I officially submitted my absentee ballot on October 20, 2008. The cost: a cherished Saturday in my hammock, some small back pain from 11 hours of travel on a bumpy road and an incredible amount of patience along the way. Was it worth it? Undoubtedly.
The reasons I did it are endless: patriotism, devotion, loyalty, partisanship. I also did it because I had promised myself I would never use my travels or work abroad as a reason to not vote ever again. 4 years ago I was living in Shendam, Nigeria and I didn’t vote. I didn’t take the time to figure out how to get to the Embassy in Abuja. I simply felt too bothered by the process and was a little disheartened by the stolen election of 4 years prior. I assumed that given the first election had been taken unfairly and his 4 years in office had been an irrefutable disaster that my countrymen, fellow Americans, would manage to get this man out of office without me.
When I heard the announcement that he had won again on my little transistor radio sitting in the back yard of our compound with a Brit, a German, a Dane, a Dutch and an Italian, I literally cried. Looking back on it I think I cried for two reasons. I cried for my country and our freedoms and the men at Guantanamo bay and… well, the "ands" seemed endless. Second, I cried because there was nothing else I could do sitting in front of such a tough knowledgeable European crowd looking at me as if I were one of “them” - one of those Americans many outsiders hate. It was cry or it was run. I chose to cry. After I finished crying I panicked. I panicked because I was implicit in the process. I should have remembered the quote our newly re-elected president so inarticulately described in the months preceding his re-election – “fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.” Well shame on me, I had been fooled twice and so I made an oath – I would vote from here on out, no matter what.
October 20, 2008
Upon arriving at the embassy I was ushered into a security room, somewhat aggressively, by a group of four embassy security staff. Upon entering I clumsily dropped all my worldly possessions and caught the men laughing gruffly out of the corner of my eye as I hurried around trying to pick everything up. Was it nerves or was it irritation at the monstrosity that was the American Embassy in Liberia? Who knows, but what I do know is that we Americans did good by our super size mentality when building this Embassy – the building itself and the surrounding compound is truly remarkable. After the big security screening, which basically amounted to locking my keys and cell phone in a tiny lockbox, I walked past the 4 unhelpful characters and entered a large waiting area. I was then told you “wait small” in the icebox that is the American Embassy and someone would come and get me soon.
After waiting patiently for about 33 minutes I was all of a sudden graciously ushered back to my own very private room just to the left of the four small windows where Embassy staff are seated to do visa application interviews. From prisoner to prom queen it seems like I continuously encounter bizarre, ever changing, environments as an American existing in developing countries.
The room I was ushered into was garnished in red white and blue and had a burgundy couch and matching love seat with a large American flag hanging in the background. The furniture faced a standard banking window that separated me from my Embassy associate with a large pane of bullet proof glass and a small hole to pass documents through. On the counter sat a high-tech fingerprint machine with a huge sign hanging above giving directions on where to place your fingertips. I went through the process of proving my identity and getting the correct information for the election commission in Colorado. I was then handed an oversize Absentee Ballot form with all those fancy edges and requirements of tearing off one section only to place it inside another.
This was the moment I was struck by a feeling of intense pride. Everything that had surfaced during this election started to run through my head and I experienced a feeling of clarity I rarely achieve. I was drunk with partisanship and started to fill out all my forms with confidence. The forms were quite simple really. They called for my name and some identifying information and then directed me to tear off and fill in a small piece of paper with a blank line on which I was to print out the names of my chosen presidential and vice presidential candidates. It skipped all of the sitting judicial positions that I have shamefully filled in during elections prior. I say shamefully because I usually know little about these candidates and end up blindly endorsing the incumbents. This ballot skipped of that and asked me to focus on “the man” and I knew who I wanted “the man” to be.
I wanted to make it last and so I wrote slow and purposefully, knowing I would not have the chance to do this again for 4 more years. Given the state of my country, this one felt very, very important. Just as I was proudly filling out my home address in Denver, reflecting on my newly established residence, three individuals walked into my little private room and I was startled.
