05 November 2008

Vigil for Obama

5 November 2008


At the Agoe-siye gare again, waiting for a taxi to fill up. I am dead tired. I have been awake since 6am yesterday. I spent the night at the American Embassy in Lome watching the election results come in.
The embassy invited about 270 people to come watch – they set up a big projection screen for CNN in a large well-lit room. A side room – the library – had a smaller screen showing a French news version of the results. There were about 10 PC volunteers at the embassy, the rest of the two rooms were full of embassy personnel and local allies.
The American embassy in Togo is quite new. The US has designed a standard embassy layout - to ensure safety and security and make it easier for foreign service workers to transition from one country to another without the added inconvenience of having to learn their way through a new bureaucratic maze of offices every time.
The former embassy was located on a busy street corner near the middle of the city – it was a ridiculous place for a US embassy, even in a friendly country. Every time a car stalled outside the walls the marines had to activate high security tactics to remove the bomb threat. Because of the decrepit state of most Togolese cars, this unfortunate situation happened all too frequently. When the standard design came out the embassy in Togo was a top priority for the refit.
The new building is very ... functional. I don’t think it’s ugly, just boxy and obviously very institutional. The inside decor (and over-exuberant air-conditioning) reminded me so strongly of DeBartolo Hall at Notre Dame that my overnight vigil for Obama felt a lot like pulling all-nighters as an undergrad, desperate to put together an essay before the 9am deadline.
Watching the election results with a room full of Togolese people was fascinating. At first we, the volunteers, felt rather inhibited – we didn’t want to shout out our support for our candidate in the midst of a group of professionals. On our way in, two cardboard cutouts of McCain and Obama greeted us and the embassy staff invited non-Americans to fill out their ballot for the choice (out of the two largest parties) of which candidate. When the results came back 77 to 1 in Obama’s favor, our cheering inhibitions were quickly quashed, in fact, we were often out-cheered throughout the night. Encouraged in our enthusiasm by fresh hot coffee, biscotti (and a little red wine for those who chose to tipple) we soon became jubilant as states were declared for Obama.
Occasionally the 0% reporting or leads of 739 votes made me rather wary of CNN’s projections but as state after state blinked up blue, I had to just have faith in the necessarily unfathomably complicated mathematical formula used by the projecting team.
As time started to tick down, we took turns rushing to the restroom, sleeping on each other’s shoulders and getting coffee refills.
Occasionally we muted the chatter of the commentators: to hear a statement from the new Ambassador, to sing happy birthday to a 17-year-old daughter of an embassy employee, or to take advantage of snacks being passed around.
Suddenly controversial states started going blue – Philadelphia... Virginia...Ohio...The clock counting down to the close of the west coast polls didn’t even finish before Washington, Oregon, Hawaii and California were painted blue and Obama was declared winner with double the electoral votes of McCain.
It seemed so sudden, I kept watching the bottom of the screen for votes coming in... Florida went blue and I knew it was true.
So I cried. My shoulders shook slightly as my red-with-fatigue eyes began to leak warm salty tears of joy.
Everyone in the room stood and cheered, clapping and congratulations drowning out the television blaring from all three rooms. We did it! America elected a leader for change!
The first African-American president. And I witnessed it from Africa, celebrating the amazing victory with an embassy full of Togolese supporters.
John McCain’s concession speech was inspiring. I have always admired him and although I am glad he did not win the election, I hope he will remain strong and vibrant in the Senate.

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