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Obama in Indonesia

Barack Obama lived in Indonesia (1967-1971) from age five to ten. After his parents broke up and his father went back to Africa, his mother married a man from Indonesia named Lolo. She met him at the University of Hawaii. He was suddenly called back to his country along with all the other Indonesians studying abroad. She and Obama followed about a year later.

During that year Obama’s new stepfather was in the Indonesian army fighting in New Guinea. Leeches got in his boots to bite him and drink his blood. It could have been worse: those who had been studying in communist countries were thrown in prison or shot dead.

When Lolo got out of the army, the three of them went to live in Java. They lived at his house near what was then the edge of Jakarta, a place where people still washed their clothes in the river. Lolo had a monkey named Tata, a mango tree and two crocodiles.

Lolo took Obama under his wing as his son. He is the father of Obama’s sister Maya. He taught Obama how to fight and told him to be strong or the powerful will take advantage.

If you have seen Mel Gibson in “The Year of Living Dangerously”, it is the same time and place. But in the year or so between when Gibson left and Obama arrived the streets ran with blood during a failed communist uprising in which hundreds of thousands died.

Indonesia was not just poor, it was a hellhole. Obama dropped there from a star called America. Everywhere you went poor people held out their hands. Cruel men ruled the country for the benefit of their families and friends – and the ugly Americans who wanted the oil. One year the rains did not come, the next year they did not stop. The spirit of the people was broken: you cannot fight fate.

In the middle of all this his mother woke him up every morning before the sun rose and taught him English. And taught him the virtues she learned in a faraway world known as Kansas: to be fair, honest, straight-talking and think for himself. She held up his father in Africa as a shining example: a poor man who did right.

For two years he went to a Muslim school, where he was taught about Islam once a week, and then two years at a Catholic school.

One day Obama saw a picture in Life magazine of a black man trying to turn himself white. Doctors had found a way to make black skin white. It was a picture that has stayed with him ever since.

He looked at himself: he was black. He seemed all right. Was there something wrong with him that he did not know about? Or, what seemed just as frightening, maybe the world had gone mad and saw something in blackness that was not there.

At age ten his mother sent him to back to America to live with her parents so he could get a good education at one of the top schools in Hawaii.

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Java is an island that lies in the tropics far to the south of China. Most people in Indonesia live there.

Java is a crowded place as the world goes: it has as many people as Japan yet it is only one-third the size. It has half the land of Britain but twice as many people.

Even though it has so many people, Java has only a few large cities, Jakarta being the largest. Most of the island is filled with rice fields, small towns and low blue mountains (some of them volcanoes). The people are poor, but not shockingly so. Every bit of land that can be turned to good use has been.

It has few dogs.

Indonesia is in effect a Javanese empire: Java provides most of the country’s leaders, it sends its people out to settle the other islands and it even has had a practice of Javanization – making other people in Indonesia more like those in Java. It seems the Javanese have simply taken the place of the Dutch, who once ruled the islands.

The Javanese are Muslim Malays, making them similar to the people of Malaysia to the north.

The Javanese language is related not just to those of Malaysia and the nearby islands, but also to those in the Philippines, Madagascar and the islands of the Pacific. It is even related to Maori.

History: Java has been ruled in turn by three different civilizations. In round numbers:

  1. 500-1500: Hindu: Hindu kingdoms began to appear in the 500s. In its early history Java was influenced more by India than by China. In the 800s the great Buddhist and Hindu temples of Borobudur and Prambanan were built. In the 1300s and 1400s Java became the heart of Majapahit, a Hindu empire that ruled most of the islands. When the empire fell its top people fled to neighbouring Bali, which is still Hindu to this day.
  2. 1500-1800: Islamic: After 1500 Muslim traders came from the sea and converted Java to Islam. The old temples were abandoned.
  3. 1800- : Western: In the 1800s and early 1900s Java was ruled by the Dutch and took on some of the ways of the West. It fell briefly under British rule in the 1810s and Japanese rule in the 1940s. Since independence from the Netherlands, it has become part of the American Empire, aka the “Free World”. The Javanese now write with Roman letters.

The Dutch ruled from the city of Batavia in the north-west. Now known as Jakarta, it is still the seat of government. But in the old days the Hindu kings ruled from Yogyakarta and Surakarta in the heart of the island.

What has made Java important in history: it is a large fertile area near a point through which all trade between India and China must pass.

Java has been known in the West as far back as Roman times.

A common dish, especially in the morning, is to eat rice with eggs and maybe chicken.

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