The Count

[Transcribed from my notebook, scribbled out in the dark as it happened]

The scene is surreal. Two electric Coleman lanterns dimly illuminate the pair of plankwood benches pushed together in the center of the whitewashed concrete school room set up as a makeshift counting table. Shining black faces peer at the lng, thin paper ballots, held up one at a time in the beams of flashlights brought to bear by the dozen weary partisan observers crouched on identical benches lining the walls. They, and the poll workers have been here for 14 hours now, and it’s clear to everyone that we’re going to be here a lot longer. It’s sweltering, and some of them haven’t eaten since they reported for duty at 7:00 this morning.

Every few ballots, a dispute breaks out – one candidate’s representative objects to a ballot being declared invalid. She says the voter’s intent is clear; the counting officer says he’s just following the rules, and the room descends into cacophony. Outside, in the dark, the rain keeps falling.

One a.m. and there are still 10 more votes tallied for the House contest than were cast in our polling place. All but two of the partisan observers have gone home; one is lying prone, fast asleep on the now-vacated bench while the other struggles to keep her head upright. The three surviving poll workers soldier on reconciling the numbers, straining to keep focused, recounting again.

From the sound of it, we’re still better off than the adjoining polling place, which shares an open tin roof that reflects every bout of angry shouting. I keep expecting the verbal brawl to turn physical, and wonder how our precinct security officer will handle it. Shes’s a young woman with a sweet smile, an aggressive stance and a gun. She certainly looks like she’d be up to the task.

In a way, she’s representative of the new generation of Liberian women. Ten years ago, when the women of Liberia took things into their own hands and ended the country’s devastating civil war, something clicked with empowerment here.

But that’s not what I meant to write about. Honestly, I’ve got no idea what I meant to write about. The heat, the chronic lack of sleep have given me and Susan a bad case of what we’ve been calling “the stupids” – the inability to talk, reason or act intelligently on matters any more intricate than loading another scratch card onto the smartphones we’ve been been using to keep track of this crazy election. We stink of sweat, mosquito juice and lack of hot running water. We’re cranky and punchy at the same time – well past the “laughing inappropriately” stage and looming into “thousand yard stare” territory.

Susan says’ she’s had worse – during the Albanian election, officials insisted that poll officers and observers remain locked in until the ballots were tallied and reconciled. Which took 36 hours. For making an election agonizing, Liberia’s got nothing on the Albanians. But know this: the Liberians want to show the world that they can do this right, and they’re going to take as much time as it takes to do it.

[Okay folks – that’s it, the last of the “embargoed” Liberia posts. We’re all caught up. On posts, at least. I’m back in the States, and trying to catch up on what happens when you leave your project unattended for a couple of weeks. I do promise to put up photos soon, though, and will post again when they’re up. Thanks for following along!]

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