Chapter 40 Barack Obama

A week ago, Barack Obama was re-elected president of the United States of America.

My thoughts of Obama’s election take me back three years when we were in Cameroon, French West Africa. In 2009, I co-directed a Fulbright-Hays group of 15 high school French teachers from all four corners of the U.S. for a month-long study tour. I now headed the third generation of Saccos who had been to Africa.

Barack Obama, like politicians in Chicago and Calabria, carries a lot of influence, but I had no idea how much influence Obama had until I got into a huge jam in Cameroon. All throughout Cameroon, stores like beauty parlors and even grocery stores were named after Barack Obama. His face was plastered on walls as if he were running for President of Cameroon.

It was on our way to Yaounde, the capital of Cameroon, that the incident took place. About every ten miles or so, military checkpoints halt all traffic on Cameroon’s pot-holed highways. The soldiers at the checkpoints not only check the identification of all passengers but assess each situation to see if they can milk bribes out of detainees, especially from foreigners.

We had been stopped dozens of times during our month-long stay and it was my job to pass through checkpoints with minimal distribution of bribes. No different than any average Chicagoan has to do. This time was different.

Our Cameroonian driver, for some unexplained reason, decided to mouth off to the military guards. Boom! A shit storm ensued!

We were ordered out of the van and our passports were confiscated. My Cameroonian colleague and I apologized for the driver, but he kept mouthing off to guys armed with M-16s. The head guard ordered our arrest! Fourteen female French teachers started freaking out!

In these kind of situations, it’s critical to pull out the “political cards of influence” one has to resolve the problem, just like in Chicago or Calabria. Tempers were flaring on both sides. However, nobody from Chicago was going to help us out of this mess, or at least I didn’t think so.

We tried everything to assuage the guards. Apologies didn’t work. Not even bribes worked. We begged. We pleaded. We were going to jail. Finally, my colleagues explained to the guards that were were Americans.

“Americans?” the lead guard unexpectedly exclaimed loudly and happily in heavily accented English.

“Americans! Barack Obama!” Another guard added.

“Yes” we responded. “Barack Obama! We all voted for him!”

“Barack Obama!” Now all the guards were huddled excited, waving their M-16s.

“Well, my brothers, you may go by all means,” The lead guard said joyously adding a thumbs up. “Barack Obama!”

I was flabbergasted! Just the simple mention of Barack Obama became our “getting-out-of-jail” card, plus a small bribe of some Obama pencils and a Obama tee-shirt the teachers had.

Barack Obama, a neighborhood organizer from Chicago, had inadvertently saved us. Barack Obama was our political capital–and we didn’t even know him!

Thanks, Barack!

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About growingupcalabrese

Professor of French and Italian at San Diego State University
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