I spent the night of November 4th like most Americans abroad—and indeed much of the world with cable TV, I suspect—watching the election results trickle in until dawn. We were a mix of Americans, Cameroonians and a token Canadian. Just after the networks projected Obama to be the president-elect, I began receiving congratulatory phone calls and text messages from Cameroonian friends and colleagues. This was around 5:00am local time. Shortly thereafter, the sun rose at the same invariable hour it always does at the equator. It sounds cliché, but the world actually seemed a shade brighter that morning. I walked out of the house bleary-eyed and exhausted, but feeling something I’d nearly forgotten—an undeniable sense of pride in my country.
I know many people who wept during Obama’s speech in Grant Park—cathartic tears of relief that come after witnessing the dream that was America run roughshod through two disastrous presidential terms. It’s clear that Obama represents a restoration of that dream; the ideal that America can still be a place which allows a person of modest origins to be freely elected to one of the most powerful positions on earth. It’s an immensely powerful narrative—the stuff dreams are made of.
Strolling around Buea that day, strangers and friends alike went out of their way to greet me with broad smiles and enthusiastic handshakes. Just as it was reported in Bamenda, cars with ancient loudspeakers strapped to their roofs roamed the streets blasting mostly unintelligible Pidgin with one word recognizable at intervals: “Obama!”
Over lunch at the bar beside my office, I ended up playing host to a large gathering of Cameroonians. Everyone wanted to share in the excitement, and having a “real live American” in their midst added to the fervor. I soon discovered that Mr. Obama can now add Cameroon to what is surely a growing list of African nations that are laying claim to his heritage. To wit: there’s a tribe known as the Ewondo in the center province of Cameroon which has a family surname “O-ba-MA”. Naturally, this is sufficient to establish the president-elect’s Cameroonian heritage, or at least a “spiritual” connection to him. In a similar vein, a Sudanese tribe has recently pointed out that Obama’s Kenyan father’s ancestry actually originates in the Sudan. Don’t be surprised if you see similar claims coming from Polynesians and Indonesians. It seems likely now that the Irish are jumping on the bandwagon.
What this demonstrates more than anything is Obama’s ability to tap into the spirit of the global everyman. He is not a product of a powerful political family, nor does he come from wealth, privilege or nobility. Cameroonians sees themselves in Obama, and perhaps even their potential to achieve great things.
I was pleased to find a quote from Francis Nyamnjoh, a Cameroonian novelist and social scientist, in this NYT piece. He sees Mr. Obama less as a black man than “as a successful negotiator of identity margins.” Through him, he says, Africans can once again see America as “the screen upon which the hopes and ambitions of the world are projected.” This sentiment is unequivocally borne out from what I’ve witnessed on the streets of Buea.
Personally, Obama’s victory means that I can hold my head a bit higher as an American living abroad. On too many occasions, and on both sides of the African continent, I’ve found myself playing the unenviable role of apologist for my government. I’d explain that the decisions to spy on its citizens, torture Iraqi prisoners, sacrifice the writ of habeas corpus, everything—were not necessarily those of the American people. But Americans elected their President and Congress, who represent the will of the people, did they not? “Yes, but…” began my reply a hundred times.
Once, after my best diplomacy failed, I actually feigned Canadian citizenship to avoid a nasty scrape when my American identity was called out by a would-be attacker. I’m not particularly proud to admit this, but it makes for a funny story in retrospect.
I’ve even been in a position of explaining my motivations to diplomats. Two years ago, flush with my arrival as a new Peace Corps volunteer at my post, I shared a memorable car ride from Tiko to Buea with Syd Maddicott, the British High Commissioner to Cameroon, and his wife Liz. After he’d learned about my background, he posed the most direct question I’ve ever received about my decision to join the Peace Corps: “Why,” he asked, “does someone put their career on hold during the peak earning years of their profession to be an unpaid volunteer in Africa?”
Why indeed? I appreciated his candor and replied that my country had been good to me and this was my opportunity to contribute something, however small, to restoring its image abroad. To borrow an apt phrase from Steve Jackson (another famously candid Brit), I was part of the “Shame Drain” that spawned international volunteers from across the U.S., Europe and Australia. Besides, a history of military service exists on both sides of my family and this was a chance to serve my country—even if I didn’t agree with its administration on most counts. Thus did I accept and embrace my role as an instrument of soft power first, and as an agent of development second.
Times have changed. And while I’ve never been one to champion America as the “greatest country on earth” to non-Americans, I’ve discovered something unexpected with Obama’s election; there’s no need for me to do so. Like countless other global citizens, my Cameroonian friends handle that just fine on their own.
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