Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Political Musings from Abroad

I’ve always been impressed with how much Africans, especially the young people, know about America. There are the typical, pop-culture inquisitions: Do you know 50cent? Is Tupac really dead? Do all celebrities live in Hollywood? But a good number of people here in Namibia are well aware of current events surrounding the US. Ask the average person you meet on the street, and it’s almost certain that they will know that the American president is George Bush II, that we are at war with Iraq, and that this war was somehow sparked by people who flew planes into buildings in New York City on September 11 (I said “somehow”). This may seem like common knowledge to most, but in a country where very few people have access to television news or newspapers, it’s quite impressive. And for me, coming from a country with supposedly the best education system in the world, and knowing that the average American would not be able to name even one head of state of an African nation, let alone Namibia’s president—yeah, I’d say Namibians’ knowledge of current events impresses me.

This is why I’m not totally surprised (yet still quite impressed) that as of late, I am frequently probed by Namibians for my thoughts on the presidential bid between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. It seems the whole world is talking about this primary, and Namibia is no exception. Most people remember Hillary from the Bill Clinton era, and most people are drawn to Barack because of his ties to Kenya. The fact that the two candidates are not cookie-cutter presidential contenders (a first for America, esthetically speaking) makes this election even more appealing to the world at large.

The first time someone really talked to me about this presidential race was early in 2007, before any candidate had fully affirmed that he or she would be running. Hillary Clinton was on the cover of a Newsweek magazine I had in my office, and a co-worker had picked it up and was glancing through. “I like this woman,” she told me. “I think she is strong.”

“Yes,” I replied. “She is a very strong woman—a good role model for women everywhere.”

“I really admire her,” she continued. “When the story came out that her husband was cheating, she stood by her man. We believe in ‘for better or for worse.’ Too often, women give up and leave when their husbands cheat. That isn’t what women are supposed to do. She is a real woman.”

It was not the argument I had expected to hear. Yet, as the year passed and this election became more and more heated, this was an opinion I heard repeatedly from many Namibians, women and men. It’s a common argument I hear whenever someone explains to me why I, as a woman, should support Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. And I think it’s interesting that that is how much of the world views Senator Clinton. I’m not trying to insinuate that this is Hillary’s defining characteristic, because obviously it isn’t. It would be ignorant of me, or of any of us, to reduce Senator Clinton to such a trivial incident as was Monica Lewinski. I do think Clinton is a strong woman in many respects, and I’m confident that she is much more capable to lead the nation than our current president. However, that scandal and her reaction to it spoke volumes to much of the world in ways I doubt anyone would have imagined. Of course, senate votes and campaign promises are never as publicized as things like the infidelity of a high-ranking politician, and are thus not as easy to quickly reference when voicing one’s support or opposition for a public figure. Obviously, voting based on something as frivolous as marital issues would be irresponsible. Yet I find it interesting that when many Namibians try to differentiate between Clinton and Obama, she wins simply because of the strength she has shown the world, standing by her man for so many years.

And of course, there’s the issue of race.

In a country fresh out of the apartheid regime, still rife with racism, it is not surprising that while Namibians seem to really like Obama, they have absolutely no faith that the American public would ever elect a black man as president. “Maybe he could be elected in Africa,” a fellow teacher told me, “but in America? I don’t think so.”

With prominent female leaders like Indira Ghandi in India and Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf in Liberia and Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan, the idea of a female president is not nearly as hard to swallow. And with Clinton’s history in the White House, people seem to believe that a more familiar face (and a white one, at that) is more electable than this new guy.

“Which tribe is Mr. Obama, miss?” One of my learners asked me last week.

“Umm… he’s not really from one particular tribe. His father is from Kenya and his mother is an American.”

“So which tribe will support him?” he went on to ask.

“Well, he will probably have support from many different tribes, since he isn’t from one tribe only.” I said. “It would be like if someone ran for president here and his father was an Owambo and his mother was a Boer (a white Afrikaner). That person would have support from many different people, no?”

“Miss,” he said, looking at me seriously, “No one has an Owambo father and a Boer mother.”


Race is a serious issue throughout Africa, especially in countries where white colonialism is still a vivid memory. Today, many Zimbabweans are fighting to reelect Robert Mugabe, their controversial president who only a few years ago proposed a referendum that would have allowed forcible seizure of land owned by white farmers and the redistribution of that land to previously disadvantaged blacks. Though the referendum failed, Mugabe’s supporters took action into their own hands and began to raid farms. Whites who resisted this move were often jailed. These seizures, coupled with a number of other blunders on Mugabe’s part, have sent Zimbabwe into an economic tailspin. Namibia is facing a similar quandary. Discussions of land redistribution with the aim of “black economic empowerment” are commonplace in Namibia’s political arena these days.

