Smithsonian Journeys Dispatches

Obama’s Inauguration from 4,000 Miles Away

From the beginning of the trip, passengers on our tour to West Africa had asked about the possibility of seeing the Obama inauguration on television. On January 20, we were on the Gambia River, docked about 300 feet from the nearest bank of the wide, brown waterway, near the village of Kuntaur, The Gambia. It was a busy day of sightseeing, typical of the trip, which took us to such remote spots as Timbuktu in Mali and Joal-Fadiout in Senegal. The day had started with a pirogue ride off the shores of Baboon Islands, a collection of five islands that were the location of a chimpanzee rehabilitation project where human access was limited just to the rangers.

We saw two chimpanzees munching leaves in a tree, as well as a few Nile crocodiles sunning on the muddy banks. Small, widely spaced ears, curved brows, and dark nostrils were the deceptively delicate hints of massive hippos submerged beneath the water. We were accompanied by regally maned red colobus monkeys, the green vervet monkeys seen all over Gambia, as well as a plethora of birds, which attract large flocks of birdwatchers to the heavily tourism-dependent country. Next we stopped in Janjanbureh, formerly known as Georgetown, a refuge for former African slaves in the years when Great Britain had outlawed slavery before other colonial powers. Finally we stopped to visit a prestigious academy, Armitage High School.

We were welcomed by the school’s marching band with battered bugles, cymbals, drums, and flutes prior to visiting the classrooms. Gambia is a country of profound poverty and the classrooms were woefully under-equipped, but the students were obviously serious about learning despite the lack of many things we take for granted in our own schools. We were taken to see the boys' dormitory, and some of the residents proudly displayed their wall to us. Beneath a few magazine pictures of soccer heroes taped to the wall was this proclamation, written in chalk:

“Obama is taking over today
Victory celebration at 2:30
Welcome to the White House 4 Ever
Hay, hay, hay Barack Obama
Barack Obama, Barack Obama, Hay, hay”

At the end of this long day out, our local guides arranged for us to watch the inauguration in the dusty village, called Wassu, home to intriguing circles of laterite megaliths and the region’s weekly market. We were taken to a nightclub, which had two televisions hooked up to various VCRs and DVD players by a snake’s nest of wires connected to a single surge protector. Chairs had been set out for us, and besides the owner and a few workers, the place was ours.

A TV was tuned to the inauguration and the various dignitaries were filing out of the CapitolGeorge Bush, Dick Cheney who was inexplicably in a wheelchair (we had been out of touch with any news for some days), and Diane Feinstein. When Barack Obama appeared we all clapped and cheered. The sound kept going in and out, so the club owner decided to turn on the second TV, which he tuned to CNN, so that we could now watch in stereo. The quartet of legendary musicians was in the middle of “Air and Simple Gifts” when the electricity went out.

We all gasped, several of us caught unashamedly with teary eyes and wet cheeks. The owner hurried outside and we heard a generator start up and then the TVs crackled back on. Relieved, we leaned back in our chairs. The big moment arrived. Barack Obama with one hand on the Bible and the other in the air, was saying, “I, Barack Hussein Obama, do solemnly swear…” and once again the screens went blank. We gasped and stared desperately at the TVs while the owner went out again with a jug of gasoline. A mouse scurried among the wires under the TV. Kaba, our local guide, came in and announced we were headed to the police station, just down the road.

We hurried over the soft sand of the street to one of the few concrete buildings in the village, where there was a whole crowd of locals watching the inauguration. They quickly made way for us and, unheeding of our protests, offered us the best seats in the house. The swearing-in was already over and Obama was halfway through his speech. When he finished, we all clapped and cheered, Americans and Gambians alike.

Photo: Alice Stephens

At the end of the ceremony, when the U.S. Navy Sea Chanters Chorus sang the national anthem, the Americans rose to their feet. The Gambians quickly followed suit and we all stood there in the Wassu police station feeling proud for our various and individual reasons, the Americans singing along with the Star Spangled Banner. When we left we thanked the locals profusely and exchanged warm goodbyes. On the bus ride back, we were all euphoric, excitedly reliving an experience that will linger in our minds long after President Obama has left office, savoring one of those accidental experiences that are the rich dividends of travel.