Every Election Day reminds me of working elections in foreign countries. I was in Afghanistan when Hamid Karzai was elected in 2004 but we stayed on our compound to provide security because the unit that normally did that for us, a platoon of Nepalese soldiers, were broken up piecemeal and dispatched to different areas of Kabul to provide security at various precincts. It was the first presidential election in the history of Afghanistan. I recall with great fondness the smiling faces of our interpreters as they came back through the gate that day with thumbs stained purple, an indication that they had cast their vote.
And speaking of firsts, I was in Liberia in October 2005 when Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf was elected the first female president of not only that country but any nation on the continent of Africa. I was seconded to the United Nations by the State Department and stationed in Harper, Maryland County, which is a coastal community on the Atlantic. The election site was 26 kilometers (16 miles) away in Pleebo, the county seat, and in the rainy season on that road it took a couple of hours to drive the distance.
In that election I was with a team of Nigerian police officers who considered the Liberian people inferior and their election a joke. They started drinking at noon and were drunk before the polls closed. I left them to their business and worked the polling site, a local school, late into the evening. When the polls closed I crammed ten poll workers and dozens of ballot boxes into my "Coca-Cola" (the slang term for the U.N. SUV which was painted the same color as the popular soda can), and drove to the small building where the ballots were to be counted before heading back to Harper.
In Haiti I was present for the Senate elections of 2009 while René Préval was sitting president. I worked a polling site in the BelAir slum, an area rife with poverty and violent crime, but the people treated us good. I have a memory of an American female officer who carried a bag of small bread rolls fresh from a store which she intended to hand out to kids. I warned her not to do it, I had seen those kids in action on the street. They were ghetto kids and they spent their days scrounging for food. I knew what they would do. As soon as she took the bag out, fully expecting each kid to stand patiently in line and wait for her to put a roll in hand, they swarmed her, snatched the bag from her hand, and bread rolls went flying as boys began stuffing bread into their mouths with a frenzy. She screamed out in surprise and panic, and several adult Haitians and I had a good laugh over it. Welcome to the ghetto.
Another memory from Haiti during that same time period was the input of an African cop during a meeting a few days before the election. There were several dozen of us in attendance inside a U.N. building in Port-au-Prince for the informational briefing regarding polling sites, duties and responsibilities. A Canadian officer who was stationed in a mountain village (Haiti has mountain ranges that rise nearly 9000 feet above sea level) had a logistical question. The person he addressed the question to was the European female appointed by the U.N. to oversee elections in Haiti. With her at the front of the room was a U.N. human rights officer, another Euro female.
To access his village, the Canadian officer stated, it was necessary to cross a river which was swollen with spring rains. What, he asked, should he do with ballots if he was unable to ford the river because of rain? Before the elections officer could answer, a cop from West Africa, who was designated as the officer in charge of U.N. police in that area during elections, replied to the Canadian.
"This is very easy," he said, his tone and facial expression indicating that the Canadian was a complete moron. "To find a place to ford the river you give a local boy a small amount of money and have him walk out into the water. If he disappears, you know it is too deep to cross in that spot."
I was laughing so hard I almost fell out of my chair. The elections officer had a bug-eyed look of terror and the human rights officer jumped up from her chair shouting, "No! No! NO!!!"
You might say things are done a little bit differently in sub-Saharan Africa than in other parts of the world.
Thanks for reading and I hope you voted.