By Lauren R. Stanley
RENK, Sudan – I voted in the presidential election the other day. Felt pretty darned good about it. I’ve never voted by absentee ballot before, and was quite nervous about whether this would really work. But with a lot of help from a lot of people, I got my ballot in plenty of time and sent it back in almost four weeks before the election.
The whole process was quite interesting to my Sudanese friends and colleagues. They couldn’t believe I could vote while living overseas. And they still can’t quite grasp the fact that America’s presidential election takes place in just one day. But what interests them most is the election itself.
Sudanese are following the election at least as closely as Americans. They are inveterate listeners to the radio, and follow everything that is happening, dissecting it as though they were participating themselves. Southern Sudanese are quite supportive of President Bush, because of his administration’s role in helping to get the Comprehensive Peace Agreement signed, ending 21-plus years of civil war. That fact alone tends to make Southern Sudanese rather Republican. It’s not unusual for me to meet someone for the first time here and have that person say, “Yes, George Bush!” I’ve even had Sudanese ask me to give the president their personal greetings when I meet him in the United States. (They are heart-broken to hear that the president and I are not on a first-name basis, and that I do not have a standing appointment at the White House whenever I am in the United States.)
What’s most fascinating to watch here is how Southerners interpret everything they hear about the election campaign. They followed the primaries closely, although they don’t quite understand how they work. They listen to news about debates and the conventions and campaign stops and parse what is happening.
And most of the Southerners I know are convinced that Sen. John McCain is going to win.
Well, first, he’s a Republican, and President Bush is a Republican, so in their minds, that makes them the same, which – again, in their minds – means that McCain automatically will win.
Second, Southerners have great respect for elders, and McCain obviously is an elder. So when they look at McCain, in his 70s, and then at Sen. Barack Obama, to whom they often refer as “that young man,” they see the obvious difference in age and tend to conclude that McCain should win simply because of age.
Third, Southerners here are acutely aware of America’s racist history, and cannot believe that a black man would ever win a national election. Southerners are not shy about bringing up this fact, not only frequently, but with some vehemence.
And finally, Obama’s name and history do not help here. Completely false claims that Obama is a Muslim reverberate in South Sudan. That photo of him dressing up in local attire on a visit to Kenya years ago, and the fact that his grandfather indeed was Muslim, are enough to convince some Southerners that Obama is Muslim as well. The fact that he is a Christian is not listened to or believed by many.
Two decades ago, when I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Kenya (in the same region from which Obama’s father’s family comes), I was very clearly instructed to never discuss politics with Kenyans. Peace Corps volunteers are supposed to steer clear of political discussions much as many family members do at Thanksgiving dinners. So to hear these discussions now – to have Southern Sudanese initiate them and beg to talk about the election – is odd. I’ve never been overseas for a presidential election, and despite my excitement, I was quite prepared to keep very quiet this time around. I simply wanted to get my ballot, vote and send it back in on time.
But that’s not possible here, not this time. This election fascinates my friends, as it does much of the world, and they feel it will have a huge impact on them. Without help from the United States in many and varied forms, South Sudan would be in trouble, and Southerners are acutely aware of that. And with tens of thousands of Southern Sudanese living in the United States, my friends feel a special affinity for the country.
So every day, we talk about the election campaign. We talk about what was said, and what it means, how each candidate sounded on the radio, what’s been reported and what’s been left out. We try to figure out what the next president will do for Sudan. It’s almost like being in the States.
Come Nov. 4, everyone will be glued to their radios, waiting for the results. (I’ve tried to explain both the time differences and the number of time zones to the Sudanese, but many don’t understand the vast size of the United States, and will be disappointed to go to bed on the 4th with the polls still open.) Come Nov. 5, we’ll do what everyone else will do that day: We’ll talk politics.
Washington may be 7,000 miles away, but with all this talk about politics, it’s almost like being back in the States.
The Rev. Lauren R. Stanley is an Appointed Missionary of the Episcopal Church serving in the Diocese of Renk, Sudan. She is a lecturer at the Renk Theological College, teaching Theology, Greek, Old Testament and English, and serves as chaplain for the students.