I’m not trying to say that these discussions are not important, because they absolutely are. But more often than not they work to further divide the races and tribes in countries already laden with racial and tribal tensions. Government interventions like these prevent blacks and whites from working together, forcing us to continue to view one another as intrinsically different beings. Such moves are devastating to the progress that many are working for in these young and vulnerable developing countries.

For some reason (I don’t know why) I thought, or at least hoped, Americans were a bit more progressive, but the debates surrounding the campaigns of Obama and Clinton as of late have me wondering. Race is obviously a serious issue in America as well, as much as we’d like to deny it or hide it. In Africa, racism is just here. It’s just everywhere. It’s such a common occurrence that people rarely talk about it. It may also be common and everywhere in the states, but it’s much more hush-hush. It’s not politically correct to talk about race especially, it seems, in a political election. And what’s ironic is that race surrounds all political campaigns and we all know it, whether it’s outspoken or not. All politicians strategize about how to get the Hispanic vote, how to appeal to Asian voters, how to increase (or decrease, in some cases) black voter turnout. Yet in the public arena, we shy away from such blunt conversations.

I admire Senator Obama for the speech he recently gave about race in America. He could have let the campaign go on without addressing it. Indeed, it would have been much more politically correct to have done so, and maybe he would have been better positioned to win the nomination had he kept quiet. However, the fact that he had the courage to address such a sensitive subject, and one that so obviously affects his own presidential bid shows remarkable character on his part. He may win the nomination, and he may not. But either way, he opened up a discussion that spent far too long hidden behind closed doors. I doubt that is something he will ever regret.

Africans are aware of what Americans seem to be (or at least pretend to be) oblivious to: that skin color does affect the way we think, and perhaps the way we vote. This is something that we must embrace and own if we hope to work towards a more democratic country. As much as Namibians favor Barack Obama and would be so impressed to see the American voters elect him into office, they doubt our ability to rise above such irrelevant things and do so.

So why is Namibia (and the world) so captivated by this election? Easy. The outcome of this election will affect people around the world, as the outcome of every American presidential election does. The actions of America’s leaders have a ripple affect throughout thousands of countries and communities and cultures, something that is important for us, as voters, to remember. This election will affect people in Africa, people in Namibia, people in my small village of Olukolo. And this is why they know.

Watching this election from abroad has given me an interesting perspective. For the past 2.5 years, I have (thankfully) been removed from most of this political chess match and the inevitable “spin” that accompanies American politics. Thus, my political musings are based on little more than the daily headlines I catch at and, as well as the occasional transatlantic phone call that, regardless of the caller, always turns into a discussion of political events. And besides growing up in a liberal household and being raised by strong Democratic parents, I’d say that I’m more or less open-minded to all candidates and untainted by political pundrit-ry. That being said…

Obviously, I will support whoever the Democratic nominee is, but I don’t favor Senator Clinton. All of my adult life, I have dreamed of a woman president: someone with innovative and progressive ideas, someone who would bridge the gender gap in politics, someone who would represent the best our country has to offer. I don’t think Hillary Clinton is this individual. The fact that she’s a woman is not enough of a reason for me, or any woman, to support her. Basing my vote on gender is just as negligent as basing my vote on race, and frankly I’m insulted that people assume that simply because I’m a woman, I will support any woman who runs for presidential office. I would hope that responsible voters wouldn’t let something as insignificant as race or gender decide their vote in such an important election.

I support Barack Obama, and it doesn’t have anything to do with race or gender or marital infidelity, or with making a statement about any of these things. The reason I support Obama is not only because I believe that he will change the way that America engages in global affairs (something that is important to me), but also because I believe that he will change the way American politics in general are conducted in the states. Like many people with a political heart, I am exhausted with the current state of affairs in American politics. I’m ready to head in a new direction. Obviously, I want out of the war and universal health care and all those other wonderful things the democrats use to entice us. But for me, improving the image of Americans abroad and taking American politics to a new, more respectful level are things I have faith Obama will do. At the very least, these things would be a very good start.

An Obama nomination would send such a positive message to the world. It would signal our desire for change; for a new start. America’s image abroad needs some serious improvement. While the world is aware that Senator Clinton would not be the same kind of leader that George Bush has been, the fundamental differences between the two are not as apparent as the differences between Obama and Bush. Clinton would be more of the same. Obama would be a new beginning.

No matter what side most Americans are on, I think the majority of us agree that more of the same is not the way we want to go. As Americans, we should feel privileged to vote in such an important election, a “groundbreaking” one, people say. And as cliché as you may believe it to be, the world is indeed watching. Everyone, from elite heads of state to disadvantaged school children, is watching and wondering and waiting. I can only hope that we don’t disappoint this time around.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

fascinating perspective; i'm totally with you and so is most of the world. is it too much to ask to fast-forward and come thru this Bushed darkness? enough already! please VOTE!

5:39 AM  
Blogger K and L + 1 said...

Great post Kat, thanks again for sharing your experience with us.

Love Keith

9:07 PM  

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