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Years After Death, Obama's Mom Gets Her Wish

'Surviving Against The Odds' Cover

A few years before her death, Barack Obama's mother completed her doctoral dissertation. Nearly two decades later, S. Ann Dunham's fieldwork has been published — a fulfillment of her dream, courtesy of her daughter.

"She wanted to make sure that the information she produced would not just be interesting," the president's half-sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, tells All Things Considered host Guy Raz. Dunham wanted her research to "impact the lives of the people."

Over a period of 14 years, Dunham visited and lived among Indonesian villagers. Her work challenged the prevailing view among social anthropologists of the time that Indonesian peasants were better off just cultivating rice.

Until last year, Dunham's research was just a pile of old notes and floppy disks in a storage locker in Hawaii. As Soetoro-Ng was cleaning out the locker, she came across the notes and turned them over to Dunham's old thesis adviser, Alice Dewey. Now an emeritus professor at the University of Hawaii, Dewey whittled down the 1,000-page thesis to a 300-page book.

The result is Surviving the Odds, a study of blacksmithing in the village of Kajar, Indonesia.

Soetoro-Ng, the daughter of Dunham's second husband, Lolo Soetoro, says the process of getting her late mother's work published brought back many emotions. Both Soetoro-Ng and Obama, whose father was Dunham's first husband, have fond memories of their mother.

In his memoir, Dreams from My Father, Obama called his mother "the kindest, most generous spirit I have ever known," and said, "What is best in me, I owe to her."

Soetoro-Ng often accompanied her mother on research trips. "One of Mom's gifts was this ability to really go anywhere and make friends with people at the highest tiers of power, but also villagers who had never been out of their villages," she recalls. "She wasn't patronizing. She genuinely loved them and listened carefully."

Dunham didn't live long enough to see her famous son forge his place in American history; she died of ovarian cancer in 1995. But what would she have thought of her son becoming the most powerful man in the world?

"I don't know," Soetoro-Ng says after a long pause. "She didn't necessarily anticipate — who could have? — that her son would become the president of the United States, but she knew he was going to do remarkable things."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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