Barack Obama has become largely popular in Indonesia, the country where the US president spent four years of his childhood. Old acquaintances and experts, however, deem that his mother — obscure in comparison to her son’s popularity — is the one whom the Indonesian public must acknowledge more.
Obama, the first African-American US president in history, is scheduled to visit Indonesia later this month. He has enchanted some Indonesians and expatriates living here with his promise of change and dialogue – a refreshing change from the brash style of his predecessor, George W. Bush. A bronze statue of him as a boy has even cropped up in his honor.
However, his mother, Ann Dunham Soetoro, has not yet been given proper recognition by the Indonesian public, according to self-professed close friend and author Julia Suryakusuma.
Born Stanley Ann Dunham, the Kansas-native anthropologist and activist spent much of her life pioneering a microfinance scheme for peasant villagers in Java, Indonesia, and other developing countries. She helped found the East Java Women’s Cooperative Center (Puskowanjati) and worked for Bank Rakyat Indonesia (BRI), the country’s biggest micro-banking institution. She also wrote a thousand-page dissertation, published in 2009 after her death in 1995 from uterine cancer, on peasant blacksmithing in Indonesia.
In 1967, Dunham took a 6-year-old Barack, her son from her first marriage to a Kenyan man by the same name whom she met in university, to Jakarta where she followed her second husband, Indonesian Lolo Soetoro. Dunham had met Lolo when he was studying in Hawaii.
After four years in Indonesia, she returned to Hawaii to continue her degree and decided to return to Indonesia for fieldwork. She brought along her daughter with Lolo, Barack’s half-sister Maya, while Obama stayed behind. Her marriage to Lolo, as with Obama père, ended in a divorce.
A former colleague of Dunham’s at Puskowanjati, Monica Tanuhandaru, said that while most Indonesians spoke of Obama with a sense of hope, they should be grateful to Dunham.
Chief editor of Rakyat Merdeka Online, Teguh Santosa, who recently attained a graduate degree in political science at Dunham’s alma mater (the University of Hawaii), will moderate on Thursday a seminar on Ann Dunham in the lead-up to Obama’s visit.
He said he propose the idea to the Rajawali Foundation and publisher Mizan, both of whom jumped at the chance.
“We need to discuss Obama in the context of his mother because I believe the Indonesian public currently sees Obama in a superficial and artificial way,” Teguh said.
Superficial, he went on, meant seeing Obama only as the first African-American president, and one who had lived in Indonesia for a few years.
“Artificial views are those that espouse the notion that with Obama’s election, peace on Earth will be achieved, north and south will not be in conflict,” he said.
Teguh said that Obama’s views and during his campaign, his mother’s values came through as a clear influence.
“It’s important to look into this,” he added.
Indeed, in his autobiography, Dreams from My Father, Obama confirms this: “What is best in me I owe to her.”
Teguh, who claimed to have been a friend of Maya Soetoro-Ng’s, (Obama’s half-sister) and helped publish parts of Dunham’s dissertation into a book in Indonesian, said the latter was an interesting figurehead.
“There were three points of focus in her dissertation: The developing world, the informal sector, and the role of women in that sector,” he said.
The discussion will feature Dunham’s PhD supervisor, Alice Dewey, among others.
“She did a lot of pioneering work related to women, micro-financing,” said author Julia.
“She really believed in the informal sector, which is really the backbone of the economy. [Indonesia] has been able to survive because of that. If it weren’t for the informal sector and the resilience of the grassroots people, we couldn’t survive. Indonesia wouldn’t survive.”
Empowering rural people through the informal sector was one of Dunham’s passions and legacies, of which not many people were aware, Julia said.
Monica agreed, adding Dunham had not worked for the acknowledgement.
“She didn’t do it for the recognition; she worked to strengthen, facilitate, share knowledge and create networks,” said Monica, who now works for the International Organization for Migration.
“She worked with passion and love.”
Julia echoed the statement, saying, “Her marriage didn’t work out. However, her relationship was replaced with a very, very strong love and commitment to Indonesia.”
Dunham immersed herself in Indonesian society, speaking fluent Indonesian with women at traditional markets, Julia claimed. She learned weaving and blacksmithing, things that served as her creative outlet.
“Even though she stood out as a Caucasian, she was very matronly,” Julia said.
“She had Javanese character. She was a bundle of contradictions – very progressive, radical. She had very clear ideological opinions, but she never allowed them to influence how she treated people.
“The way she presented it was very acceptable,” Julia added.
Teguh said Dunham’s dissertation was not discussed much until Obama’s star was on the rise. A symposium at the University of Hawaii at Manoa was held and her dissertation was published.
Julia said it was good that her academic work had finally received recognition.
“It’s not the first time a great piece of work has been recognized long after its time,” she said.