All 69 students gathered into one classroom, some piled in corners ands others spilled out of the room’s desks. Bellies satisfied after plates of papa and beans, their chatter couldn’t be broken up. The girls giggled and chatted quickly, while the boys offered low chuckles and poses of cool. Their behavior was not unlike their peers on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.
Announced at morning assembly, today was a special day. It’s Election Day. Despite their clear instructions to speak in English at all times on the school ground, their chatter with each other is often in Sesotho, which means I can’t eavesdrop on their conversation. If I could, I like to imagine hopeful candidates spent the day smooth talking their classmates, saying things like, “A vote for me is a vote for you.”
The election was to determine the Head Boy, Head Girl and prefects of the school. Sadly, I wasn’t familiar with the concept of prefect until one of the Weasley brothers was so named at Hogwarts, but since many Basotho western concepts are borrowed from the British I was eager to find our own prefects. Although the leadership is not as formal compared to the student governments in America, the Head Boy and Head Girl act as liaisons between the students and teaching staff. Students should feel comfortable enough to approach the Heads about an issue with a teacher or the school and then those in charge will try to resolve it. The prefects are the vices.
The population at my school is the average size of one first year class at other schools. It’s both a secondary (equivalent to the U.S. middle school) and high school and the students are allowed to elect two boys and girls from each level to represent them. But because of the low enrollment there is only one student in the entire high school – a very shy, but sweet and intelligent girl – there would only be one set, with the lone higher schooler automatically claiming the Head Girl post. The other spots, though, were subjected to the democratic process.
After lunch, we cancelled all classes for the afternoon to make this important decision. The students were allowed to nominate themselves as a candidate with up to four in each race. The boys went first and, when they had three already at the front of the class ready for a spicy debate, two others made their way at the same time so the teachers decided that five would run in the race.
Bill* presented his platform first: a promise to work with the kitchen staff to make sure “students are satisfied” and to ensure only English is spoken at school, which is already a rule. The following students offered the same ideas, some including “keep uniform” or make sure uniforms look nice. Most of what they presented were expectations from the staff and principal and it wasn’t until the fourth candidate, Tom, used some true campaign lingo and mentioned changes to “benefit the school.”
The last nominee was Mark, a student I knew of because of his involvement with the library. Shifting his weight from foot to foot while clutching a worn backpack, he delivered a list of promises: more peaches for students, a change in the lunch menu to include sausage and assurance that sports would definitely happen this year (the previous year, there wasn’t sports and the students went on strike). His campaign platform had the tone of many student presidential speeches I heard in college and high school: a good way to get elected but the administration would never allow it.
The students then set out to vote, writing their preferred candidate on a torn slip of paper. Once collected, another teacher and I began to tally. Mark won by 12 votes, with Tom coming second. The problem was that final vote count reached 95, about 30 more than actual students in the room. So, we called for a revote. The second time, the count was two more than heads but it was close enough. Again, Mark in first. Again, Tom in second.
While we were counting votes, three girls were vying for the prefect spot, since the Head Girl was already chosen. Because I was working on the boys’ vote, I heard only bits and pieces of their declarations and commitment to the school, which didn’t seem different or more energetic from the boys. We were passed those votes, this time three under the number of students, and one nominee, Morgan, stole the race with 44 votes. I didn’t know the name let alone say it but I wondered what kind of girl she was. Was she elected because she was right for the job? Or was she elected because she is popular? Sometimes, in student elections, it can be hard to tell the different.
The teachers were able to quiet the students down enough for me to read the final tally. I felt awful revealing that two boys only received five votes and one girl’s name showed up a mere two times, but when the winners were announced the entire room erupted in cheers. I glanced at Mark as I said his name and count vote. He buried his head into the backpack with a deep smile. I have a feeling he’ll be good at this job.
The schools’ newest leaders stood in front of the class and I recognized Morgan as a good student. They all were. They smiled sheepishly as I ordered a round of applause for them. Tom stepped forward and said we’ll be there for you.
Both Lesotho and the United States face presidential elections in 2012. Both have opposing parties constantly screaming at each other and both have economies that desperately need saving. It’s sometimes hard to have faith in the democratic process with so much hate and blaming, but when I see these kids that faith comes back.
I doubt Mark will convince the groundskeeper to allow the students more peaches and students will still speak Sesotho in between classes, but these kids wanted to be something to their peers, they wanted to be their voice. It’s democracy in a pure form and it’s coated in hope.
*All names of students are pseudonyms.