The candidacy and election of President Barack Obama drew international eyes to the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, where his parents met. But among some at the university, it is Obama’s late mother who stirs strong emotions of memory and hope.
Stanley Ann Dunham took an unconventional approach to life on both personal and professional levels. Her son’s book portrays her as an innocent, kind and generous; academics who knew her and reporters who have discovered her describe the idealism and optimism of her worldview and work ethic.
In her work, she was not a romantic, rather appreciating the artistic while dealing with the realistic, one contemporary observes.
Dunham was born in Kansas and attended high school in Washington State. Moving to Hawaiʻi with her parents, she entered UH in 1960. In Russian class, she met the first African student to attend UH, charismatic Barack Obama Sr., who moved in politically liberal, intellectual student circles that included future Congressman Neil Abercrombie. They married and had Barack Obama Jr. in 1961.
Obama Sr. left his family for Harvard and then Kenya. Dunham returned to UH, earning a math degree. She pursued graduate work, married another international student, Lolo Soetoro, and returned with him to Indonesia. There she began extensive research and fieldwork and welcomed the birth of daughter Maya Kassandra Soetoro, nine years Barack’s junior.
Although eventually divorced a second time, Dunham is credited with encouraging her children’s appreciation of their ethnic heritages.
“She was one of the most caring mothers you can imagine,” recalls UH Librarian Bron Solyom, a fellow graduate student who shared scholarly interests and a lasting friendship.
Weaving her studies as an anthropologist with her role as a mother and using United States-based correspondence materials, recordings of gospel singer Mahalia Jackson and speeches by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Dunham home-schooled both of her children in the early morning hours before classes at the nearby Indonesian school.
“She instilled in us a love of books, based on the understanding that we could journey anywhere and that any world could belong to us,” Maya Soetoro-Ng told an overflow audience at a September 2008 UH Mānoa symposium about her mother’s work.
“She had an expansive notion of the world and of our possibilities within it. What a remarkable person she was.”
Anthropology in Indonesia
Dunham’s fieldwork immersed the children in the experiences of rural villages and of the peasants who hammered at iron, wove fibers, threw pots and expertly dyed fabrics in the method of batik. While her children were exposed to a world that embraced ancient traditions of craftwork in a modern world, Dunham worked to preserve and strengthen the crafts as viable industry for Javanese villages.
Dunham reluctantly sent 10-year-old Barack to live with her parents, Stanley and Madelyn “Toot” Dunham in Honolulu, where he attended Punahou School on scholarship. Maya’s home-schooling continued; often while accompanying her mother on excursions as photographer or note-taker. Dunham received her master’s degree from UH in 1983.
Soetoro-Ng said her brother credits Dunham’s empathy for his own ability to build bridges between people and countries, within the nation and with the rest of the world.
Solyom, who also studied Indonesian blacksmithing, said men admitted Dunham into their smithies, where she focused on both the intricacies of the work itself and the smithies’ role within the social and economic environment.
“Women were not welcome in the forge,” she told the symposium audience, whose members ranged from Dunham’s college contemporaries to youthful Obama supporters. “She worked with ease in what was a male workplace and was accepted in an industry dominated by men. This was an important achievement on her part. From a ceremonial or ritual point of view, the presence of a woman could be seen as the cause of a problem.”
Dunham’s extensive data proved the importance of non-agricultural rural industry alongside agriculture in a developing region’s ability to survive and thrive, Solyom says.
A detailed ethnographic study of Indonesian blacksmithing makes up the central portion of Dunham’s 1,000-page doctoral thesis. She completed the thesis in 1992 and was working with advisor Alice Dewey, emeritus professor of anthropology, to get parts of it published when she died of cancer just three years later at age 53.
A translated portion of part of Peasant Blacksmithing in Indonesia: Surviving and Thriving Against All Odds is under review by an Indonesian publishing house. Dewey and UH colleagues are hoping to find U.S. publishers interested in introductory and concluding sections of the thesis, which they say is of continuing relevance and broader general interest.
“She found hope everywhere she went and delighted in all the beauties and many layers each place provided,” Soetoro-Ng recalled.
“She believed every place, every group of people has something valuable to give. Instead of slash and burn, she would look at the plants and the crops and encourage us to see what emerges, to see the surprising and lush things that emerge from the fertile soils of the earth and the fertile soil of our minds, as we grow in the presence of one another.”
Dunham worked as a consultant for the U.S. Agency for International Development, setting up a village credit program, and served as a Ford Foundation program officer in Jakarta, specializing in women’s work. She helped establish microfinancing networks in Pakistan, India and New York.
She joined Indonesia’s oldest bank to work on what was described as the world’s largest sustainable microfinance program to assist poor farmers and rural entrepreneurs with credit and savings projects.
While Dunham didn’t invent microfinancing, she was recognized for her keen ability to bridge the gap between peasant village workers and the financial institutions she persuaded to provide financial support.
“Ann made friends everywhere. She would come into a village and was part of the family,” Dewey recounted at the symposium. “She considered peasants just as important a people as those of high rank.”
Dunham’ fierce drive to improve the lives of those she stood shoulder to shoulder with was impressed upon her children, Dewey continued. “Ann brought Barry up in a world where it is complex and where you become appreciative of the culture that captures you.
“I think she was the hardest-working person I’ve ever met, and did it without seeming to be. If we have Barry as president and he works that hard, we’re fine.”