The U.S. Election Through the Eyes of a Ugandan Journalist

Nov 12008

By Charles Odongtho

Writing about my experience of participating in this year’s U.S. elections as a journalist has been one of the hardest assignments to undertake. Not that it is hard in itself but because almost everything -- the confirmation that I would myself be this close to the campaigns, the elections, watching the politicians and media coverage, talking to American journalists covering the elections, talking to ordinary persons on the streets, in bars, hotels, workers in offices, etc. – was a very high point in my life as a journalist. They are all different experiences which I will savor for many years to come.

For ten days I was attached to the Philadelphia Inquirer, the largest media house in the State of Pennsylvania -- Pennsylvania being one of the few battleground states in this year’s historical election. The luck I had of working within this newsroom gave me the opportunity to follow events as they unfolded every moment, talking to senior journalists and keeping real close to the election stories.

To start my placement by attending the morning editorial meeting at the Philadelphia Inquirer on October 27th, gave me the first insight into the interesting days that lay ahead, nine days to election. The warm but humble reception by the Managing Editor of the Inquirer, Mike Leary, and his team of senior editors demystified the earlier impression I had come to the U.S. with that Americans, especially journalists, are selfish people who mind their own business. I had been told that these guys are mainly the I-know-it-all type of people and don’t-bother-me-because-I have-no-time-for-you kind of guys.

But that perception changed after the meeting because these guys gave me a very generous reception. They were so courteous to me -- I had a phone to call any news source I wanted, a computer fully connected with a fast Internet link and contacts of senior journalists of the Inquirer to get tips and analysis from. I just felt at home for the entire placement that I wished I had more time to work in this environment.

My placement brought me real close to experiencing how the U.S. journalists cover their elections, the issues, how they follow the candidates’ agendas, the concept of endorsements of candidates, etc.

What amazed me is that a senior political reporter like my best contact at the Inquirer, Larry, was able to tell in terms of time, say by 10 p.m. on November 4th, the final results will be known in favor of a certain candidate if the votes go according to the exit polls. Such an analysis was so invaluable.

Through the contacts at the Inquirer newsroom, I watched three of the candidates as they campaigned for votes. I attended Barack Obama’s campaign rally at Chester City, John McCain at Wallingford and Joe Biden at South Philadelphia. Probably nothing was better during my days in the U.S. than attending these rallies, particularly seeing Obama talk at Chester University.

The experience of waking up at 4 a.m. on a rainy cold day to take a train for a 45-minute ride to Chester City is one of those I will live to remember as a journalist. Arriving at Chester University at 6a.m, I watched enthusiastic Americans in long winding lines, none afraid of the rain and cold, mothers with toddlers strapped to their front, university students out of bed very early, visitors new to the city, some from New Jersey, others from within Pennsylvania, all determined in different ways, but with such enthusiasm, to change the leadership of their country to give a new direction to the way the White House manages its politics.

My knowledge of the U.S. electoral system had been enriched by the lectures at the State Department’s Foreign Press Center by the former diplomats, the journalists, the former Harvard professor and specifically the one by the deputy managing editor of the Washington Post. This guy’s lecture at the ICFJ offices gave me an insight into how a media house in the U.S. separates the day-to-day news from the directors’ decisions to endorse a candidate of their choice.

I also closely followed the adverts on radio, television and newspapers and how U.S. media cover elections of their leaders.

Looking back to the days leading to the elections and the fact that I was personally there watching history unfold, when I recall the election day on November 4, and my visit to polling stations in Philadelphia and seeing how Americans turned up in huge and record numbers to make a statement about democracy, to choose their 44th President -- for me as a journalist from Africa, I can only envy the level of democracy America has reached.

I recall this day as a day when American citizens rejected racism and color segregation over ability, the day when they chose competence in a person (Obama) as opposed to blood relations, the dumping of the olden-day politics for modern politics of inclusiveness.

With just two days to election, on Sunday, November 2nd, I attended McCain’s rally in Wallingford and met and talked to a number of old and conservative whites. What worried me was not the fact that among the thousands of supporters gathered for the rally were only two blacks who clearly looked out of place and scared of the surrounding environment. What worried me were the statements by two elderly men who refused to give me their names but were bold enough to say America would not be safe in the hands of Obama, a black man and one who is not yet known among them.

These statements made me believe that America was not ready for a black man in the White House and that Obama would still lose even if he was leading in the polls.

But how wrong I was! I had forgotten that for years I had been told that America is a land of opportunities.

On the back cover of, The Rise of Barack Obama, a book by Pete Souza, Obama is quoted as saying, “In no other country on earth, is my story even possible”. I believe him.

The days leading to the election had a roller coaster of events. For how else if not a roller coaster should I even describe a campaign featuring Sarah Palin and her campaign style, Joe the Plumber turned Joe the Campaigner on foreign policy issues, a nobody-turned celebrity because of asking candidate Obama a real people question, the media polls, Obama’s aunt staying illegally in the U.S., Obama’s sick grandmother and eventually her death just on the eve of the election, the debates of the Bradley effect (in which the polls show a black candidate with a lead that never materializes because in the end whites refuse to vote for him.)

November 4, 2008 in the U.S.A. made me know of the true value of democracy, that a people frustrated with an administration can patiently wait for an election opportunity and resoundingly say, “We are tired.” Not with the use of a gun or violence, but the ballot paper. The next day, I could see almost every American feeling proud of being Americans, walking with heads held high, as I wondered, was Africa watching? Was the Arab world, Europe, the guys who use the gun, the guys who kill for power?

The concession by Obama’s rival John McCain was so gracious you would think he also had won. On my flight home I sat next to an American lady, Faith, from Amsterdam to Nairobi. As we discussed the election she told me “I voted for McCain but I am going to support my president-elect Obama all the way”. How proud Americans are in their practice of democracy! I thought.

A lot will be said about these elections for years to come, given the huge historical value that it holds on this planet earth. Nothing summed it all better than the short interview I had with the cab driver who chauffeured me to Dulles Airport as I left the U.S. for Uganda on November 12.

This is how my interview the man, Dean Sara, originally from Afghanistan, went:

Charles: What do you think about the election of Obama? (Dean speaks broken English because he is still learning)

Dean: What do you mean?

Charles: I am just asking for your opinion, what you think about Obama as a president-elect.

Dean: It’s good for America, to show to the whole world what freedom of speech and opportunities is. He is a nice guy.

I couldn’t agree with Dean more. America is indeed a land of opportunities for all to achieve their goals and ambitions.

November 4, 2008 will always be the day that set America differently from other democracies in the world, until any other country challenges that with a similar action of inclusiveness of all races. And which country will that be? And how lucky a journalist I am to have been there when it all happened!

The writer is a senior reporter with New Vision in Kampala, Uganda.