[Today, as the United States elects its next President, McSweeney’s is proud to present the following very real narrative of the democratic process in a different place. It is long, but we feel you are capable of reading it. Please do.]
I voted for Michael Dukakis. I’m not exactly proud of it, but I’d just turned 18, and I was heady with the opportunity. It was him or Bush, a choice which enlarged the meetings of the Young Democrats club at my midwestern Catholic college to unprecedented numbers. At one of those meetings I managed to procure a Dukakis poster which I displayed on my dorm room door until someone ripped it down, which happened within about 24 hours. If memory serves, that election followed a similar course.
Four years and a day later I was at a different college, and the Democrats were in a different position. The excitement in the air that morning was palpable. Bill Clinton had won, and things were going to change: Life was going to be different. I’m not inclined at this juncture to evaluate the merits of the change that has occurred; if someone had asked, I wouldn’t have predicted that blow jobs would enter the national consciousness as a political topic. But life is funny that way.
So, jaded and cynical before the age of thirty, I decided to avoid this year’s election brouhaha. Instead, though, I found myself absorbed with a different Presidential race: That of the West African nation of Senegal.
I’ve been living in the rural northern part of Senegal for a little over a year, in a Pulaar village of about 3000, several kilometers south of the Mauritania border. Pulaar is a language and an ethnic group; the people are very traditional and devoutly Muslim. I live with a family that is small by Senegalese standards: My host father; his two wives; five of his younger children; his son and daughter-in-law; and their two sons. They have taken me in, in a way I can’t imagine Americans doing if the situation were reversed, and I have come to think of them as my family. They amuse me, anger me, teach me, keep me sane and drive me crazy—and I suspect they say similar things about me.
Having lived here a year, I thought I’d pretty much seen the full range of village activity, and experienced its effects on me—but that was before the election. What follows is my experience of how Senegal’s Presidential election unfolded.
In the cold-season months of January and February the race heats up, and after the mid-February upset of underdog Cameroon over expected winner Nigeria in the African Cup soccer tournament, little but the election enters general discourse. The myriad of opposition parties whittle themselves down to seven candidates to challenge the incumbent, Abdou Diouf. His party, the Parti Socialiste, has been in power since Senegal gained independence in 1960, and he himself has been President for 20 years, continually reelected in a series of elections which, while ostensibly democratic, have yielded no change. Trucks come into the village from distant departmental and regional capitals to register voters, many of them illiterate women, first-time voters whose explicit knowledge of national politics begins and ends with the name of the current President. The license plates of the arriving cars bear the abbreviation “AD” for “administration,” though the irony of the monogram continually amuses me.
As Americans, we hold it to be self-evident that regular, systematic change in a nation’s executive leadership is a good and necessary thing. I find myself becoming conscious of this bias as I try to ferret out the political proclivities of those around me. My host father is a retired civil servant who in his retirement has taken on a local political position, and his loyalty to the ruling party is known far and wide. His thirty-something son Ibra, however, unable to find satisfying work in post-independence Senegal, has spent many of his adult years working abroad, and I suspect his loyalties to be different. Yet, when election day arrives, I find that I also hold close to my heart the sacredness of the secret ballot, and I cannot bring myself to ask him for whom he will vote. Curious about the process, and hoping for a glance at his political leanings, I ask to accompany Ibra’s wife, Djeneba, to the polls.
I make my request early in the morning, just after breakfast, about the time the men are returning from the polls, but it is nearly noon before Djeneba shows signs of finishing her morning work and preparing to depart. In the meantime both of my father’s wives return from voting, their index fingers bearing the bright pink indelible ink that will prevent them from voting again. I get antsy: Is Djeneba going to go? Did I miss my chance to see? I calm myself with the suspicion that Ibra cares enough about the outcome of this election to ensure that she performs her wifely duty of voting.
