David Stairs

I was trudging through my local neighborhood big-box megastore the other day en route to my weekly rendezvous with groceries when I found myself in what passes for the book section. This isn’t a Borders experience; more somewhere between B. Dalton and the magazine rack at the local regional airport. So I wasn’t surprised to see Marley & Me spin offs, but I was a little taken aback by what Victor Margolin calls “Obamiana.” There was a lot of it.

More Barack than Marley on the shelf at Meijer’s

Studs Terkel’s no longer Chicago’s favorite son, and not a day passes that I’m not reminded of it. Whether it’s an email invitation to join the African Diaspora for Change, or images of folk art from the back alleys of Chicago, it doesn’t take designers petitioning the Person of the Year, to remind me that everyone’s out for a piece of him, and I do mean everyone. Saving the world’s a big job for a skinny guy, and there’s more at stake than a potential for dashed hope.

Courtesy of Victor Margolin

For a people who revolted against royalty and have never had much enthusiasm for sainthood, Americans sure are pretty big hagiolaters. Granted, people have been commodifying public officials since Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in 1887, to which one might trace the beginning of the collectibility of such paraphernalia. We Americans are inclined to “overdo it” just a tad. Commercialization of the hysteria surrounding the Beijing summer Olympics that put Michael Phelps on every breakfast food product in America is only part of the branding fixed idea.

Lest we too grossly miscalculate and identify gradual change as revolutionary, maybe we ought to step back and observe the larger picture. The media’s roasting of Obama’s appointee missteps has distracted it from other more interesting facts. The turnover of administrations is expected to mean as many as 30,000 government jobs becoming available, a drop in the national public service bucket, but not in itself inconsequential. On January 6th, the FBI, which alone has over 30,000 employees, saw its employment server crashed by thousands of online enquirers responding to the announcement it will hire nearly 3,000 more personnel in its ongoing war on terrorism and crime. I imagine there’ll be a lot more of these spoils in the coming months, but it feels an awful lot like business as usual. While we exult/complain about our momentary woes here in America, it behooves our culture of excess to recognize that it exists in a world of hurt. The agonies of Gaza and Zimbabwe, their pain dulled by chronic conditions, are only the salient examples of what we need to spend more time worrying about. Yesterday I received a parcel from a friend named James Lutwama who lives in Uganda. He was dismayed that it hadn’t arrived in time for Christmas but, given the state of the mails out of Africa, it’s a wonder it arrived at all. James spent 108,000 shillings, at $56 a small fortune for him, to ship a few craft items to friends and supporters in America. I could not purchase the same items for $56 in a craft fair-trade store because the mark-up is “ginormous.” But I am happy to have the gifts. They remind me how inflated American complaints about financial woes are.

$25 of crafts that cost $56 to ship, courtesy of James Lutwama

In a land that spends $5,000,000,000 on its presidential election, and billions more on Superbowl advertising (that you can evaluate in real time online) $56 won’t cover the monthly DSL bill. But what am I saying? Petitions, especially to recently-elected politicians, by online citizen groups are the bread and butter of a navel-gazing society. Got an idea? Let’s start a petition. There’s even a site dedicated to such things. Last November my design students at Central Michigan University participated in an unfinished project (the site’s not up yet) to help people like my Ugandan friend. A French student named Theo Cladiere, a former volunteer at RUDEC in Cameroon, registered a domain name for aidfairtrade.org. My students suggested he utilize existing fair trade networks, but Theo knew better. Many of these initiatives, like eBay’s world of good.com, are either for profit or public relations scams. Theo’s idea was to avoid the crafts cooperatives found in urban areas, the ones that get most of the NGO attention, and focus on rural practitioners, returning as near to 100% of the profit after shipping costs as possible to the craftspeople. This seems to me to be the sort of idea that could use a few petitioners.

Proposed splash for airfairtrade.org. Design: C. Duvendack, G. Lapczynski, N. Moulton, A. Reneski, J. VanHoose

If you can stop thinking about how the Messiah-elect’s going to change your life long enough to write me, I’ll put you in contact with Theo. Marley will be proud of you.

David Stairs is editor of Design-Altruism-Project.

2 Responses to “Marley & Barack”

  1. Koz Says:

    United States of Obama. I wonder if the Obama “O” logo is going to continue to be used throughout the president elect’s term? If so, would he be the first president to have a trademark that wasn’t the name of the president?


  2. Phehello MOFOKENG Says:


    I hear your point. I am not worried about the Obama-ness (or lack of it) in America and elsewhere. I just worry about the fact that people expect him to change the world. Fact is, he wont. I like the guy for his historical achievements, but down to reality, he wont do jack for us, Africans.

    Unity Design is not an NGO, it is a company that has sold close to a million rands (about $100 000) for artists and crafters. We have host artists, musicians, poets and crafters of all sorts. In fact some of our wares can be found in one of the Hollywood stores these days. Theo’s connection to Unity can benefit some members of our growing network.

    Visit http://www.unitydesign.co.za

    Keep up the good work. Africa will triumph!


    Phehello Mofokeng