By Brian (PCV in Cameroon)
Lots of Cameroonians are borderline obsessed with [Obama] and his candidacy... I think it’s also about what Obama’s candidacy tells them about America. It tells them that son of an African student can rise to become leader of one of the largest and most powerful nations on earth. It reinforces the idea that somewhere in the world is a place where people can rise above the limitations imposed on them by others and make something of their lives.
If you thought I was out of touch with US politics, rest assured that’s not the case. Even if I had no internet access and no desire to follow politics, I would still be hearing about the election from all my Cameroonian friends (and some passing acquaintances and occasionally even strangers). Cameroonians have plenty of access to international news on the TV and radio. Via satellite or cable many households even have CNN, MSNBC, and Fox, not to mention the BBC, Al Jazeera, French news programs, etc.
Much to my surprise when I got here, Cameroonians love American politics. If anything, Cameroonians sometimes seem to follow American politics more closely than politics in their own country. Many also seem to follow American politics more closely than a lot of Americans I’m sad to say. I’m not sure exactly why the fascination. Maybe because the US is still perceived as the world’s only superpower and the President as the world’s most powerful leader? Maybe because they know that when the US acts in the world it can affect them in one way or another? Maybe because the prevalence of American popular culture around the world makes people interested in what’s going on in the US? Maybe because there aren’t too many surprises in their own political system, so American politics are more suspenseful?
Whatever the reason, many people here love to talk about it and ask questions when they meet Americans. I’m usually happy to do so – gives me a chance to help fulfill Peace Corps’ goal of promoting understanding of Americans abroad. It also gives me a chance to occasionally clear up misconceptions – they follow American politics but sometimes don’t always understand the mechanics (such as the difference between a primary and general election, federalism, the electoral college, etc.)
They also love Barack Obama. Lots of Cameroonians are borderline obsessed with him and his candidacy. The head of the NGO I work for talks about the latest election news daily – every twist and turn and jump or dip in the polls is discussed. The owner of the bar where I eat lunch stops to talk to me about Obama on a regular basis. The carpenters I paid to make some book shelves for my apartment had me hanging out in their shop for half an hour after we’d finished our business so they could talk about Obama. A random teenager I met who’s a friend of a friend invited me out for drinks just so he could ask me about the election. I see people walking around wearing Obama t-shirts and hats. (No buttons though – in Cameroon a button with someone’s picture is a way of memorializing the dead – if you wore an Obama button people might think he had died.)
Part of it is obviously because Obama is black. Africans often forget that not all Americans are white, so to suddenly see a black man in a position to become President astounds some of them. Even more so for the fact that his father was African. Amusingly, many Cameroonians think Obama is Cameroonian because the name “Obama” is a common family name among the Ewondo (one of Cameroon’s 250 different tribes.)
However, I think it’s also about what Obama’s candidacy tells them about America. It tells them that son of an African student can rise to become leader of one of the largest and most powerful nations on earth. It reinforces the idea that somewhere in the world is a place where people can rise above the limitations imposed on them by others and make something of their lives. More than one Cameroonian has told me “This would never happen in Europe or Asia – the son of an African would never become President of France or Italy.” They see America as special and Obama’s candidacy only confirms that.
I’ve met two or three McCain fans, but that’s about it. Mostly they say they’d rather see McCain win because Obama’s too young, and in a society where age is respected that carries some weight. But in contrast to the Obama supporters they don’t seem too inspired by McCain.
In general most Cameroonians I talk to about America have a positive view of us. They generally see us as “the good guys” in the world and are impressed by our society’s dynamism, prosperity, and democracy. And whatever our faults and limitations in all these areas they can’t help but look at their own society and wish politics here were a bit more like politics in America.
Two weeks ago I was invited to a panel that discussed the elections at the University of Buea, and one panelist presented American elections, warts and all, as models African nations should strive to follow. So cheer up, my fellow Americans depressed by politics, it’s better than you think.
That said, in recent years America has tarnished its image around the world and that is felt here as well. But here it seems like people almost feel confused by the events of the Bush years. Over the last two years I have heard lots of comments like “America is such a great country, why are you doing these horrible things around the world right now?” or “How could such a great country with so many smart people pick someone like George Bush to lead them?” I usually don’t have a very satisfying answer for these questions, other than that Americans are human and just as flawed and likely to make mistakes as anyone else on the planet.
I think this sentiment among Cameroonians that America is a great nation that somehow lost its way may also help explain the appeal of Obama. Simply by the fact of who he is and how high he has risen, he is telling Cameroonians (if not the rest of the world as well) that the America they admired is on its way back. If Obama were to lose the election tomorrow I suspect lots of people outside America will despair and wonder if we’ve lost our way for good. In America we often tend to forget that the rest of the world exists during our elections, but as I’ve learned here in Cameroon, this isn’t just OUR election.
However, if he’s elected, I believe America will instantly get a “do over” from much of the world. Especially here in Africa, it will be as if the last eight years had never happened, for a little while at least. Eventually the honeymoon will end and then it’s up to us, of course. But I guess that’s supposed to be the point of democracy isn’t it?
Brian is a Peace Corps Volunteer living in Buea. He blogs of his Cameroonian experiences at Camerooned.