Voting with Marbles
Ive been relying on the BBC World Service morning radio programme to keep me a bit abreast of world news as I begin a Master’s degree course here in New York.
This week, they have had some features on the Presidential Elections currently being held in Gambia. The country sounds very poor, and is very small. Illiteracy is so high, the country is voting with marbles. Rather than having paper ballots, voters go into a booth where there is a tray of marbles. And three different canisters into which the voter drops a marble. The drums are painted different colours, representing the three different candidates. As the marble goes in, it strikes a bell, so the officials outside the booth can hear if any one is voting twice. The bell sounds like a bicycle bell—so people aren’t allowed to bring their bicycles too close to the polling stations. The drums have been designed in a way that they stack the marbles in layers. To make it easier to count them later.
And as different and curious as the whole set up sounds, something about it really made me think of Zimbabwe. Gambia’s President Yahya Jammeh, who has been in power since 1994, done a lot to develop the country’s infrastructure. He’s built roads and schools and clinics and people are pleased about that. But this infrastructure has not translated into economic prosperity. People remain very poor. And then there is that sticky question of human rights. The day of the elections itself is quiet, which will most likely lead many observers to call the elections “free and fair.” Never mind the fact that the few independent radio stations in the country are so intimidated they only play music—they think they would be too controversial if they covered any news. Two weeks ago, one of the few journalists who did dare to speak out was arrested and fired from his job. Another journalist “disappeared” in July and hasn’t been seen since. These days newspapers don’t wait for the state to crack down on them—self censorship is more the norm.
Self-censorship is one of the greatest restrictors of free expression in Zimbabwe. The Interception of Communications Bill promises to be problematic. But even more problematic is Zimbabweans’ own self censorship. This isn’t just the newspapers, it’s the public and civil society organisations as well. Yesterday I went to a meeting with a group of other people. We have grouped together to monitor New York newspapers and write letters about press coverage of rape and sexual abuse. It’s a small, informal, easy going set up. We pass around a calendar and everyone signs up to monitor, or write, or edit, on whatever days they can. For its simplicity, it really works. We’ve written 16 letters in the past three weeks, one of which has been published and one of which caused a correction to be published in that newspaper.
I know the circumstances are different. But it got me thinking about what a fun, engaging and potentially powerful tool something as simple as letters to the editor writing circles could be. Simple, inexpensive and motivating. If you never speak out, can you complain when you’re not heard?