'Little Barry' returns to his boyhood home

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The Independent Online

After twice postponing a visit because of domestic crises, Barack Obama finally returned to his boyhood home of Indonesia yesterday. But he was set to spend less than 24 hours in the world's most populous Muslim nation and the excitement once generated by his return has largely dissipated.

The US President, who is in the middle of a 10-day tour of Asia, dined with the Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono last night after flying into Jakarta in the afternoon. Today he will address students at the University of Indonesia, and will deliver a major speech to the country outside the giant Istqlal Mosque, which is the largest in South-east Asia

Mr Obama lived in Jakarta between the ages of six and 10, after his divorced mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, married an Indonesian, Lolo Soetoro, she met while studying at the University of Hawaii. Then known as "Little Barry", Mr Obama attended school in Menteng, a colonial-era district near the city centre, where his former teachers and neighbours remember him fondly. One of his former teachers, Katarina Fermina Sinaga, said: "I have waited so long for this visit. I know as the world leader his schedule is tight, but I still hope to meet him."

Pupils of his old school were disappointed. They had been practising a song dedicated to him, hoping he would find time to visit. But the President's schedule was too tight. Even his extremely brief visit was expected to be possibly cut short by a few hours, thanks to the volcanic ash Mount Merapi was belching 375 miles to the east; the volcano has been erupting for nearly a fortnight, killing more than 150 people and disrupting air traffic.

The US increasingly considers Indonesia, a moderate Muslim nation with a tradition of religious tolerance, as an ally and partner in regional counter-terrorism efforts. Indonesia has made relatively good progress in stamping out homegrown Islamic extremism after attacks in Bali and Jakarta.

Mr Obama – who arrived from India and will continue to economic summits in Seoul and Yokohama, Japan – met Mr Yudhoyono for talks on a grey, humid day during which it poured rain. Mr Obama and his wife, Michelle, were feted at an official dinner at the presidential palace, Istana Merdeka, where the menu included fried rice and meatballs, the President's childhood favourites. Speaking after the dinner, Mr Obama told fellow guests: "I could never imagine I would one day be honoured here, never mind as President of the United States. I didn't think I would be stepping into this building, ever."

Mr Obama had kept Indonesians on tenterhooks for eight months; his healthcare bill prevented him coming in March, as originally scheduled, and the trip was postponed again in June after the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Even this quick visit, shoehorned into an action-packed schedule, was in doubt until the last minute, thanks to Merapi's lava-and-light show.

The Jakarta years – during which young "Barry" occasionally studied the Koran and visited a local mosque – have helped to fuel long-standing rumours that Mr Obama is a Muslim.

In Menteng, a jumble of houses and narrow streets now overshadowed by high-rise buildings and luxury shopping malls, Mr Obama's mother would walk him to school through streets muddied by monsoon rains. He was comfortable speaking Indonesian, and the family kept white crocodiles and a monkey in their yard, according to former neighbours.

Mr Obama was expected to recall his childhood in his speech at the university this morning. Later, he planned to lay a wreath at the Kalibata Heroes Cemetery, the burial site of veterans of Indonesia's war of independence. He and Mr Yudhoyono were scheduled to sign an agreement covering trade, economic and security issues, and, possibly, funding to help protect the forests of Indonesia.

An Indonesian childhood

Born to a black Kenyan father and a white American mother in Hawaii in 1961, President Obama was less than two years old when his parents' marriage failed. In 1967, his mother remarried and took her young son to live in her new husband's native Indonesia.

For the young Barack, or Barry as he was known by his school friends, home became the upmarket area of Menteng Dalam in Indonesia's capital Jakarta, a Dutch-era neighbourhood filled with red-tiled roofs.

At first, Mr Obama attended a Catholic school and had a pet monkey called Tata (given to him by his stepfather), which he remembers fondly in his memoir Dreams from my Father. He lived in Indonesia for four years, until his mother decided he should move to Honolulu with his maternal grandparents in 1971, because she felt he would have greater opportunities there. At school in Hawaii, he still wore his Indonesian sandals.