Body in Motion

Election time
May 19, 2009, 12:57 pm
Filed under: elections, Malawi

After watching Congo’s elections three years ago, I can’t say I was too excited when Malawi’s election day rolled around (except getting to stay home from work, of course). But Malawi’s history of peace seems to be prevailing just as Congo’s history of violence lived up to its reputation.

That being said, lines at the polling stations are 4+ hours long and I give much credit to those willing to wait through such lines to have their voices heard – my beloved at the top of that list.

The Malawi Electoral Commission plans to post the polling station tallies as they come in so watch this space. Unlike when I voted in last year’s US presidential elections, Malawians can actually check the MEC website to ensure their voter registration details are correct and that their ballot was forwarded on for official counting!

And if you’re looking for a visual, check out fellow blogger Gwyneth’s polling station snaps and stay tuned for election results as the end of the week!


Malawi Annals
March 30, 2009, 6:32 pm
Filed under: culture, development, elections, Malawi, malawian culture, politics

The Afrobarometer has just released some new data on how Malawians see themselves, their government, the state of the country and their political system and it’s pretty telling.

A quick peek at the new survey data shows that Malawians overwhelmingly see government as their parent – not their employee, that over 70% of those surveyed believe the government has the right to close a newspaper, that 74% claim to have voted in the last presidential election and that food supply is the biggest problem Malawians think is facing the country. And if you want a sneak preview of May’s elections, most say that if the elections were tomorrow, they’d support the incumbent, Bingu wa Mutharika. They’ve even given him an 83% approval rating.

Having lived here for some time, I am not too surprised by these survey results but they do seem to highlight the influence of the early direction a young democracy takes in its development.

Kamuzu Banda, Malawi’s first post-independence leader, did his best to set the stage for many of these beliefs. A 1964 Time article on the fledgling leader, just 9 weeks into his thirty-odd year term as President for Life and Ngwazi (Great Lion), alludes to a ban of public meetings (remember when I mentioned this as the reason that Lilongwe is so spread out?), Banda’s invention of himself as a father-figure to the country, and his autocratic leadership style. Let us not forget: this is the man who banned television.

After an entire generation and then some grew up with these beliefs, it is any wonder that 73% of Malawians believe that the government shouldn’t allow contrary views to its own?

With the elections scheduled less than two months off, it’s worth taking a breath to ask how democracy shapes itself. The root of support for the current president isn’t much of a secret. Malawians list food shortages as their biggest concern; Mutharika started a fertilizer subsidy program that has kept Malawi stocked in maize, the main staple, with enough to left over to keep the export market going and a healthy stream of forex coming. Most people believe the elections will be reasonably free and fair which leads one to believe that Malawians will get the president the majority of them elect.

While support for a politician across regional and tribal lines may be something relatively new around here, it doesn’t mean that a maturing African democracy will look much like what we see in the Northern Hemisphere. Fifteen years into a multi-party democracy doesn’t provide a lot of history to stand on and many Malawians are still displeased by the way primaries were set up for parliamentary and local elections. This year’s presidential race aside, over 70% of Malawian believe it’s difficult to have their voices heard outside of an election year (though I would guess most Americans would say the same).

What’s telling is that 30% of Malawians believe that the country should try another form of government. Banda may have fought hard to keep China out of Malawi, but today’s government has welcomed the Chinese with open arms and coffers. In the post-Cold War era, the lines drawn in the sand between friend and foe look are a different shade entirely.

Chances are, Malawi will continue down the road with some form of democracy -hopefully guided by Malawians themselves- though this Westerner struggles to understand how a democracy with a populace that doesn’t believe in freedom of thought will achieve what its citizens strives for: food security, a water supply, an end to poverty and economic development.

January 21, 2009, 11:21 am
Filed under: africa, elections, governance, home, Malawi, politics

Yesterday marked the inauguration of Barak Obama, the first president since Woodrow Wilson a century ago to have a parent born outside of the United States. We tend to refer to Obama as an African American (more literal to the phrase than is the norm), which reminds me of how segregationists one defined a negro as anyone with even ‘a drop of blood’ that wasn’t white.

But from where I sat watching the inauguration, at an out-of-town lodge surrounded by Malawian colleagues at the end of a long day of policy discussion, the view was different. Obama is a man who knows something, however much, about where we sat in the middle of the rainy season on the shores of one of Africa’s Great Lakes. Obama knows something about the largest Muslim nation in the world, where he lived early in his life.

