For Which It Stands: Indonesia


JAKARTA — All the other nine-year-olds were fascinated by him. He was different in almost every way.

They teased him endlessly about his thick, curly hair that would snap back into place when they pulled it. They marveled at how he wrote and colored with his left hand. He was the tallest, and by most accounts the chubbiest in the class. He was black. And he was an American attending public school in Jakarta.

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This is how Barack Obama's former elementary school classmates remember him. They remember an energetic little boy who got along easily with others, who managed to somehow fit in despite his incredible differences. They recognized, even at that young age, that Barry — as they knew him — was exceptionally tolerant and understanding of all the things that made up his new, often complicated world. They liked that about him then, just as they like that about him now, as he assumes the presidency of the United States.

"There was nothing exclusive about him," said Sandra Sambuaga one of his former classmates. "He wasn't a typical foreigner that has lots of money and is flashy. He actually blended in."

The election of Obama has excited Indonesians around the country, just as it has people around the world. But for many people here, Obama's personal connections to this diverse country bring special meaning, such as his first-hand experiences with Islam and knowledge of Indonesian culture. More than once the future president has said he misses the country's signature dish, nasi goreng, or fried rice, pronouncing the words in near perfect cadence.

Indonesians hope Obama's election will mean a closer relationship between the two countries, as well as between Muslims and the West. More than anything else, Indonesians are fiercely proud that this historical new figure got his early education in a Jakarta school, taking classes on Islam along with those on Christianity. On election day, numerous parties, beginning early in the morning, celebrated his win. His former classmates, some of them very successful in their own right, threw what was billed as the biggest election party in Asia.

Obama moved to Jakarta at age 6 with his mother, Ann Dunham, who, after divorcing his Kenyan father, married a Muslim Indonesian man named Lolo Soetoro. Obama arrived in 1967, only several years after a major political upheaval that led to a backlash against perceived communists, resulting in hundreds of thousands of brutal deaths across the capital. It was also a time of economic crisis and millions of residents were desperately poor. It was a time when most foreigners were not arriving, but fleeing.

But most significantly, Obama came to the capital of the world's most populous Muslim country. Though a secular nation, about 90 percent of Indonesia's 240 million people are Muslims. For his four years in Jakarta, Islam, which itself comes in many different forms here, would have surrounded Obama at all times.

The school Obama attended, Besuki Elementary, is a bastion of inclusiveness, accepting students of all faiths and providing prayer rooms for both Muslims and Christians. Students came from all over the country, which is tremendously diverse across its vast spread of islands.

In school, most of his classmates were Muslim. Many of them, including the girl he sat next to in geography, wore headscarves. In the leafy neighborhood of Menteng where Obama lived, he would hear the competing minarets of the many mosques call their followers to prayer five times a day. At home, he would witness his new step-father positioning himself toward Mecca to kneel and pray, noting in his memoir, "Dreams of My Father," that his step-father's brand of Islam also included many animist and Hindu traditions.

It was in this confusing world that his old classmates and teachers believe Obama came to embody Indonesia's national slogan, "Unity through Diversity," a theme heard over and over again during Obama's campaign. And it is his experience living in Jakarta that Indonesians hope will help guide America's new president when he confronts the growing gap of understanding that they say has arisen between the Muslim world and the West over the last decade.

"He was friends with everyone and he was very protective of people," Sambuaga said. "He was like a savior to the unpopular kids, to the underdogs, who he would always treat warmly."

Ask Indonesians on the street what Obama's election means, they will often say it means the end of racism and intolerance in United States, something their country continues to strive for as well, though which much difficulty.

Almost 40 years later, Obama's teachers say they continue to see in him the same values they saw in him as a child.

"He was smart and curious. He liked to ask many questions," said Effendi, his geography teacher, now well into his 70s. "I remember him sitting next to me on a bench outside the classroom, asking me where I came from, where I went to school, why did I decide to become a teacher, the kinds of questions that students of that age would not normally ask.

"Obama has a different, unique view of the world, a perspective that will be good for not just America, but for Indonesia and the rest of the world as well," Effendi said.