When our family landed in Kenya in 1979 to serve as Quaker medical missionaries, a man named Daniel Arap Moi had recently taken office as president. Moi created what you might call a "mild" dictatorship. He established a single party state, executed conspirators of a coup attempt, and set up police checks all over the country. I remember as a kid watching the uniformed policemen walk around with their guns as they searched the trunk of our car and demanded identification papers from my parents. When the Kenyan military tried to overthrow Moi in 1982, I overheard my parents talking with neighbors about coup d'état. Moi had too much power and "voters" couldn't do anything about it.
As a kid, I had no idea what was going on, really. But I knew enough to know that something wasn't right. Twenty years later, when I went back to Kenya as a young adult, President Moi was still president. His "leadership" had left a failing economy with miles and miles of slums rimming the southwest edge of Nairobi. Basic infrastructure was falling apart. The city garbage went uncollected. Public water was left polluted. Underpaid police officers took bribes.
When I returned to the U.S. after that summer in Kenya, I came home feeling grateful for the most basic amenities in a country where it's safe to drink the water (most of the time), where cops go behind bars for taking cash pay-offs (generally) and where presidents leave office after two short terms, maybe one.
Even now in this election year, I find myself thinking about gratitude. To some, that might sound absurd. What is there to be grateful for, exactly? Congress is hog-tied, divided and vindictive. Our health care needs open-heart surgery and no one seems to agree on the right scalpel. Democrats are pushing. Republicans are obstructing. Voters feel disenfranchised from the government and at odds with each other.
Combined, it sounds like cause for discontent. And yet I find myself composing a list of things for which I'm grateful:
1. A three-pronged political system (legislative, judiciary and executive) with checks and balances. I'll take a hog-tied Congress any day over a top-down dictator. A system that's slow to change is a working system.
2. Term limits. Thank God we throw our presidents out the door after eight years, sometimes four. Twenty plus years on the throne (as per Moi) makes for rotten politics.
3. A two-party system. Yes, we could benefit from more party diversity. And yes, the system needs serious improvement. But elsewhere in the world, it's not hard to find a single party state where voters don't have a choice at all.
4. Civil discourse, even civil discord. Democrats and Republicans might pull each other's hair out. But fighting is good, and not just as fodder for the evening news. Fighting means we're practicing our political voice. It means we're dialoging, dissenting and trying to come to consensus.
While living in Kenya in the early 1980s, my family lived four hours from the Ugandan border. When the famed Ugandan dictator Idi Amin went into exile, he left behind one the century's most horrific genocides, a reign of darkness and bloodletting that threw its shadow over all of East Africa and over the community where I grew up. Located only hours from the Ugandan border, our town was flooded with refugees who lived through Amin's regime. They were doctors and nurses at the hospital where my dad worked, teachers at the nearby high school, kids next door. Down the road from us lived a family who had fled Amin's soldiers, forded a river with their five children, the youngest ones riding piggyback, and found shelter in a room behind a bar just inside the Kenyan border.
These years later, I have a child who's about the age I was when we lived in Kenya. Most likely, she will spend the entirety of her growing up years in the United States. Most likely, she will never be a refugee nor have playmates who are refugees of war. And most likely, she will never know what it's like to live under a "mild" dictatorial president like Moi or next door to a severe genocidal dictator like Idi Amin. Although I regret that she'll miss out on the cross-cultural experience I had growing up in East Africa, mostly I'm grateful that she'll be spared the political instability that most children around the world take as commonplace.
Granted, she doesn't live in a perfect political system. Her generation will continue to fight for better health care, more equitable elections and bi-partisan cooperation. But in the best possible way, she'll take for granted that her voice counts. That police officers are trustworthy most of the time. And that her president will step down when his or her term is up. She might even dream about winning a presidential election someday, one vote at a time.