Ann Dunham's 'Surviving Against the Odds' Published: The Dreams of Obama's Mother Come to Light
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
Almost 20 years after she completed her doctoral dissertation and 15 years after she prematurely passed away due to cancer, S Ann Dunham's dream to publish her life's work has finally been realized.
Due partly to the efforts of an esteemed group of economic and cultural anthropologists, who worked with her for more than 30 years, and in no small measure to the new-found fame of her children, Barack Obama and Maya Soetoro-Ng, her research in the remote villages of Java has found a growing audience that even she could not have imagined.
Caught between the Beat generation and the hippies, Dunham was a product of the radical ideals of the 1960s and raised her children with the same idealism and values, recalled Alice Dewey, professor of anthropology at the University of Hawaii, who was a mentor and friend of Dunham.
When US President Barack Obama accepted the Noble Peace Prize, he fulfilled one of the cherished dreams of his mother to be a peacemaker. "She would be so proud of him right now," said Alice Dewey as she became tearful. "Ann Dunham was becoming well known in her own right and getting recognized for her development work before she passed away.
"She worked until her very last days from the sick bed, calling and e-mailing Bank Rakyat Indonesia in Jakarta, to ensure her projects were on track," said Dewey. Almost a year before her death, Dunham had prepared her organization to attend the United Nations' conference on women in Beijing. She did not make it to the conference - where Hillary Clinton, then first lady, was the keynote speaker - as she was struggling with the last bouts of cancer,
Her book, Surviving against the Odds, is a testament to her lifelong passion for working for the development of rural populations around the world. The book, which consists of only half of her dissertation, has six densely packed chapters. The introduction presents a review of the economic anthropology of rural Indonesia.
Against the backdrop of top-down Asian development programs of the 1970s, on the one hand, and academic anthropology focused exclusively on low-wetland rice production, on the other, she outlines the scope of the non-agricultural sector, specifically, blacksmithing in six different villages.
While she documents the rise of blacksmithing as a cottage industry, her focus is on the special craft of sword making or keris, which carries great symbolic importance in Indonesian society.
Chapter two presents the socioeconomic organization of metalworking industries, examining the clusters of enterprise units and how manufacturing, service and repair are organized among them. Dunham corrects the broad-stroke characterization of the Javanese economy as backward, tradition-bound and irrational or not driven by the basic principles of economics, a view propagated by leading academics. She demonstrates that even the rural hinterlands of Java were driven by "capital as the engine of stratification".
Chapter three presents a relatively detailed view of a blacksmithing village, Kajar, in Yogyakarta. Kajar is a large and well-stratified village, located in a dry agricultural region and thus relies on cassava as opposed to rice as its principal crop.
Dunham spent almost 15 years intermittently collecting data in this village. She documents in painstaking detail some of the sociocultural and demographic changes that have occurred during the late 1970s to the early 1990s. The agricultural resource base continued to shrink due to population growth, which drove villagers to non-agricultural occupations.
The subsistence economy shifted towards a mixed production mode due to endogenous as well as external government pressures. Due to financial support from development agencies and the arrival electricity and automobiles, blacksmithing continued to expand. Dunham documents change in the basic technology of blacksmithing as smiths acquired new machinery for metal blowing and finishing. Some of the villagers become savvy about selling their products and how best to market their skills through local cooperatives.
Chapter four considers the future of metalworking industries in Indonesia with special emphasis on development planning and aid agencies. Dunham makes it clear that villagers are not passive participants in the development projects. They pick and chose development projects based on cost-benefit analysis to suit their needs and goals. While this chapter is full of macro-level census data, it presents several time-series trends that document a shift away from agriculture towards household cottage industries, especially, metalworking.
Metalworking is more capital intensive and delivers a greater return on investment. Thus, Dunham in interested in the role of micro-credits as a successful government intervention in supporting local entrepreneurs.
Chapter five explores the history of government interventions, the export and import protections, and their impact on local industries, especially, metalworking. Dunham comes down on the side of greater protections for local industries against the competition from East Asian and other economies. This is the most policy-oriented chapter in the book and provides a glimpse of how well versed Dunham was in the operations of the Indonesian political economy.
Like her mother, Madelyn Dunham, who was a vice president of escrow accounts at the Bank of Hawaii, Dunham had developed a keen interest in tariffs, banking and regulation policy while working at the Bank Rakyat Indonesia in Jakarta.
In the final chapter, Dunham challenges the notion of "economic dualism" then prevalent in academic anthropology, which suggests that the natives are somehow incapable of imagining their world in economic terms, driven by capital and "the profit motive".
