Sunday, March 16, 2008

"the unconventional life of Stanley Ann Dunham Soetoro" 

New York Times article (March 14, 2008) about Barack Obama's mother:
A Free-Spirited Wanderer Who Set Obama’s Path

He has described her as a teenage mother, a single mother, a mother who worked, went to school and raised children at the same time. He has credited her with giving him a great education and confidence in his ability to do the right thing. But, in interviews, friends and colleagues of Ms. Soetoro shed light on a side of her that is less well known.

“She was a very, very big thinker,” said Nancy Barry, a former president of Women’s World Banking, an international network of microfinance providers, where Ms. Soetoro worked in New York City in the early 1990s. “I think she was not at all personally ambitious, I think she cared about the core issues, and I think she was not afraid to speak truth to power.”


Fluent in Indonesian, Ms. Soetoro moved with Maya first to Yogyakarta, the center of Javanese handicrafts. A weaver in college, she was fascinated with what Ms. Soetoro-Ng calls “life’s gorgeous minutiae.” That interest inspired her study of village industries, which became the basis of her 1992 doctoral dissertation.

She loved living in Java,” said Dr. Dewey, who recalled accompanying Ms. Soetoro to a metalworking village. “People said: ‘Hi! How are you?’ She said: ‘How’s your wife? Did your daughter have the baby?’ They were friends. Then she’d whip out her notebook and she’d say: ‘How many of you have electricity? Are you having trouble getting iron?’ ”

She became a consultant for the United States Agency for International Development on setting up a village credit program, then a Ford Foundation program officer in Jakarta specializing in women’s work. Later, she was a consultant in Pakistan, then joined Indonesia’s oldest bank to work on what is described as the world’s largest sustainable microfinance program, creating services like credit and savings for the poor.

Visitors flowed constantly through her Ford Foundation office in downtown Jakarta and through her house in a neighborhood to the south, where papaya and banana trees grew in the front yard and Javanese dishes like opor ayam were served for dinner. Her guests were leaders in the Indonesian human rights movement, people from women’s organizations, representatives of community groups doing grass-roots development.

“I didn’t know a lot of them and would often ask after, ‘Who was that?’ ” said David S. McCauley, now an environmental economist at the Asian Development Bank in Manila, who had the office next door. “You’d find out it was the head of some big organization in with thousands of members from central Java or someplace, somebody that she had met some time ago, and they would make a point of coming to see her when they came to Jakarta.”

An Exacting Idealist

As a mother, Ms. Soetoro was both idealistic and exacting. Friends describe her as variously informal and intense, humorous and hardheaded. She preached to her young son the importance of honesty, straight talk, independent judgment. When he balked at her early-morning home schooling, she retorted, “This is no picnic for me either, buster.”

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