When I’m startled I get tend to drop or break or ruin things and in due course I dropped my pen, while attempting to pick it up, I knocked over my purse. I hurriedly gathered everything up and moved from the couch over to the chair to make room for the guests. Two were dressed in western attire whereas the other was clearly local, dressed in a beautiful lappa with a slightly mismatched head wrap. She quickly sat down on the couch and put her head down and stoically focused at her hands while the other two approached the window and started with some big hellos and how are yous. He (P) announced he was a pastor from the south and she (P2), also a pastor, was here to help with the process. They were warm, well spoken individuals whose presence suggested they had caring natures and resolute dispositions.
The woman from the Embassy (E) seemed instantly annoyed and was quiet short.
(P) Yes, I’m not sure if you remember us but we were here a couple of moths ago?
(P) Well… We have sorted everything out and have everything arranged; now we just need to finalize the visa for our friend Musu here.
(E) You do not finalize the visa sir; we determine if it a visa should be granted or not and there are regulations about this.
(P) Oh yes of course we understand, of course. What I meant was you should know is Musu is very sick you see. She has cancer and she will die if she does not get the treatment she needs. This treatment is possible, but not here in Liberia and we want to help so she can survive.
(I was startled into a frozen state of disbelief about what I just heard while writing the zip code for Denver…I paused and looked over at the woman who very clearly did not speak English who looked over at me. We caught eyes and I smiled. She smiled back. My eyes filled with tears and I looked away….)
(E) Yes but what about Ghana?
(P) Yes you are correct there are some very good doctors in Ghana and we went there and spoke to them and if you see here in all of our documents there are also very expensive, actually they are more than twice as expensive as the doctor we found in America. But, the good news is that this doctor in America is willing to the treatment and surgery for free, pro bono. And our church is…
(E) Sir. You do realize that treatment for cancer is not just about one time surgery or one time treatment. It takes multiple procedures, expensive medications and hospital stays and who do you think is going to pay for all of that? And how do we know this woman will return after the procedure?
(P) Yes. Yes. We understand your concern but we can vouch for all of this. We are prepared to take on all financial obligations so that this woman can get the treatment she needs. We have done this in 3 different countries including the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Sierra Leone, we understand our responsibility.
(E) Sir. I don’t care where else you have done this. What you need to know is that we can’t just let anybody into the country who is ultimately going to be a financial burden to the state. The treatment of cancer is a very expensive matter. I should know, my sister just died of it and her hospital bills were over a million dollars so don’t come at me trying to explain the process of all of this. I am well aware of the process.
(Everyone just froze. There it was, this was personal or at least it was hitting a very personal cord and this woman had lost her capacity to maintain neutrality in her grief.)
(P2) oh Madame I am so incredibly sorry for your loss. I too am a survivor and I know what my family went through. We are just trying to help this woman who, if given the chance, can get treated and can recover and then return to Liberia, to her home and her grandkids. She doesn’t speak an ounce of English and wouldn’t know what to do if she stayed there. She just wants to live.
(E) Ok. Enough. Yes this is very tragic but like you are aware there is a treatment option in Ghana which means there is no reason to grant this Visa application so I am sorry. This Visa will not be granted. This interview is over.
And, just like that it was over. The three of them gathered their things and quietly left me sitting in this little piece of America in Liberia.
I was slammed by the juxtaposition of such conflicting emotional states I felt nauseous. How is it possible to go from intense pride and hope to heartbreak and grief in a matter of seconds? Isn’t this the type of thing that can cause insanity?
When you’re young and privileged and from America you think it’s going to be like the movies. That this woman was going to get her medical visa and get her treatment and return to Liberia just in time for her grandson’s graduation ceremony. And thanks to the Government Press department, the story is known by all and rumor has it Oprah is considering playing the role in the soon to be blockbuster movie. But, in reality, this rarely happens and movies aren’t made about what I had just witnessed. I had no idea where to put it and I didn’t even say I’m sorry or good bye. That was it. It was over. I took my ballot to the counter, silently handed it over and left.
Being free with the option of getting your basic needs met is so rarely a reality that the impassable distance between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ is constantly illuminated, even in the halls of the very embassy that strives to deny it’s existence.
I don’t know how to end this post. I’m not sure I ever will.