On Tuesday, Nov. 4, Americans streamed to the polls to select their 44th President. I was busy all day, in my role as a reporter, wandering through Oakland with a colleague from one polling place to another, absorbing impressions of American voters. At 3:32 local time, just as we’d stopped for a time at a corner café to send photos to our website, my cellphone rang. One of my best friends was on the line—from Africa.
Somewhere in the badly-lit streets of Ouagadougou, the capital of West Africa’s Burkina Faso, my friends from home were relaxing on bamboo chairs in the beautiful evening, to celebrate what from their perspective was one of the most important events of their lives.
The night was advancing, and the American election results were late arriving, and they had found themselves gripped by anxiety that was beginning to eclipse the merriment of their party. So the only solution, to calm their spirits, was to call me, in Oakand, constantly, until the proclamation of the final results. It was 4:00 in the morning in Ouagadougou, just a little late for a fine party.
My friend Lassina Traoré is 35 and has never voted in his lfe. He says he doesn’t believe in the transparency of elections in our own country. But for the American election he had pulled twenty friends, civil servants and bank functionaries like him, onto the terrace of his three-room house in Ouagadougou. From 10:00 at night on, they were all there to follow the American election results broadcast live by the French television networks.
He’d told me the day before about the party he was planning. The tea, the beer, the whiskey, the music, the dance, the barbecue—everything was ready, if Barack Obama were elected President. But as the night advanced, now that it was real, nobody seemed to believe it was possible.
As Lassina Traoré explained to me, the atmosphere was tense. Seated around the television, each of them wisecracked, had their little say—but they were all uneasy. Midnight approached, 4:00 in California, and the first results still weren’t available. The French television commentators they were watching made them more and more nervous.
So at 3:32, when my phone rang at the café in Oakland, it was Lassina Traoré, wanting to know what was going on. “Do you think Obama’s going to win?” he demanded. “We’re all here. And we’re very anxious.”
During the last weeks of the campaign, he told me, the polls were tightening between John McC ain and Barack Obama. They’d also been hearing about a certain “Bradley effect,” which as they understood it makes black people lose elections in the United States.
I explained that the polling places were going to close in less than 30 minutes in Virginia. “If Obama wins Virginia, it’s going to be hard for John McCain to win the election,” I reassured him.
When I got back to the Berkeley campus, to deliver my reporting to Oakland North, the phone rang again. “Obama’s won Virginia?” I recognized the voice of Lassina Traoré. I told him even though the results still weren’t certain, Obama was in a good position now to win. Lassina seemed reassured. But five minutes later he called me back.
“So you think Obama’s been elected?” he asked. “There’ll be no surprises?” I reassured him once more. He passed on everything to his friends, who were as anxious as he was. Then a few minutes later, he called me again. “Listen, I have a friend here who doesn’t believe what you told me. I want you to tell him yourself.”
The friend didn’t even bother introducing himself. The only thing he wanted from me was an explanation of what on earth was going on.
I knew Africans were intensely interested in the American elections. Over the last two months, not a day had gone by without a phone calll or an email from home, pleading for news about the state of the election. But I was a long way from imagaining just how distraught people could get. “So if he loses Virginia, Obama is eliminated?” he pressed. No, no, I said, that won’t change anything. I gave up, finally; I didn’t have enough argument in me to satisfy him.
That evening, at 8:00, I had to go back to International House, Berkeley’s gathering center for foreign students, to cover the election for our website. But my friends kept calling me. I thought about blocking my phone, just to get my work done—but I couldn’t let down my friends, knowing the emotional state they were in. They’d never shown even the most remote interest in the politics of our own country, but they seemed to have found, in these distant American elections, a unique event that just this once made them proud of the possibilities in politics.
Lassina Traoré called me one last time, at 8:00. He demanded to know why they were hearing that Obama had won California, when they hadn’t yet counted the votes. “La Californie is a state that votes Democratic,” I said. “That’s why Obama’s won. They’ll count the votes later.”
And I could tell, finally, that he was happy. “Everyone is happy here,” he said. “Now, the party begins.”
translated by Cynthia Gorney