A mail-in ballot has arrived at our address here in Durham, North Carolina. It came with little fanfare: the clack of our mailbox lid as the postman made a noontime delivery. I am aware that the ether is stormy now with quarreling about the transaction it represents. And heavy clouds forewarn of what is yet in store.
It puts me in mind of the elections that have followed us around the world: grudging lines of voters in Brussels; the exuberance of the young in the Congo bedecked in brilliant yellow and green, dancing in procession to the polls under surveillance of armed police; jeeps with blaring speakers in Indian bazaars urging all to do their civic duty; throngs from the townships who swept the ANC to power as apartheid cracked and fell. There is drama when the governed make their choice.
The year 1994 left a benchmark in the electoral life of southern Africa. Nelson Mandela had earlier been ushered from confinement to a Cape Town balcony as thousands roared their joy. Four years later, a constitution in place, they flocked to the polls whose result carried him to power. On the day of his inauguration in Pretoria, flags fluttering as the crowd chanted, he invited his erstwhile jailors to occupy front row seats, not in bitterness, but as a sign of the reconciled society he hoped might follow.
In that same year, a 30-year dictatorship was brought mercifully to a close by Malawi’s first truly free election. It was the setting for a remarkable moment in the conduct of polling in Africa. The BBC reported the story of a young woman in the back country who had gathered from neighborhood chatter that a momentous day was approaching. People explained that sacred papers inscribed with names would be placed in a box from which the future would be shaped.
She went home to consider what papers she possessed that might be worthy of such a high occasion. Then it dawned on her that there was just such a paper in her safety box. She took it with her on the appointed day and stood in line with the many others who turned out in their
Sunday best to participate. When her turn came, she strode past the poll workers straight to the ballot box and deposited the paper she had brought. ‘Wait’, they called to her, ‘you must first fill out your ballot. What have you deposited in the box?’
When the box was opened to remove the errant paper, they discovered that she had deposited the most important paper she possessed: her birth certificate. It featured the names most precious to her: her parents and her own. Perhaps, she had thought, these might be equal to what the occasion demanded.
Who can withstand the hearing of this story, and the nameless woman it honors? She schools us in how to regard such moments: she is a kind of electoral college of one, as it were. The approach of an election, she seems to say, might best be marked not by raucous quarrels and rancor in the market place, by insults, blind rivalry and ill-will, but by earnest self-searching: to bring to that moment the best of who we are. That voting from enmity or contempt – whatever the choice – could hardly produce a country at peace with itself. To consider rather what we possess that has the air of honor, the whiff of nobility. This just might contain the seed of a future worth living.
With her in mind, I turn to my ballot.