No electricity. Only one satellite TV in a ten mile radius. An eight hour time difference. Can we still watch the results of the 2008 American Presidential election, live?

Yes we can goddammit.

We were a small but committed group of Bumwalukanians who devised the plan to watch our man win the White House last week. We’re eight hours ahead in Uganda, so we were looking at an allllllllllllllll-night event. But the Ugandans were buoyed by the prospect of watching a son of their soil (basically) step up to arguably the most powerful position in the world, and the Americans were buoyed by the prospect of watching their country get itself back on track after eight years of border-line insanity.

The excitement had been building for quite some time in Uganda. Obama dominated the local media, there were pins and t-shirts for sale in Kampala, and “do you support Obama” replaced “are you married” as my most frequently received inquiry. For the Ugandans who don’t know that much English, a simple “OBAMA!” with a thumbs-up and a grin communicated the same message. Confidence was high, and it was infectious.


A Ugandan newspaper on election day

Teacher Godfrey has a satellite dish, and is one of the more ardent Obama supporters around, so choosing the venue was easy. Electricity remained a problem. The school is currently in the ironic position of having installed an expensive solar/battery back-up system that is malfunctioning and now blocking all types of electricity from reaching our facilities: solar, battery, or main power line. Also our generator basically exploded. It’s been a frustratingly powerless few weeks around here. BUT the new FIMRC rep (Mike) is a big Obama fan, and FIMRC has a functioning generator, so we did a little switcheroo. I wasn’t present for the actual connecting of the generator to Godfrey’s house, but I’m told it involved naked wires, toothpicks, and a high risk of electrocution. After a few alarming sparks and dimming of the lights, the TV burst into action and we were off.

The initial cast was: teachers Godfrey and Nelson, Andrew (the Bursar), Godfrey’s girlfriend Ruth and her son, me and Mike, Stuart (the headmaster’s son) and assorted neighborhood children. The children chugged sodas and guzzled sugar cookies, providing a perfect opportunity for me to unveil the new word I’ve invented: chuzzle. Think about the possible frat party usage! They begin to crest a frenzied sugar high around nine o’clock, horse-playing around and singing and partaking of the general aura of excitement without the slightest clue as to what it was all about. Mike broke out his laptop and played the Obama song, a Jamaican reggae homage to the future president. A team of committed adults had spent several hours sourcing beer in the area, and were finally rewarded when a soaked and mud-splattered motorbike driver arrived with a crate of Senator—a local beer which has now been renamed ‘Obama.’ Ruth had prepared a huge dinner, and we all ate and chatted and watched the early news coverage.


Harry’s happy to be a part of this mysterious fuss


Andrew wants YOU! to vote for Obama

After dinner the children experienced fairly rapid sugar crashes, and were dispatched to their various beds. We adults turned our full attention to the TV, and flicked between Sky News, Al Jazeera, and BBC World. It was only about ten o’clock, and it dawned on us that we had five solid hours of informative, but repetitive news coverage ahead before any polls closed in the US. The four different sources of carbohydrates we had all just consumed did not help the sleepiness factor, nor did the fact that my body clock is now firmly set on ‘granny mode,’ and my eyes usually start drooping around nine-thirty. Mike was the first casualty, dropping off on the sofa with a full glass of beer in his hand. The inevitable happened: he awoke with a start, spilling a fairly large quantity of beer on his lap, and resignedly went to take a proper nap in Andrew’s room. I was fighting the good fight, but fading fast. A phone call from ex-volunteer Charlee pepped me up, and Stuart and I made a plan to begin consuming caffeine at 1:30am. I also kept myself alert by occasionally switching to the African equivalent of MTV, ‘Kiss Network,’ which only appears to have access to Pussycat Dolls videos. As much as they exemplify everything I hate about America, they are strangely hypnotic. You can also play fun games by betting how many seconds of the video will pass before they begin shedding clothing and do their signature ‘power-v’ strut. Stuart has the energy of a nuclear power plant, and probably could have powered the TV himself if we’d figured out a way to plug his fingers into the wall. Nelson soldiered on bravely, and Andrew took a table-top nap. Godfrey displayed a variety of methods in his battle against sleep. At one point he went and sat outside on the cold, rain-soaked verandah, listening to BBC on his radio at quite a high volume. The pinnacle came, however, when he began spooning heaps of instant coffee into his beer, a combination both ingenious and disgusting. Despite my cries of protest, Godfrey doggedly drank only beercoffee for the rest of the night.


