Maya Soetoro-Ng: President Obama’s ‘kid’ half-sister
An interview with Dr. Maya Soetoro-Ng, half-sister of President Obama. Soetoro-Ng will present a scholarship to a Mercer Island High student named after her and Obama’s mother, Stanley Ann Dunham.
Seattle Times columnist
Dr. Maya Soetoro-Ng
The half-sister of President Barack Obama will present the Stanley Ann Dunham Scholarship, named for their mother, a 1960 Mercer Island High School graduate, at noon on Saturday, April 20, Mercer Island Community and Event Center, 8236 S.E. 24th St., Mercer Island, Wash. For information: firstname.lastname@example.org.
He calls her “Kid,” even though she’s 42 now, with two kids of her own.
She tries to keep things normal, visiting him at his home in Washington, D.C. with her family at spring break and hanging with him in Hawaii every summer.
They play Scrabble every day on their iPads. And when he is beating her, she doesn’t mind; it only means he is at the top of his game.
Which is what we all want from President Barack Obama.
“I did realize early on that he would need a strong dose of normalcy,” Maya Soetoro-Ng, the president’s half-sister, told me on the phone from her home in Hawaii.
“And that’s something that my family and I can provide. A safe place.”
Soetoro-Ng also provides the president with a connection to their mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, who was married to Barack Obama Sr. from 1961 to 1964. In 1965, while living in Indonesia, she married Soetoro-Ng’s father, Lolo Soetoro. They divorced in 1980, and Dunham died of cancer in 1995 at the age of 52.
But before any of that, Dunham was a Mercer Island High School student (she graduated in 1960, a year early) and is the namesake of a scholarship program now in its fourth year.
On April 20, Soetoro-Ng will come to Mercer Island to speak at a community event that will honor outstanding graduating female Mercer Island High School students, and award the $5,000 Stanley Ann Dunham Scholarship.
The event, which is free and open to the community, will be held from noon to 2 p.m. at the Mercer Island Community and Event Center.
“My mother would have enjoyed the idea that her name was being used to build bridges,” Soetoro-Ng said of the scholarship. “She cared a great deal, and was very thoughtful and passionate about education and young women.”
It will be only the second time Soetoro-Ng has visited the place where her mother grew up, and returned to years later with an infant son. Dunham attended night school at the University of Washington from 1961 to 1962, and lived on Capitol Hill.
President Obama “has no memory of it at all,” said his sister, who teaches at the College of Education at the University of Hawaii.
“I have been hearing stories about it all my life,” Soetoro-Ng said of Mercer Island, and Seattle. “My mother felt that it was an intellectually safe place, like she could explore her love of books and ideas there. It was a place where she met some dear friends and acquired a sense of self.”
At Mercer Island High, Dunham wrote for the school paper and belonged to the French Club. She climbed trees and went on long walks around the island.
“Her sense of nostalgia for the area and its flora continued all her life,” Soetoro-Ng said. “She spoke of returning, but her life took her in different directions.”
Dunham eventually earned her Ph.D. from the University of Hawaii and worked with the United States Agency for International Development, the Ford Foundation and Women’s World Banking, promoting the use of microcredit to combat global poverty.
But, as a mother, she could be absent-minded, Soetoro-Ng remembered with a smile in her voice.
It never mattered to Soetoro-Ng that her mother had been married before to a man of a different race, or that the big brother she grew up with in Indonesia and Hawaii had a different father.
“I never minded my mother’s difference, but I spent entirely too much time noticing the fact that she couldn’t find her glasses,” she said. “As children, we develop some scorn for our parents and their imperfections.”
And even though Soetoro-Ng felt that her mother was “cool,” she didn’t realize until much later how ahead of her time she was, helping rural economies with microfinance — now par for the course for global nonprofits.
Dunham was accomplished in every way but romantically, her daughter said.
“I wish she had better luck finding a successful and loving life partner,” Soetoro-Ng said. “I didn’t want to see her lonely. She did not have great success in marriage, but she wasn’t embittered. She wasn’t jaded.
“But there was some loneliness in those final years.”
There is some comfort in knowing that she had great friends, and that her life had been, as her daughter put it, “Full of surprises.”
Perhaps the greatest one came after her death, when Obama was elected the first African-American president.
“She would have thought that was incredible,” Soetoro-Ng said, stammering a bit. “It’s hard to find anything of depth to say about that. We all can imagine she would have had a combination of pride and worry. She would have been incredibly anxious about having such a heavy burden on his shoulders.
“But mostly, she would have been full of immense pride and admiration.”
Soetoro-Ng seems to have picked up that maternal mantle, fretting a bit about the pressure her brother is under.
“I will feel a measure of relief once he is no longer president,” she said. “But I am glad that he is there now. The idea is to focus on that, and the positive.”
Besides, Obama warned her early on that there would be intense criticism, and that she should be prepared. This is an enormous country, he said, and there will be differences of opinion. Don’t take it to heart.
“No one is going to treat me like a brother,” he told her.
Soetoro-Ng visits Washington, D.C., regularly, and takes her nieces, Malia and Sasha, to bookstores and dinner and shopping — with their regular Secret Service protection. The consistency there helps.
“You find a new normal,” she said. “There are moments when I am aware of how unusual an experience this is, and that their lives are never going to be the same.
“But they are also very much themselves.”
Soetoro-Ng goes out to dinner with Michelle Obama, “But with my brother, it’s a little different. He can’t do that without inconveniencing a lot of people.”
In that sense, it is up to “Kid” to do some of the family work, like this trip to Mercer Island.
In addition to this scholarship program, the University of Hawaii’s Anthropology Department has an endowment named for Dunham, as is a graduate fellowship at the East-West Center in Honolulu.
Soetoro-Ng is thankful that her mother is being remembered this way, especially since she has come under so much criticism, even in death: her marriages, the question of where her son was born, etc.
“I like that there are young people being given opportunities to explore and learn and grow and become themselves,” she said, “with a path that is associated with my mother.
“She would have liked that very much.”
Nicole Brodeur: email@example.com.