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"The Right To Vote"

It was rainy season, July 1997 and very hot. It’s always very hot in Monrovia. The only ventilation in this forsaken school room was nothing. I was miserable, thirsty, sweaty, planted on a concrete floor. All five of the old school chairs had three legs. How does that happen? I preferred the concrete.

My job was to observe an election. No talking, no interference, no advice. Just observe. If something was amiss, I was to write it down. At the end of the day, my notes went up the chain to help the United Nations determine whether the election was free and fair. I had done this before; El Salvador in 1994. I was miserable then as well. Yes, the large flashing neon sign “WHY?” inside my head was brighter than ever before.

I noticed a commotion at the polling room entrance. A woman in a wheelchair was in the entrance at the opposite end of where I sat dripping. Several callous election officials were blocking her pathway through the entrance, clearly upset about something. Her dedicated companion pushing her chair was also involved in the palaver.

I rose and walked to the door. I had to…observe. It seems the problem was about her companion. Her brother; cousin maybe. He was her guardian and driver, pushing her wheelchair so she could vote, and he was stopped by a few of these geniuses who felt that was not allowed. According to their warped logic, he was assisting her to vote. Wheelchair or no, he had to wait outside. Have a seat on that three-legged chair.

C’mon boys, be reasonable. The argument at the doorway continued, louder now as other interested parties joined. Ten minutes. Fifteen. I was now a bit upset and wanted to let these clowns know what’s up. I stepped forward but stopped myself.

No talking, no interference, no advice, and especially no punches to the throat.

She whispered to her brother. He released the chair and the shouting stopped. She was unmoved by the ruckus. Calmly and with a proud purpose, she carefully rolled forward using her one good arm. One of the officials pointed to the registration table. She nodded. With voting papers in her lap, ever smiling, she wheeled herself up to the table. It had four legs.

I returned to my silent little concrete corner pretty much unnoticed by these clowns. Given all the commotion, she now had the room’s attention. Center stage. No one cared about the white man in the corner.

Earlier that morning while ballot keepers, soldiers and all the whatnots assembled, I was informed that there are no cameras, no photos allowed inside. I protested but the soldiers had weapons. I slipped the Nikon into the pack. As I did so, I twisted the aperture wide open and made a calculated guess to set the shutter speed. We shall see.

She continued with the registration process and with a bit of effort, I had the Nikon out of the bag, braced it on my right leg and covered it with a small towel. Nobody noticed. She moved forward to the next official at the registration table. Then another. Next up, the ballot guy. Incredibly, no other voters entered. She still had the room to herself.

The moment of truth. A wild ass guess, and it would happen fast. I felt good about the aperture, the light, the shutter speed. Now I had to focus the lens without using the view finder. I had to wing it from my leg.

A reader reminder. This was 1997 and I was shooting a Nikon F2A. Automatic anything did not exist. I could set the focus on infinity, but I always felt that was a last desperate measure. You can do better than infinity.

I cautiously peeked under the towel and adjusted the focus, pulled it back a bit from infinity. Maybe a little left, a little right. Leave it. I slipped back and leaned against the wall. Let ‘er whistle.

Ballot guy was finally happy and he handed our hero the ballot. She studied the ballot and made her mark. Now what? She had no idea what to do next as surely this was her first voting exercise. The Blue Meanies pounced. No advice. Let her figure it out. My heart bled. Her smile waned a bit, exposing her concern. She saw another four-legged table in the center of the dank classroom. She looked about and then caught my eye. After all, I was observing. I gave an innocuous nod towards the ballot box in front of me. Her smile returned. She placed the sacred ballot on her lap and rolled up to the empty table.

Right about now, the mechanics of photography disappeared. Didn’t care anymore about a photo. The mood in the room changed from antagonistic to an emotional sisterhood moment, though there were no other females there to cheer her on. She turned her chair and pushed forward toward the ballot box. She squared up and adjusted herself so she could reach the box. No advice. No assistance. With some effort, she leaned to the side and with her good arm made the drop. Suddenly, I remembered to press the shutter.

This one shot is all I have. She had to use her good arm to drop the ballot thus blocking her smile. I couldn’t advance the film to capture that smile because soldier boy was hovering. No photos. She turned towards the door and caught my eye again. She held her smile. She did it.

Now I was not only sweating but choking down tears. She pushed around towards her brother. Her head high with hope and courage and dignity. The courage to survive a brutal, murderous, eight-year civil war and in a wheelchair no less. Then to be so bold as to dare anyone to stop her on this day.

To understand courage, you must witness it. A rare gift to us from our hero.

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