Growing the seeds of greatness

Interview with Barack Obama’s sister Maya Soetoro-Ng, from the Irish Examiner back in April.

LIKE many American presidents before him, Barack Obama never knowingly plays down his Irish roots.

On his whistle-stop Irish tour next month, Obama will pay a long overdue visit to Moneygall, the picturesque Offaly village that his great-great-great grandfather, shoemaker Fulmuth Kearney, left for New York in 1850.

Moneygall is a far cry from Honolulu, the Hawaiian city where the 44th President was born and raised, but Obama is likely to feel perfectly at home in Offaly. He has an ease about him no matter what the situation, says the woman who has known him since childhood — his half-sister Maya Soetoro-Ng.

“He is a really relaxed guy, he is comfortable in almost every situation and doesn’t take himself too seriously,” she says.

Barack and Maya share a rich, diverse background that encompasses Moneygall, Honolulu and just about everywhere in between. Obama’s parents — Barack Obama Sr, a black man from a poor village in Kenya, and Ann Dunham, a white woman whose parents grew up in Kansas — met at the University of Hawaii and married soon after. He was born on August 4, 1961.

The marriage didn’t last, however, and Barack Sr later returned to Kenya, where he worked as a government economist before his death in a car accident when his son was 21.

When Obama was six, his mother married Lolo Soetoro, an Indonesian foreign student. Maya, named after the poet Maya Angelou, is a product of their relationship. The family moved to Jakarta, but, after four years, Obama returned to Hawaii to live with his grandparents and attend middle school.

Maya, an amiable, chatty lecturer in multicultural education at Hawaii university, believes that these early years were formative for the future president. “I do often marvel at our particular journey,” she says, speaking on the phone from New York where she is busy promoting Ladder to the Moon, her beautifully illustrated new children’s book, inspired by her late mother Ann Dunham.

“I think of all the layers of life, meaning, history that is tied up in (our family story). There’s so many connections: Hawaii; Indonesia and Kenya; Chicago and Washington. I feel like that has given my brother and I a remarkable perspective, it has taught us to always keep the bigger picture in our heads,” she remarks in the same deep, sonorous voice that has become her brother’s trademark.

By any standards, Ann Dunham, who died of ovarian cancer in 1995 at the age of just 52, was a remarkable woman. Despite growing up in the Midwest, Dunham, who was twice married and divorced, spent most of her adult life in Hawaii and Indonesia. She was a teenage mother who later gained a PhD in anthropology and, towards the end of her life, worked as a research consultant at Indonesia’s largest bank.

In the run-up to the 2008 presidential election, Barack, who once described his mother as the constant in his life, told Time magazine: “When I think about my mother, I think that there was a certain combination of being very grounded in who she was, what she believed in. But also a certain recklessness. I think she was always searching for something. She wasn’t comfortable seeing her life confined to a certain box.”

Ann Dunham’s unorthodox approach to life was reflected in her imaginative approach to childrearing.

“There was lots of storytelling, lots of play,” Maya recalls. “She would get down on the floor and really play with my brother and me. She even built us a kiln in the back garden for making pottery.”

Passionate about her professional work, Dunham was a sympathetic mother, too, drawing on experiences from her own childhood in rural Kansas to connect with her two children.

“She was a storyteller. She would tell us about making up stories based on the clouds in the sky when she was a girl, or of sitting with a copy of National Geographic in a tree and imagining herself in foreign places.”

Barack was nine when Maya was born, and although they only lived together for a couple of years, his younger sister still has memories of their time in Hawaii. “I can remember the apartment where we lived, the three of us. I remember my brother watching basketball and trying to get in front of him to get his attention — I still remember how much it annoyed him.”

Obama spent summer and Christmas holidays with his mother and sister but it was only much later, when Maya was 14, that the family was finally reunited in Hawaii.

After Obama had graduated from Columbia University he began working as a community organiser in Chicago, and Maya spent a summer with her big — and by now rather strait-laced — brother. “He was very serious back then,” Maya says, reflecting back on a time when her brother helped her choose where to study, introduced her to the writings of Toni Morrison and Gabriel Garcia Marquez and even enrolled his younger sister in a dance class.

“In college he became very serious, very philosophical. That was the time when he was collecting the building blocks for the future. Only later did he start lightening up,” she laughs.

Maya attributes Barack’s sunnier disposition in part to the resolution of the search for his own identity. In his 1995 memoir, Dreams from My Father, the future commander-in-chief describes feeling like a misfit in his Indonesian sandals and old-fashioned clothes when he started at school in Hawaii. As one of the few black students at Punahou he recalls students wanting to touch his hair and being asked whether his father ate people.

Struggling with his racial identity, Obama formed an image of his absent father from stories told by his mother and her parents. “My brother had to go and search for his father — which is the journey characterised in Dreams From My Father. I think he had to do that, particularly as a boy, but once he had made that journey he was OK,” says Maya.

The bond between Barack and Maya is still strong: he helped Maya get over the death of her father and spoke at her wedding to Konrad Ng, a Chinese American professor. Maya also has fond memories of working on Obama’s legendary ‘Change We Can Believe In’ campaign team in 2008.

“People had a sense that this was our future, they were asking ‘How can I make a contribution?’, ‘How can I help the broader community?’. It was a very exciting time.”

So much so that in the downtime during the gruelling campaign Maya penned Ladder to the Moon in the Obama’s Chicago home.

“I first thought about writing a story about mom when I was becoming a mom myself. It was only then that I actually did it.”

With military involvement in Libya, internal problems on Capitol Hill and, of course, that trip to Moneygall, Barack certainly has plenty on his plate right now with but the siblings stay in regular phone contact and Maya feels nothing but pride for her brother’s achievements.

“I think he is a great president and a great man. I’m proud not just of his position but his conduct, his efforts and his character under really difficult circumstances.

“I think there definitely have been easier times to be president.”