Obama’s Sister Goes Campaigning
Wednesday - September 12, 2007
Maya Soetoro Ng
On Nov. 1, Maya Soetoro Ng flies to Chicago to help out her big brother. Her big brother isn’t just anybody’s big brother. His name is Barack Obama, and he’s one of the biggest names in next year’s presidential sweepstakes.
Maya Soetoro Ng figures she owes him.
“My mother and father separated when I was 5,” she remembers. “Barack took over a parenting role. He nurtured me intellectually and artistically. He introduced me to good literature and music.
“And he offered guidance; he was never pushy, but he was firm. Barack was the one who took me on a college tour: Wisconsin and Michigan, Barnard in New York. He gave me a sense of entitlement that he felt we all should have no matter what our backgrounds.”
Barack Obama and Maya Soetoro shared a mother, Ann Dunham, the daughter of Stanley and Madelyn Dunham, a Kansas couple who had relocated to Hawaii after World War II.
Obama was the issue of Dunham and her first husband, the senior Barack Obama, a Kenyan foreign student at UHManoa where Ann was an undergraduate.
The Obama-Dunham marriage didn’t last long. Subsequently, Dunham wed Lolo Soetoro, a UH foreign student from Indonesia. They married and named their infant daughter Maya.
Soetoro studied geography at UH on an Indonesian government scholarship, but political instability in that country resulted in its foreign students being called home. Barack, sister Maya, and their mother followed him in 1967.
Barack attended school there from age 6 to 10 before returning to Hawaii to live with his grandparents, and attend Punahou School. Mother Ann and sister Maya wouldn’t be far behind. The Soetoros separated after five years, divorced after nine.
Maya remembers Barack’s Punahou years.
“Barack was a regular kid. He surfed, played ball, hung with his buddies. They’d often come to our place and eat all the food my Mother had bought. He wasn’t an overly serious kid, but he always had a rich interior life. He thought a lot.”
Maya, nine years her broth-er’s junior, liked spending time with Barack and his buddies.
“I pestered him and his friends,” she admits. “I was an effective irritant. When he was watching a basketball game on television, I’d stand in front of the TV and demand he pay attention to me. But he was always patient with me, always nurturing.
“After my parents divorced, he helped take care of us all. Living with my grandparents in high school, I think he learned a certain gentleness. Wherever he was after high school, he always wrote and called. I received marvelous letters from him.”
When she was in high school herself, Maya spent the summers of 1986 and 1987 with her brother in his Chicago apartment. Obama was working as a community organizer, but he took time to show sister Maya the city.
“We hung out at the famous 57th Street bookstore in Hyde Park,” she remembers. “We went to jazz clubs. He showed me the projects where he was working. He even took me to church - Trinity United Church of Christ. I had never been to church before.”
Maya Soetoro credits her mother with her brother’s idealism - and his practicality.
“She did micro-financing and rural credit projects, mostly in Southeast Asia,” she says. “She worked with women in basketry and weaving. She went to Ghana, India, Thailand, Indonesia, Nepal, Bangladesh.
“My mother was incredibly brave. She saw life as a series of adventures. She wanted to remedy the world’s poverty and injustice; but she was an idealist who took action. She believed that with enough perseverance and enough industry change happens.” Ann Dunham died in 1995 of ovarian cancer.
Dunham also instilled her children with a love of learning. She earned three degrees from the University of Hawaii, including a doctorate in anthropology. Her son graduated from Columbia and earned a law degree from Harvard; her daughter received her doctorate in educational foundations at Manoa.
In Chicago, Maya Soetoro will receive her itinerary from Obama’s campaign headquarters and then head out for Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada to give talks on her brother’s behalf. For the first two weeks of her sojourn, she’ll leave 3-year-old daughter Sukaila with her husband, Konrad Ng, a UH professor. Then Sukaila will join her in Chicago and enjoy the company of Obama’s two daughters.
What will Soetoro tell Iowa’s voters about her brother?
“I’ll urge them to get to know him. That he speaks the truth, and that it’s doable truth. That he has common sense, and that he’s worked with every level of society - as a teacher, a lawyer, a writer, an organizer, an elected official.
“And that he’s genuine, that he’s utterly himself. That’s he’s strong and brave and honest and idealistic, but practical.”
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