presidential campaign is well underway, and Indonesia has a horse in
the race. Illinois Senator Barack Obama, a Democrat, lived in
Jakarta for about four years as a child. Trish Anderton
visited his old neighborhood to explore how that might shape his
outlook as a politician.
The power of a
I have to go to Jl. Haji Ramli in Central Jakarta three times
before I begin to pick up Barack Obama's trail. I wander the narrow
street's many twists and turns, asking everybody if they know someone
who's lived in the neighborhood for a long time. Usually this works
like a charm, but here I get a lot of blank looks.
changed a lot," one man tells me. "Most of the older people have died.
New people have moved in."
work, and the weather doesn't help. Apparently Menteng Dalam in April
has only two modes: hot as a blast oven or raining like crazy.
Then I find Bu Is,
and I am saved.
is every inch a teacher, from her shiny cap of black hair to her
sensible shoes. In an office at the
she shows me an old register with an entry for Barry Soetoro, as
Barack Obama was know then. Bu Is taught Obama in the first grade. She
admits she doesn't remember all her students well, but Barry ... well,
he stood out.
"He really was
different from the others. He was tall and heavy, black skin, curly
with Indonesian, she says, but he was clearly a bright kid, especially
at math. He had natural leadership qualities, she adds; other kids
followed him around during playtime. "Barack ran somewhere, they
went. He ran somewhere else, they followed."
Israella gives me
the number of an old classmate of Obama's, Yunaldi Askiar. I call, but
he says he can't see me for the next couple of days; he has family
obligations. I'm dying inside because I'm already behind deadline, but
I can't bring myself to twist his arm.
The next day,
Israella and I are walking down the street when she spots Yunaldi's
house. "Wait," she says with a little smile. "I'm his teacher. He has
to come out." She stands at the front gate and calls his name. It's
been 40 years since Yunaldi was in the first grade, but he comes out.
Such is the power of Bu Is.
One long adventure
Barack Obama was
born to a white American mother and a black Kenyan father. The couple
split up when he was two years old. Then his mother fell in love with
an Indonesian named Lolo Soetoro. She married him and moved with
Obama to Jakarta in 1967.
shielded in an expat bubble. He played with Indonesian kids and went
to Indonesian schools. But his mother's marriage failed, and Obama
moved to Hawaii to live with his grandparents. He grew up to become a
community organizer and eventually a Democratic senator and
In his memoir,
Dreams from My Father, Obama describes his Indonesian interlude as
"one long adventure, the bounty of a young boy's life". But he also
recalls being troubled by the poverty around him: "the empty look on
the faces of farmers the year the rains never came," and the
desperation of the disabled beggars who came to the family's door.
"The world was
violent, I was learning, unpredictable and often cruel," he writes.
That may be the best lesson for an American president to learn. On the
other hand, it may be the worst.
telling the truth; he did have family obligations. He's hanging out
with his brothers, just like he did when he was a kid. They all
remember Obama. Soon I'm sitting on the floor with them, listening to
stories of childhood adventures.
Jl. Haji Ramli
really has changed. Back then it was just a dirt road. The
neighborhood kids played soccer and staged swordfights with bamboo in
the middle of the street. They also staged fistfights, pitting boys
of similar size against each other. Johnny Askiar's voice is still
filled with wonder as he recalls the feeling of hitting Obama's skull.
"Barry's head was
really hard," he says. "My hand would hurt when I hit it. It was like
iron, that head."
A useful quality
in a president, perhaps?
The Askiars speak
about Obama with what feels like genuine fondness, but as kids they
weren't above taking advantage of his status as an outsider.
"Sometimes we'd say, 'Barry, do you want a chocolate?’ And we'd give
him a chocolate. The next day we'd give him a chocolate again. The
third time we'd give him terasi (fermented shrimp paste)
wrapped up like chocolate," remembers Harmon Askiar.
Obama didn't get
mad, they say. He would laugh it off.
Johnny and his
brother Harmon pose for a picture outside with Bu Is. Then Johnny
walks me down to Obama's old house. It's hidden behind a black gate,
but he says it looks pretty much like it used to. After that he takes
me on his motorbike to a little muddy pond where they used to swim.
But the pond isn't there anymore; it's been filled in to build
"The water was
yellow, it was river water. It was clean, there weren't chemicals in
it," says Johnny. Still, they had to hide their swimming trips from
their mothers, who thought the water was unhealthy.
We stand for a
moment longer, looking at someone's driveway and a cat sleeping under
an SUV. I imagine little kids jumping out of now-disappeared trees
into the now-disappeared water. It's something I've seen before in
Jakarta: proof that change isn't always progress. That's
another good lesson for a politician.
A 3-D view of
Other than John
McCain, who was a prisoner in
during the war, Obama is the only U.S. presidential candidate for
2008 who has lived abroad – which is a pretty sad statement on
American politics, if you ask me.
How might his time
in Jakarta shape him as a politician? Even though he was young, Ruth
van Reken, who studies international childhoods, says he would still
emerge from the experience with a broader outlook.
"He has a 3-D view
of the news," says van Reken on the phone from the U.S. She argues
kids who live abroad feel a connection with that country for the rest
of their lives.
"His life was
shaped in that world. and he knew it intuitively even if he didn't
know it mentally," she says. "The mental part comes later, you look
back and say ‘yeah, I saw that’."
abroad gives you insights into your own country. Obama describes
drawing on his Indonesian experience as a community organizer in
Chicago. Contemplating the breakdown of social order in that city's
notorious public housing projects, he remembered the indigent hawkers
at Indonesian marketplaces: they were poor, he wrote in his memoir,
but "there remained in their lives a discernible order, a tapestry of
trading routes and middlemen … the habits of a generation played out
every day beneath the bargaining and the noise and the swirling dust."
Why had the
residents of housing projects lost this sense of connection, he
wondered, and how could it be restored?
Sometimes you have
to go around the world to see what's in front of your face.
Does that make Obama the best candidate? Of course not. There's no
simple equation to translate childhood experience into presidential
performance. And living abroad is a complicated and sometimes
disturbing experience. Obama clearly stuck out in his old
neighborhood; he was teased because he was different, and that sense
of being an outsider can have lasting impacts.
Still, I'm drawn to the idea of an American president who can wear a
sarong with style, and who feels nostalgic when he hears the call to
prayer. And wouldn't it be fun if the White House started serving
rendang and gado-gado at state dinners?
Will voters in the U.S. find that idea appetizing, and can Obama turn
experience into a Washington advantage? Americans and Indonesians –
especially a generous handful in Menteng Dalam -- will be watching
closely to find out.