During the first months of Barack Obama's presidency a conspiracy by an amorphous group who came to be called "birthers" raged on the Internet and right-wing talk radio. The birthers claimed that President Obama really wasn't born in Hawaii but in Africa, making him ineligible to be president of the United States. The controversy went nowhere until Donald Trump recently reopened the issue, making it the curious cornerstone of his bizarre Republican presidential bid.
Like an Alaskan slapping an annoying mosquito, President Obama moved Trump's candidacy from "really?" to "ridiculous" by releasing the long form of his Hawaiian birth certificate. President Obama was born in Hawaii on Aug. 4, 1961.
True, there aren't a lot of people to testify to Obama's early life. Before he became president, Obama's mother, Ann Dunham, and maternal grandparents had died. His father, Barack senior, had abandoned his mother a few months after their son was born and died in a 1982 car accident in Kenya.
If Trump and other birthers hung out in the same Soldotna coffee shop that I do they could have asked fellow Americano-sipper Mary Toutonghi about Barack Obama's origins. As described in a 2009 article by Jenny Neyman in the Redoubt Reporter, Toutonghi baby-sat the infant Barack after his mother returned to Seattle from Hawaii in 1962. Dunham had spent most of her high school years in Seattle and had gone off to the University of Hawaii, met a man, got pregnant, got married, had a son, and moved back to Seattle's Capitol Hill district.
Dunham lived in an old lumber-era mansion that had been converted to a four-plex managed by Toutonghi and her husband, a student at Seattle University. Dunham took evening classes at the University of Washington twice a week and Toutonghi baby-sat Barack along with her own kids. If Dunham had given birth to Barack in Africa a few months earlier, Toutonghi would surely have heard about it.
A teenaged mother, Dunham, according to her biographer Janny Scott in a recent book "A Singular Woman," had little in common with her old high school friends who were now mostly sorority girls at the University of Washington. That summer she moved back to Honolulu to re-enroll at the University of Hawaii. She majored in anthropology and developed an interest in Southeast Asian cultures through the university's East-West Center.
After graduation Dunham enrolled in the department's Ph.D. program and did several years of fieldwork in rural Indonesia. Initially she studied Indonesian craft work and in the process learned it wasn't just about beautiful batik or hand-forged iron objects, but about the way locally made products gave people a measure of control of their lives and continuity in cultural traditions.
Increasingly, indigenous peoples have been essentialized, marginalized and in some cases demonized for not following the modernization theory script of being acculturated into the mainstream globalized economy. For indigenous people, locally grown or caught foods and locally made products are a key to sovereignty, sustainability and happiness. Dunham seems to have understood that.
Her anthropology insights led her to the emerging field of microfinance. Microfinance is the antithesis of the World Bank or International Monetary Fund, which are the economic wing of modernization theory making large loans to developing countries to move them into the global marketplace. It is based on the Western cultural value of materialism, which tends to tear families and traditional communities apart.
Microfinance, on the other hand, gives small loans to craft specialists, often to market their products and gain enough cash to cover the basics while maintaining family cohesiveness. Sometimes it's used for children's education. Its been used in Africa, Southeast Asia and South America and especially benefits women.
The development of microfinance has followed a parallel trajectory spearheaded by economists and anthropologists working in different areas developing appropriate loan instruments. The most famous is Bangladesh economist Muhammad Yunus, who in 2006 won a Nobel Prize for his efforts in microfinance.
Dr. Ann Dunham was an interesting woman who met challenges, some of her own making, and made life work. She mothered a future president of the United States, she earned a Ph.D. and with it she fought global poverty. In March 2011 Donald Trump stated on "Good Morning America" that birthers like him shouldn't be dismissed as "idiots." I guess we can make that dismissal now. The birthers have wasted our precious time with specious allegations and owe the country an apology.
Alan Boraas is a professor of anthropology at Kenai Peninsula College. Jenny Neyman's article can be read at http://redoubtreporter.blogspot.com/2009/01/obama-baby-sitter-awaits-new-era.html.