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New exhibit displays Obama items from throughout Africa

Nafeesa Syeed

WASHINGTON — Ndiyo Tunaweza!

That’s Swahili for “Yes We Can,” President Barack Obama’s signature campaign line, which became just as ubiquitous in his father’s native Kenya as it did in the United States.

The words can be found on textiles and posters featured in a new Library of Congress exhibit, “Obamabilia From Africa!” The exhibit reflects the excitement Obama’s candidacy and victory produced in sub-Saharan Africa.

The library collected the materials from its office in Nairobi as well as from U.S. embassies across Africa during the presidential campaign and inauguration. In the exhibit, which opened last week, visitors can see more than 50 items hailing Obama through images and words, including photos, music albums, T-shirts, campaign bumper stickers and even beer bottles.

Curators say the items convey pride that a man with African heritage came to power, and a renewed faith in U.S. democracy. The interest that Obama generated abroad is unprecedented, they say.

“American elections have always been of enormous interest to countries around the world,” said Mary-Jane Deeb, chief of the library’s African and Middle Eastern division, which houses the exhibit. “But this particular election has broken the mold.”

Bold lettering on the front pages of numerous African newspapers on display celebrate Obama’s win, such as Nigeria’s Daily Sun with its headline: “OBA-MAGIC.”

Though Obama wasn’t vying for their votes, people in African countries still showed their support. Some East African women wore cloth printed with Obama’s picture and slogans. One such cloth from Tanzania shows a smiling black-and-white print of Obama on one side and the African continent on the other. The cloth, known as “kanga,” typically is wrapped in two parts, one for the lower body and the other for the upper half.

Obama also inspired African artists, much like he did in the United States. CD covers from Kenya feature Obama-centric song names, like “Obama in the White House” and “A Man of People (Obama).”

“Every musician tried to come up with a song” about Obama, said Eve Ferguson, a reference librarian for East Africa and co-curator of the exhibit. “Just about every song about Obama became a hit.”

The new president’s parents — his father, Barack Obama Sr., was Kenyan and mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, was from Kansas — are deceased, but his heritage is a source of pride. In one of the few items that doesn’t feature Obama’s image, a campaign button shows a lion’s face with the words, “Kenya … Proudly Obama’s Roots.”

The Kenyan government even got in the game, using Obama’s celebrity to spread messages to the public. A large ministry of health poster shows a photo of a doctor taking blood samples from Obama and first lady Michelle Obama, saying they know their HIV status. “Do you and your partner know yours?” the poster asks.

Other countries represented in the exhibit include Uganda, Ethiopia, Cameroon, Angola and South Africa. The display runs through July 31 and library officials say they plan to periodically replace the items, as they continue to receive more memorabilia from overseas.

(Associated Press)