AMSTERDAM — In the late 1950s, a young Kenyan man named Barack Hussein Obama wrote a series of books in his native language, Luo, for a program to promote adult literacy in Africa. The coordinator of that program, Elizabeth Mooney, singled him out as particularly talented, and helped him apply to an international study program at the University of Hawaii. There he met and married a student of cultural anthropology, Ann Dunham. Their only child would become an American president, sharing his father’s name.
Original copies of the little books that started it all have been discovered in the hands of a private citizen in the Netherlands, and are up for auction until Monday through a Dutch online auction house, with an estimated price of 2,500 to 3,500 euros, or about $2,800 to $4,000. The auctioneer, Adams Amsterdam Auctions, says that they are the only known set in private hands.
Before the discovery of this set of the books, there were only two known copies: one held by the Library of Congress and another owned by Northwestern University, according to Mary-Jane Deeb, chief of the African and Middle Eastern Division of the Library of Congress in Washington.
“That little book had such an impact,” Ms. Deeb said. “It changes the course of history. When you think about how sheer accident can change so much, it’s breathtaking.”
The series of Luo language learners, published by the East African Literature Bureau, included three books in all, according to “The Other Barack: The Bold and Reckless Life of President Obama’s Father” by Sally H. Jacobs, but only two from each set survive. The series uses the character Otieno, the Wise Man to offer advice on farming, healthy eating habits and other topics.
On an inside flap of one of the books, “Wise Ways of Farming,” it reads: “Written by Barack H. Obama for the Education Department of Kenya under the direction of Elizabeth Mooney, Literacy Specialist.” It is notable that Ms. Mooney, known as Betty, recognized Mr. Obama as a particular talent among the many African writers who participated in the program. They became good friends, and, according to Ms. Jacobs, often went out dancing.
“Betty Mooney not only encouraged him, she even paid his way to go to Hawaii,” Ms. Deeb said. “So it’s an act of kindness, and an act of recognition, and he must’ve stood out from among all the people who were there who were working and learning.”
Nico Wesselingh, 75, who worked in Africa as a volunteer with the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the late 1960s, said in an interview that he bought the books to teach himself Luo while helping to establish agricultural cooperatives of small farmers.
“I didn’t pay attention to who the author was at the time,” he said. It was only many years later, after the younger Obama became president, that he read the memoir “Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance” and made the connection.
“That was quite interesting for me, because his father worked in Kenya during the time I was there as well,” Mr. Wesselingh said. “I read the book and then I looked at the item of Barack Obama in Wikipedia, and then I noticed a picture of one of the two books, ‘Otieno Jarieko.’ I said to my wife, ‘Well, I’m going upstairs to have a look in my library.’ There it was.”
Once he understood what he had, he proudly shared the book with friends and former colleagues from his time in Africa, but didn’t think about selling it.
This spring, though, he saw an ad in the Dutch national newspaper NRC Handelsblad, which collaborates with the digital auction house selling the books, Adams Amsterdam Auctioneers, to host biannual auctions of items via an online auction portal.
“Because of its author, it’s quite dear to me, but on the other hand, I will not do very much with it,” Mr. Wesselingh said. “I thought this might be an occasion that at least the American public can know that the book is there. That made me decide to put it up for auction.”
Piet van Winden, managing director of the NRC Auctions and Adams Amsterdam Auctioneers, said that he thought the books might have a special appeal now for fans of President Obama.
“There’s a saying that you don’t know what you’ve got till you lose it, and there are a lot of people who see more clearly now that they had not only an excellent president but also someone who stood out in a very special way,” he said. “Collecting is an effort to bring things that are very far away from you nearer to you. It’s also a conversation piece — you can tell people that without these books, President Obama would not have been there.”
Door: NINA SIEGAL, JUNE 18, 2017, The New York Times