Ironically, four years ago when John Kerry ran as the democratic candidate, there was not much discussion of his wife, Theresa Heinz’s extensive foreign experience. Theresa Heinz grew up just across the lake from us in Mozambique, where her father was a doctor. She went to university in South Africa, where she protested against apartheid at a time when the West paid it little mind. In fact, Heinz was not particularly popular, seen as a hardened woman who -gasp- hadn’t taken her husband’s name.

But here we stand today, amid identity politics as the first person of color enters the White House as a resident. And there I was, listening to the rain outside, watching George W. Bush shake hands with Obama on the Capitol steps.

Here in Malawi, presidential elections are less than 6 months off. Malawi has a history of peace, although the first 30 or so years were under the heavy-handed leadership of Hastings Banda, self-proclaimed president for life. But recent elections have been more democratic and an attempt by the previous president to change the constitution to allow him to remain in office past his two terms was thwarted.

Some say the outcome of May’s elections is a foregone conclusion, that the incumbent, Bingu wa Mutharika, will retain his seat – not because of poll-rigging but because people have generally been happy with his first term. Others say there is still support for Muluzi, the former president intent on a come-back.

I couldn’t tell you myself, since I don’t have much contact with the majority of Malawians, 85% of whom live in rural areas and speak primarily Chichewa.

What I can tell you is that Obama’s inauguration is on the front page of Malawi’s Nation today for a reason, that Malawian blogger Steve Shara noted well some months back that Obama’s election would certainly be significant for Africa.

But more than that, the vision of an inauguration where the former president shakes hand with the incoming president cordially and the only weapons present are the age-old canons, which fire at the conclusion of ceremonies, is something to watch.

Having been through elections in DRC in 2006, I have experienced the excitement of elections that decays into the promise of violence. Malawi is most certainly a different country but I’ll tell you that nothing is a foregone conclusion. Here’s hoping that Malawi’s elections will be both peaceful and democratic.

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February 5, 2008, 5:27 pm
Filed under: elections, governance, kenya, politics, travel

It was in the matatu on the was to Ol Kalau in the Central Highlands that I first saw the Great Rift Valley. I’m not quite sure what I expected – perhaps something in the nature of the Grand Canyon, maybe just an enormous crack in the surface of the Earth. It was so green and so vast and there were peaks that rose up from within the valley. Dormant volcanoes. As we descended down the road carved into the escarpment, there were baboons on the side of the road, lazily watching the Friday afternoon traffic go past. The winding road finally spread out across the floor of the valley. As we passed Lake Naivasha, I saw zebras grazing alongside cattle and trees whose branches reached out toward each other. Although the road was only barely tarmacked, thinking back I feel myself gliding along the bottom of the valley. It’s all a euphoric haze that cannot be matched.

Don’t think I haven’t been paying attention. Rafiki zangu, don’t think I haven’t been watching.

I wrote the above on the Great Rift Valley some years ago now. It was my first trip out of Nairobi on my first trip to Africa. My first zebra sighting. And the beginning of what can only be described as life-altering infatuation. In short, I fell in love the way you do when you are 20 and seeing the world beyond your doorstep for the first time.

I lived with a Kenyan family and ate ugali and tried to speak Swahili on a good day. I drank Pilsner baridi (being sure to throw a few drops from my glass to the ground for the ancestors) and stayed out at Carnivore til all hours. I tracked rhinos with the rangers in Nakuru Park. I attended NGO meetings in Kibera slums. I went down River Road.

Daniel arap Moi was in power. Kenya was a post-Embassy bombing multi-party democracy. World Bank was still trying to reform the civil service. No one had cell phones yet and internet cafes were still expensive. Raila Odinga was the main opposition leader.

Watching Kenya’s elections and stability unravel over the last five weeks has been heart-breaking. Kenya was my first home in Africa and I still consider the people I lived with there to be jamaa yangu (my family). I have sat down many times to write this blog post, combed through horrifying and depressing newspaper articles, spoken with Kenyans and I knew then and now, and wondered how to begin.

If you ask me whether I saw this coming, I could tell you that tribalism was alive and well when I was living there (I could have easily written a post similar to this on Kenyans). I could tell you that crime and corruption has shaken the credibility of what should have been a model African government. I could tell you that two years ago, I learned that the US government was watching Kenya for signs of political fragility.