Dunham takes on the writings of J H Boeke and Clifford Geertz, along with the historical founders of economic anthropology. She claims "the small and household metalworking industries coexist within the same villages and form a single socioeconomic and cultural complex".
On a more personal note, the book contains a preface by Maya Soetoro-Ng, Obama's sister, which contains nuggets of insights about her mother's life and work. She states, "I had a marvelous time as a child, surrounded by pictures of anvils and forges, and stories about the magic of fire. My mother taught me to differentiate between truly fine keris blade with its many layers subtly interwoven, and a sloppily crafted unrefined blade." The immediate sense that Dunham truly respected and understood Javanese village communities comes through her daughter's testimonials.
The editor's note by professors Alice Dewey and Nancy Cooper places Dunham's work in the larger context of economic anthropology of Indonesia. Both portray Dunham as a humanist and not just an armchair theoretician or an academic; she deeply cared about local people and was driven to make a difference in the daily lives of populations around the world. This is a theme that consistently runs through Barack Obama's life as well.
When I spoke with another one of her colleagues, Kay Ikranagara, at the Academy of Educational Development in Jakarta about Dunham's cultural and literary heroes, she said Dunham was really a social activist and a peacenik influenced by the philosophies of Indian pacifist Mahatma Gandhi and American activist Dr Martin Luther King. Both Ann and Kay married Indonesian men and worked together in Jakarta in the early 1970s. Eventually, both became applied anthropologists for international development agencies and remained friends over three decades.
The link between Gandhi and King is well known in the history of the civil rights movement, but how it has played out in the life of the first black president through early socialization is not well understood. This unique mother-son relationship highlights how the revolutionary ideals of the 1960s were generationally transmitted by a peace-corps-loving liberal white woman from the Midwest, who came of age in Seattle and Hawaii but spent most of her adult life in the villages of Indonesia. As she used to joke with her friends, a little girl from Kansas was not supposed to be such a path-breaker, but in her own way Dunham charted her own course.
Dunham's interest in the small-scale local development projects was influenced by Gandhi's philosophy of supporting small-scale cottage industries against the onslaught of large-scale industrialization. Gandhi's popular image of spinning the homespun cotton was not just a photo opportunity for Life magazine; it was a lifestyle. Likewise, Dunham was a weaver and a collector of batik textiles; she believed in supporting local artisans, craftsmen and blacksmiths. E F Schumacher's Buddhist economic mantra, "small is beautiful", described her mission statement perfectly.
Robert Hefner, an anthropologist at Boston University, who has written an afterward to the book, remembers Dunham's work fondly. At her book launch, held at the American Anthropological Association's annual meeting in December 2009, he said, "She was documenting small facts to tell the larger truths" about the lives of Indonesian villagers.
Her passion for working with the rural poor in Indonesia was founded on her belief in equality, King, and the civil rights movement; her choices in life partners were a reflection of this commitment. Barack Obama literally grew up in the field; when Dunham traveled around the islands of Indonesia and to other cultures both Barack and his sister Maya often accompanied her.
In a recent interview, Dewey bluntly told me that Barack Obama deserved the Nobel Peace Prize for putting an end to the policies that pitted America in a "stupid" death match with other cultures. She said his mother above all was a humanist before she was an anthropologist; not a little Margaret Mead, but perhaps a junior Dorothy Day.
"He learned from her that if you did the right things in the local cultures with everyday people that over time you could a make positive difference in people's lives," Dewey said.
Dunham would often work on a dozen or more development projects at a time, ranging from helping women's literacy development to working with local artisans to secure micro-credits or modest loans. This was long before micro lending to the poor became the hot trend in global economics and probably shortly after Muhammad Yunus, the Noble laureate economist, began his work in Bangladesh.
An Australian art historian and curator at the University of Hawaii, Bronwen Solyom, who also worked in Indonesia with Dunham and provided most of the photographs displayed in the book, suggested that she did not have any particular theory of social and economic justice. She was really interested in people; she was a humanitarian. While she wrote a 1,000-page dissertation on economic anthropology, reformers like Gandhi and King, the archetypes of non-violent social change, inspired her.
After reviewing Dunham's book and speaking with her circle of friends and colleagues, it dawned on me that the role of the peacemaker, with a heightened ability to deploy soft power as a political tool, is not just an abstract idea or a strategy for President Obama. It seems to be neither a clever gimmick nor a hopefully naive, idealistic and doomed-to-fail policy designed by White House analysts.
This runs deeper; it is in his DNA. Part and parcel of an inheritance that harkens back to his mother's early socialization, the role of the peacemaker is a product of a transmuted, intergenerational dream of changing the world one village at a time. His mother's unfinished dreams, albeit tenuously, still bind the elements of Obama's foreign and domestic policies with his political identity.