In Uganda, Obama The Talk Of The Town

10/18/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The state of "democracy" in the US is, in the opinion of this world traveler, under siege. People from outside do not see it as clearly as those of us who live it daily, but even from out here in Uganda, to Africanize a recently overused quote, "you can put lipstick on a goat, but it's still a goat."

I'm in Entebbe, Uganda, for an assignment on HIV/AIDS prevention. I wanted to know what my Ugandan colleagues thought about this Presidential race, if indeed they thought about it at all.

Meet Erasmus, an educated, 49 year old deputy director of an international HIV project, who tells me that he is very pro-Obama.

"Obama stands for change, not only for the US, but change for Uganda too."

He says those Ugandans interested in global politics think that a black man - with African roots to boot - will be able to look corrupt African leaders in the face, without any racial undertones, and say "Look, Democracy is here, it's time for you to step down now." Erasmus went further, stating, "He can tell our leaders what's what without Africans feeling like he's talking down to them - as is the case when a white leader 'tells' an African leader what they should be doing."

After we talked a bit, Erasmus said, "Okay, now can I ask you, what is going on with your country?"

I said, "Do you mean why are we so screwed up now?" He smiled and nodded.

I explained that I think it's because many Americans are simply lazy and want to be told what to think, because it takes too much time to listen to all the sides and form an opinion of one's own. He seemed to think the same thing. It's sad. I feel so ashamed of my country; it's been almost 8 years of shame. Sometimes, when the Bush Administration does something really stupid, I tell people I'm Canadian if I'm traveling. No sense in bringing a barrage of crap down on me from strangers because honestly, I feel as disgusted at America as many people from many other countries do.

Winnie is a 40-ish year old psychologist who has both a private practice and extensive experience in public sector HIV/AIDS counseling and testing. Winnie said that Obama is the big talk of the town right now.

Speaking about her female colleagues in the workplace, Winnie said, "Oh yes, everyone is talking about him, on a daily basis. They all love him. Why? Because he's black. The fact that America might have a black President is very appealing to them. One of my colleagues happens to be Kenyan and she's very pro-Obama. She says 'now America will come to us [Kenya], instead of us going to them.'"

There is a sense that because Obama has family ties to Kenya, and Africa as a whole, that somehow, Africa will enjoy a higher profile on the world stage if the US President is both black and part Kenyan.

When I asked Winnie if she was seeing any Obama signs around Kampala she told me, "Oh yes! In fact my friend and I have a joint venture...we're making t-shirts with Obama's face on them and they're selling like hotcakes to the boda boda drivers [boda boda are the drivers of the masses, manning motorbikes for hire all around the country]! We can't keep enough in stock!"

In fact, as of this writing, the price of Obama t-shirts here has doubled, from 10,000 Uganda shillings, to 25,000 shillings. Apparently, the boda boda guys are buying in bulk and re-selling them all over the country.

I asked Winnie what she and her friends thought about McCain and she said, "You know, we've never heard of this guy until just now. We know nothing about him other than he is old."

I then asked her if she knew anything about Sarah Palin and she said, "Is that the lady with the pregnant daughter? Yes, we've heard about her but we cannot understand what the big deal is with a 17 year old unmarried pregnant daughter. Here, that is so common that we would never get upset about it. So we don't understand why the media is making such an issue about that."

I explained to her about Palin's stand on sexual and moral issues - abstinence-only education for teens, anti-abortion even in cases of rape or incest, and that she's said God guides her decisions. Winnie said, "Oh, now I understand why your media is making such a big deal about this. It sounds hypocritical to me."

I told her how Conservative Christians are now saying the teen pregnancy is "okay" because she's not aborting the child and says she'll marry the father. Winnie laughed when I told her that. After our discussion, I lent Winnie a copy of an US Magazine I'd bought for the plane ride over. It had articles on both Obama and his family, and Palin and her family. The next day I asked what she thought of the articles. Referring to Palin, she said, "They say they're a strong, faith-based family but how strong can they be if their underage daughter got pregnant? If they were following their faith, this wouldn't have happened. It's hypocritical."

While I was interested in seeing Winnie's opinion change after knowing more about the situation with Sarah Palin, she did say at the end of our conversation that despite hoping Obama would win the US election, she felt "he is too soft. He needs to be more forceful." It was an interesting side note to an up and down conversation.

So far, I'd only spoken with fairly well-educated Ugandans, so I decided to ask my driver if he had any opinions on the US election.

Meet Drake, a 51 year old driver. He owns two cars, works for a car hire company, and drives privately when not working for the company. When I asked him what he thought about Obama he said to me, "Obama, can he be President?"

I said, "Are you asking or telling?"

"No, I'm asking, do you think he can win?"

I said I hoped he would, and asked him what he thought.

"He can help us with education and health care; we are poor in both those areas. I think he can also help us develop Africa because he is African. Kenya is our neighbor, so if he helps Kenya, it will spill over to us in Uganda."

I asked him if he knew anything about McCain. "Is he that old man?"

I told him that yes, he was the older candidate.

When Drake asked how old he was, I told him and he replied, "70 is too old! That guy is too old. Obama is young and can do more things."

We spoke about Museveni and how he's been in power for more than 20 years now.

Drake told me, "Yes, Museveni has been here too long now and most Ugandans want him out. Obama can help us Africans to become more democratic. He can talk directly to these guys [Museveni] and tell them they cannot stay for 10, 20 years."

Overall, I wasn't surprised that nearly all Ugandans I spoke with - from hotel and restaurant staff, to international development workers, to drivers - supported Barack Obama for President. What did surprise me was that the most pressing hope that Ugandans had about an Obama administration was that an American President with African blood would somehow, finally bring democracy to a continent where such political ideology still doesn't really exist in practice.

Even my colleagues who work in the HIV/AIDS sector - in a country with a serious HIV problem - didn't feel HIV issues were as important as the issue of democracy. Perhaps my colleagues here in Uganda are on to something with this 'democracy' thing... and maybe, just maybe, if we're lucky - and vigilant - and if we don't allow Rovian machinations to derail and pervert this precious gift that so many the world over are willing to die for, we might just see this elusive thing they call 'democracy' in action - this process that so many people in so many countries want for their own.