When Djeneba finally seems almost ready to leave, I go to her room to wait for her. She dresses slowly, and changes her outfit several times. She asks my opinion, but I like them all; indeed, the women’s colorful outfits are a constant and welcome contrast to the stark beige of the desolate desert landscape. Their huge boubous are made from more than three yards of fabric, shaped like a garbage bag with a neckhole, and are templates for an unending array of colors and designs: Some are tye-dyed, some printed, some handstitched, two rarely the same. She decides on a boubou much dressier than the one she wore several weeks earlier when we celebrated Korite, the holiday which ends the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Well, sure, I reason: Korite is an annual event; Presidential elections only happen every seven years, and this is her first one. I nod my approval at the jewelry she’s picked out, watch as she retrieves her national identity card and voter registration card from deep within a drawer, and we’re off into the midday sun.
The village’s school is a collection of cinderblock buildings located behind the sprawling village, and the 15-minute trek is leisurely, as we stop to greet several of her relatives along the way. When we finally do arrive at our destination the election officials outnumber the voters by a wide margin. Each of the two polling rooms is staffed by three workers who are drawn from the village’s teachers, and an independent observer from the district capital. Loyalists from the ruling party are there observing the observers, and a pair of soldiers lounge between the buildings, their guns leaning against the cement platform where they are making tea. Greetings are exchanged all around, and I greet one of the observers, a twenty-year-old student named Ibnou whom I know through work connections.
Djeneba gives her identity cards to the school director, who checks them against each other and then against a computerized list. Another worker pulls one card off the top of each of eight piles of colorful voting cards, each bearing the picture, name, and party affiliation of a candidate. Eight parties have gathered enough money and signatures to run their candidates, and from these eight Djeneba will choose one and seal that card in a plain white envelope. She takes her cards and envelope to the curtained voting booth in the back of the room, and I chat with the party lackey who is seated in the middle of the room, watching the proceedings. He is a good friend of my father’s and one of my favorite people in town. “No,” I respond to his query, for the first of what will be many times, “I’m not voting: I can’t! I’m waiting until the American election in November.” Thankfully, no one asks about the details, as I envision trying to explain the concept of absentee balloting in Pulaar.
When Djeneba emerges, her gaze is focused straight ahead; she meets neither my eyes nor those of her father-in-law’s friend as she deposits her envelope in the padlocked box in the front of the room. The seven excess cards are nowhere to be seen, tucked away somewhere in her clothing. As we return through town, I see children playing with discarded voting cards, and I notice that there are very few green Abdou Diouf cards among them. I consider asking Djeneba for her excess cards, as a souvenir, but I know my motives to be impure and thus refrain.
Evening comes, and with it the ritual of unrolling the mats for nighttime chatting. Someone rolls out my father’s mat for him; the women roll out their smaller mats; Ibra rolls out his. Following my usual routine, I retire to Ibra’s mat for some conversation in French, and we listen to the election report on the radio; it is mostly prerecorded, and uninformative. Several paces away from the closed circle of shoulders on my father’s mat, I feel a bit like a traitor, or at least like I’ve chosen sides. A car appears after dark. “We bring good news,” a voice announces in French, approaching my father’s mat, and I guess the obvious, that the incumbent has won in our village.
A bit later in the evening, after he has spent some time chatting on his father’s mat, I ask Ibra if he knows the percentages that each candidate won in the village. When he answers he speaks quickly and sharply and, as often happens when he’s worked up, his words tumble out and I don’t understand all of his French. “No one here knows that kind of thing,” he says. “No one here cares. They only care about what happens in their own homes; they don’t care about their town, or the country.” I want to tell him that it’s the same at home, in the States, that many people don’t care, don’t vote, don’t concern themselves with what happens outside their own household. But as I think this, it occurs to me that he hasn’t intimated that this is or isn’t how things happen in the U.S., that he’s not making a comparison to the U.S., necessarily, but to an unspoken or invisible ideal. It is only me assuming the comparison, assuming that the U.S. is the ideal. And anyway, isn’t this the very thing that makes me so perpetually angry at home, the widespread apathy and lack of involvement in voting and government?
