An outside observer: Janesville woman watches over Kenyan election
JANESVILLE—Elizabeth Bray found herself among former ambassadors, legislators and human rights workers when she volunteered to be an election observer in Kenya this month.
“It was a little intimidating,” she said.
But Bray of Janesville eagerly embraced her responsibilities as a neutral observer in the East African country.
Since 1992, Kenya has adopted a multiparty democratic system.
Bray volunteered through the respected Carter Center of Atlanta, which deployed more than 50 observers for the Aug. 8 election.
Kenya invited representatives of the nonprofit center to watch over the presidential, parliamentary and other elections.
Observers were not allowed to interfere in the process or remediate any wrongdoing.
“Our role was to report issues to the Carter Center,” Bray said. “Not to fix them.”
Bray applied for the role in June, was accepted in July and left for Kenya on Aug. 2.
In Kenya, she partnered with an African man to monitor for wrongdoing, which could include voter intimidation, officials not informing voters of the process they needed to follow, vote buying and illegal campaigning.
On election day, they also talked to the presiding officers at polling stations to see if complaints were filed and to voters standing in line. If disabled voters needed help, they watched to see if clerks followed proper procedures.
Bray spent 22 hours in the field and was back out again at 7 a.m. the next day.
She cannot comment on what she observed but said the Carter Center is still processing observations and will share findings in the future.
After eight days in Kenya, Bray found the people to be “incredibly welcoming and committed to a peaceful and transparent process.”
In the past, the country has experienced post-election violence and hundreds have died. Post-election violence occurred this time but nothing like in the past.
Bray said she never felt unsafe.
“We took precautions, including not traveling at night,” she said.
She called being part of a delegation, led by former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and former Prime Minister of Senegal Aminata Toure, “a real privilege.”
“It was a timely trip because we have concerns in our own country with our electoral process,” she said.
Bray spent the first two days in Kenya learning about local political issues, gender and politics, and laws of election procedure.
Kenya's election is important because the nation of 45 million is one of the most stable countries in East Africa and a U.S. ally, Bray explained.
“Kenya is an economic powerhouse,” she said. “If it destabilizes, the whole area could follow. We want to support its democratic effort and the people's will to govern themselves.”
Bray, who is trained as an attorney, has an impressive history of helping others.
She works as a child advocacy and support specialist with Court-Appointed Special Advocates of Rock County or CASA. The court appoints CASA to advocate for the best interests of children who are in the juvenile court system because of abuse or neglect.
In previous years, she studied in Nairobi, where she learned Kenya's official language, Kiswahili, and worked on the coast with a woman-owned oyster cooperative. Later, she volunteered at a rescue center for street boys displaced through violence or poverty.
In addition, work has taken her to Spain, England, Scotland and New Zealand.
“I enjoy spending in-depth time in a country where I can get to know the people and what their lives are really like,” Bray said.
Closer to home, she has worked as an Americorps Vista volunteer in rural Alaska and was a special education assistant and substitute teacher on an Apache reservation in Arizona.
Bray called her recent 8,000-mile trip to Kenya life-altering in part because it prompted her to take a meaningful journey inward.
“Hearing people's stories has motivated me to use my resources to better myself and my community,” she said. “At the end of the day, I ask myself: 'What am I doing to help those around me? What am I doing to live my best life?'”
Anna Marie Lux is a Sunday columnist for The Gazette. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.