"The world is a different place today. This is Democracy at its best. America changed overnight. This could only happen in America." These are just some of the comments we heard early in the morning on November 5th in Kigali, Rwanda when Barack Obama was declared President-elect of the United States. The 12 hour time difference meant that many in the group I was traveling with stayed up all night to watch and wait. One local restaurant run by an American, called Heaven, had an all night election party and a very large TV screen. Tickets had been sold out far in advance. When we came down to breakfast the morning of the 5th, tired but elated, the staff and other visitors in the breakfast room, from China, Britain, the Middle East and other countries in Africa, gave the visiting Americans a standing ovation. It seemed for a few moments that America's election this year was a global referendum.
I was in Rwanda with a group of 12 people -- potential investors and university colleagues. We visited schools and programs in Kenya, (near where Obama's grandmother lives) Uganda and Rwanda. Everywhere we went, people asked us if we thought Obama could actually win. They knew exactly how many electoral college votes were needed for his victory, which states were leaning Democratic, and Sarah Palin's latest comments about the rest of the world, (and Tina Fey's comedy routines). Many were worried that we could not vote since we were out of the country. We worked hard to convince people that absentee voting really counted (or hoped it did).
One older gentleman I talked to in Uganda asked me if I knew that President Jefferson had held slaves in the White House (yes) and that after Booker T. Washington dined with Theodore Roosevelt that the newspapers had been very nasty. (This I didn't know and the actual quote from the newspaper that I looked up when I returned said that Booker T. Washington's visit was "the most damnable outrage which has ever been perpetrated by any citizen." ) The world watched this election like never before and for many people around the world, it showed the incredible power of democratic change.
Most of the world did join in the celebration. We came back to the US through Kenya, which had declared a national holiday. "The most powerful nation on earth elects an African-American, declared the Kenyan daily, The Nation. The International Herald Tribune called Obama "a 47-year-old black man who made history both because of his race and in spite of it." The Times of London said, "The immense turnout in yesterday's election was testament to the energy, excitement and expectations of a rejuvenated American democracy, as well as the fears of a nation standing at a crossroads of history." "The American world we need, and the President of the World" said an Arabic paper. The China Daily, a little more sober said Obama and America faced "daunting challenges."
The world was a different place when the twelve of us returned this week to America and several of the travelers returned to daunting challenges: One had lost her job. The large insurance and financial management corporation she worked for informed her on her first day back to work that her entire division had been furloughed. Global and local economic problems continue to worsen and the housing and manufacturing sectors in the US are in serious trouble. Yet for a few days, America's promise and future were obvious to the rest of the world.