Sunday, May 13, 2012

Mother of a President: Ann Dunham Obama Soetoro - Happy Mother's Day

by Sunnyjane

Stanley Ann Dunham was born the only child of Kansas parents who grew up, as her son once said, in the dab-smack, landlocked center of the country, in towns too small to warrant boldface on a road map.  It was 1942, and the country had been at war in the Pacific and Europe for a year.

Ann's father enlisted in the Army after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.  When the war ended, the Dunhams became something of a peregrine family, i.e., a group of people who tend to change their location frequently.   After five moves to various mid-west and western states, the Dunhams settled in 1956 in Mercer Island, Washington, a suburb of Seattle.  It was most likely at Mercer Island High School that Ann began her journey toward nonconformism during the Eisenhower sweater-sets-and-bobby-socks era.  Two teachers there taught their students the importance of challenging the norm and questioning authority. Those lessons no doubt made a significant impression on Ann Dunham and the path she would follow, and consequently, had a great impact on the life of her son, for Ann proved to be both resilient and liberal.

On to the 'Land Perpetuated in Righteousness'

Even though his daughter had received early acceptance at the University of Chicago, Stanley Dunham chose to move the family to Hawaii after Ann graduated from high school in 1960.  But rather than experiencing a period of culture shock, Ann immediately enrolled in the University of Hawaii and,  unlike some we could name, embraced the multicultural environment of the country's newest state.

Barack Obama, Sr.
It was at university that she met Barack Hussein Obama, an intelligent and engaging student from Kenya, and in something of a guess-who's-coming-to-dinner moment, took him home to meet her parents.  He was described by the head teacher at the exclusive Christian school he attended in Kenya as very keen, steady, trustworthy and friendly.  Concentrates; is reliable and outgoing.  While the Dunhams may have seen and appreciated these qualities in their dinner guest, neither they nor Obama's parents were  happy when he and Ann married in February 1961.

Obama did not tell Ann that he had been married previously to a Kenyan woman until sometime after they were married.  And while he assured her that he and the woman were divorced, this turned out to be untrue.

Barack Hussein Obama, Jr. was born on August 4, 1961, six months after his parents were married.   His mother was eighteen years old, his father twenty-five.

The Obamas' marriage seems to be one of practicality, rather than a dedication to living as a family.  Soon after the birth of her son, Ann took him with her to Seattle to live while she attended the University of Washington. Her husband continued his studies at the University of Hawaii where he earned a BA in economics.  He left Hawaii in 1962 to attend Harvard University.

The Mother Begins Her Unconventional Journey

Perhaps because her childhood had been one of moving from place to place, combined with her high-school -acquired lessons in nonconformity, Ann Obama became what her son later called combination of being very grounded in who she was, what she believed in. But [there was] also a certain recklessness.

Ann returned to Honolulu in 1963 and resumed her undergraduate studies at the University of Hawaii, majoring in anthropology.  She filed for divorce from her husband in early 1964; he did not contest it.  Her parents, Madelyn and Stanley, helped with two-year-old Barack while she completed her education, earning a B.A. in June 1964.  The senior Obama received his M.A. in economics from Harvard in 1965 and went back to Kenya.  He returned to Hawaii to see his ten-year-old son in 1972; it was the last time Barack Jr. saw his father, who died in 1982.  By the time Ann filed for divorce from Obama, she had already met Lolo Soetoro, an Indonesian who was also studying at the University of Hawaii.  She and Lolo were married in 1965; after Lolo returned to Indonesia in 1966, Ann and her son followed after she finished her studies for her M.A. several months later.  [Note:  During research for this post, I found many confusing discrepancies regarding the dates on which Ann  received her B.A. and M.A. degrees, and in which subjects.  However, Alice Dewey, Ann's friend, colleague, and the former chair of her doctoral committee at the University of Hawaii, said in a March 2009 interview, Despite some reports that she majored in mathematics, she majored in anthropology here at the University of Hawai‘i (BA 1967, Department of Anthropology, prior to the MA and PhD).]

The Early Indonesia Years: 1966 - 1970

Ann and six-year-old Barry arrived in rural Jakarta to find a completely different but fascinating world.  While her husband was advancing in his career as a government relations representative for Union Oil Company, Ann taught English and was an assistant director of the Lembaga Persahabatan Indonesia Amerika (LIA)–the Indonesia-America Friendship Institute.  President Obama wrote about his rich life in Jakarta in his book, Dreams from My Father: A Story of  Race and Inheritance, describing the markets as the hawkers, the leather workers, the old women chewing betel nuts and swatting flies off their fruit with whisk brooms.  Of his introduction to the food, he said, dog meat (tough), snake meat (tougher), and roasted grasshopper (crunchy).  There was a menagerie in the backyard: chickens and ducks running every which way, a big yellow dog with a baleful howl, two birds of paradise, a white cockatoo and finally, two baby crocodiles.  Because he had to attend the local Indonesian-language school, the President recalls of his mother that, five days a week she came into my room at four in the morning, force-fed me breakfast, and proceeded to teach me English lessons for three hours before I left for school.

