The Woman Behind Obama

Thirty years ago, when Stanley Ann Dunham Soetoro lived in Yogyakarta, it was perhaps a less busy, tourist-filled metropolis than it is today. But probably little else has changed since the 1970s. Marlioboro, the wide boulevard that is home to copious Batik emporia, is still filled with 'becak' (bicycle rickshaws) and horse-drawn surreys. 'Warung' (street-side food vendors) continue to offer 'Martabak' (pancakes) and 'Nasi Gorung' (fried rice). And in this cultural capital of Indonesia, artists still thrive.

Soetoro, who died in 1995 at age 52 from ovarian cancer, was the mother of Barack Obama, the Democratic candidate for president in the U.S. Her influence on her now-famous son cannot be underestimated. Although he wrote a bestseller about his search for the absent father, 'Dreams From My Father', Obama has said that his mother "was the single constant in my life." He describes her as "the kindest, most generous spirit I have ever known. What is best in me," he says, "I owe to her."

Soetoro was a study in contradictions. Married to Obama's Kenyan father when she was a pregnant teenager, she went on to earn a Ph.D. in anthropology and do vital work for women in the field of microfinance. A Midwestern American, she married first an African and then an Indonesian. A mother who adored her children, she insisted on working. She has been described by those who knew her as "fearless, capable, intelligent, curious and open."

Stanley Ann Dunham (so named because her father wanted a boy) was born in 1942 in Kansas. The family moved frequently and lived in Honolulu when Ann enrolled at the University of Hawaii. There, she met Barack Obama Sr. in a Russian language class. Several months after they met, in February 1961, Ann and Barack married. Ann was three months pregnant. She dropped out of college. When Barack was not yet one, his father left for Harvard to earn a Ph.D. in economics and the marriage ended. 

Not long after, with help from family and friends, Ann returned to college to earn a bachelor's degree. During this time she met Lolo Soetoro at the University of Hawaii. In 1967, Ann and her young son Barack followed him to Jakarta, to a home without electricity, a backyard with chickens and a baby crocodile, and a neighborhood of unpaved streets. Eventually Soetoro did well working for an American oil company but he and Ann grew apart as she became increasingly intrigued with traditional Indonesia.

Ann began teaching English at the American embassy in Indonesia while giving her son English lessons in the early morning hours before he left for school. At night she would expose her young son to books about the American civil rights movement and her daughter, Maya, to multicultural dolls. "She believed that bigotry of any sort was wrong and that the goal was to treat everybody as unique individuals," Obama told TIME Magazine in an April interview.

In 1971, when Obama was 10 years old, his mother sent him back to Hawaii to live with his grandparents while attending prep school on scholarship. The separation was hard on both mother and son but a year later Ann was also back in Hawaii to earn a master's degree in anthropology, focusing on Indonesia. This also marked the end of her marriage to Soetoro from whom she was divorced in 1980. 

The move marked a turning point in Ann's life. She became increasingly self-assured and passionate about her work, eventually deciding to return to Indonesia for Ph.D. fieldwork. Obama, then 14, decided to stay in Hawaii for high school. Again, the separation was difficult but mother and son remained close.

Ann began working for the Ford Foundation, as programme officer for women and employment and her home became a haven for politicians, artists and others who wanted to talk liberal politics. Eventually she became a leader in microfinancing for women in Indonesia, well before the idea of giving women small loans became a major component of development. Her research helped the Bank Rakyat Indonesia set policy and today, according to TIME Magazine, "Indonesia's microfinance program is No. 1 in the world in terms of savers, with 31 million members, according to Microfinance Information eXchange Inc."

By this time Obama, having graduated from Harvard Law School and having turned down lucrative work in a private law firm, was working in Chicago as a community organiser, an experience he sights often as he campaigns. He would soon go on to state and then national politics.

In 1992, two years before her premature death, Ann completed the extensive Ph.D. dissertation she had been working on for nearly two decades. The thesis, an in-depth analysis of peasant blacksmithing in Indonesia, is dedicated to Barack and Maya "who seldom complained when their mother was in the field."

In an interview with 'The New York Times' in March, later reprinted by 'The Jakarta Post Sunday Magazine', Barack Obama's half-sister Maya said her mother "felt that somehow, wandering through uncharted territory, we might stumble upon something that will, in an instant, seem to represent who we are at the core." She did not want her children "to be limited by fear or narrow definitions," Maya added.

As Barack Obama campaigns for the presidency in America at a time of enormous social, political and economic change, those words seem prophetic. The first black to seek the highest office in the land, Ann Soetoro's son is certainly wandering through uncharted territory. He has spoken eloquently about not letting fear dominate voters' decisions and he has worked diligently to broaden crucial definitions that influence policy.

In Indonesia, almost no one seems to be aware of Barack Obama's connection to this country. Not one person I spoke to informally for this article knew that he and his mother had lived here. No one realised he had an Indonesian half-sister (now working in Hawaii). And yet, ask anyone about Barack Obama and there is an immediate thumbs up, accompanied by a broad smile. (Some people think he is already president.) "Good man," they say. "Very good man."

No doubt his mother would be very proud.

(Elayne Clift, a writer from Vermont, USA, recently travelled in Thailand and Indonesia.)


More by :  Elayne Clift

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