About Obama’s father

By: Belinda A. Aquino
Philippine Daily Inquirer

8:06 pm | Wednesday, June 22nd, 2011

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HONOLULU– A friend of mine inHawaiiwho read my recent commentary onUSPresident Barack Obama’s mother called to say it would be in keeping with the recently observed Father’s Day to write something about his father as well. My friend thinks Barack Obama Sr. has been getting a bum rap in the media as a womanizer, alcoholic, dead-beat father, an arrogant intellectual, and so on. He must have had a story, too.

I agree, and it’s only fair to hear the other side of the narrative.

Fortunately, through the Freedom of Information Act, many heretofore unknown details about the elder Obama have surfaced. After he went to Harvard to do his Ph.D. in economics, he never returned toHawaiito fetch his wife Ann Dunham and their baby Barry, now the president of theUnited States. After he passed his comprehensive exams in Harvard for his Ph.D. in 1964, he requested the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) to extend his visa to enable him to finish. And this was where his troubles began.

AP correspondent Bob Salsberg reports that Obama’s request was denied by the INS. He returned to his nativeKenyawithout finishing his doctorate. This must have been painful to him. Of course, his visa was terminated.

Evidently, Harvard had written a memo to the INS expressing concern about the elder Obama’s “personal life and finances.” But this was not the first time the INS was concerned. Back inHawaiiin 1961, when Obama Sr. was still an undergraduate, the INS inHonoluluwas informed that he had married Stanley Ann Dunham, despite the fact that he already had a wife inKenya. Apparently, he had told his adviser at the university that he had divorced his wife inKenya, the same thing he told his future wife Ann, except that he was not telling the truth.

Lying to immigration was punishable then as now. In 1964, the director of Harvard’s international office wrote Obama Sr. that while he had indeed finished the academic requirements for his Ph.D., his department in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences “did not have the money to support him.” The letter added, “We have therefore come to the conclusion that you should terminate your stay in theUnited Statesand return toKenyato carry on your research and the writing of your thesis.”

If you are a foreign student inAmerica, something like this sounds like a death sentence. It is not known whether he appealed the INS decision or not. In any case, he already had a previous record that could be counted against him. He could have consulted a lawyer but either he couldn’t afford one or it didn’t occur to him.

Frustrated and unable to stay in theUS, Obama Sr. returned toKenya. Even if he was allowed a grace period to stay, he probably was not in a financial position to send for his wife and son back inHawaii. In the first place, Ann had already divorced him, compounding his woes.

Back inKenya, he was reported to have married again a third time. Some media reports even talked about a fourth marriage. He worked as a government economist and also for an oil company. His problems with money to support his families must have added to his personal woes.

His personal as well as professional life deteriorated to an alarming degree, affecting his work. One night in 1982 as he was driving home, his car crashed head-on into a tree and he was killed. He was only 46.

His only visit back inHawaiihappened when Barack Jr. was already 10 years old. The latter would eventually write the book “Dreams from My Father,” which became a bestseller shortly before he ran for US president in 2008.

It was a tragic end because the father was one ofKenya’s most promising young intellectuals in the 1960s sent to theUSto prepare themselves for future leadership positions inKenya. He was, according to reports, a very frustrated man, which was perfectly understandable.

Now, about the rumor mills. It appears from facts now known that Obama Sr. did not exactly abandon his wife and son. In those days, as now, once the INS terminated your visit under suspicion of wrongdoing, you had to clear out as soon as you could. To defy the order was to invite deportation. The INS was not very sympathetic to his prolonged stay despite his academic promise. Harvard issued a disclaimer saying it could not find in its files the memo it was supposed to have sent to the INS objecting to Obama Jr.’s request.

As to reports that he was so drunk he drove his car into a tree, we will never know whether these are true or not. In any case, both he and his former wife Ann, had they lived to their 60s and 70s, would have been so thrilled that their little Barry would become president of the US, the first from African-American ranks to achieve this position and status in the world. It is so sad that they had to die so young, which is a reflection of the hard times they lived in.

(A retired professor of political science and Asian studies, Belinda A. Aquino was also the founding director of the Center for Philippine Studies at theUniversityofHawaiiat Manoa.)



Obama’s mother

By: Belinda A. Aquino
Philippine Daily Inquirer

11:13 pm | Saturday, June 11th, 2011

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HONOLULU– The end of a fascinating recently published book has President Barack Obama saying: “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. That’s precisely the naivete and idealism that was part of her. And that’s, I suppose, the naive idealism in me.”

