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Obama’s Indonesia Visit Stirs Memories for Boyhood Acquaintances

November 9, 2010 at 6:33 PM EST
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President Obama made good on an earlier promise to return to Indonesia, revisiting the country where he spent several years as a child. GlobalPost visited his old neighborhood and spoke with some of his grade-school classmates and acquaintances about the boy they remember as "Barry."
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JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight: a personal take on Indonesia, where President Obama lived as a boy in the late 1960s. A production team from the international news Web site GlobalPost visited Mr. Obama’s old neighborhood. Ray Suarez narrates our story.

RAY SUAREZ: In the Indonesian capital, Jakarta, the boyhood home of President Obama still remains, as do the memories.

Former neighbor Agus Salam remembers the energetic, chubby kid he called Barry four decades ago.

AGUS SALAM, former neighbor of Barack Obama (through translator): When I see his face today, I see the same face, the same smile of that little Barry I knew. He used to play around my mother’s restaurant when he was a kid.

RAY SUAREZ: Agus now runs his mother’s roadside stall with his wife, selling the same recipe of vegetables and peanut sauce Barack Obama loved as a boy.

Ten years older than Obama, Agus said he could see glimpses of the boy’s potential as he carried the future president on his back through the neighborhood.

AGUS SALAM (through translator): When I look at Barry’s face, he was so cute. He was chubby, chubby and short. So, it was funny to see him. It made us laugh. We always wanted to carry him or touch his head. But, if I touched his hair, he would get mad. But we liked it because his hair was curly. Indeed, he had a pretty strong character.

RAY SUAREZ: Ninety percent of Indonesia’s 240 million people are Muslims, making this the largest Islamic country on Earth.

The White House announced the president will visit the Istiqlal Mosque, one of the largest in Southeast Asia, continuing efforts to build bridges with the Muslim world.

In a traditional, conservative, and largely homogeneous society, young Barry’s friends recall they didn’t totally understood why a young American had a Kenyan father, how a black boy had a white mother and an Indonesian stepfather.

Ali (ph), another former neighbor, said President Obama was often teased.

Former Neighbor of Barack Obama (through translator): Sometimes, we teased him. When he would come with his caretaker, I would say, hey, what are you doing there? And he would run inside.

RAY SUAREZ: Though not a Muslim, young Barack Obama was immersed in an Islamic culture, in his neighborhood, at the public school he attended.

Besuki Elementary School is in the upscale neighborhood of Menteng in Central Jakarta, one of the city’s most affluent areas. Here, young Barack was taught about the religion of most of his friends, his father, and his Indonesian stepfather.

Besuki is nondenominational. As in all Indonesian public schools, religion is part of daily instruction. Classmates remember Barack Obama in religion class, and his being taught to pray, but their memories have little to do with faith.

Sonni Gondokusumo is an old classmate of President Obama’s.

SONNI GONDOKUSUMO, former classmate of Barack Obama (through translator): I remember, back then, when he tried to put on his sarong, and it would always fall off. The sarong is worn when praying, so he was fat, yes? We were together praying in the room. And the funny thing I remember about Obama is that he could not wear the sarong. When he tried to put it on, it would always fall off. It was so funny.

RAY SUAREZ: Several of Obama’s classmates get together to discuss their old friend. They share photos and stories about the kid who, to their surprise, became one of the world’s most powerful men. They remember an open-minded boy who, as the biggest kid in class, protected smaller students. It’s a trait they say they see in him as president.

SONNI GONDOKUSUMO (through translator): He liked to protect me, because I was small, just like in the picture, and he was big. When, for instance, my classmates would tease me, he was the one that would always defend me. He liked to protect people. So, maybe, since I was always being teased, that is why he liked to play with me.

RAY SUAREZ: So, as President Obama makes his homecoming, his old friends will be watching and listening. They say they’re proud of Barry. They also say his time growing up in Jakarta makes him a stronger president.