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A Free Spirit

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Bill Byers
Ann Dunham, Hawaii, 1973

An interest in faraway places often has an erotic component, and it is hardly surprising to hear that “intermarriage was not unusual among East-West Center students.” According to Ann’s half-Indonesian daughter, Maya, her mother used to say about Lolo that “she liked the way he looked in his white tennis shorts.” The pull of the exotic often meant little more than dressing up in sarongs, lighting incense sticks, reading the I Ching, or listening to Ravi Shankar play his sitar. What made Ann Dunham unusual is the seriousness with which she took her interest in the non-Western world, specifically Indonesia. Her attraction to Lolo, whom she married in 1964, may well have had a strong idealistic component too. Barack Obama thinks she was inspired by “the promise of something new and important, helping her husband rebuild a country in a charged and challenging place beyond her parents’ reach.” She certainly worked hard at becoming an anthropologist, even though she did not receive her Ph.D. until 1992. Although she wanted her son to have an American education and sent him back to Hawaii when he was nine to live with his grandparents, she spent much of her adult life in Indonesia.

Sometimes when Western women marry Asian or African men, things start to go awry when they move away from the West. Fun-loving husbands become dutiful sons who insist that their wives conform to standards the young women are wholly unprepared for. Or else they become household tyrants. This does not appear to have been the case with Lolo, whose duties under a military regime that came to power in a sea of blood were not so much familial as political. He was not an authoritarian husband, and Ann was not one to play the submissive wife. If anything, the rift between them came partly because, in a certain sense, she was insufficiently American, or at least unwilling to behave like one.

While Ann taught English at a management institute in Jakarta, immersing herself in Indonesian language and culture, Lolo was employed by an oil company, possibly in a political function, smoothing relations between American oil men and the Indonesian government. This meant taking part in the back-slapping, mildly racist, expatriate life of private clubs, tennis parties, and women discussing their servant problems. He was compelled to do this, whether he wanted to or not. Ann refused. She preferred to make friends with Indonesians, deepening her anthropological interests. When Lolo complained that her absence at expatriate functions made him look bad, and that those oilmen and their wives were her own people after all, she exclaimed: “They are not my people.”

Indeed, apart from their common nationality, they were not. But Ann was unusual in another way. American idealism abroad is frequently expressed in a desire to teach the natives about freedom, and so forth. Because of her anthropological background and her own inclination, Ann was a listener who assimilated many things from the Javanese, without, it seems, ever “going native.” In her carefully researched and perceptive book, Janny Scott points out how this affected the young Barack (“Barry”) Obama, who went to two Indonesian schools while he was in Jakarta from 1967 to 1971. She quotes from Dreams from My Father:

[My mother] had always encouraged my rapid acculturation in Indonesia: It had made me relatively self-sufficient…and extremely well-mannered when compared to other American children. She had taught me to disdain the blend of ignorance and arrogance that too often characterized Americans abroad.

Obama’s early exposure to Javanese life also had an effect on his attitude toward racial differences. Skin color matters at least as much in Indonesia as it does in the US. Lightness is a sign of refinement, darkness is considered coarse. An Indonesian friend of Ann’s pointed out to Janny Scott that “people tease about skin color all the time.” And Obama was teased a lot. What he learned in Jakarta was the Javanese art of restraint, of not displaying emotions, of never raising your voice. Once an Indonesian child learns how to ignore the teasing, it stops.

To find out about Javanese culture, Ann, too, needed to learn Javanese manners, especially in her field, since she was a lone woman whose Ph.D. project was to carry on research into various crafts practiced by men, who demanded a particular respect. The received opinion, alas, too often true, about traditional crafts in developing countries is that they are dying out fast, replaced by mass-produced plastic objects from God knows where. Ann Dunham found out that Java in the 1970s was different. Farming was tough and not always lucrative. So, Ann wrote, “Instead of being merely a quaint and minor survival of days gone by, cottage industry is the major mode of manufacturing many types of light consumer goods.” Some villages specialized in producing batik cloth, others in bamboo, and others in metal objects.

