Obama's Win: Why Some Africans Cared

Despite their own pressing problems, locals on the continent still take an interest in U.S. politics.

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I'm used to being an American abroad, but this positive reception is new to me. I've lived overseas since 2005, and my first port of call was Iraq, where people had no trouble telling me what they thought of our country and our president. When I lived in Germany, people sneered at the mere mention of George W. Bush's name. And when I lived in Ethiopia, a young lawyer friend once suggested that Americans overthrow Bush. As in, stage an actual coup d'état.

It was the only time I have lost my cool over politics, and the hot little speech I delivered would have made my high school history teacher proud. "Say what you want about the man," I said righteously, "but have some respect for the system."

I honestly cannot imagine having this level of vim for any other nation's politics, and I've covered a number of foreign elections. With apologies to my British friends, I never much cared whether David or Ed Miliband was chosen to head the Labour Party.

In fact, I wouldn't dare offer an opinion, lest I be accused of being an imperialist. I've strenuously maintained a level of studied disinterest in all things political. (And so did South African President Jacob Zuma. He was careful before the U.S. election to avoid picking a winner, but as soon as the results were announced, he promptly sent Obama a congratulatory note, Monyela said.)

But I have always been touched by the level of interest -- from experts and ordinary people alike. Shortly after Obama's speech, I spoke to one such "ordinary" South African. James Satekge makes recycled furniture out of old railroad ties from his tiny, cramped workshop in a downtrodden part of Johannesburg. 

Satekge immediately launched into a concise and elegant analysis. He quickly outlined what he said were his two key issues -- the U.S. economy and climate change -- and called on Obama to urgently address both. These two issues, he said, directly affect him.

"A lot of my customers, they are coming from the U.S., from Britain, from all over the world," he told The Root. "If they do well, they buy my furniture. If they don't do well, they don't buy. If they do well, we will do well also."

I was surprised and utterly charmed. And here I have to admit the one occasion when I have shamelessly exploited American politics. I found myself on Election Day 2008 traveling as a reporter across the border from Rwanda into the Democratic Republic of the Congo. I was hoping to cross without hassle. "Madame," said the Congolese border agent, "est-ce que vous-êtes journaliste?" ("Are you a journalist?")

So much for no hassle. "Oui," I said with a sigh.

But before I was directed to a small waiting room, I overheard a name on the radio. "Do you know," I said, "that I am American? And that today is Election Day?"