Like Mother Like Son:

Barack Obama's Mother was Model and Mentor

Thirty years ago, when Stanley Ann Soetoro lived in Yogyakarta, it was perhaps a less 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 (streetside 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, was Barack Obama’s mother.  Her influence on her now-famous son cannot be underestimated.  Although he wrote a bestseller about his search for the absent 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.”

Stanley Ann Dunham (so named because her father wanted a boy) was born in 1942 in Kansas.  The family lived in Honolulu when Ann enrolled at the University of Hawaii. There she met Barack Obama Sr., a Kenyan.  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, Ann returned to the University of Hawaii to earn a bachelor’s degree.  There she met Lolo Soetoro and in 1967 Ann and her young son Barack followed him to Jakarta.  Eventually Soetoro did well working for an American oil company but he and Ann grew apart as she became increasingly intrigued with traditional Indonesian life.

Ann began teaching English at the American embassy 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 April.

In 1971 when Obama was ten, 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 earning a master’s degree in anthropology focusing on Indonesia.  It marked the end of her marriage to Soetoro from whom she was divorced in 1980. 

Eventually Ann returned to Indonesia for Ph.D. fieldwork.  Obama, then 14, decided to stay in Hawaii for high school.  Ann began working for the Ford Foundation as program officer for women and employment and her home became a haven for politicians, artists and others who wanted to talk liberal politics. She became a leader in microfinancing for women well before the idea of giving women small loans was 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.”

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

In 1992, Ann completed the 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, 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 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, hoping to find, and influence, who the American people are at their core.  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 knew that he and his mother had lived here. No one realized he had an Indonesian half-sister.  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.  No doubt his mother would be extremely proud.