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Obama's African sales appeal on exhibit

David Easterbrook curator Northwestern's Hersovits Library African Studies shows off his collectiObammemorabilia. (AL PODGORSKI/SUN-TIMES)

David Easterbrook, curator of Northwestern's Hersovits Library of African Studies, shows off his collection of Obama memorabilia. (AL PODGORSKI/SUN-TIMES)

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Updated: April 19, 2011 5:13AM

In America, President Obama tries to sell health care reform and middle class tax relief.

In Africa, he’s selling cookies, notebooks, pillow cases and beer.

“Obama is enormously popular” in Africa, said David Easterbrook, curator of Northwestern University’s Melville J. Herskovits Library of African Studies. “His image is constantly being co-opted for other purposes.”

Obama bubblegum, paper jewelry made from Obama campaign literature and a children’s school notebook with a picture of the first family are a few of the 500 items Easterbrook collected for the Herskovits Library.

Many of these items are on public display in the university’s main library in an exhibit called “Africa Embracing Obama,” which runs through March 25.

Eventually, Easterbrook hopes the collection of African items — almost all made by everyday people for everyday use — become part of an Obama presidential library.

Easterbrook first noticed the proliferation of Obama T-shirts at African markets during a trip to South Africa in 2007, a time when Obama was receiving significantly less attention in the United States.

He sent out an e-mail to Northwestern faculty, alumni, graduate students and friends of the school in Africa asking them to send him local goods meant to celebrate — or capitalize on — Obama, whose father was Kenyan.

In return, Easterbrook shipped Obama-themed refrigerator magnets and campaign buttons to Africa so colleagues there could trade for things such as Zambian Obama Whiskey and Obama Brandy (both labeled “The Winning Spirit”).

The trades kept acquisition costs down, and Easterbrook said he was surprised to receive items from people who had been forwarded his e-mail.

He wasn’t surprised by the deep connection Africans feel to Obama, or their use of his image and name in the marketplace, he said.

“In Africa, people are enormously respectful of leaders,” he said. “To have a politician in the United States be successful and to have an African father is something Africans, not just Kenyans, are tremendously proud of.”

Beyond the whiskey and cookies, the library is displaying its copy of “Otieno Jarieko” (“Otieno the Wise Man”), the 1960s book written by Obama’s father in Luo, a tribal language. The Herskovits library acquired it in 1960. It is believed to be one of only two known copies.

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