Another BNN  blogger has posted a smear job on Senator Obama’s mother that is beyond the pale. Such things are for the Huffpost or Andrew Sullivan, not those of use who are lowly observers of the world.

Yet how many people actually know the real story of Senator Obama’s parents? Not the propaganda job at the convention, but the reality.

Many know only his version of his parent’s story, which is filtered through the eyes of a child, and rewritten to explain Senator Obama’s finding himself and finding his calling in life. An example of this story is the Vanity Fair article, that many of you have probably read, or his books.

Ah, but what about those who knew the parent before their offspring was famous? And here the press is missing a big story.

In some ways, her life parallels the story of President Clinton’s mother: marrying young and then trying to raise a child as a single mom while she completed her education, so as to better raise her child. Such a challenge requires grit, and help from loving family.

I had assumed her degree and work was superficial, sort of a do gooder who got lots of grants to publish nonsense to fit the trendy anthropology journals.(Having worked with Native Americans, my skepticism of anthropologists is high). But I was wrong:

The University of Hawaii held a symposium that discussed the work of Professor Dunham.

So what was she doing when Barry was growing up in Indonesia?

An anthropologist who specialized in handicrafts and rural development, Dunham helped pioneer “microfinance” in Indonesia, getting villagers small loans so they could build cottage industries to preserve native crafts and pull themselves out of poverty….

Dunham’s personal knowledge of handicrafts, down to the mechanics of making them and the challenges of finding materials, allowed her to persuade banks to extend loans of the right size at the right time, Dewey said. Dunham worked as a program officer for the Ford Foundation and as research coordinator for Bank Rakyat Indonesia but was most at home in rural villages.

You just don’t go into villages and find out these things, even in friendly Indonesia. You have to know the language and customs so that people open up to you. Her doctoral thesis was on blacksmithing, not something simple. The Honolulu advertiser article goes into details on how she investigated not only the technique but the culture behind making knives and implements, and recognized how small loans would allow them to be able to improve their standard of living.

This is called “microfinance” and is now common in SouthEast Asia. It helps with loans to farmers for fertilizer and seeds, or to vendors to buy supplies, carts, or tricycles to move supplies.

As for the “native crafts to pull themselves out of poverty”: well, here I see it two ways. The ultimate solution to poverty is globalization, and culture change (for better or worse).But one of the side effects of globalization is destruction of culture, and another is the “wealth gap” between rich (city/factory) and poor (rural/village).

A good government (as here in the Philippines we have village livelihood projects) helps the locals use their skills to earn income: local crafts often can sell for a good price in foreign markets, but you need supplies and logistics to get them there.  In addition, a good businessman can use local skills to make upscale products: using skills in rattan weaving to make modern style furniture is an example.

Dunham was a pioneer in getting such things started in Indonesia.

Some might criticize her that after her second marriage failed, that she left her son with his grandparents to raise. Yet I see it in two ways: One, if she was working in rural Asia, he would have to be sent to boarding school to get a decent education. Many missionaries face this problem. So Professor Dunham decided: Better to stay with family in Hawaii than be alone in a strange school. And two: A boy in his teen years needs a father figure to help him through puberty. Who better than his grandfather?


The search for Senator Obama’s father is more intricate. A superficial reading sees him as an ambitious student who gets his education, leaves a few kids behind, goes home, never adjusts to his country after living abroad, becomes an alcoholic, and dies.

The real story is, of course, much more intricate. From an article at

For example, take the question: Was the Senator’s father married in Kenya? Was he a polygamist?

Let me explain some cultural background:  Often a an African young man will marry a local spouse,  but not take her with him to study. Many then marry a “white” bride and bring her home. Not much different than American soldiers bringing home wives from overseas. Americans divorce and give alimony. In Africa, polygamy is traditional, and practical for countries where women cannot support themselves without a spouse.

When I worked in Liberia, many ambitious businessmen or doctors had “white” wives as part of their business culture: She was expected to help run the business, and be beautiful and help him with contacts in the “new” world of an independent Africa. But many of these men had traditional wives on the side, or if they were Christians, mistresses, who served their need for a more traditional homelife.

So Senator Obama’s father was full of idealism and desire to better himself and his country. He obtained a Fullbright scholarship to get an advanced degree in business and economics. When he fell in love with a local student, and she became pregnant, he did the right thing: He married her, and always kept in touch with her and his child.

But when he moved on to Harvard, she didn’t follow. Why? Ah, that is really none of our business. Such young marriages rarely succeed.

More cultural background: The stresses of an African in the US goes way beyond racism. African culture is that of an extended family, where you know everyone, you know how to act with everyone, and you know your place in the world. In America, students are often isolated, friendless, and not sure how to react to simple everyday interactions. African students, placed into a large lonely university, often fall into depression or alcoholism from loneliness and culture shock.

Another cultural aside: the Senator’s parents met in Russian language class.This does not mean that he was a communist sympathizer. One needs to know that back then, Russia was offering many African students full scholarships, even for advanced degrees. By knowing Russian, he could better continue his education if the American scholarship ended for any reason.

The Boston article has much more information, including Barack Sr.’s success in Kenya.

What ultimately destroyed him was politics.

Cultural background: In many African countries, the parties are tribally based. As a Luo, Barack Sr. would be excluded from a decent job since the administration was Kikuyu.

Then when he witnessed the political murder of his best friend and mentor, he decided to testify against the murderers. That act of courage meant the government would never hire him, leaving him frustrated and unable to use his talents (and  worrying he would become another “unsolved murder”).

Alcoholism might have been the diagnosis on the death certificate, but he was a dreamer of African dreams, unable to use his talents and lost in a world that didn’t want him. His life could be summarized with the words by another black poet:

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run?…
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?

So the stem and roots of Senator Obama go deep, and are a complicated blend of idealism frustrated by reality of life.

No, not the messiah, but a dreamer, child of dreamers.

I disagree with Senator Obama’s policies, and shudder at the danger to America should his naive dreams hit the reality of evil in the world. But one at least has to see where he is coming from to see where he might go.


Nancy Reyes is a physician living in the rural Philippines. She blogs at MakaipaBlog.

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