June 28, 2016

What Living in Africa Taught me about the American Election.

Mark Rain

For anyone who has been completely unconscious, marooned on an island with absolutely no Wifi, or trapped in a cabin with nothing but Stevie Knicks cassette tapes for the past 18 months, the word on the street is that the United States is in the midst of a presidential election.

I didn’t know what to expect, spending an election year in rural Africa, but I didn’t envision being so damned informed about every nuance of the election from 8000 miles away.

Yes, a large part of this hyper informative craziness that I subconsciously subject myself to has to do with being on social media. But Facebook aside, Africa keeps me informed. I sit on plastic buckets in traditional tribal houses sipping goat milk chai, and the topic veers toward the American election.


Recently, I was sitting outside the fabric store in the nearest town while friends did some shopping and a man came and sat down next to me. “Marakani?” he asked, which is Swahili for “are you American?” When I assured him I was, his next question was predictable, “Donald or Hillary?”

While I really have no desire to talk about Donald or Hillary, the concept I have come to understand is that when we come as Americans into a different country, we must be prepared to explain America. Believe me, it’s not easy. We have 50 states and Puerto Rico, which is not a state even though we let them vote because we like them.

Yes, frat parties are real things, and no I have never met your friend who is also from America. I get asked a lot of questions I can’t answer. Yet, strangely enough, the longer I stay in Tanzania, the more I realize that Africa has taught me a lot about being an American.

I’ve learned that Americans worry. A lot. About being late for yoga class, about the price of a haircut, or if I wore this dress last time he saw me or why our jeans don’t fit. I suppose a big reason I don’t worry about these things in Africa is because many of them don’t exist: there is no yoga, no one wears jeans and all haircuts cost the same: 23 cents—and they’ll shave your head with a new razor blade.

I’m not saying there is no stress. “Hakuna matata,” was coined for this very reason, to remind people not to worry when it starts to creep in. But what I have witnessed is that the twisted stomach and the furrowed eyebrow type of stress is reserved. It’s special occasion stress, for things in our control, with our consent, and for the betterment of those around us. No small stresses. Hakuna matata that traffic jam, America.

Africa has also taught me that Americans do everything fast, except drive. You have not experienced fast driving in America, I promise. Tanzania has two speed limits: below 50 kph and over 50 kph. The over 50 kph speed limit applies mostly to huge trucks carrying chickens and men and maize in the bed, or buses with 35 people over the maximum occupancy.

It does not, however, apply to the speed of life. Cooking is slow and boiling water is slow and meetings are long. Weekends are sleepy and at night,  I take time to look at stars. There are no happy hours, or gym memberships or housewarming parties. What there is, are long afternoons in the bed of a new mother, under the covers counting the fingers of the new baby.

America moves fast, and we get things done. And now, I know that more than ever. I hope I remember the sweetness of going slowly when I go home. I hope my peace stays.
This is not news: Africa moves slower and worries less, and it wouldn’t it be cool if America did that too?

But that is not my point, not today.

Moving from one country to another, I find that people focus on differences a lot.

What is difference between Hillary and Donald? What is the difference between Africa and America? Between Christian and Muslim? Between black and white? And what are the different things different groups are or are not allowed to do?

The truth is, that while I have been forced to take note and adapt to several of these differences, the thing that sticks out the most is how similar we all seem to be. I have found myself believing, now more than ever, that the human souls are created in nearly identical ways. Of course, there are biological reasons for this: teenagers give us attitude on every continent and even first time mothers instinctually know how to comfort their child.

But then there are different pieces of the human condition that strike me. I watch tears fall for the same things in both worlds. Laughter is identical. Families look different but you see those who are attracted to each other lean, subconsciously, toward the person they love. It’s not the full moon or Astrology or science. It’s humanity in its purist form.

Election years seem to bring out the differences in humans more than ever.

Lines are drawn because we uncover opinions of friends and sisters and coworkers that we had never known before. But what Africa has taught me more than anything, is that at the core, we are all the same.

We need love, want patience, appreciate kindness. We hope for a future and hurt when others do. We hunger and we sweat and we want things that we can’t have. Then we pray to God we are able to create something worthwhile during our time on this planet.

So Africa, I don’t know if it’s going to be Donald or Hillary. But I promise, we are all going to be okay. We are on the same team.

In the words of my beautiful African colleagues, “We are together.”


Author: Ella Kerr

Image: flickr/Mark Rain

Editor: Ashleigh Hitchcock

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