We sit in silence. After a while I am reminded of the year that I stayed up late to watch Carol Mosley Braun’s returns and went to bed dejected and depressed, convinced by early returns that she had lost, only to be surprised in the morning by the news that she had, in fact, won. This recollection, coupled with the fact that I really can’t understand the quick French spoken on the radio, sends me to bed.
I spend the next day doing laundry and scanning my shortwave radio for any English-language election reports, tuning in religiously to the BBC’s hourly newscasts which, when they mention Senegal at all, are brief and uninformative. One broadcast speaks of a possible coup d’état if Diouf declares himself the winner before the official results are in, and I remind myself that even the BBC needs excitement in its newscasts. The 5 o’clock broadcast turns quickly to European news and I switch off the radio, feeling a little jilted, reminding myself that patience is a virtue and that I barely knew of or wanted African news before arriving here.
Thirteen minutes into the 15-minute 6 o’clock newscast, the BBC reports that early returns indicate that a runoff election will be necessary, as no one candidate has garnered a 50% majority of the votes. The reporter goes on to say that so far, the election is noteworthy for its lack of violence, and that if the peace continues, Senegal could be considered a leader among the continent’s other emerging democracies. So much for the coup d’état, and so much for election news on the English-language stations—from this point forward I find myself relying on the local French language stations and the people around me for updates. As the week continues, reports trickle in slowly, department by department; the inevitability of a runoff election becomes apparent, and the election ceases to be a part of every conversation.
The heat increases; the sandy winds blowing down from Mauritania diminish; I play with the kids, and watch lizards scurry across the sand. When I write home about the election, I tell folks that I think the fix is in, though I admit I’m not sure how. I read in Newsweek that McCain is doing well, and that Bradley is having to become the type of candidate he hates in order to stay in the race. My host father, ever the curious politician, asks about the American primary system, and I get confused when I try to explain. Do the primaries elect the delegates to the parties’ conventions, or to the electoral college? Are they one and the same? I am embarrassed by my ignorance. I need the Internet. I end up summarizing by saying that, basically, there are fifty primary elections, and the candidates say the same thing fifty times. He laughs and responds that this might be a bit much. I confess that I am glad to be missing it.
That same evening, a visiting cousin appears wearing a wrap-around skirt made of fabric featuring Abdou Diouf’s picture and the party’s logo, a hand clutching a rose which, in this particular incarnation, looks like a dot-matrix rendition of a robot. In a country where advertising venues are few, three yards of Abdou Diouf’s face walking around town is not a bad deal. I know the fabric-printing industry to be highly state-controlled, if not state-owned, and can only imagine the field day campaign-finance reformists would have with this. This fabric is not sold in the ordinary market, only given to supporters, and I want some. I plot how to ask her for her skirt.
The official results are to be announced Friday, and Thursday’s post-lunch conversation turns predictably to the election. My dad’s friend—the one who’d observed the observer—complains that a runoff election will make the people tired, which is the Pulaar way of saying that it will be expensive. Ibra uses a comparison I’d heard him use with someone else the night before, that the election process is like the African Cup, that the first round was the elimination round, and the runoff is the final between the best candidates. This is accepted without comment, and I wonder if the underdog will win in the upcoming election as in the recent soccer tournament. It does not occur to me to wonder who the true underdog is.
Evening finds me with the teachers, my refuge of slow, clear French conversation. They are all against Diouf. Mathematically, they reason, Diouf should lose in the runoff, as he got only slightly more than 40 percent of the vote, his challengers splitting the remaining sixty percent. A teacher from the next town over has heard that, a couple towns away, the ruling party is offering suspected opposition supporters 5,000 francs—almost ten dollars—in exchange for their voting cards, which would then be destroyed so they couldn’t vote again. I wonder aloud how they know who to approach with this proposition. “Oh, the young people,” he responds. “All young people want Diouf out.” They want to know who I want to win. I hedge, I stammer; for some reason I feel as though I shouldn’t have an opinion. Finally I admit that I think twenty years of any one person is enough, but that more than that, what I really want is for everyone who votes to know what they’re doing. They agree with what I haven’t said outright, that few if any of the women who voted had much of an idea what they were voting for.
