25 May 2008


The other night I was talking with a friend about what we'd like to do if we weren't writers. There isn't much. I love what I do.

But I did mention that I used to know someone in Indonesia who had the greatest job that I ever heard of.

I met Ann Sutoro when I was working for Asian Business magazine and interviewing people for a cover story on what the private sector can do to help alleviate poverty. She was an economic anthropologist working for Bank Rakyat Indonesia, the rural development bank of the country. She was in charge of the bank's microfinance program.

From her office in Jakarta, Ann would pick out an impoverished village somewhere in the country. She'd travel there, spend several weeks getting to know the place, getting to know the movers and shakers in the village, who had the brightest entrepreneurial spirit, the best ideas. About 95% of the time the people she came up with were women. Then she'd go back to Jakarta and write up a report.

Loaning this woman US$70 would enable her to get a small refrigerator for her food stall, and among other things she could then stock medicine for curing river blindness in kids. Another woman could use 40 bucks to buy some equipment to better husk rice, so there'd be less waste and she could build up her business. For 65, yet another woman could get a second loom for weaving cloth and expand her business. It was all little loans, but it meant big improvements in the lives of whole villages. (And the default rates on the loans was much lower than it was on the big loans other banks made to corporations or wealthy individuals.)

Ann would write up her report, get the money from the bank, then return to the village to dispense the loans. She got to play fairy godmother to hundreds, maybe thousands of people. And best of all it wasn't charity. She was simply helping them to help themselves.

I liked her, a lot, the moment I met her. We became friendly and for several years, whenever I was in Jakarta I'd give her a call. We'd have a drink, a meal, hang out talking in her beautiful house in Jakarta. She had a great, quirky, sense of humor, was kind and decent to a fault and was just plain whip smart, one of the sharpest people I've ever known. I envied her her job, admired her tremendously and always looked forward to seeing her.

She died of cancer in 1995 and it was a tremendous loss. I've thought of her often over the years. Whenever the subject of great things to do with one's life comes up, I always trot out the story of Ann Sutoro. Because of her, if I ever went back to school, it would be to study economic anthropology. (Easy to say, though, not much real risk of that.)

Today, I was trying to think up a subject for this blog entry and I was thinking about my conversation of the other night. I thought I'd write about a few of the world's best jobs, so Ann immediately popped into my head. Just for the hell of it, I googled her, not really expecting to find much, if anything. What I found out is that she was Barack Obama's mother.

There's much that I like and admire about Obama. But, as with all politicians, there is also much about him that makes me suspicious and nervous. But I do know one thing for sure. He comes from a very good family. At least on his mother's side.


David Seaton's Newslinks said...

I discovered your blog by pure serendipity and immediately felt that you had stumbled onto a very interesting and important story.

I wonder why there is so much interest in Obama's father, who he hardly ever knew and so little interest in Obama's mother, with whom he lived many years and who must be among the most important influences in his life, if not the most important.

I also wonder why there is so little interest in Mr. Suntoro, whose surname Obama used while living in Indonesia (all his Indonesian schoolmates refer to him as "Barry Suntoro").

Obama tells his story very nicely, but I think he is leaving a lot out.

aajkt1 said...

I have been lucky enough to meet many people whose lives were touched by Ann Soetoro (Lolo Soetoro, Ann's husband, used the old Javanese spelling of the name). Every day I meet someone new who has an Ann story to tell. It is great to be able to hear a new Ann story from an old friend.


Jakarta, Indonesia

Eric said...

Naming is funny stuff. By the time I met Ann she was spelling her name "Sutoro."

kutchuk said...

Moving and troubling for me.
I told my husband who will be a retiree in 4 months, only aged of sixty and fit as a fiddle that he should find an activity and that as he is very good at management, he should volunteer in microfinance which exists also in developped countries and is there also a very powerful tool to fight exclusion and poverty.

Eric said...

I have often thought that microfinance could play an important role even here, in the U.S. The only problem is that the definition of "micro" would probably have to change. A US$50 loan in a small village in Indonesia can accomplish quite a bit. In even the poorest neighborhoods in the U.S. it isn't going to go very far.

Jenny said...

How is it that you knew Ms. Suntoro and didn't know of her son? Even if he hadn't yet made his "name", it seems you might have known of him and what he was doing organizing in Chicago (the apple doesn't fall far). I don't mean to judge, I'm just curious, is all.

Eric said...

I didn't know her all that well. Well enough to have several meals with her, drinks a couple of times, spent one or two evenings at her house. She may have mentioned her son at some point, but we mostly talked about Indonesia and her work there. I vaguely recall seeing some family photos on a wall or mantle or something.

