(The following is a story written by Mark Hartsell for the July-August 2013 edition of the Library of Congress Magazine. The full issue is available for download here.)
The Library of Congress holds a rare book written decades ago in Kenya by the father of the 44th U.S. president.
The author’s name, listed on the title page, is familiar even if the language is not: “olosi gi Barack H. Obama.” The language is Luo, an African tribal dialect, and the Obama in question isn’t the 44th president of the United States, but his father.
The African and Middle Eastern Division of the Library of Congress holds an exceedingly rare copy—only four are believed to exist—of a book written decades ago in Kenya by the president’s father. “Otieno, the Wise Man,” or “Otieno Jarieko” in the original Luo, was published in Kenya in 1959 to promote literacy at a time when adult illiteracy was widespread.
The slim, 40-page volume also is the product of a collaboration that proved pivotal in the Obama story—the book’s editor helped Obama Sr. get to the United States, where he met and married a woman with whom he had the child who would become the first African American to be elected president.
“Books like ‘Otieno’ are part of the historical documentation of presidents and their families,” said Mary-Jane Deeb, chief of the African and Middle Eastern Division. “This book documents, in a tangible way, the father of the first African American president. It helps show what his values and interests were and helps illustrate what kind of man he was.”
“Otieno, the Wise Man” was a three-volume series produced by the Kenya Adult Literacy Program and published by the East African Literature Bureau to promote literacy as well as health, good farming practices and citizenship.
The Library holds copies of the first two volumes. The authorship of Vol. 1 is unclear: An illustrator is credited but no author is listed. Printed on the inside cover of Vol. 2, “Wise Ways of Farming,” however, is this note: “Written by Barack H. Obama for the Education Department of Kenya under the direction of Elizabeth Mooney, literary specialist.”
In his 2012 biography of the president, “Barack Obama: The Story,” author David Maraniss writes that Obama Sr. was performing clerical duties at the literacy program offices when the managers decided to publish primers in five tribal languages. Mooney chose Obama to write the Luo version.
“He was interested in bringing modern techniques to his homeland, and he realized he could make a bit of money through writing,” Maraniss wrote. “So for a time he willingly put himself into the mind of his wise fictional protagonist, Otieno.”
Obama’s tenure at the literacy program office ultimately was most important not for the book but for the connection he made with his editor, Mooney. “Betty” Mooney was an American who spent her life promoting adult literacy in India, Africa and the United States. In Nairobi, she headed a British government project that helped adults read in the local tribal languages.
In addition to the writing job, Mooney also offered to help Obama continue his education in the United States. According to Maraniss, entrance exams, served as a reference and provided financial support.
And crucially—though by chance—she helped Obama find the school he would attend. Leafing through the Saturday Evening Post magazine, she saw an article about a “colorful campus of the islands”—a school with a beautiful setting and a multiracial student body. She passed the article to Obama, who liked what he saw and chose to attend the University of Hawaii. There, he met Ann Dunham. They married and had the son who later became an American president.
The Library of Congress acquired its copy of “Otieno, the Wise Man” in March 1967—41 years before the author’s son was elected president and the historical significance of the book could be fully understood. It is believed that the acquisition was made possible by the Library’s Field Office in Nairobi, which was established the previous year.
The book, Deeb said, illustrates the importance of collecting a wide range of material, even though some material might seem puzzlingly obscure at the time it is gathered. Such material often proves valuable—decades later, in many cases—in ways unimaginable when it was acquired.
For scholars, the book also is useful in ways other than the historical importance of its connection to President Obama. It shows Kenya at a time when it was rapidly evolving technologically, socially, economically and politically. In 1963, four years after the book’s publication, Kenya declared its independence from the United Kingdom.
Volumes such as “Otieno, the Wise Man” also play an important role in the preservation of indigenous languages. UNESCO estimates that half of the more than 6,000 languages spoken today will disappear by the end of the century.
“It is important that at least one place in the world be a repository for those languages,” Deeb said. “When those languages are preserved in a place like the Library of Congress, the whole world thinks more highly of them and wants to preserve them as well.”