Indonesia left deep imprint on Obama family

JAKARTA (Reuters) - A small group of Indonesians in their late 40s who attended the same elementary school in central Jakarta recently gathered for a reunion and to pledge their support for an absent former classmate -- Barack Obama.

Democratic presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) (R) is seen with his step-father Lolo Soetoro (L), his sister Maya Soetoro and his mother Ann Dunham (C) in an undated family snapshot released by his presidential campaign, February 4, 2008. REUTERS/Obama For America/Handout

Obama’s late mother came to Indonesia with her young son in the late 1960s to join her second husband knowing next to nothing about the huge, developing Southeast Asian nation.

While her son left after four years to study in Hawaii, for the Kansas-born mother of the Democratic Party presidential hopeful the relationship with Indonesia was to grow into a lifetime affair.

Eschewing many of the cocktail parties and golf-type events in the expatriate community, friends said she tried to dig deep into the local culture and made many Indonesian friends.

“She wasn’t the typical expat, who just experienced Indonesia from behind the windows of a chauffeur-driven limousine,” said author and columnist Julia Suryakusuma, who became a friend of Obama’s mother Ann Dunham in 1981.

For a six-year-old Obama too, the chaotic tropical nation clearly had an impact when he arrived with his mother, then 24, from Hawaii to join his Indonesian stepfather Lolo Soetoro.

He recounts in his book “Dreams from My Father” being amazed to find the house they moved into on the outskirts of Jakarta had a collection of exotic animals including a monkey, birds of paradise, a cockatoo and even several baby crocodiles.


The grinding poverty of Indonesia was also a shock to the young boy and his mother, whom he said would initially give over her money freely to the countless beggars with outstretched arms.

“Later, when it became clear that the tide of pain was endless, she gave more selectively, learning to calibrate the levels of misery,” Obama wrote in the best-selling book, where he also recounts his mother’s initial loneliness in Indonesia.

She threw herself into a job teaching English to Indonesian business executives at the American embassy, but was never happy playing the expatriate wife from all accounts.

Obama’s stepfather, who Dunham wed after her marriage to the senator’s Kenyan father ended, started working for an American oil company and would grumble about his wife’s refusal to attend company dinner parties with him.

John McGlynn, a friend and long-term resident of Jakarta, also recalls Dunham as someone who preferred a more local scene despite her access to expat circles and was fun to be around.

“She could enjoy a G&T and a good argument,” said McGlynn.

Obama, who describes in his book his mother as “the kindest, most generous spirit I have ever known”, recalls her dedication to his education -- he was set a stiff regimen whereby he was woken by her at 4 a.m. for English lessons before school.

In Jakarta, Obama went to a Catholic school and then State Elementary School Menteng 01, attended by pupils of many faiths in a posh leafy suburb. Insight, a conservative magazine, reported on its Web site last year that Obama had attended what it called a radical madrassa, or Islamic school, a story that has since died a natural death.

In these formative years in a new land, Obama recounts how he turned to guidance from his stepfather, who later separated from his mother and died in 1987. Soetoro tried to teach his stepson to box after he was bashed by an older boy and introduced him to exotic foods from snake meat to roasted grasshopper.

Obama’s Indonesia experience was cut short in 1971 when he was sent to attend an American school and live with grandparents in Hawaii, while Dunham stayed on with her husband.

“It’s not easy for a mother to be separated from her child when he was only 10 at the time if she didn’t really think that it was really important,” said Suryakusuma.

Fluent in Bahasa Indonesia, Obama’s mother went on to pursue work with NGOs and as an academic often focusing on Indonesia.

This included spells for USAID and in the Jakarta office of the Ford Foundation from 1981-84, where much of her work revolved around women’s livelihoods and women’s rights.

As an anthropologist, she also wrote a research paper when at the University of Hawaii on cottage industries such as blacksmithing and weaving in Java.


Dunham, who died of cancer in 1995 at the age of 52, spent a lot of time in Indonesian villages and was close to the “orang kecil” (ordinary people), said Suryakusuma.

“Indonesia was home to her. It wasn’t just a place where she did anthropological research and where she worked,” she added, noting how proud Dunham would have been of her son.

Pride in the Obama link was also evident at the recent gathering of former Jakarta classmates of the U.S. senator.

Widiyanto Hendro, 48, who sat next to Obama in 4th grade, said Obama sometimes struggled to make himself understood in Indonesian and at times used hand-signals to communicate.

While Hendro said Obama did not appear an exceptional student at that time, he noted a special talent.

“He could draw things such as Spiderman, Bat-Man with his left hand and those drawings were very beautiful.”

Another classmate, Cut Citra Dewi, 47, remembers him having a mischievous streak that meant he often pulled the girls’ hair.

The group of students plan to establish a fan club at the elementary school to back Obama’s presidential bid.

“Hopefully he will still remember his friends here,” said Hendro.

Additional reporting by Telly Nathalia