Thursday, December 4, 2008

How and Why

I've had many people ask how I got the opportunity to do this and also why i'm doing this. I'll attempt to answer both.

It all started in 2004, when the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights was looking for an attorney to serve as an election monitor in Aurora. I grudgingly accepted. On election day i almost got arrested. I was hooked.

They asked me again in 2006. While it was tamer, on incident struck a chord. One particular gentleman kept getting sent back and forth between 2 polling stations because of a misprint on his voter registration card. He kept driving the 20 minutes back and forth as the election judges at each place told him he was in the wrong place. I got involved after he had been doing this several hours. While i was helping him straighten it out, another man came into the polling place, saw that there was a line with 10 people in it, said "Forget this! I'm not waiting in line!" and promptly left. The contrast between the two men was startling.

2008 was even tamer, though the number of first-time voters made it challenging for the election judges, increasing the nubmer of honest mistakes.

Anyhow, having done it in the states, I thougth I could help out abroad. I picked Ghana because I lived here during college for a semester, so i was familiar with the country. When I first inquired around, no international groups had trips planned, though the Carter Center and the European Union both ahve teams here.

So I contacted a Ghanaian organization, the Free World Foundation, that is doing election observing and could get me credentials. I raised the money to come and bought a plane ticket.

"Why" is more complicated.

I work at a Comprehensive Homeless Resource Center (don't call it a homeless shelter) which satisfies a big chunk of my desire to help save a slice of the world, but not all of it. Even there I am increasingly becoming aware of the systemic elements of society that can create or eliminate a problem in very short time. For example, homelessness like we know it today did not exist 25 years ago. So i'm more aware of systems that create injustice now than i was before.

Combine that with my burgeoning awareness of the power of democracy. We take it for granted in America, it has been so ingrained in us. Even 2000, which was an electoral train wreck, never saw any real prospects for civil unrest. We forget that in the history of the world, democracy, as a concept, is in its infancy, and that a large chunk of the world suffers under something we wouldn't recognize as democracy. Most countries of the world claim to be democracies. That is a good thing. There was a time when countries wouldn't even bother trying to fit into the term.

But, now that there is somethign approaching worldwide agreement that democracy is a good thing, governments want the label without the responsibilities it entails. Presidents want to be elected in "free and fair" elections whose outcome is pre-determined.

I have not been to Zimbabwe, but its economy has collapsed in large part to a president who has done everything in his power (and many things outside of it) to crush all opposition. (Interesting fact, Zimbabwe's annual inflation is 231,000,000%. Yes, you read that correct, it is two hundred and thirty one million percent per year).

Krissie and I went to Kenya in June and saw what a country looks like 6 months after a rigged election in which thousands are killed and hundreds of thousands displaced. There were burned out buildings, IDP ("refugee") camps, and there economy was in tatters because the effect of the fighting on tourism. It was great for us to have the country to ourselves, but not so great for the kenyans.

So that all drew me to Ghana for their elections. So they could avoid that fate.


My favorite story in the bible is the one about the woman about to be stoned. Jesus encounters a mob ready to stone a woman who had committed adultery. I love what happens next, because Jesus performs a miracle without doing anything that you and i can't do. He bares witness to the injustice about to be committed. Not his exact words, but his presence says to the crowd: "I see you. You cannot commit this injustice in the dark. I know what you intend to do." And his presence said to the woman: "I see you. You are not alone. I feel the injustice you are experiencing." Jesus didn't call down thunderbolts or hop on his trusty white stallion (donkey?) and speed her off to safety. Instead, he used his presence and his words to point to the mob another way of being.

I think we are all called to bare witness to injustice. So, if my presence in Ghana says "I see you. The wolrd cares that Ghanaians have the right to vote without fear of violence" then i hae accomplished what I have set out to do. If my presence makes Ghana an itty bitty tiny bit less likely to repeat the mistakes of Kenya or Zimbabwe then this trip is a success. And after today, if talking to me today will cause one person to pause before giving into mob mentality, then it was worthwhile.



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