Library of Congress Notes Africa’s Obama Mania

Posted June 3, 2009 at 3:27pm

When Cesar Chavez founded the National Farm Workers Association in 1962, he could not have known the way his catchphrase, “Sí, se puede!— would decades later become the cry of so many more than the Mexican-American laborers he represented.

Presidential candidate Barack Obama incorporated the phrase and its English translation — “Yes, we can!— — into his primary campaign in January 2008, and the world knows how it took off from there.

Obama’s call, in fact, echoed around the globe, and now Africans inspired by the leader they see as a part of their family are embracing that call in their own languages.

In the Library of Congress’ African & Middle Eastern Reading Room, visitors can find the famous phrase written in Swahili, “Ndiyo tunaweza,— on artifacts from Kenya. In fact, said Mary-Jane Deeb, chief of the African & Middle Eastern Division at the Library, the phrase has become “part of the lexicon in many of these countries.—

The division collected a variety of African items extolling Obama in different languages and with a range of images and is displaying them in an exhibit called “Obamabilia from Africa!— until July 31.

Some of the most memorable “Obamabilia— are from Kenya, where Obama’s father grew up. A Ministry of Health poster shows the then-Senator and his wife as they were having their blood drawn for HIV tests in western Kenya in 2006. Bottles of President lager are displayed. The beer, known simply as Obama in Kenya, was called Senator beer until Obama won the 2008 election, Deeb said. Cases for nine albums with music written in Obama’s honor are displayed next to the bottles. Deeb said the library played the music during a party.

“You can dance to it,— she said.

Two displays of front pages following the November election show how African newspapers celebrated the new president. A Cameroon paper declared “C’est Obama,— while a Nigerian paper trumpeted “Oba-Magic: How Barack Obama Shook the World.— One headline recalled a different kind of history, asserting, “Prophecy Fulfilled.— It claimed that Sen. Robert F. Kennedy had predicted in the late 1960s that a black man would become president in 40 years.

The gathering of these items was “spontaneous,— according to the division chief.

“You want to rescue stuff before it disappears,— Deeb said.

The Library of Congress office in Nairobi began collecting items in November. Staffers bought T-shirts with Obama’s likeness from street hawkers. One Kenyan T-shirt showed six identical black-and-white photos of a college-age Obama against the backdrop of different colors and the phrase “hongera, Barack Obama,— or “congratulations, Barack Obama.—

A member of the Nairobi staff contacted the U.S. embassy in South Africa to find out whether they were saving Obama-related items, and a staffer there said they were but didn’t know what to do with them all. When they recommended the staffer send their items to the Library of Congress, that staffer e-mailed all of the African embassies to suggest they do the same. Deeb said artifacts are still trickling in, recently including a pair of earrings from Ethiopia with the president’s face on them.

While exhibits sometimes take years of preparation, this one came together quickly with the help of the Library’s Interpretive Programs Office. That office assisted the division with the props needed to display the items and with protecting the items while they’re on display. The African & Middle Eastern Reading Room doesn’t generally organize this kind of display, Deeb said, explaining that the cases were previously filled with materials from the 77 nations in the division’s jurisdiction.