"Africa is, indeed, coming into fashion." - Horace Walpole (1774)

7.29.2006

this is really happening

This is it. My Congolese friends are just waking up to go stand in line to vote. For the first time in their lives. It's been 46 years since the country had an election (Lumumba won). And since the war has reduced life expectancy to 46, there's hardly anyone who remembers the last election. This picture, from MONUC's Bernard Kalume pretty much sums it up.

The challenge of pulling off these elections is a logistical nightmare. And that's putting it mildly. Some of the polling stations are 10 days' march from the nearest town with a road or landing strip. There are so many things that can go wrong, and so many people who don't want peace, much less democracy. Or else they don't understand that democracy means not resorting to violence when your side loses. There are five million extra ballots, the ballots are six pages long, you have to find your district and find the picture of your candidate to check off - the opportunities for fraud and confusion are everywhere. There are more than 8500 polling stations in Kinshasa alone. That means there are 8500 places where violence could break out in a heartbeat. 25,000 Congolese who live in Burundi are crossing the border just to vote.

The place is apparently crawling with American reporters. My friend Eddie wrote a good story about how complicated it is - about the unintegrated army and the lack of a democratic mentality. I've seen stories about violence, and read dispatches from the east. The BBC reports are great. My friends from here who care about Congo are there, and from what I gather it's a little crazy, but fine, just the normal Congolese drama and rumor mills and attempts to stir up bored people to riot in the streets. And the bigwigs, who are wrong about a lot of things with Congo, are right that if this doesn't go okay, it will set off regional instability like we can't comprehend.

I want so much to hope. I want to hope that they'll figure out a way to make it work. I want to hope, like so many Congolese do, that having an election will bring democracy and prosperity and peace. I want to hope for Congo.

And I think about my friends. About Aime and her sisters, who want to get married and raise families in Goma like their mother did. About Bosco, who wants his children to have better nutrition so they have a chance of growing up healthy. About Chantal, who wants to travel outside of Congo - just once. About John, who traveled from Lumbumbashi to Kinshasa in 1974 to see Foreman and Ali fight and stayed to drive a taxi and learn English by listening to the BBC world service. About Dr. Lusi, who will probably decide that this is worth skipping church for. About C and E, who've watched Americans and Belgians vote all their lives but have never had the chance themselves. About Junior, who got married last week and won't leave for the U.S. to start graduate school quite yet. He can't miss this day. About Roger, who wanted me to ship him a car in which to drive around Goma and who needs more job security than a moto-taxi provides. About Mama Helene, who's sick of the fighting and wants to raise her four sons in peace, and who gave me a snapshot of her with those boys so I wouldn't forget her.

And I think about people like Musa's mama, at the hospital in the next big town north of Goma, which is its own private hell. Her child was one of the children who die every two minutes in Congo. 120 per hour. 2,880 per day. Even on election day.

All of them will stand in line for hours and hours today under the hot equatorial sun to do something we take for granted. To do something that half of us don't even bother to do when our country chooses a president. They have lived the realities of oppression and chaos for most of the last 46 years. They've watched four million of their brothers and sisters and neighbors and friends die. They've been held at gunpoint, had their homes destroyed, and nearly starved. This is their last, best chance for something better.

And so, in spite of there being every reason not to, I feel like I owe it to them to hope today. This is it.

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