Post-dinner crash

The hours between midnight and 3am passed in a surreal daze. Godfrey started a small fire when he attempted to use a kerosene stove to heat water, but that was the height of the drama. By 3am everyone had finished with their naps/beverage experiments/music-video watching, and we were ready for some hardcore poll result action. We settled on BBC World as our network of choice, because they had a loveable British fuddy-duddy leading the commentary and some pretty down and dirty debating going on. Also, a UVa. Politics professor, Larry Sabado, was one of their guests (wahoowa!). Andrew sat down with a notebook and pen, determined to keep his own record of the electoral votes, because he remembers what those bastards in Florida did to us in 2000. Godfrey didn’t quite have a handle on the electoral votes system, and was dismayed when the Kentucky/Vermont results left the scoreboard in McCain’s favor. He began flipping through the news networks, vowing not to stop until he found one that showed Obama winning. Of course, he didn’t have to wait that long.


Andrew keeps track of the votes.  Nelson keeps track of his inner eyelids.


They announce Pennsylvania for Obama

To say that everyone in the room was sober at the moment when Obama’s electoral vote count went over 270 would be stretching the truth. In fact, downing a plastic baggy of locally made hard alcohol was the specific celebratory act chosen for that moment by some members of the crew. I, thankfully, had nothing harder than caffeine in my system by then, but was still caught up in the general euphoria. There were many man-hugs, back slaps, and furtive tears. The Obama song was on high-volume repeat. The kids of the house were awake after a refreshing night’s sleep, and back in party mode. It was approaching 7am, the sky was getting light, and curious children poked their head around the door on the way to school to see what all the noise was about. As McCain gave his concession speech, a smattering of staff members and neighbors came to join the party. I have rarely seen that much beer being opened at 8 in the morning.


Obama goes over 270

Watching Obama’s victory speech was a roller-coaster of emotions. A certain staff member, who shall remain nameless, was shirtless and performing traditional African chants and dance moves throughout the speech. Something that sounded like “HE’S A MATERIAL!” was a frequent comment from the above-mentioned person, accompanied by several hard slaps of the leg. I was somewhat distracted by this, and missed some of the speech while trying to calm the guy down. I was also in complete awe of Obama’s speaking abilities—no notecards or anything. See I’ve largely missed out on all the Obama fever in my time here, so he’s still kind of new to me. And then he got to the part. You know, the part. The 106 year-old lady, and all the changes she’s seen, and yes we can, and what changes will his children see, and yes we can, and . . . . . .

Both mzungus in the room were in tears at that point.

I don’t know if I could have picked a better situation in which to watch America elect Obama, for lots of reasons. Probably the easiest way for me to think about it is to imagine what it would have been like if he lost; the disappointment, the crisis of faith that would have been written on all my friends’ faces. Not everyone that I watched the election with knows much about American politics. Tax policy and universal health care might be under their radars, but the fact that millions of mzungus across the ocean saw fit to put a man with black skin, coming from a village only about 80 kilometers away from here, in their highest political office, is not. I know that Obama now faces a long, hard struggle to live up to the hype and correct policies that have veered alarmingly off the rails. But he is already a symbol of great hope and optimism over here. As one editorial in a local newspaper said:

“Obama’s victory is a sign to the world that change does not come out of fear of the unknown and effort to cling to a comfort zone but collective faith that things can change if we are bold enough to confront them.”

Watching the whole electoral process unfold struck another chord for Ugandans, namely the contrast they see between the American system and the troubles on their continent:

“And John McCain conceded defeat and congratulated his opponent. This does not in any way make him any less of a great man in his own right, a leaf African leaders must borrow.”

There are several African ‘leaders’ who could do us all a favor and borrow that leaf right now.

So altogether the night was a big success; from inadvertent naps and beercoffee to tears and dances. A rather high number of staff members called in sick on Wednesday . . . . but the headmaster was very understanding.  Even after the dust has settled, I still get giddy at the thought of Obama and his family moving on in to the White House.  I feel like I’m going home to a different country from the one I left, and I’m looking forward to it.