I leave at dusk, trying to figure out why exactly I am so eager for Diouf to lose. I wonder if I really know that much more than the women who vote as their husbands tell them. I know what I’ve been told by American friends, but I’ve never done any independent research or verification. I remind myself that, unlike much of Africa, Senegal has been stable and almost free of civil violence for most of its 40-year history, and anyway, I don’t really know all that many details of Diouf’s economic or legislative policies. Am I really that convinced of the value and necessity of change for its own sake?
The release of the official results is delayed, then announced, and the date for the runoff election is set for about two and a half weeks hence: Two days after Tabaski, the biggest holiday of the Muslim calendar. Much speculation ensues as to why this particular date has been set—after such a delay, and so close to the holiday—and how it might help Diouf, as it’s been set by the National Assembly, which is controlled by his party. Opposition parties line up to support Abdoulaye Wade, Diouf’s longtime challenger, who, with about 30% of the vote, received the most votes after Diouf.
The village chief visits my host father one night; they are both maribouts, religious leaders learned in the Koran. They sit and engage in a complicated process that visually resembles some sort of numerology; I hear Diouf’s name several times. When I later recount this visit to the teachers, they laugh and explain that it is indeed a method of fortune telling, long practiced by African leaders. I mention that Nancy Reagan did a similar thing, as did Indira Ghandi, although my only source for this latter piece of information is Salman Rushdie’s semi-historical novel Midnight’s Children. I do not reveal my source.
A day or two later, McCain and Bradley are defeated in the Super Tuesday primaries and withdraw from the race, and the teachers have questions about what happens now. Are the primaries just over? What about the remaining states? Again, I’m not sure, and again, I am embarrassed. They have questions, too, about the electoral college, a topic that seems destined to haunt me. Who belongs to the electoral college? I posit that I think it’s basically a prestige position, a reward for party loyalty, or donations, or activity, or something. Despite the fact that I have shown almost no confident knowledge of the American political process, they accept this answer, its similarity to Senegal’s patronage system easily understandable. I would protest that no, it’s not quite the same—but clearly, I don’t know.
The harvest season arrives and, though imminent, the election is pushed from mind as entire families spend days on end in the fields. One early morning I accompany my father to look at the crops, and along the way, he stops to chat with the farmers, explaining to them the importance of the next election, and encouraging them to vote for Diouf. Diouf’s name continues to enter all my father’s conversations up to election day, and Ibra and I begin to laugh each time we hear it, waiting to see how long it takes upon someone’s arrival for the conversation to turn to Diouf. Ibra is annoyed when he hears me ask my cousin for her Abdou Diouf skirt; I reassure him that I will not wear it here, only in the States. She returns to her home in the capital, Dakar, but does indeed leave me her skirt, and I am ecstatic: Victory is mine.
Tabaski approaches and is celebrated on a Friday, the 10th day after the new moon. Goats are killed, gifts given to the children; new boubous are worn, and like any good holiday, everyone eats too much. The next day is Saturday, the day before the election. The soldiers, the observers, and the frenzy in my household return.
The soldiers patrol the edges of town, though their guns are nowhere to be seen. The observers are being lodged at our house, and I am happy to see Ibnou again. They are finishing lunch when I return from running some errands in town. We listen to Quincy Jones and chat as they make tea. I ask about becoming an election observer, and Ibnou explains that there was an application process and a training that covered, among other things, the finer points of the electoral code. He mentions that during the first election, he and my father had butted heads a couple of times about people whose ID cards didn’t quite match their electoral cards or the voting register, my father wanting them to be able to vote anyway. This doesn’t surprise me too much, but it makes me a little sad. I want to believe that my father is purely and wholeheartedly dedicated to the democratic process, but I also know that he’s a politician, and he wants his candidate to win.
I go out again briefly, and run into a teacher, who recounts that a departmental official had come to take the teachers to work the election in another town, rather than in ours as they’d done last time and were scheduled to do again. This teacher refused to go, suspecting this move to be an attempt to somehow falsify votes. This news makes me angry, though my only words are to congratulate him on his steadfastness.
