Zambian Presidential Election

Last January, Zambia elected a new President.  I didn’t know this before I started working for the State Department, but when countries with fledgling democracies hold elections around the world, they are formally observed through Election Monitoring.  Usually my job as a medical provider keeps me pretty far away from politics, but as the U.S. Embassy in Lusaka is a small mission and Zambia is a huge country, I was asked to lead an Election Monitoring Team.  I was assigned the Livingstone/South Central Region.  What a stroke of luck!  While everyone else was driving for days and staying in remote little villages, I got a 6-hour drive on a nice road and a few nights next to an international tourist destination.  The best part is that Mike and the boys got to come down for a few days to keep me company before the election started :).

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After they went home, the work began.  On the first day we drove around to familiarize ourselves with the polling stations.  There are far too many to visit all of them, but we made it to about 18.  Brave was my partner, and thank goodness for him!  He’s done this many times before and showed me what to do.

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The next morning we got up very early to be at a polling station before it opened.  Part of our job is to observe whether or not they follow appropriate procedures; to confirm that the ballot boxes are sealed and empty, that they station opens on time, and that the process correctly identifies voters and allows for privacy.  It was DARK at this time of day.  Here they are showing us that the ballot box is empty, and then sealing it shut:

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Outside, people were lining up to vote.

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Inside, lanterns were lit and the polling station attendants were ready.

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For the rest of the day, Brave and I drove around with our driver to see that all the stations were doing what they were supposed to.  There were a lot of international monitors from a bunch of other countries, and between all of us we hoped to cover most of the polls.  Some of the more remote areas were small, while others had hundreds of people.

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Schools, churches, temporary tents.  Everywhere the rooms were dark and lit only by lantern-light for several hours.

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The station attendants took their jobs very seriously!

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The military and the police were at every station too, to make sure people stayed in line.

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Medics were on hand.

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Someone was even planning ahead to make sure the nshima was ready for lunch :).

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It was a pretty wet and rainy day, but Zambians don’t mind the rain.  “It’s only water, you’re not made of salt.”

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After the polling ended at 5pm, we went back to the first station to observe the closing procedures, and more importantly, the counting of the votes.

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One by one, they held up the ballots and showed the results for the group to see:

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Together they would read out the result in a chorus of voices, while a woman recorded the tally on a chalkboard.  It was getting dark again, so they used a big flashlight to read the ballots.

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The final step in the procedure was to post the results on the station door.  Outside, people were waiting.

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Once all the ballots were counted and bundled they were put in green canvas bags and taken back to the State House, where the final numbers were coming in from all the stations in the South Central region.  As observers we watched this too, and were ushered into a crowded room warm with the scents of soap and fruit-scented lotion.  The Zambians were dressed in an array of footballs jerseys, striped button-down shirts, and colorfully draped chitenges.  Ceiling fans turned slowly over wooden tables, where the dark green bags full of ballots rested under fluorescent lights.  Despite the fans, I wished someone would open a window.  Boxes, baskets, and papers covered the floor in more piles than I could count, and more canvas bags kept entering the room.  We stood around amidst conversations that drifted from English to Bemba, then back to English, staring at the ballots for what seemed like a very long time.  It’s hours later, and we are still in the same room.  It’s hotter and more aromatic now, yet everyone is still smiling.

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Eventually, the numbers started rolling in and the room grew busy.  Big yellow sheets were taped to the wall, where the hand-written results for each presidential candidate from each station were recorded.  A table of officials sat at the front of the room.  I asked them if I could take these pictures and fortunately they didn’t mind :).

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My seat was getting uncomfortable and the clock was stretching toward midnight, and as much as I want to say that watching the results roll in was “exciting,” the truth is that I was more interested in going home and going to bed.  Brave was also ready to go, having done enough elections in his life to be content with hearing the results in the morning.  Our Canadian friend had committed to staying for the long haul and promised he’d call if something crazy happened.

So back to the lodge we went.

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Exhausted, but totally worth it.

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To be a part of Zambia’s history and learn what Election Monitoring means.  Also to observe the values of the Zambian people, who despite the heat, the rain, and the absence of anything happening on time, remained smiling and laughing until the dark hours of the night.

It’s also interesting to see and hear up close how things like Facebook and Twitter are changing the world in developing countries.  Rather than simply being a socially-approved platform to promote one’s self, it is actually used to give a voice to people in nations who otherwise don’t have one.  When a government wants to raise the price of fuel or corn and the people disagree, it was dealt with before Facebook by taking that person “away” in the middle of the night.  Now, a person can voice their dissent publicly on Facebook, and the government can see that a million other people feel that way too.  How can they take out a million people?  Or even a hundred?  I know we are here to “promote democracy,” but maybe we are learning something from them too!

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