Obama was reminiscing about his late mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, in a book written by journalist Janny Scott titled. “A Singular Woman.” It’s a riveting account of a feisty Kansas-born white woman with a curious mix of idealism and pragmatism. Scott interviewed about 200 people who knew Dunham intimately, including President Obama and his half-Indonesian half-sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng.

Her male first nameStanleyimmediately raises eyebrows. Her mother, Madelyn, was a Bette Davis fan and liked the film in which the actress played a character namedStanley. That was also the name of Ann’s father. But that was only the beginning of an extraordinary life for a girl born in 1942 that would spiral in and out ofKansastoHawaiitoIndonesiaand to many parts of the world. At age 17, she moved toHawaiiwith her parents, enrolled as a freshman at theUniversityofHawaii. And at 18, she married the first African graduate student, Barack Obama Sr., at the university, later giving birth to the future president ofAmerica, who was called Barry as a boy. At that time, interracial marriages were frowned upon or forbidden.

Barack Sr. went to Harvard to get his PhD and was supposed to send for his wife and Barry later. But the soon-to-be absentee husband returned instead to his nativeKenya, where he was already married before he went toHawaii.  In fact, he married again a third time on his return toKenya. It was many years before he saw Ann and Barry again.

Ann, meanwhile, had met another foreign student fromIndonesia, Lolo Soetoro, who was anEast-WestCentergrantee inHawaii.  She married him and joined him in Java, where she gave birth to Maya, who met her half-brother Barry only when he moved toIndonesiato be with the family.

But fate was unkind to the adventurous woman a second time around. Her marriage to Lolo didn’t work out either and they got divorced. It seemed Ann became more Indonesian as Lolo became more American. He worked for an American business firm in Java. Ann, determined to become an anthropologist, struggled to gather lots of field data on Indonesian village industries, like batik-making, to write up as a dissertation. She asked for extensions to finish her PhD and her understanding adviser, anthropology professor Alice Dewey, always obliged, knowing how talented Ann was.

So after two failed marriages with two young children needing care and education, an unfinished dissertation and an uncertain future, Ann immersed herself in work to tide her over. The Ford Foundation hired her and sent her to other places likeIndia,Bangladesh,PakistanandNew York, where she got involved in Women’s World Banking. Ann became an expert in microfinance, long before the term was invented, given her extensive expertise on Indonesian villages.

But her main priorities were Barry and Maya, and her love for them kept her going. She had home-schooled both of them inIndonesia, waking the boy at four in the morning to tutor him in his subjects. He would occasionally complain, but she would always say, “Look, buster, this is no picnic for me either.”

A workaholic, she barely slept, according to some friends. She was also messianic and was determined to help villagers improve their lives, crossing rivers and climbing mountains in remote places.

“She had an unusual ability to adapt,” notes Scott’s book. Despite her frenzied life, she never neglected her children. In 1984, she took Maya on a “grand tour” ofThailand,Bangladesh,IndiaandNepal. She constantly checked on Barry, now called Barack, arranging itineraries for him toHonolulu, to Java, to wherever he was at the time –Los Angeles,Columbiaand Harvard, where he was the first black president of the prestigious Harvard Law Review.

Ann was vainglorious about her “unusually gifted” son. She would continue to send him messages like, “If you want to grow into a human being, you’re going to need some values.” These values were shaped by her Midwestern roots and those of her adopted homeland,Indonesia. They include tolerance, compassion, hard work, discipline and caring for others.

The multiple stresses over her family stretching over oceans, her constant need for adequate financial resources, unfinished dissertation and work-related demands began to take a toll on her. She struggled to finish her dissertation now overdue by 20 years. Her adviser asked her to cut it down and focus on only one village industry. Still it spanned a thousand pages, a record in the annals of dissertation writing anywhere. Meanwhile, her father, Stanley Dunham, who had taken care of Barack in his teens inHawaii, died. Her mother was left alone occasionally taking care of Maya. In 1995, Ann fell ill with what was diagnosed as uterine cancer. Dreading gynecologists, she had ignored increasing signs of pain. Compounding her misery, she was denied disability benefits.

She died at age 52 with Maya and her mother at her side. Barack flew home toHonolulufromChicagowhere he was elected state legislator. In a solemn ceremony, he and Maya went over to their favorite beach on southeastOahuto scatter their mother’s ashes into the sea and wind – and into eternity.

What an incredible life indeed for a woman unlike any other. It was a bittersweet life and what was so sad was that, she didn’t live long enough to see her little boy Barry become the first African-American president of the United States. She would have been so proud!

Retired professor of political Science and Asian Studies, Belinda A. Aquino was also director of the Center for Philippine Studies at theUniversityofHawaiiat Manoa.