The compound is eerily silent when I return home, and all the men are glued to the radio. The women and even the children are quiet. My father and about a dozen of his cronies are intently listening to a shortwave on one side of the compound; all the way across the sandy yard, Ibra sits alone behind his huge boom box. The broadcast which captures their attention is in actual French, spoken by an actual French person, and I don’t even try to understand.
Still riled up from my conversation with the teacher, I look at Ibra and think, in slightly different circumstances, this would make a good love story: The emotionally charged elections; old versus new, change versus the status quo; the American girl who loves freedom, electoral transparency, and her village brother. But that’s awfully melodramatic, not to mention inaccurate. I want to ask Ibra about the French broadcast, but he turns his attention to the observers.
I don’t quite understand the question he asks them, but Ibnou’s answer is straight along the non-party line: “All that concerns me is an honest and transparent election.” “That’s all until tomorrow, huh?” Ibra responds, and they all laugh a little laugh of understanding, but I wonder if they really know that they’re all on the same side—and then I wonder if they really are. I try to follow the conversation that ensues, but it’s a mishmash of mumbled French and Pulaar, as all important conversations are. I give up and go to help my mom with dinner.
When the big day arrives, I hear men’s voices as I wake, and assume it must be nearly nine. Preparing to be chastised for being lazy, I get out of bed, but it’s barely eight. By the time I leave my room for breakfast ten minutes later, the compound is devoid of men, all of them having already departed for the polls. The older of my moms emerges in a boubou usually reserved for family ceremonies, wearing her gold Tabaski jewelry, glasses, and her false teeth. Identity and electoral cards in hand, she sets out, apparently determined to beat the midday heat.
An hour or so later my father appears in a car with a well-dressed maribout and some local government officials; in the guise of good hospitality, I go out to greet the guests, and hang unsubtly around the fringes. Half-heartedly playing with one of the babies, I hear from my father, “She voted the first time around with this same identity card and electoral card.” He is holding the two cards and one of the officials is taking notes or writing a letter, I can’t tell which. I decide that this is not my business, and more than that, I don’t want to know what my father is doing. I return to my room and wait to accompany the younger of my moms to vote.
When she is ready to go, several others leave the house with us, among them my father, a step ahead. As we pass the first neighbor’s house he calls out her name, and from the top of a stack of white cards hands her a voting card; I hear her say yes, of course she’ll go vote. Is he just handing out voting cards? Won’t they check? I am angered and saddened and disappointed at what I suspect to be some sort of fraud.
A few minutes further into our route I turn and see him behind me, stopped with a woman, sifting though the stack of cards. He appears to be looking for hers. Of course! He knows everyone in town, he’s got the cards of people he knows he’ll see. He’s just getting out the vote in the time-honored tradition. I am comforted, some.
We approach the empty stretch of sand which separates the village from the school. From the distance I can see thirty or so people descending from a mid-sized bus parked at the school gate, the bright colors of their clothes animating the burning blandness of the hot sand. “Who are these people?” I inquire of my mom. I don’t quite understand her response and have to ask several times. Are they from neighboring villages, brought here to vote? If so, their voting here would be fraudulent. Finally, we arrive at the combination of phrases that explains it to me: They’re from other towns, but the guy with the voting cards is here; the bus brought them here to get their cards, and will take them back to their villages to vote. And I thought I was a procrastinator.
The school compound itself is swarming with bodies and voices. There’s a private car with Dakar plates waiting in the center, next to the unused well. Elderly men chat in the shade between the buildings. The soldiers seem to be doing stretching exercises in the shade of another building. All of the teachers are here again; when I ask how things are going, they say fine, no troubles.
I run into my observer friend Ibnou, who has traded in yesterday’s t-shirt for traditional clothes and is running back and forth between buildings. “There are some complications,” he says; “your father is a bit complicating.” Having had a year of my own interactions with the man, I don’t doubt Ibnou’s words. “One of the observers is new,” he continues. “He didn’t get the training, he doesn’t know all the details.” I wish him good luck as he rushes off, and go in search of my mother, who has already voted when I find her. I spy the stacks of voting cards—just two this time, green for Abdou Diouf and yellow for Abdoulaye Wade—and ask that if there are any left over someone save me a set, as a souvenir. “Take them now,” a teacher says, but afraid of giving the impression that I’ve voted, I demur, and repeat my request.
