Obama's mother's work focus of UH seminar
By Dan Nakaso
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Dan Nakaso
Sen. Barack Obama's approach to economic and foreign policy most likely was influenced by the research his mother conducted decades ago through the University of Hawai'i.
Obama's mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, who died of cancer in 1995, earned her doctorate at the University of Hawai'i while helping craftsmen in Indonesia and Africa get small loans to improve their lives and their villages, and ended up becoming an expert in "micro lending."
Dunham's work — from an anthropology undergraduate to her doctoral dissertation — will be discussed today at a free seminar at UH called, "Dr. Stanley Ann Dunham: An Extraordinary Woman and Her Work."
Organizers had to change the location twice to accommodate what they expect to be an overflow crowd.
UH professor emeritus Alice G. Dewey, Dunham's graduate anthropology adviser, who will be speaking in today's program, said Dunham "made it clear that you had to understand what they (the people you hope to help) are doing and for what. The implication for Sen. Obama is that if you're going to do something intended to help somebody, you better understand the implications and whether it's suited to the economics of that place. Just throwing money at a problem doesn't do it. You really have to understand what you're doing in order to help people."
The seminar was the idea of women's studies professor Meda Chesney-Lind, who did not know Dunham but works in the same Saunders Hall where Dunham studied at UH.
"I have been enthralled that she did such fascinating work in the building where I work," Chesney-Lind said. "Barack Obama has made no secret of the fact that his mother was important in his life and helped shape his perspective.
"However this election turns out, it's important for us to focus on her in a way we haven't to date. She is a significant figure in women's history in Hawai'i and we need to take a look at her and be proud of her as a UH-Manoa student and show our female students that they can do anything."
Much of the discussion will focus on the scholarly aspects of Dunham's work in Indonesia — "her knowledge of Indonesian craftsmanship and her efforts in micro-financing," said one of the organizers, Aya Hirata Kimura, an assistant professor of women's studies.
The implications are profound for potential U.S. policies around the world, Dewey said.
"Here is a woman who not only did a spectacular job as an academic but as a mother of the man who would be president," she said.
A NEW LIFE IN INDONESIA
Dunham had divorced Obama's father and was raising young Barack in the early 1960s, while finishing her bachelor's degree in anthropology at UH.
She was fascinated by Indonesian textiles and other handicraft and learned to speak Indonesian and some Javanese at UH "because in anthropology you have to talk to people who don't speak English," Dewey said.
At UH, she fell in love with a Javanese candidate for a master's degree in geography named Soetoro Martodihardjo, who went by the Javanese nickname, "Lolo" Soetoro. They married in 1965, and Soetoro took Dunham and first-grader Obama back to Indonesia at a time of political unrest following the overthrow of President Sukarno.
In Indonesia, Dunham home-schooled Obama and gave birth to his sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, who now teaches at La Pietra School and plans to be in the audience at today's presentation.
"There was a recognition that we could change the world by helping as many people as possible in the lower economic tiers to empower themselves so they could have some decision-making power over their own lives," Soetoro-Ng said.
"Our mother's work greatly influenced my brother's commitment to service and to inclusiveness and to grass-roots democracy, obviously democratic decision making. Those commitments were certainly imbedded in his list of priorities, in part because of her example."
The Dutch had ceded Western New Guinea to Indonesia, and geographer Lolo Soetoro returned to map the new divide between Eastern Guinea, which was under British/Australian control, and the Western portion.
Dunham was happy to join him.
"Her husband was off and away to interesting and exotic places and she was adventurous," Dewey said. "The people are charming and the food is great, rather like Hawai'i. She fit in very quickly."
FASCINATED BY CRAFTS
Dunham was fascinated by Indonesian textiles at a time when other academics were focusing on new, faster-growing varieties of rice, corn and wheat.
She learned the intricacies of Indonesian crafts and helped arrange loans as small as $50 for artisans to bring in innovations such as electricity and machinery, which revolutionized the way they did business, Dewey said.
Her doctoral dissertation focused on blacksmiths along the southern coast of Java who made farm and kitchen tools out of scrap iron from abandoned bridges, buildings and railroads.
Dunham understood that the blacksmiths could import enough scrap iron for their entire village and sell the leftovers to other villages if they could first buy a truck for $1,000 that would take them to other, more distant sources.
"If you understood the specific use, you knew it was worth giving this guy $1,000 for a truck," Dewey said. "She would take out her notebook and ask how many people have electricity, how many people use grinders. You could tell there was a rapport between them."
Working with organizations such as the Ford Foundation and Bank Rakyat Indonesia, Dunham changed the lives of craftsmen such as blacksmiths, who also made intricate knives called "kris," sometimes known as "keris."
Making a kris sometimes involves prayer and fasting and older ones are considered to possess magical powers, Dewey said.
"The mythology is that blacksmiths forge human souls in the other world," she said. "They create people."
It was a culture that Dunham loved exploring and she was, in turn, welcomed.
When Dunham introduced some kris makers to representatives from the Ford Foundation, she was honored with one of their knives, Dewey said.
"She had gotten down to the bottom of the economic scale and helped them be successful. And they had become her friends," Dewey said. "From then on, she got treated differently by the Ford Foundation and by the World Bank."
SEPARATION AND DIVORCE
In the early 1970s, as her research and success in helping villages increased, Soetoro and Dunham split up — and eventually divorced in 1979.
"He got a job with Union Oil," Dewey said. "Lolo joked that they got divorced because she was falling in love with Javanese handcrafts and he was becoming an American oil man, which wasn't far from the truth."
Maya and her mother returned to Honolulu in 1973 and, for three years, lived with Barack on Poki Street, just 'ewa of Punahou School.
"My father did not live with us at that time," Maya said. "They lived apart. They were still together and still wanted to make a go of the marriage."
Dunham took young Maya back to Indonesia in 1976 to live with Soetoro's mother, while Barack moved into his grandparents' apartment on Beretania Street while he finished his high school years at Punahou.
"We spent summers with him, we spent winters with him and there were a lot of letters in between," Maya said.
She, too, was homeschooled by Dunham until 1981, when Maya enrolled at the Jakarta International School and then, at age 14, returned in 1984 to enter Punahou.
"It was an extraordinary childhood," Soetoro-Ng said. "She was such an interesting and vigorously intellectual woman. I owe everything to her example. Her life of service is something to which we should all aspire."
Dewey later traveled with Dunham to the same village in Kenya where Obama's father came from and — decades later — saw a video of Obama in the same village near a building that arranged micro loans.
Obama had arrived at the place where his mother had helped so many people years before.
"He followed in her footsteps and didn't even know it," Dewey said. "I know, because he certainly would have said something about it because his mother meant so much to him."
It was a moment that brought Dewey full circle to the woman she had mentored and grew to admire — a woman whose work she believes could influence the course of U.S. policy.
"Sen. Obama often speaks of his mother's dedication to helping people," Dewey said. "How he was raised is part of how he will be as president."
Reach Dan Nakaso at email@example.com.