Obama’s Win: Why Some Africans Cared

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

Simon Maina/AFP

“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?”

Le jour de Barack Obama!” he said: the day of Barack Obama. “Well, well,” I said, “we don’t know the results yet.”

He glared at me. “Do you really think,” he said, “that that idiot [John McCain] is going to win?” A day later, as I was crossing the front line between the government soldiers and rebels, the rebels stopped us. I tried to charm them with my limited French. Turns out they didn’t speak any. (Congo has long accused neighboring Anglophone Rwanda of supporting rebels in eastern Congo.) The two young men, named Peter and Andrew, were reluctant to let us pass.

At which point I said, “By the way, have you heard? Barack Obama won!”

Andrew, the rebel captain who, by the smell of him, had been in the bush for weeks, and whose young face was lined with dirt and war, cracked a rare smile. “Really?” he said, handing me a cigarette and a skewer of charred meat. “Congratulations!”

Anita Powell is a Johannesburg-based journalist who has covered Africa for five years and Iraq and Afghanistan previously. Follow her on Twitter.

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