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Obama's half brother describes abuse

Mark Okoth Obama Ndesandjo says he wrote his autobiographical novel in part to exorcise the bad memories of his childhood and his violent father.

November 05, 2009|Barbara Demick

BEIJING — He is younger and sports close-cropped hair and a gold stud in his left earlobe, but the slim build, the loping gait and the high-set cheekbones give him a striking resemblance to his more famous half brother, President Obama.

Mark Okoth Obama Ndesandjo, a 43-year-old businessman and musician, has lived in southern China for seven years, the last one assiduously attempting to avoid publicity. But he broke his silence Wednesday, making a public appearance to publicize an autobiographical novel.

The self-published "Nairobi to Shenzhen" follows Ndesandjo's peripatetic life. He was born in Kenya to Barack Obama Sr., the president's father, and his third wife, Ruth Nidesand, the daughter of Jewish Lithuanian immigrants. The couple later divorced and Ndesandjo moved to the United States, earning degrees in physics from Brown University and Stanford and an MBA from Emory University.

He was married last year to a Chinese woman from Henan province.

As with the president's best-selling memoir, "Dreams From My Father," Ndesandjo's book delves into growing up as a mixed-race child and into a psyche shaped by an erratic father.

"My father beat my mother and my father beat me," Ndesandjo told the Associated Press in an interview released Wednesday. "I remember situations when I was growing up, and there would be a light coming from our living room, and I could hear thuds and screams, and my father's voice and my mother shouting."

At a news conference in Guangzhou, organized by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce for Southern China, Ndesandjo said it took a long time for him to become "proud to be an Obama."

He said he wrote the book in part to exorcise the bad memories of his childhood and to publicize the issue of domestic violence. He said he plans to donate 15% of the proceeds from the book (published by Aventine Press, a self-publishing firm based in San Diego) to a charity for children.

Since moving to China in 2002, Ndesandjo has worked as a business consultant in Shenzhen. He also is a partner with a Chinese friend in a small chain of restaurants called Cabin BBQ.

A classical and jazz pianist, Ndesandjo also volunteers as a piano teacher in an orphanage. In his only other public appearance since the U.S. election, he gave a charity concert in January to raise money for orphans, playing a selection that sampled a variety of artists, such as Chopin and Fats Waller.

Although most guests knew of his family connection, he did not use the Obama name on the promotional posters, only the surname Ndesandjo, taken from his mother's second husband. He reportedly has turned down offers from Chinese companies to be a product spokesman.

The Chinese press has lavished Ndesandjo with praise for his modesty as well as his fluent spoken and written Chinese. "Mark is very smart and multitalented," wrote one state news agency.

Ndesandjo's reticence may be less a matter of personality than awareness of the long, embarrassing legacy of presidential brothers. (Who can forget Billy Carter's endorsement of "Billy Beer" or Roger Clinton's rock band?)

Although strictly autobiographical, the novel skips over the part where the protagonist's half brother is elected president of the United States.

"I didn't want to take on any strong political themes in this book," Ndesandjo said. His mention of the president: "I think my brother's team is doing an extraordinary job."

Barack Obama Sr. died in 1982 and the half brothers did not know each other as children.

They have met a few times, including the inauguration, which Ndesandjo attended. He said he expects to meet the president during his trip to China this month and to introduce him to his wife. He also expressed a willingness to pass on some advice gleaned from seven years in China.

"I would encourage not only my brother President Obama, but also American people, [to understand] that China is about family. Family is always a recurrent theme here," he said.

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barbara.demick@latimes.com

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