Ann became especially interested in blacksmiths from a remote cluster of hamlets in central Java named Kajar. Blacksmiths in Java enjoy a high status, tinged with mysticism. Like the Japanese, Javanese make a cult of the forged weapon—samurai swords in Japan, the wavy-bladed dagger called keris in Java. Like King Arthur’s sword, such weapons are imbued with supernatural properties. In her posthumous book, Surviving Against the Odds, Ann describes the ceremonies that accompany the making of traditional daggers, which is indeed a dying art, but she found some of the last practitioners, old men, still much revered, but without younger people to whom to pass on their skills.

Ann spent many months in the villages of Kajar, sleeping in huts without plumbing or electricity, making notes, taking pictures, but not before gaining the trust of people who had never known a foreigner before. An anthropologist who worked with Ann told Janny Scott that “the predominant anthropological method is to put yourself in the village context. You are the outsider, the childlike neophyte. You let them socialize you into their worldview.”

This takes endless patience, empathy, and thought. The idea of Ann Dunham as a hippy-dippy dreamer in batik shirts could not be more wrong. Her son described her presence in “a land where fatalism remained a necessary tool for enduring hardship” as that of “a lonely witness for secular humanism, a soldier for the New Deal, Peace Corps, position-paper liberalism.” She may have been all of that, but Obama also told Janny Scott that “in her field of study and her work, she was deadly serious about what she was doing, willing to take on a lot of sacred cows, and really committed.” Her book is a testimony to that.

Ann Dunham’s talent for developing personal relationships with people whose cultures and experiences appear to be very remote to most Westerners proved to be invaluable to various organizations that employed her in Indonesia. Frequently separated and increasingly estranged from her second husband, she did what she could to help her son through school in Honolulu, and to provide for her daughter Maya. As a result, her academic work often had to wait while she took on jobs for the Ford Foundation, or the International Labor Organization, or the People’s Bank of Indonesia (Bank Rakyat Indonesia).

People sent out from the US lacked the language skills or the knowledge to get much beyond English-speaking elite circles in Jakarta. It was Ann’s job to go around the country to see how money could best be spent to develop small-scale economies. She realized that “entrepreneurial attitudes are a part of the traditional culture.” The problem is access to capital. So she developed a model of extending credit to small entrepreneurs that is now commonly used in Indonesia. In doing this, however, she didn’t just look at numbers and statistics. Her experience had made her unusually sensitive and knowledgeable about the social consequences of development, about how too much deregulation, for example, might help urban ethnically Chinese businessmen, but ruin local cottage industries.

She took her job for the Ford Foundation as seriously as her anthropological field work. At one point she found herself in a tidal-swamp area of South Sumatra, wading up to her chest through flooded rice fields, fending off swarms of mosquitoes. One of her coworkers told Scott: “She loved it. She could create a rapport with these people very easily, because she was sympathetic and she liked them. They realized that she was there trying to find out things to help.”

If Ann’s initial attraction to her Javanese husband had been a combination of his dashing turnout on the tennis court and highminded ideals to improve his nation, the erotic component of her enthusiasms never entirely disappeared. Her liaisons with Indonesian men were unconventional, but hardly casual. One of them was with Adi Sasono, a former student leader, engineer, and labor activist. Another was with a much younger journalist named I. Made Suarjana, whose looks reminded Ann of Mike Tyson. They had what he called “a romantic-intellectual relationship.” Quite what he meant by this, he didn’t divulge. The important thing to Ann was that these men provided a way for her to connect to the society she loved. In her own words: “I’m able to find really impressive people that I respect greatly, who are Indonesians and not privileged foreigners like myself, but who are working with down-and-out and poor people.”

This kind of attitude can lend itself to easy mockery. Her son observed that “there was a sweetness about her and a willingness to give people the benefit of the doubt, and a sort of generosity of spirit that at times was naive.” There were times, he said, “when she was taken advantage of in certain situations.”

Obama also told Scott that he felt his mother’s spirit when he defied all the odds and did well in the Iowa caucuses in January 2008. Scott asked him what it was that reminded him of her spirit. He said:

It was a sense that beneath our surface differences, we’re all the same, and that there’s more good than bad in each of us. And that, you know, we can reach across the void and touch each other and believe in each other and work together.

He continued: “That’s precisely the naiveté and idealism that was part of her. And that’s, I suppose, the naive idealism in me.”

Barack Obama is a politician. I’m not sure he is quite as naive as all that. But if his mother had that quality, it is the kind of naiveté our more cynical times could use a bit more of.

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