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Northwestern University Library Collection Shows Obama's Widespread Popularity in Africa

The Herskovits Library of African Studies at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois has amassed one of the largest collections of Obama-related Africa artwork in the world

Three years ago, the Herskovits Library of African Studies at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois embarked on a project to gather and categorize hundreds of artifacts and publications related to President Barack Obama from across Africa. The library continues to receive items each day, and is now one of the largest of its kind in the world. The growth and popularity of the Obama collection has spawned another collection at the library, World Cup items.

While his approval rating in the United States may be slipping, President Barack Obama, whose father was from Kenya, remains popular in Africa.

"Africans are looking at the symbol of what Obama represents, of change and hope. I believe many Africans are still focused on that promise, whereas we may have lost sight of it," said David Easterbrook, curator of the "Africa Responds to Obama" collection at the Herskovits Library of African Studies at Northwestern University.

The library, founded by anthropologist Melville Herskovits, is the largest separate library in the world for the study of Africa. Easterbrook began collecting African-related Obama items on a trip to the continent in 2007, when then Senator Obama was running for president.

"I realized that Obama as a presidential candidate was big news in Africa, and I decided that since we have a commitment in this library to collecting all kinds of information materials produced in Africa, we should immediately begin to collect materials about Obama, about how Africans responded to the Obama candidacy," he added.

The collection began with newspapers and printed materials. After the election in 2008, it has grown to include more than 500 items featuring Mr. Obama. Among them - a special beer brewed in his honor, various clothing articles, paintings by African artists and an extremely rare book authored by President Obama's father in 1959.

"And he wrote a small book of about 60 or 70 pages that was specifically focused on Luo speaking Kenyans that were learning to read and become literate, and he wrote a small book in Luo as a part of that process," he explained. "We acquired that book shortly after it was published, and it has been sitting here in the library."

Easterbrook and his staff continue to make connections in Africa that keep a steady stream of materials coming into the library. Those connections helped spawn another collection at the library that is growing almost as fast as the Obama collection.

2010 World Cup items, such as the popular vuvuzela horn heard throughout the stadiums of South Africa, show the pride of the continent in hosting one of the largest events in the sporting world.

"Our mandate is to collect anything that relates to Africa, and this is an important event. It's the first time the World Cup is being played on African soil. And so many people in Africa play soccer. It is something anyone can afford to play," noted Esmeralda Kale, a bibliographer of Africana at the Herskovits Library.

Kale is categorizing the incoming World Cup items that are as diverse as the continent they come from.

"Hats, scarves, we've got playing cards, soap on a rope, things like that," she added.

Kale's home country of Cameroon is represented in the collection, along with items related to the teams in the final.

Even after World Cup is over, it won't be the end of the collection. The number of World Cup artifacts coming into the library has increased in recent days, and Kale expects that trend to continue for the next few months.

Many of the World Cup items are currently on display in the lobby of the library on the campus of Northwestern. A public exhibit of the "Africa Responds to Obama" collection is planned later this year.

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    Kane Farabaugh

    Kane Farabaugh is the Midwest Correspondent for Voice of America, where since 2008 he has established Voice of America's presence in the heartland of America.