I have been rather numb since Election Day. I went to town to meet up with other volunteers and watch the election live, streamed from our computers. We had a little party, made a map to color in as the votes were counted throughout the early AM (for us here in TZ), wrote on slips of paper to be read over the course of the night and morning the things we loved and missed about America, took a citizenship test together to pass the time, and yes, had a few beverages in joy as we thought about the great strides democracy would take as Obama’s legacy continued and transformed into the legacy of our first female president.
But after waking from a short nap between 3:00 and 6:00am to find the map of America bleeding red, we felt sick from more than just our alcohol consumption. In disbelief we watched the coverage. It was not a joke. This was no longer a laughing matter. We kept asking ourselves: how? As the numbers continued to come in, we felt defeat, and there were tears in our eyes. Tears of disbelief, disappointment, frustration, anger, helplessness, hopelessness, and finally fear. We felt betrayed by our own country, and felt the sting of the slap from the half of our nation who we believed to be more … reasonable…
When it became clear that this election was no longer a laughing matter, those back home began to ask me if I was with friends in that moment. This struck me, because it showed how Hillary’s defeat truly was a tragedy equivalent to some great catastrophe, or disaster, or the death of a close friend or relative. It was not a moment to be alone, but to feel, together, as Americans, the shock that shook half of our country.
This moment in our history is scary not only because America chose this man to be our president, but also because the balance of powers that defines our democracy has been broken – a bane for those who believe in equality and true liberty and justice for all. But I don’t want to get in to my opinions on the politics. I’ve seen enough opinions and battlefield rhetoric on social media. It happened. It doesn’t matter now who is or isn’t to blame. I have found that perhaps more of America than previously realized has opinions that make me shudder, but we have no choice but to move on from this, not to dwell with red faces and pointed fingers.
Instead, what I wish to write about here is how the results of this election are now impacting my life and interactions in my community. During these past few months leading up to the election, I had many conversations with Tanzanians: Trump vs. Hillary. You must realize, our election was not just the talk of our nation, it was the talk of the world. Any and every storeowner, hotel receptionist, market mama, bus driver, etc. wanted to talk about our two candidates for the next presidency.
While Peace Corps is a nonpartisan organization, those who volunteer tend to lean liberal. And while there are both Democrats and Republicans in the Peace Corps, here in TZ at least, we are all of the same mindset on this topic. We all had similar conversations with Tanzanians about Hillary’s virtues and Trump’s lack there of. And now we are all faced with the challenge of explaining the results that now leave some Tanzanians questioning our opinions and even doubting our intelligence and reasoning.
Leading up to the election, I thoroughly enjoyed the conversations I had, especially with those from my own community. The most in-depth conversations were with men. They asked the most questions, and were more willing and wanting to debate. It was an amazing opportunity to put my Swahili skills to the test in order to force these men to question their gender biases (among other ingrained beliefs). Overall, the men here in TZ who support Trump do so because: 1) He has a strong bearing and voice, and 2) He is a man, and therefore has the strength and ability to lead a nation.
I must say: having this conversation over and over again truly developed my patience – and my ability to refrain from pounding my head against the wall. Tanzania is a country with very defined gender norms and expectations. The country is slowly developing its mindset, realizing and recognizing that women have the strength and ability to lead as well. And while this progress is more present in the cities, in rural villages you do see women in the village government, in charge of community groups, running their own small businesses, and even driving motorcycles. Some men do truly believe in the abilities and strength of women – sisi sote ni binadamu, sisi sote tuna nguvu na uwezo tukikuwa na elimu na nafasi kuongoza: all of us are human, all of us have strength and ability if we have education and the opportunity to lead.
But many other men, deep down, have that inherent belief that was ingrained long ago in their cultural consciousness: that women do not have the same strength and abilities as men. This has at times given me the impression that some men are simply humoring their female counterparts when they appear to support them.
These gender biases were revealed to me time and again with these discussions, and that is why it was so exciting for me to debate one-on-one why Hillary should be president over a man whose only virtue (if you can call it that) is an obnoxiously loud voice. I explained time and again to my male counterparts and friends that a strong leader does not have to be a man with a big, passionate voice. It certainly can be, but these characteristics do not define a good leader. It was such a pleasure to see the thought on the faces of my friends and neighbors as they processed my explanations.
I told them of the potential consequences of Trump’s loud, thoughtless voice, and that the things he passionately (if not aggressively) talks about have little substance or bearing on reality; the fact that he only values other white, rich men, and why that will not benefit the country as a whole; what he will do to our economy even if he is a so-called great businessman; what will happen as Obama’s healthcare is flushed down the toilet; his racism, sexism, and hatred of “others” and how he will try to limit the freedoms of women and minorities; the fact that he has absolutely no experience in politics nor leading with sensitivity a very diverse group of people; etc. etc. The most convincing argument I made involved the fact that so many others had endorsed Hillary – “You like Obama, right? [Everyone here likes Obama.] Well he supports Hillary, not Trump…” After using many other well-known people as examples like this, the wheels were really turning.
