Sunday, June 27, 2010

Democracy in Action

Add this to the list of things that never would have happened to me had I not married Kathy and moved to Lesotho: Receiving an e-mail from the U.S. Embassy asking me if I would be willing to serve as an international election observer in Lesotho's recent parliamentary by-election. I did. And I was.

It began with an informational session held by the Independent Electoral Commission of Lesotho, which is tasked with ensuring that elections in Lesotho are "free and fair". This was a remarkable event in its own right. It featured one table filled with about eight of us affiliated with the U.S. Embassy, and the rest of a small hotel conference room occupied by approximately one hundred Basotho.

The master of ceremonies for the event asked in the beginning that attendees speak English so that all present could follow the proceedings, but this did not hold. Many attendees spoke Sesotho, though most began by explaining that that was simply better for them. One put it this way: "I only have a black tongue, not a white tongue." There may be two official languages here, but one is native, and the other is not...

Due in large part to these language issues, the informational session, while a captivating cultural event, did little to help me, or the other Americans, understand exactly what we were supposed to do. Fortunately, the U.S. Embassy staff involved with coordinating our efforts in this regard were sharp enough to acquire the information we needed before we set out to observe.

There were three consitituencies in which the by-elections were being held, and we were assigned to Sebapala, in Quthing District. In the four-wheel drive Embassy vehicle with me were Patrick (Embassy intern and the other official observer in our group) and Victor (Embassy driver extraordinaire - some of the "roads" barely deserved to be called such - and, as it urns out, storyteller and historian - he was a font of knowledge about Lesotho when he was not finding and negotiating the routes and paths we needed to traverse).

We set our early in the morning, and our drive featured the usual Lesotho vistas and villages:

Here are Patrick, Victor and me, posing beside the SUV at Fuleng Guest House, where we stayed while in Quthing (I do not recommend the place, as it lacked hot water - and my room smelled like an ashtray):

Not that the location has nothing to offer. Here is the view from just outside my room:

The election observing itself was an intriguing combination of the unique and the mundane. Polling stations, like the U.S., were schools. But these schools were up in the mountains of remote eastern Lesotho, where there are more cattle trails than paved roads. Given the materials we saw stashed in the corners of these stations, and the conversations we had with some of the volunteers staffing them, we surmised that many of them hiked out the day preceding the vote, slept in the schools, and then stayed the following night, hiking home on the last day of what, for them, was a three-day event. Dedication to democracy.

While warned not to take pictures of the actual process, I was able to capture the surroundings:

A sabaka sa ho khetha is a polling station (literally, place to vote):

Thankfully, we witnessed nothing to indicate that the election processes were anything other than transparent, free and fair. The election results were still contested in the press by the party that came closest to winning without so doing, but that also strikes me as evidence that the democratic process is working here in Lesotho...

On the way back, we stopped to visit a Peace Corps Volunteer who works at Masitise Cave House. This home, literally built into a cave, was constructed and first occupied by D.F. Ellenberger, who contributed significantly to the recording of Lesotho's history. There are even some San cave paintings at the site, though they are now, sadly, difficult to discern.

As the election volunteers' shirts proudly proclaimed: Khetho ea hau e u fa matla. (Your vote gives you power.)

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