Book Review: A Singular Woman, by Janny Scott (the biography or Barack Obama’s mother)


I think everyone wants to make the world a better place.   I didn’t go to college until I was in my early 30’s.   I count as my major accomplishment the founding, with others, of one of the first community based recycling centers in the USA. In fact, it was after my first trip to Africa that I decided to  attend college.  I  knew then what I wanted to study.  I  didn’t  go to college right out of high school, because I had learned to groom dogs, and I was happy enough doing that, and my high school grades were only fair.  I also  was tired of ‘academia’.  I  was curious, I enjoyed learning, but  it was time to concentrate on making a living, and my next goal for myself was getting a show dog, and breeding her.  That really didn’t work out, but  I lived and lived.  My  boyfriend (later fiance  and husband ) was in school.  Getting divorced was the catalyst for me to  explore more of the world and be a ,little adventurous.  Then, after I had returned from a safari to Tanzania, my  world opened up…and being an American, I wanted to ‘help’. So it started like that.  I knew that , in order to help, I had to study  anthropology to understand how people made  decisions about their lives.  I was lucky that   my  university had a program of international/intercultural studies, and I learned a lot about development issues.  I became a Peace Corps Volunteer to have an impact, to  give back, to make a difference. Also, because there  were no jobs.
Stanley Ann Dunham started a different way, but  being very open to the people she met, and really caring about them, one thing led to another and she led an extraordinary life, nicely documented by Scott.

I think  many people now know that Obama’s parents met as students in Hawaii.  What they may not know is that  his father did not tell his mother that he already had a family in Kenya until after they were married, and he  pretty much abandoned her & young Barack when he got accepted into Harvard.  He might have been charming, but he really was a typical African man.  Stanley Ann, with the help of her parents (particularly HER mother) managed to  return to school, and later met her  2nd husband and  went to live in Indonesia with him.  She picked up the language readily, and (although this is not really addressed in the book) used her academic background in anthropology to learn about the craft industries of Indonesia.  One thing led to another and she  started looking at  how the crafts people  made their livings, and the barriers to economic success, which led to her  interest in mirco finance, and  assisting  poor women.

Scott really explains  well  how  Ann Soetoro negotiated a role for herself and a life in Indonesia.  She  divorced  Soetoro due to  a difference in  values, but wanted her daughter to  know her father.  She sent Barack to live with her parents and gain  an American education, because she felt his chances of future success would  be furthered  by this, and that the Indonesian schools at the time could not provide what he needed.  She  became what we call an expatriate, and  maintained the life  for many years.
She  delayed completing her Ph.D. in favor of taking on  challenging  assignments that  would ultimately improve the lives of the poor and make a difference.  She worked for USAID and the Ford Foundation.  There is no doubt that  because of her work, many  people were able to create better lives for their children.  She was only 52 when she died, apparently of  uterine cancer.  So very sad, but she lived her life on her own terms.

Many of my friends are Returned Peace Corps Volunteers, and many went on, after their  Peace Corps service, to  become internationalists and development workers. We see the  ‘less developed world’ as our  ‘constituency,  and people we must advocate  for.

I’d suggest this book to anyone who  is interested in  anthropology, development issues,  women’s issues, President Obama, travel, or Peace Corps.

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