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Thursday, January 22, 2009

Obama's former Indonesian school basks in his glow

By Jennifer Henderson

JAKARTA (Reuters) - Pupils at Barack Obama's former school in Indonesia skipped classes Wednesday, as a scrum of guests and media invaded the institution where the new U.S. president studied for two years.

Obama spent four years in Indonesia after his American mother, Ann Dunham, married Indonesian Lolo Soetoro following the end of her marriage to Obama's Kenyan father.

"Having Barack Obama as the president will automatically increase the motivation and spirit in pursuing education," said Hasimah, the principal of State Elementary School Menteng 01.

But the intense media interest Wednesday made it hard for pupils to focus on studies.

Sixth-grader Zulkifly said he had been interviewed three times while waiting for his parents at the front of the school.

"There's lots of media here," said the 11-year-old, dressed in a neat white shirt with traditional Indonesian batik patterns.

Indonesians have followed Obama's political fortunes closely and the media has been packed with stories on his old school and the houses he lived in while in the country.

Obama was six years old when he moved to Jakarta, where he went to a Catholic school and then Menteng 01.

The Menteng school briefly become a source of controversy after a U.S. conservative magazine reported on its website in 2007 that it was a radical madrasa, or Islamic school. The school in a leafy suburb is in fact attended by pupils of many faiths.

A former classmate of Obama attending a ceremony at the school to mark the inauguration said she wanted to meet him again.

"If we had a chance we just want to have a chit chat with him, remembering the old days," said Sandra Sambuaga Mangie.

"We don't want to talk about politics or current issues. Just talk about his time in Indonesia, as our classmate," she added.

Classmates and teachers in Jakarta remember Obama affectionately as a child who loved to draw cartoon characters.

Fourth-grader Ceyco said she wished Obama success for the future but had no desire to emulate his path into politics.

"In the future I want to become an international karate athlete," she said. There has been speculation about whether Obama will visit Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim country.
Obama promised to improve U.S. ties with the Muslim world in his inauguration address Tuesday, after tensions that followed the September 11 attacks and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

A message from Obama was read out on his behalf Tuesday at a ball in a posh Jakarta hotel to celebrate his inauguration.

"My childhood years in Jakarta provided me with many lessons and memories that I carry with me to this day," he said.

(Additional reporting by Lenita Sulthani; Writing by Ed Davies; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani)

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