When I left for town on the eve of the election, I was happy and confident. I would soon be able to return to my village with the clear support of the American people to back and solidify my arguments and the information that I shared during those conversations. I felt accomplished to have ushered new ideas into the minds of my male friends. But alas, I was not supported by America, and now my reasoning, my information, my morals and beliefs are in doubt, on the chopping block.
Those who agreed with me from the beginning that the woman (with the political experience) should be chosen for president, and that the man (the racist, he who does not like or want to help black people) should not be chosen (for those were the determining factors for them), were confused. They had agreed with my explanations and opinions, and I had helped them to flush out their own arguments in support of Hillary. And now… well, now: what should we believe?
Those who argued against me, who wanted Trump to be elected because of his sex and bearing… well, they were vindicated. The patient progress I had made, helping them to see the other side of things, to understand that the whole concept was so much deeper and darker and bigger than a debate on sex, was thrown out the window.
Initially, I was in too much shock and pain to have the equanimity to interact with those who wished to rub it in my face. “Mwanamume ameshinda, mwanamume ameshinda! Unaona sasa, ni lazima!” – “The man has won, the man has won! You see now, it is necessary!” Slap after slap in the face, it is hard to endure. These neighbors, counterparts, and friends just did not understand that this situation has caused me, and so many others, to feel great grief and doubt, even fear. At first, I could not find the motivation to explain. I said, “Sina maneno. Huelewi. Ninalia ndani.” – “I don’t have words. You don’t understand. I am crying inside.” But now I am gaining back the energy and the will to tell them why I am crying, why so many Americans feel sadness, deep, sickening grief, and fear.
Those who were with me in my support of Hillary are still trying to understand how Trump was elected – as am I, to be honest. I’ve explained the popular vote versus the electoral votes, that some people’s hate of Hillary as a person and lingering love of Bernie and his promise of change hurt the support of the democratic party, and that there are perhaps more people in our country than I realized whose priorities and morals do not align with my own.
As for the Trump-supporters, some of them just laugh at me, even as I take the time to tell them what might come of Trump’s election, and of the overwhelmingly republican House and Senate. That is not fun. They laugh in victory and shake their heads at me. They will not listen now. While they were initially questioning their belief that a man must be president, now they are vindicated, justified, confirmed. This puts my hope to the test, but I know I will still continue to have this conversation. Some of those who celebrate Trump’s victory do loose some of their excitement if they decide to listen. I can see it in their faces that they are at least slightly less certain of their justification. And that gives me hope.
While the limiting gender norms and roles present here in TZ have been reaffirmed by America’s choice, I still think that we can succeed in at least unsettling these beliefs if we genuinely take the time to continue to explain why we still believe Trump was not the better choice. The deep friendships, relationships, and trust that we have built as Peace Corps Volunteers living and working in our communities will help us to gain open and eager ears.
And that is the benefit of this type of sustainable development, the Peace Corps model – when volunteers become community members themselves, we create the trust that is necessary to allow for behavior change. When local people want to hear your opinions and beliefs, want to learn from you because they respect you and trust you, it gives you the opportunity to make a lasting impact. Even if that impact is just a shadow of doubt planted in the minds of those who do not currently believe in the potential of gender equality, for example, it is still one small success.
One of our goals as PCVs is to bring the extremely varied beliefs, systems, and cultures of the world to our tiny communities, to tell the many stories that help to illustrate that there is no one way of life, that right and wrong is a matter of perspective, that fairness and equality and a love for all people because they are people just like you can allow us to take leaps and bounds in the realm of peaceful development, both on the small- and the large-scale.
In the states, people are taking to the streets, or are protesting in other ways. They are fighting the changes they fear as the balance dangerously tips into the Republican lap. As Peace Corps Volunteers living very far from home, we have a different fight. We must translate those fears, which we too feel, into our local languages and our local cultures to explain with sensitivity the impacts of this election on politics, on the American economy, on foreign relations, on the environmental fate of our world, on human rights, women’s rights, and gender equality, and on so many other things that will influence our own country and the world as a whole.
We must continue our work to foster the relationships and trust that will lend us open ears. We must never stop speaking out for that in which we believe. We must continue our fight in any and every context. We must never lose our patience nor let a hot head make ruin of our beliefs as we try to articulate them with sensitivity. The fight is worth it. And in the end we must believe that good will always trump evil.
As Hillary said in her concession speech:
“I have spent my entire life fighting for what I believe in. I’ve had successes and setbacks and sometimes painful ones. … you will have successes and setbacks too. This loss hurts, but please never stop believing that fighting for what’s right is worth it. It is. It is worth it.”
“You know, scripture tells us, let us not grow weary of doing good, for in good season we shall reap. My friends, let us have faith in each other, let us not grow weary and lose heart, for there are more seasons to come and there is more work to do.”