Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The American Elections…in Mozambique

As one of the Mozambicans in the Peace Corps office put it, “the whole world will stop on November 4th” to watch America. For some Mozambicans, those involved in government and the aid industry, the chief concern is the next president’s policy stance on PEPFAR (President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief), which is currently providing millions of dollars in aid to Mozambique. But for other Mozambicans that know anything about the American elections, and even for the vast majority that don’t, an Obama victory will have much broader implications.

My friend has a picture of Barack Obama visiting his grandmother in Kenya hanging on her wall. Her neighbor, pointing to the picture, asked who it was. My friend replied that the man, Obama, is running for president and that the woman was his grandmother. The neighbor responded: “she looks like me!” And indeed, sitting outside her mud hut and dressed with a sarong, she does.

Of course I am not suggesting that anyone vote for Barack Obama because a Mozambican woman thinks she looks like his grandmother. But across Africa, and for racial minorities everywhere, an Obama victory would have important significance. In a world where many still internalize “white, good; black, bad” or at the very least understand that blacks often face obstacles that whites don’t, an Obama presidency would help challenge this reality. Clearly, it will not be a panacea. The Mozambicans in my community will continue to express disbelief when I tell them that not only are there (relatively) poor people in America, but some of them are white. I will still explain that white people do not have stronger bodies; we are also capable of contracting HIV. The racism that often prevents minority advancement will certainly not disappear. But it will be a poignant illustration of the fact that while being white continues to confer certain privileges, race does not make us inherently different, or black inherently lacking in any capacity.

On the Xai-Xai beach a few months ago, a white South African came up to a group of Peace Corps volunteers to say “Do Americans realize Obama is black?? Why are you voting for him?” Yes, we realize he’s black. And if elected it will show that we are one step closer to making the American dream truly attainable for all Americans. And for my friend’s neighbor in Mozambique, and millions of others around the globe, it will show that not only do we in fact have black people in America, but that we have successful black people in America. That contrary to the countless examples of white success that they’ve seen on TV, from the rich foreigners living abroad, or even from the majority of Peace Corps volunteers, it is not, or perhaps more accurately doesn’t need to be, the color of your skin that determines wealth, success, or intellect.

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