But none of that really matters, because I would have told you that I did not believe Kenya would be willing to let herself collapse like this. Even now, watching the country crumble, I still can’t believe it. M, an award-winning Kenyan blogger whom I admire greatly, has seen it with his own eyes and it is well worth reading his thoughtful and sage words.

As for myself, ‘euphoric’ is no longer the word that comes to mind when I think of Kenya.

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February 4, 2008, 7:30 pm
Filed under: elections, home

I don’t write much about my homeland, the US, but it’s always there in the background, shaping how I have entered and how I see the world. Instead, I tend to write about where I sit and what I see around me. I spent much of last year writing about Congo’s drawn out and tumultuous elections process, hoping to draw to eyes to what was one of the most dramatic political events in Africa in the last decade.

The US elections certainly don’t need any more publicity. And I’m not going to plug any candidates here, because the truth is that I’m an undecided voter. But I do believe strongly in personal responsibility to take part in the political process.

Which is why it has been so frustrating to me that I have found myself a disenfranchised voter in the last 3 major US elections. My applications for absentee ballots have been completely botched, from receiving ballots for the wrong congressional districts to responding to my application for an absentee ballot with another absentee ballot application. A courteous letter to the state Board of Elections explaining my predicament yielded no response.

Excusing my kvetching, but I sit here, I can’t help but feeling just a wee bit disgruntled. After all, I am an eligible voter who will have to live -whether domestically or abroad- with the outcome of the next election. And since my job is funded by a federal government program, I have a decent-sized stake in the outcome of both the Presidential and Congressional elections.

I have written to my Congressional representative, whom I like very much and would certainly vote for had I the chance, in the hopes of some help in jumping on the voting bandwagon.

I’m not sure if I find it distressing or comforting that poor countries are not the only ones who have trouble running fair and transparent elections. Either way, if you happen to be in the neighborhood, don’t bother to give the NYS Board of Elections my regards.

A bit short of asylum
April 17, 2007, 5:53 am
Filed under: Bemba, elections, governance, journalism, judiciary, MONUC

Mr. Bemba finally left our presence last Wednesday when he headed to Portugal for medical treatment. Bemba received permission from Parliament to travel last Monday on the condition that he returns in 60 days.

In the meantime his political party, the MLC, has refused to participate in the lower house of Parliament due to harassment they claim to be receiving from Kabila’s party.

The public prosecutor has asked the Senate to remove Mr. Bemba’s immunity as a senator so he can be prosecuted for inciting last month’s violence.

Kinshasa is relatively calm these days but the question of Mr. Bemba’s post-Portugal fate remains unanswered (although this bloke has some disjointed theories that seem a bit clouded by his own experience).

While it was expected that Congo’s political situation would lighten following the elections, the violence both in Kinshasa and Matadi (and similar reports from other areas of the country) coupled with sustained reports of opposition harassment indicate we’re not in the clear quite yet.

In response, the UN Security Council has extended MONUC’s Peacekeping mandate a month further to the 15th of May, stating that “continues to pose a threat to international peace and security in the region”. It’s expected that a new resolution will be introduced in the coming month to extend the mandate farther.

But there are a few small signs of hope. The Congolese government is being held responsible for a journalist killed (one of several throughout the electoral process) in late 2005 when the court convicted two soldiers and demanded that the State pay reparations in the order of $3 million to the family and the Congolese National Press Union.

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Rumblings of note
March 14, 2007, 8:42 pm
Filed under: Bemba, DDR, elections, security

Things were starting to get back to what passes for normal around here. We hadn’t had to close the office for security reasons since November. But Bemba, the former rebel leader turned vice president, then turned away in the last election continues to keep a substantial armed force of a couple of thousands troops at Maluku (where they were ordered to retreat to last year) about 40 minutes outside of Kinshasa.

The government has issued an ultimatum that Bemba’s troops –who continue to be seen frequently around Kinshasa, particularly near Bemba’s house about a mile from mine- disarm by midnight tomorrow night. Ruberwa, another rebel leader turned VP and now back in his eastern home territory and unemployed, has also been ordered to disarm his personal security forces.

Of course I, for the life of me, cannot figure out why this didn’t all happen last week while I was on holiday in Europe and had the potential of being stuck somewhere other than my Kinshasa apartment if push does come to shove.

On the way back from the airport last night, as a friend and I were filled on the details above, a convey led by a police truck came roaring at us, going to wrong way down the ‘highway’ towards the airport. My friend’s face collapsed into an ironic smirk. I signed the forms for the Police to get driving school training.

So much for security reform.

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