I met Ann nearly 20 years ago. Barack was in his mid-20s and I don't know what he was up to then. For all I know, she told me something about him at the time, but she was the one who made the impression on me.

My friend who introduced us, stayed with Ann a few times and met "Barry" once when he was staying there. (He remembers him as a somewhat non-descript high school kid. That was eight or nine years before I met Ann.) But that was about it.

What seems curious to me is that Barack, in his autobiography, says very little about his mother, concentrating instead on his father. I don't know that he's trying to hide anything, but that does strike me as odd.

Eric said...

By the way, I'm wondering where this "Suntoro" business keeps coming from. When I knew Ann she spelled her name Sutoro, having changed it from the older Javanese form of Soetoro. (Much as happened with the name Soeharto being changed to Suharto. I never knew an "n" to have slipped in there.

mali said...

Most people, who knew Barack's mom very well, identify the striking similarities he has with his mom. Barack says, all the best in him, he got it from his mom. After all, she raised him and his sister. I don’t mean to read you as negative. But, I just felt unease reading phrases such as, his likeability or your admiration of him on one hand, followed by “But there is also much abut him that makes me suspicious and nervous.” I hope your suspicion or what makes you nervous about him is nothing, but a suspicion. Over all, I enjoyed reading your blog.

Eric said...

I'm suspicious of all politicians, not just Barack. And my suspicions of any politician are always heightened when they elicit especially intense, unquestioning devotion from their supporters.

I am skeptical and questioning, by nature, of anyone who wants to be my, or my country's, leader. I think that's healthy.

I like a lot of what Barack says. I agree with him on most of the issues. Some of what he says strikes me as no more, or less, than the usual electoral pandering.

He has a very short track record in national and international politics, so it is hard for me to get a handle on how he really will be able to deal with those issues. But I do have a gut feeling that he will do well. And I will quite happily vote for him. That doesn't mean, however, that I ever expect to agree with him one hundred percent, or that I think people ought to stop questioning him.

If and when Barack is elected president, then he'll really be on the hot seat - which is where any president ought to be.

Jenny said...

I figured that your acquaintance with Ann must have been either too early or too casual, or both. Again, not an accusation, I was just curious. Yes, this is a very interesting story, I think more for her involvement in microfinance long before the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize awarded to Muhammad Yunus brought it to the forefront of popular awareness.

It is interesting that the story of his mother is rather subdued in Obama's narration. I got the sense that she was probably an intimidating woman. I also have wondered whether her strange relationships with her husbands would also have caused confusion in a young boy/man, who is struggling to find his identity amidst such a hodge-podge of race, class, and culture--all in one family.

As for blind faith in Obama as a candidate, I can see why that is disturbing to some. I will admit to being a supporter. I try to be objective in that support and to listen to the points made against him. I came to find Obama as my candidate, first as a rejection of the status quo in Republican leadership, but then as an affirmation of the way Obama has handled the ugliness of media and politics. Regardless of many of his positions and policies, I respect that he will acknowledge when his opponents make valid arguments. I respect that he doesn't pander willy-nilly based on which way the wind is blowing. I respect that he talks to the media (and therefore to us) as if we have brains in our heads rather than just fear in our hearts. Despite his short tenure in national politics (and therefore junior status in most proceedings in the Senate), it seems to me that his motives are to help people help themselves and he does his best to stay true to his ideals while also having to compromise with the opposition in order to get anything done. I only wish that the surface level coverage that mainstream media and political opposition provides would diminish to the point where we can have a compassionate considerate conversation about very difficult and non-superficial issues. Allow our leaders to layout their positions in fullness without being jumped on for sound-bytes taken out of their full context. I wish this for Obama, Clinton, McCain and any others who wish to be entrusted with our country's leadership.

(off soap box now--thank you) And thank you for adding your personal story to this history. I am ever so curious and excited to see how it plays out.

Eric said...

Thanks for the comments. It's gratifying that my blog has stimulated some thinking - and well expressed thinking at that.

The White Man said...

As to why Ann isn't mentioned much in Obama's autobio--
If you're referring to Dreams of My Father, it is, after all, about his father, who was dead. His mother was still living when he wrote it, and helped him out with her memories of the man he had only remembered meeting once.

You can click on my name and go to "An Obama Chronology" that helps put everything together. It will be a work in progress as long as Obama is in the news.

Anonymous said...

Hello, Did Ann Sutoro's banking and loan support for her projects in Indonesia part of the World Bank network? Did the World Bank help her?

When did she leave Jakarta?

Thank you.
Suzanne S. White