The private Dakar car passes us as we leave. Clearly, I think, only Diouf has got people out in cars, but when I overhear a man say “Sopi,” which means change, and is the opposition party’s name and slogan, I rethink. “Sopi,” he repeats. “Those are Abdoulaye Wade’s people.” The car disappears ahead of us.
In the heat of the midafternoon sun I volunteer to take lunch to the election workers. The scene has calmed; the bus is gone, and all that remain are the workers, the observers, and the party hacks. In one of the rooms there’s been some sort of accident with the indelible pink ink, and its splatter on the floor resembles the pattern of a woman’s boubou. The soldiers have moved to a new bit of shade, and are rearranging their rifles to better accommodate reclining. No one’s really in the mood to chat, and I’ve already eaten. I retrace my steps home.
As the sun sets, my father returns from the now-closed polls—our village having gone, again, to Diouf—and heads directly and purposefully to his mat, where he sets up Ibra’s huge radio. Ibra returns, finds his dad’s small shortwave, and reclaims his radio for his own mat. I retire to my room and turn on my shortwave radio. We are all, of course, listening to the same station. It’s a private station based in Dakar which has sent reporters just about everywhere in the country, and as the polls close and the votes are counted, they call in the numbers. I listen intently to the calls, thankful that the reporters’ excitement over being broadcast on national radio causes them to speak slowly and clearly, in an effort to increase their air time. Call waiting, a sound I’d forgotten about, beeps in the background of their calls, and seems to confuse some of the reporters.
In the southern region of the country, where there is an active independence movement, Wade wins all locations by a wide margin; in other areas, the margin is smaller, but Wade still seems to win more than he loses. I remind myself that it is early, and of Dewey and Truman. At 8 o’clock the BBC reports briefly that there was voting in Senegal, and that the opposition campaigned on a platform of change. I wonder aloud to myself what opposition party doesn’t campaign on a platform of change.
The moon is full, and the action’s outside. I decide to conserve battery power and join Ibra on his mat, where the returns continue. It’s close, on several occasions a candidate winning or losing by one or two votes. In one Dakar location Diouf receives only eight votes to Wade’s several hundred, and the older of my moms betrays at least an elementary understanding of French when she laughs out loud at this return. As night falls and Ibra switches off his radio, the women ask him who won, and after he replies that it’s not sure yet, their laughter and chatter indicate that they don’t really care. They’ve performed their wifely duty by voting, and if they think the results will affect them, they don’t show it.
The next morning, the BBC has nothing new to say; official returns aren’t expected for a day or two, but as expected, early returns favor Wade in the urban areas. Their correspondent does say that the private radio reports of the returns are a first, that in previous elections the state radio was the only source of election information. He adds, however, that the private reports are limited by the cell-phone network, which does not yet reach rural areas.
The regular phone network does, however, and I call Dakar on some business. “Oh, you live in the part of the country where people actually voted for Diouf,” says the woman I call. “Why?” she asks, when I answer in the affirmative. I’m paying for the call, so I don’t try too hard to answer fully. I ask if Wade’s victory seems a done deal in Dakar. “Oh yeah,” she replies easily, and wonders how Diouf will handle the event. As I leave the telecenter the owner hands me a phone message written on the back of a green flyer, apparently put out by Diouf several days prior, outlining the ten things he would do in the first one hundred days of the new term, were he to be reelected. It’s an ambitious list, and includes lowering the national interest rate by four and a half percentage points, completely absorbing the debt of rural farmers, increasing by fifty percent the number of recipients of financial aid for higher education, and several other equally ambitious items. Commenting sarcastically on this list is the only time I allow myself to openly express a negative opinion about Diouf—it’s just too easy. He’s been President for twenty years, and he’s going to do all this in a hundred days?
