Lesson From An Election Abroad

I was in Kenya last week during the presidential election. I had no reliable internet. No cellular service. No way of getting consistent news updates. I had only a few fellow travelers, a massive Mercedes-Benz bus, and miles upon miles of African savannah to explore as we ministered to the people and warriors of the Maasai tribe.

In fact, one of my favorite moments of the trip came when a Maasai elder – after hearing someone ask who was ahead in the U.S. election – reached into his shuka, pulled out a smartphone, and said, “Trump.”

Being overseas during this election was in many ways refreshing. I missed out on the breathless election projections. I didn’t get caught up in the arrogant hype of the pollsters and pundits. I didn’t even get to check my Facebook or Twitter feeds to catch what my wife described as the disintegration into madness. In short, for an American election, it felt decidedly un-American while observing from Kenya.

I mean, I did get to watch Al-Jazeera’s coverage of the overnights for about 20 minutes, and caught a tiny bit of CNN, but for the most part, I was blissfully unaware of what was going on in our country.

And I liked it.

This political season was beyond exhausting. It was brutal. And the world was watching in horror as we made our choice. I won’t lie – the Kenyan papers weren’t pleased with the election of Trump. They feel like his election means a regression with regards to American diplomacy; suddenly, the world’s most constant presence for the last 70 years is now potentially its most volatile. Even people in Paris were talking about President-elect Trump – and I was only in their airport for 2 hours during a breakneck layover on Saturday morning.

I didn’t vote for Trump (shocking, I know). And even after I learned of his victory, I struggled to wrap my mind around his victory. I mean, people thought electing Ronald Reagan, an actor, was a bit of a stretch. We actually elected a reality TV star to the highest office in our land, in the same year that the Chicago Cubs won the World Series. Honest to God, I was waiting for the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man to come strolling down a street at some point. It felt like mass hysteria.

But the people of Kenya taught me a great lesson. Not the ones who run the papers, or the average Joe on the street – the Maasai people helped me put everything in perspective, just by virtue of the time I spent with them.

Their culture has been around for hundreds of years. It’s predicated on the ideal of community – everyone pulling together to support everyone else. While they are nomadic, and not prone to gathering in large groups, they still have an underlying tradition of support for one another that transcends the miles between them. They have their laws (some of which I disagree with) and they have their customs (some of which I also disagree with), and those combined values and beliefs keep them together as a community.

But through it all, it is their fierce commitment to being a community that has kept their tribe alive.

My friend Brad Poer recently sent me an idea he was working on, a response to the divisiveness we’ve seen during this presidential campaign. I loved what he had to say, so I’ve asked for permission to share. Here’s what Brad wrote:

“More and more frequently, I find myself dreaming of a new American political party. The very notion of it is complete fantasy, utter nonsense and laughable given the way the vast majority of us communicate, gather information and view those whom we don’t willingly surround ourselves with these days… but I dream of it anyway. And while a part of me is certain I’m not alone, the impossibility of the kind of battle this party would have to wage to simply exist- let alone effect the governance of our nation- make it nothing more than a paper-thin layer of dew that evaporates the second the morning sun glances off of it. But still, the dream comes.

It’s the Bridge Party.

The Bridge Party is just what you’d think- an impossibly diverse collection of citizens set on working to connect the chasm that separates us as Americans. They trade in pointed fingers for handshakes and lines drawn in the sand for collaboration and gloriously frustrating, messy compromise. They don’t work to bring the left and right together- they abandon the left and right to be together. On purpose. Wether the wings come to them is irrelevant. What the members of the party believe as individuals is subservient to what they work for as a whole- the circumvention of judgement and fear by way of understanding and empathy. They understand that a nation that is simultaneously multi-cultural, independent-minded, tradition-based and evolutionary cannot be fruitful if only one ideology gets what they want at any given time. They willingly and joyfully sacrifice a bit of who they are and what they believe for the benefit of both their own ideals and those of others, and demand that the officials they elect serve and work for each other instead of for the party or themselves- not at the expense of personal identity but for the enhancement of it.

The members of the Bridge Party recognize that stagnation breeds disease and infestation. Term limits are not an enforced policy, but it just ends up happening by willing, joyful communicative transfer of positions to new party members- guaranteeing more involvement from more members of the public and a constant connection to the realities and challenges of the constituency.

The Bridge Party strives to ignore the propaganda and myths created by those seeking to vilify and belittle. They ask each other what they want and hope for instead of regurgitating ‘facts’ and ‘statistics’ without context or perspective. The Bridge Party doesn’t try to change minds. They try to understand hearts instead.

Nuts, right?

Sure would be nice, though, wouldn’t it?”

I love that idea. The Bridge Party. Bringing people together. Bringing back the notion of community.

My time in Kenya taught me many things, but this may be the biggest lesson: we stand together or we fall apart.

Here’s hoping we stand together.

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