Nepali Times
The global Obama


Barack Hussein Obama has become the darling of the world, and we will do well to ponder the making of Obama at a time of our own ambition to fashion a new multicultural Nepal for Nepalis.

Obama overcame many hurdles to become such a transformational figure, not the least of which was a middle name that was terrifying to many white American ears. So, what was the most crucial component in the making of Barack Obama? What is the one ingredient that contributed to developing and bringing all the other elements in his personality such a potent and persuasive mixture? It is his education. It was the quality of American education that helped Obama transcend the limitations of his birth and the circumstances of his upbringing.

In his autobiography, Dreams from My Father, Obama recounts how his mother woke him up at four-thirty in the morning and gave him English lessons once both found themselves in Indonesia where she could not afford to send him to the International School where the wealthy and the expatriates sent their children. When he complained about the early hour and sleep deprivation, his mother, who worked full-time, said, "Well, this is no picnic for me either, buster!"

She sent him back to Hawaii at age ten to be with his maternal grandparents so he could have a better education. He had access to public libraries found in every city, no matter how poor and deprived, and every county, no matter how rural and remote. Schools cultivated the spirit of intellectual adventure, critical thinking and creativity rather than rote learning and hero worship.

In the absence of a father whose African blood still carried the notorious "one-drop rule" Obama found himself racially alone and confused about his identity. He was perceived as black but his mother and his grandparents were white midwesterners from Kansas. Obama indulged in drugs, avoided speaking to the only other black girl in his class, but eventually sought out the company of authors like W E B. Du Bois, Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X. By the time he reached high school at the exclusive Punahou Academy in Honolulu on a scholarship, Obama was ready to identify with and explore black America through his readings. In Occidental College near Los Angeles, where he spent two years, he was more than ready to speak in public against South Africa's Apartheid regime. In New York at Columbia, Obama became reclusive, focused, and devoted as an undergraduate.His roommate Hassan advised him to lighten up but Obama was relentless in his single-minded pursuit of knowledge.

Academics combined with interest in public service led him to Chicago as a community organiser and on to Harvard Law, where his book-black identity and white upbringing helped him avoid the bitterness of many blacks and enabled him to cultivate diverse friendships. His academic achievements, his mixed racial ancestry and public service made Obama one of a kind-flexible in his identity, able to draw on the entirety of American heritage in his expression.

He was willing to focus on race as an issue and a problem but determined to go beyond to find a wider horizon. So, what made Barack Obama, what made him find his place in history? He didn't just drop from the sky. When Obama speaks about his story only being possible in America, he is talking about his unique American education.

American education transformed the black, Muslim-named son of a single mother into an all-encompassing, all-embracing American?indeed a global Obama.

Here in Nepal we are at a crossroads to build a multicultural Nepal. In order to achieve this goal, we must focus on building a culture of quality education with schools, libraries and motivated teachers. They must provide equal opportunity to all Nepalis to widen their horizons, and a culture of social service, unleashing their full potential.

Only open access to knowledge available to all everywhere will enable us to fashion a new breed of Nepalis-flexible in their identities, committed to the common good, and intelligent and compassionate enough to navigate and lead through the fast-drive future that is in store for Nepal.

Pramod Mishra is on research leave from Augustana College in the United States.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)