We didn't feel like we fit in very well on the Ethiopian Airlines flight out of Washington DC. There were only a few Americans, and not only did we look different, we were getting a good sample of the cultural and language differences we we about to be immersed in. It's easy to notice differences, harder to find similarities...
And then I glanced across the aisle, and saw an Ethiopian woman reading Newsweek, with Obama on the cover. We were traveling just four days after the election, and it seemed the whole world was excited and hopeful. I couldn't see the woman's face. She was draped in a shawl, and only her hands showed, as she held the magazine, gazing at Obama's face on the cover. She opened it to pictures of the Obama family on election night, and gently touched - almost caressed - each face on the page, as if she were bringing them into her own family and blessing them in a motherly way. She didn't appear to be reading the article, but just looking at the pictures. She looked at them for a long time, and I began to see some of what we shared in common as human beings, on this world, at this time in history. We all want the same things in our little lives. We're all basically the same.
Everywhere we went, we saw Obama posters in cars, and Obama t-shirts on Ethiopians, as well as for sale in the tourist shops. When the language barrier was the greatest, one word, Obama, could bring a smile to any face. One of our fellow travelers even slipped through a sticky moment in the customs line at the airport by saying to the official, "I love Obama." He grinned and waved her through, no longer interested in how much coffee she was bringing back to the states.
Of the other visiting Americans we met, there were certainly some who had voted for McCain. It was still a little too raw to talk much about it then, but there was a certain amount of acceptance, and the fierce rivalry of the campaign season had already softened to an understanding on both "sides" that we were now all on the same side, and it was time to work together. Obama has an enormous job ahead of him, and we share the responsibility. When we travel the world, every American is also an ambassador. We have a lot of mending to do to repair our reputation, and to give the Ugly American a real makeover. But the good news is that the world is open to loving us again.
I met only one Ethiopian who was not happy with Obama's victory. He was an educated young man who worked in the "mouse house" in the compound, a good job for anyone in that part of the country. We were walking back to the center of the compound one afternoon, sharing the same gravel road and the same old sun warming our faces. Talk turned to politics, and he told me he did not like Obama because of his "acceptance of homosexuals". Hmmm.... that stopped me for a moment. But I gently explained to him that there are many homosexuals in the U.S., and that Obama needed to be their president too. He needed to represent all of the people, no matter what, and that it was his job to be fair to everyone. I'm not sure, but I think he heard me. I thought I saw something open in his face, letting that idea in, and once again, there we were, two humans, walking together on one big earth.