What Living in Africa Taught Me about the American Election

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For anyone who has been completely unconscious, marooned on an island with absolutely no Wifi, or trapped in a cabin with nothing but Stevie Knicks cassette tapes for the past eighteen months, the word on the street is that the United States is in the midst of a presidential election.   I didn’t know exactly what to expect, spending an election year in rural Africa, but I don’t believe I envisioned being so damn informed about every nuance of the election from eight thousand miles away.

Yes, a large part of this hyper informative craziness that I subconsciously subject myself to has to do with being on social media. But Facebook aside, Africa keeps me informed. I sit on plastic buckets in traditional Maasai houses sipping goat milk chai, and the topic veers towards the American election. Seriously. Recently, I sat outside the fabric store in Moshi while friends did some shopping and a man came and sat down next to me. “Marakani?” he asked, which is Swahili for “are you American?” When I assured him I was, his next question was predictable, “Donald or Hillary?”

While I really, really have no desire to talk about Donald or Hillary, the concept I have come to understand is that when you come as an American into a different country, you must become prepared to explain America. Believe me, I try. We have fifty states and Puerto Rico is not a state even though we let them vote because we like them, but not like we like states. Yes, frat parties are real things, and no I have never met Sarah who is also from America. I get a lot of questions I can’t answer. Yet, strangely enough, the longer I stay in Tanzania, the more I realize that Africa has taught me a lot about being an American.

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Different worlds?

I learned that Americans worry. A lot. About being late for yoga class, about the price of a haircut, about who got invited to which party first and what we can do this weekend, and if I brought this same cookie to the party last year or wore this dress last time he saw me, or what she meant by that text or why your jeans don’t fit, or paint samples. I suppose a big reason I don’t worry about those things in Africa is because many of them don’t exist: there is no yoga, no one wears jeans, and all haircuts cost the same: twenty-three cents to and they’ll shave your head with a new razor blade. I’m not saying there is no stress. “Hakuna matata,” was coined for this very reason, to remind people not to worry when it starts to creep in. But what I have witnessed is that the twisted stomach and the furrowed eyebrow type of stress is reserved. It’s special occasion stress, for things in our control, with our consent, and for the betterment of those around us. No small stresses. Hakuna matata that traffic jam, America.

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Friends not bound by language or borders.

Africa also taught me that Americans do everything fast, except drive. You have not experienced fast driving in America, I promise. Tanzania has two speed limits: below 50 kph, and over 50 kph. That over 50 kph speed limit tends to apply mostly to huge trucks carrying chickens and men and maize in the bed, or buses 35 people over the maximum occupancy. It does not, however, apply to the speed of life. Cooking is slow and boiling water is slow, and meetings are long. Weekends are sleepy and at nights I take time to look at stars. There are no happy hours, or gym memberships or housewarming parties. What there is, are long afternoons in the bed of a new mother, under the covers counting the fingers of the new baby. There are slow walks through sunflowers to meet a student’s family.

There are many hours in waiting rooms and outside offices while scanning Swahili dictionaries and taking note of new fabrics around the waists of the women who walk past. America moves fast, and we get things done. I know that more than ever now. But I hope I remember sweetness of slow when I go home. I hope my peace stays.

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Gifts may look different but mean the same thing.

 

But all of this is fairly cliché and things you already knew: Africa moves slower and worries less, and it wouldn’t it be cool if America did that too? But that is not my point, not today. Moving from one country to another, I find that people focus on differences a lot. What is difference between Hillary and Donald, what is the difference between Africa and America, between Christian and Muslim, between black and white and what are the different things different groups are or are not allowed to do. The truth is, that while I have been forced to take note and adapt to several of these differences, the thing that sticks out the most is how similar we all seem to be.

I have found myself believing, now more than ever that the human soul is created in nearly identical ways. Of course, there are biological reasons for this: teenagers give you attitude on every continent and even first time mothers have an instinct how to comfort their child. But then there are different pieces of humans that strike me. I watch tears fall for the same things in both worlds. Laughter is identical. Families look different. But you see those who are attracted to each other lean, subconsciously, toward the person they love. It’s not the full moon or astrology or science. It’s humanity in its purist form.

Election years seem to bring out the differences in humans more than ever. Lines are drawn as we uncover opinions of friends and sisters and coworkers that we had never surfaced before. But what Africa has taught me more than anything, is that at the core, we are all the same. We need love, want patience, appreciate kindness, cry when we can’t find the peace. We hope for a future and find tears in our own eyes when we see someone hurt. We hunger and we sweat and we want things that we can’t have and scream like it will help. Then we pray to God we are able to create something worthwhile during our time on this planet. This is true of all humans.  On every continent.  From every belief or background.

So Africa, I don’t know if it’s going to be Donald or Hillary. But I promise, we are all going to be ok. We are on the same team. In the words of my beautiful African colleagues, we are together.

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Pamoja, the Swahili word for together.

 

 

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