Ann became less and less interested in her husband's business and his rise up the corporate ladder, preferring instead to explore the surrounding villages on a motorcycle to learn more about the people and the country in which she and her son had found themselves.  In 1968 she became a co-founder and active member of the Ganesha Volunteers (Indonesian Heritage Society) at the National Museum in Jakarta.  With her advanced education behind her, Ann Dunham would put into practice what she had learned, and she did so with a passion.

The Pragmatic Dreamer 

At its heart, anthropology is the academic study of humanity, dealing with all that is characteristic of the human experience.  The discipline covers the evolutionary origins of the social and cultural organization of human societies as well as individual and collective forms of human knowledge.  Ann Dunham seems to have had little interest in just collecting stories and taking photos for a coffee-table book. Rather, she set out to make a difference.  

Although she was interested in all of the regional crafts of Java, Ann's real interest was in the locally produced  batiks, an artistic cloth design technique that had been introduced to the area sometime between the sixth and seventh centuries. A natural love of textiles drew her to this fascinating art that was made both for everyday wear and to be sold in the local markets. Ann not only wore batiks herself, but started a collection that consisted not of expensive and rare cloth, but what the local women were producing for their own families.  Maintained by her daughter, Maya Soetoro-Ng, part of Ann's collection was displayed at the Textile Museum in Washington, D.C. in March 2009: A Lady Found a Culture in Its Cloth: Barack Obama's Mother and Indonesian Batiks.

In the Java culture, only the women can produce batik, and Ann saw in this fact an opportunity to enhance their livelihoods.  As Janny Scott said in her excellent bookA Singular Woman: The Untold Story of Barack Obama's Mother, women were playing a critical role in keeping poor households afloat. But Indonesian government policies and programs would not reflect that reality until there were more data to prove it.

Scott goes on to explain the sophistication and complexity of Ann Dunham's professional life as an anthropologist and pioneer working from the "bottom up" for AID and the Ford Foundation, a real pioneer who played a leading role in creating the whole field of micro-lending in which poor women were lent "seed money" to start their own businesses.

Ann was fluent in the national language and had deep friendships with the villagers, who had actually seen her give birth to her daughter, Maya.  She worked with the Ford Foundation as a program officer for women's livelihoods, as well as for the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank. She also worked with Bank Rakyat (People's Bank) in Indonesia, getting them to widen a small loans program for farmers into microloans. The Bank Rakyat program was one of USAID's most successful projects there.

Richard Patten, a friend and economist, said in a Time magazine article in April 2008 that Soetoro was largely responsible for the success of that program, which is now No. 1 in the world in terms of savers, with 31 million members, according to Microfinance Information eXchange Inc., a microfinance-tracking outfit.

A Mother's Legacy

When she died of cancer at the age of fifty-two in 1995, Ann Dunham left her son neither a multi-million dollar trust fund nor a gold-paved road to prominence in business or politics.   She left him, rather, an inherited sense that he must help those who may not be able to help themselves, and to fight for what is right.   Even when he was very young, his teachers saw Barack Obama's leadership qualities.  He would be very helpful with friends. He'd pick them up if they fell down, one recalled. He would protect the smaller ones. 
Maya, Barack Obama's half-sister, said of their mother, She cried if she saw animals being treated cruelly or children in the news or a sad movie—or if she felt like she wasn't being understood in a conversation. She did rigorous fieldwork. Her research was responsible and penetrating.  She saw the heart of a problem, and she knew whom to hold accountable.


President Barack Obama,
44th President of the
United States
It is virtually impossible to give a full and detailed portrait of a person's life -- even one taken far too early -- within the confines of a blog post.  I chose instead to focus on as much of the whole person of Ann Dunham as possible within those limitations.  She lived to see her son well educated and well-rounded, with a sense of purpose.  It is somewhat ironic that while she was helping the people of Indonesia improve their lives, her son was helping people seven thousand miles away in Chicago improve theirs as a community organizer.  She would not live to see him enter, and succeed so prominently, in politics.

And while this post is dedicated to his mother, there are  three other women in Barack Obama's life who deserve Mothers Day recognition: his grandmother, Madelyn Dunham, who helped without complaint to raise him; his wife, Michelle, the fantastic woman from Chicago who keeps him grounded; and Marian Robinson, his mother-in-law, who has always been there for his children.

As well, Happy Mothers Day to all mothers in the United States, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Greece, Italy, India, Japan, and Turkey, who are celebrating this important day on May 13, 2012. 


A great Thank You to NightEditor1 who suggested a post on this fascinating and remarkable woman to me.  As always, I hope it meets expectations.



The marriage of Michelle and Barack, October 18, 1992

The President and Marian Robinson, election night 2008

Update #2

This is a wonderful video: A Mothers Day Tribute to Michelle Obama.

1 comment: