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Indonesia's Obama dreaming

Indonesia's.Obama.Celebration, Flickr image by gronozIf you are in one of the big cities in Indonesia, you'll find that most taxi drivers want to talk about the new president in the USA. In fact, they have been since Barack Obama won the election last November.

Indonesia, like many other countries in the Asia Pacific region, has always been interested in US political development. So, on the face of it, the interest in last year's election campaigns was nothing unusual. But it was. Unusually personal, even swelling with emotion. Indonesians collectively felt proud as they watched Barack Obama approaching the White House, step by step, so to speak.

It is true Obama spent four years of his childhood in Jakarta. So what? Many Americans, Australians, Dutch, and other Western children spent as many, if not more, years in Indonesia. Yet generally, Indonesians have not been aware or cared if any of them reached the constellation of power in their respective countries.

Most such children live in Indonesia but are not grounded in the community. They go to international schools, mix with other expatriate children, probably have one or two local friends in their wealthy neighbourhood. Some grow up to be part of Indonesian society. But many more grow out of it soon after they leave Indonesia.

Barack Obama, known then as Barry Soetoro (his mother, Ann Dunham, had married Indonesian Lolo Soetoro after her divorce from Barack Obama Senior), lived with his parents and his younger half-sister, Maya, in the long established Jakarta suburb of Menteng. Their neighbours, though mostly of the comfortable middle-class, were neither rich expatriates nor filthy rich locals. In fact, both Ann and Lolo worked.

Barry went to a local Catholic school for the first two years, then to a local primary school for the remaining two. He did not go to an international school. His friends were mostly Indonesian school mates and neighbourhood children. If he did not make it in time to catch the company minibus which picked up his mother, Saman, a man employed by Ann Dunham to take care of him, would take him to school as a pillion passenger on his bicycle.

Barry lived so close to the ground that Saman, as well as his former neighbours, have vivid memories of him. Saman remembers that when taking him to school on his bicycle, Barry would yell back 'Hoooo, hicks' at children who teased him with 'Negro! Negro!' 

Saman was not a valet who did chores for him. Young Barry's mother gave him tasks to complete before and after school and made sure they were done. If not, the boy would be sent to his room without dinner. Before taking a bath, too, Barry had to draw water from the well himself.

His former schoolmates, who are now living in different cities in Indonesia, all say that Barry had no choice but to eat whatever was put in front of him at meal times. Sometimes the family would have very simple dinners, such as rice, salted fish and chilli. Barry ate them without complaining, even with gusto, his friends recall.

His sister Maya recounted that he sometimes donned a sarong and played with Muslim children at the local mosque, though he himself was not a Muslim.

So after the four years he lived in Indonesia, the country, the people and the culture left their marks on Barack Obama. He too left his marks on the community in which he and his family lived and, by extension, on Jakarta and Indonesia in general.

He learned about being different without being apart. The other children teased him for being darker than most of them, but accepted him. He learned unselfconsciously to live closely with people of another religion. He acquired mental agility and a natural awareness of a culture which would later not be his own, all the while leaving inspiring affection in those he left behind.

The effect of his election win on Indonesia's psyche is also important. September 11 shocked Indonesia, especially when the first Bali bombing followed a year later. But many Indonesians were increasingly dismayed by the United States reaction, which effectively targeted and alienated Muslims.

Hardliners opposed to political reform in Indonesia observed how the US, hitherto regarded as the vanguard of democracy, bypassed democratic principles and built an off-shore prison in Guantanamo Bay where it kept terror suspects for years on end without trial.

They then claimed that they were justified in their stance. Democracy, they said, was an American trickery. It had no place in Indonesia. The way to rid of a government which made life difficult for you was to topple it by force.

Obama's win, something few people would have believed possibile even ten years ago, showed them that they were wrong. You can effect change by democratic means. More importantly, this message was not preached at them but demonstrated in actuality.

Dewi AnggraeniDewi Anggraeni is a novelist and journalist. In March 2007, Equinox Publishing and the International Labour Organisation in Jakarta published Dreamseekers, her eighth book.

Topic tags: Dewi Anggraeni, Barack Obama, Indonesia, Barry Soetoro, democracy



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Existing comments

This is a most valuable insight into the making of a President. When the mud begins to fly, let the children be reminded of what Barack achieved when a young boy

ray O'Donoghue | 22 January 2009  

a very nice piece Dewi. It's always a pleasure to see you in the pages of Eureka Street.

James M | 23 January 2009  

Very well wrote me dear.

christopher rabbitt | 24 February 2009  

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