School’s not in session today—the teachers getting a day off after working the polls yesterday—so I visit their house. They are correcting homework, preparing lesson plans, intermittently listening to the radio. We laugh at the green flyer. They all seem sure that Wade has won, but I’m not convinced; I can’t quite believe that Diouf might actually lose, though I can’t justify my skepticism. A couple more teachers arrive right before lunch and announce that, just a few minutes earlier, Diouf called Wade to concede defeat and congratulate him on his victory. Really? I am incredulous.
Before eating, we all gather around a radio to hear the newscast announce the phone call. The teachers are grinning, and I remember that November morning in 1992. They speak enthusiastically and expectantly of change, and I cynically, though silently, wonder. Post-lunch conversation is that general post-election conversation that is apparently the same the world over, about the candidates themselves, the quality of various media outlets, the probability of campaign promises being kept. “Now we’re going to be like America,” one of the younger teachers proclaims, “a new President every seven years.” Another declares that nothing is going to change and proceeds to withdraw from the conversation and take a nap.
The BBC leads its 6 and 8 o’clock broadcasts with the news of Diouf’s concession. One story speaks of the disbelief among Wade’s supporters, disbelief that he actually won, the disbelief I am only now beginning to shake. The reporter interviews several local people. I don’t often wish for TV, but today I want to see the images of celebration in Dakar, see the voices I am hearing on the radio. The reporter says that the revelers in Dakar knew instantly of Diouf’s concession because “they all had radios glued to their ears.” The reporter goes on to cite the role of the private radio stations as one of the contributing factors in the opposition’s victory, and the spread of democracy in Senegal in general.
Until now, for reasons I can’t quite pinpoint, I have avoided directly discussing the election with my host father, and I’m forced to ponder why. Perhaps I’m afraid he will divine my position, and we’ll have some sort of argument; or perhaps I just want to avoid one of his political harangues. In the name of objective journalism, and because Ibra is not home, I eat Monday dinner on my father’s mat. "My condolences to your party, " I say, not sure how to begin. “Not the party,” he corrects me, “just the President. The party still controls the National Assembly. If the new President sends something to the Assembly, they can refuse.” I hope my smirk is not visible in the moonlight: Senegal has truly entered the fray of multi-party politics.
Just how much will change, of course, remains to be seen. The subsequent day, after making courtesy visits to his parents’ graves and, inconceivable to American me, to Diouf’s mother, Wade travels to the town of Touba, home base of the Mouride Brotherhood. The Mourides are a Muslim group with far-ranging power and influence somewhat like that of the AFL-CIO. In past years, the Mourides have always supported Diouf; this year, their non-endorsement of any candidate was read as a de facto endorsement of Wade. I interpret Wade’s visit as a continuation of a small portion of the status quo—but I also know that I don’t really know.
What I do know, and can clearly see, is that the people around me—young and some not so young—are thrilled, and proud. Change has happened, and they have made it happen. And change has happened without civil unrest, without violence, without any of what Africa is often known for when it comes to elections. Indeed, The Economist reported that this is only the third time in forty years that an African leader has voluntarily stepped down after being defeated in an election. I’m glad that I’ve been able to witness this.
A week or so after the election, I found myself, once again, in political conversation with a friend. He spoke excitedly of the grande changement, and then talk turned to the American election. “You’re going to vote for Bush, right?” he asked, with assumption in his voice. “No,” I replied, “I’m a Democrat.” He looked at me. “But you want change, don’t you?” Just then we got interrupted, and I’m glad, because I don’t know how I would have responded, and I’m still not sure. Sure, I want change. I want more than two parties, I want real debate on real issues, I want… What do I want? What exactly is the nature of the change in which I believe so deeply that I felt so involved in an election in which I could not even vote, in a country not my own?
I’m thinking about it; I’m not sure yet, nor am I sure that I’ve been cured of my cynicism through witnessing the election in Senegal. But I did dig around to find my absentee voter registration, and I’m doing some research about the electoral college—after all, I do believe everyone should know what they’re voting for.