho questioned me previous to the election as to whether or not America would actually allow a black man (or woman) to be president. Several Basotho have asked if we allowed blacks and whites to marry. When I told them its legal, they questioned the willingness of any white to marry a black. This election brought up many good cultural discussions of life in America vs Lesotho… especially in regard to race. Strangely enough, the Basotho seem to believe that there is much racial strife in America. I wonder where they got that idea?

As the evening continued and we all talked/dozed through the night, excitement built as Obama won key states. The Basotho, Canadian and S. African spoke quite a bit of the need to be out of Iraq… which we all agreed. The nun (who is probably in her 60’s) reminisced about being born in apartheid S. Africa. She has spent the last 30 years in Lesotho. She spoke of going back to S. Africa for a few months and casting her first vote ever for Nelson Mandella. And she spoke of the hope and joy that came with his victory (On a side note, I just finished reading Mandella’s autobiography “A Long Walk to Freedom” Its an amazing book and I highly recommend it)

When California closed, about 6am our time, it was announced that Obama had gotten enough electoral votes to win. The nun went to her morning prayer with the other nuns and reported that they prayed for America, Obama and his family,, for peace and reconciliation for Americans. We watched McCain’s concession speech (which I thought was really gracious and well done and added to the hope of the future_ and then we all watched Obama’s speech in tears. Whether or not you voted for him, this is a defining moment in the history of our country.

On the way back to my site Wednesday morning, Kombi drivers and passengers asked me if I had heard. They offered me congratulations. One Basotho said to me “now maybe the world will accept the fact that blacks can lead without being corrupt like Mugabe or Mbeki.” When I saw my supervisor later in the day, he was talking about the future of Ha Mohatlane in regards to Aids and poverty. Looking me in the eye, he said “If America can make a big change like this, maybe Lesotho can change too.”

I don’t believe that most elections in America are as closely watched as this one was. I don’t believe that most American elections have brought as much hope to as many around the world. I started voting as soon as I turned 18. I have always felt that it is a privilege to vote. You know the old saying: “if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.” But I have to admit to having a certain amount of cynicism about America and the government as long as I can remember. (and again this could be more about the life I was leading vs the gov and it’s policies) I have always felt a little guilty for feeling critical of the government. After ll, no matter who is running the country, it’s a tough and stressful joy. You can’t please everyone, and I have never (nor will I ) taken a crack at being a civil servant on any level. In my heart, I have been critical, but I have always appreciated the knowledge that I can be critical without being oppressed or arrested. Even if others don’t agree with or even listen to my views, I still have the freedom to express them.

Since I have come to Lesotho, I have been feeling increasingly more… for want of a better work… “patriotic.” During training, every morning for 9 weeks we started the day off by singing the national anthem of Lesotho and the American national anthem. I felt much pride singing both. Even amidst the criticism (and there’s a lot of it in Africa) right or wrong, of Americas growing military presence around the world. And I found that I did not mind this criticism because it doesn’t matter whether or not I agree with it… if I want the freedom to speak my thoughts and be listened to when I disagree with my government, I better be willing to listen to others disagree with me. And, not just listening and waiting for them to be finished so I can make my next brilliant point, but listening with an open mind and an open heart and be willing to consider others thoughts which are different than my own and be open to change.

In a June 30th, 2008 speech, Barack Obama talks about what (in his opinion) the word “patriotism” means. He quotes Mark Twain as saying, “Patriotism is supporting your country all the time, and your government when it deserves it.” He goes on to say,
“We may hope that our leaders and our government stand up for our ideals, and there are many times in our history when that’s occurred. But when our laws, our leaders or our government are out of alignment with our ideals, then the dissent of ordinary Americans may prove to be one of the truest expressions of patriotism. The young preacher from Georgia, Martin Luther King, Jr., who led a movement to help America confront our tragic history of racial injustice and live up to the meaning of our creed- he was a patriot. The young soldier who first spoke about he prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib- he is a patriot. Recognizing a wrong being committed in this country’s name; insisting that we deliver on the promise of our Constitution- these are the acts of patriots, men and women who are defending that which is best in America. And we should never forget that-especially when we disagree with them; especially when they make us uncomfortable with their words.”

On Nov 4, 2008, America changed forever. Yes Barack Obama is so much more than a black man. He is a man who, I believe, really cares about the people of America and wants to be a true civil servant. He believes change is possible. (and if you want to know more about him and get past the media sound bites, I recommend his autobiography, “the dreams of my father”) Whether or not you voted for him, whether or not you respect him, whether or not you agree with him about Iraq, Iran, Israel, the economy, free trade, civil rights, gay rights… hopefully we can put aside our differences and work together over the next 4 years.

In 1963 Martin Luther King said, “I have a dream that one day people will be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” I did not think I would live to see the day that this would happen. I was wrong. On Nov 4, a record number of people voted for the next president. I know Republicans who have never ever voted for a democrat… who with some small amount of fear and hope cast their vote for Obama. A popular majority of voting Americans for the first time have gotten past centuries of prejudice and have judged a man by the content of his character. I don’t know what the future holds, but as far as the content of America’s character goes, there is nothing but hope.

My apologies for a babbling blog. I hope I haven’t offended anyone. Ive been feeling like I would burst if I couldn’t share what I was thinking. If you have actually read this far, thanks for your patience. Im so proud of America, and so proud to be an American. I will end with the end of President Obama’s acceptance speech, which to my happy surprise was printed in its entirety in the Lesotho times. At the end of the speech, Obama tells a story about Anne Nixon Cooper, a 106 year old woman who voted. He talks about all of the changes in America that she has seen in her 100 plus years, what changes the country has gone through, the obstacles America has overcome. And then he asks the question, if our children lived for 100 years, what changes would they witness. He says, “This is our moment. This is our time to put our people back to work and open doors of opportunity for our kids, to restore prosperity and promote the cause of peace, to reclaim the American dream and to reaffirm the fundamental truth- that out of many, we are one. That while we breath, we hope, and where we are met with cynicism and doubt, and those who tell us that we can’t, we will respond with that timeless creed that sums up the spirit of a people. Yes we can. Thank you, and may God bless the United States of America.”

Salang Hantle! (stay well)