It’s pretty natural to do a double-take when talking to Mark Okoth Obama Ndesandjo, Jewish half-brother of US President Barack Obama. Even speaking on the phone from China, Ndesandjo’s deep tones and Midwestern twang are startlingly similar to those of the president.
That’s a familiarity and connection that Obama Ndesandjo is counting on as he makes his way around the newspaper and television circuit, publicizing his self-published book, “Cultures: My Odyssey of Self-Discovery,” which deals in large part with his family and his presidential brother. Part of the book proceeds will be dedicated to his foundation, The Mark Obama Ndesandjo Foundation, whose goal is to promote cultural exchange between Asia, Africa and America, with a focus on young and disadvantaged children.
“It’s a difficult process to write about yourself,” said Obama Ndesandjo. “Autobiographies differ from most books because they touch not only on the writer but on real, live people and have a real impact. It’s a big responsibility.”
Now based in Shenzhen, having lived for the last 12 years in China, where he met and married his wife, Obama Ndesandjo is a writer, musician and calligrapher who decided to write the autobiography just as Barack Obama’s journey as a politician was gaining in intensity, during his initial run for president.
He is one of the president’s five known half-siblings, born to the same father, Barack Hussein Obama Sr., and Obama Sr.’s third wife, Ruth Ndesandjo, an American Jew from Boston. (Warning: This gets complicated.) Obama Ndesandjo grew up in Kenya — far from his half-brother who was raised in the US by his mother, anthropologist Ann Dunham, Obama Sr.’s second wife (who later discovered that her husband hadn’t divorced his first wife back in Kenya). Dunham and Obama Sr. divorced in 1962 and Dunham later married Lolo Soetoro, with whom she had Barack Obama’s half-sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng. Soetoro, his stepfather, passed away in 2011.
Meanwhile, Obama Ndesandjo, whose parents married in 1964, remained in Africa with his mother and younger brother, David, when their parents divorced in 1972 following the much-discussed abusive relationship between them.
The material for “Culture” started accumulating for Obama Ndesandjo as his brother sought the presidency, and it tells his story as a mixed-race person brought up in Kenya, educated in the US and now living in China, as well as discussing the mix of cultures and the Obama family, he said.
“It’s always been an issue of trying to follow my own path,” he said. “And in the process of that, I also felt it was important to talk about the Obama family and it’s important that people understand more about this family because in some ways it’s very opaque and there’s a lot of questions about it. Every question brings up more and I wanted to discuss and share more and talk about my relationship with my brother.”
Clearly, it’s the material about his brother that has brought Obama Ndesandjo the most attention. He’s found that each time he’s met with Barack Obama — from their first meeting in 1988 in Kenya through several more in later years — the contacts were intense.
“We are very similar,” said Obama Ndesandjo, pointing out that both have American mothers, were born a few years apart, attended Ivy League schools — Mark went to Brown (and has an MBA from Emory) — are of mixed race and, of course, had the same father and suffered from his absence or presence. Barack, born in 1961, is four years older than half-brother Mark.
“In some ways, our father runs through our lives and as Barack said in his book, sons often spend their lives trying to achieve their father’s dreams or correct their mistakes,” he said. “In a sense, Barack has been trying to achieve, and I’ve been trying to correct mistakes.”
Like Barack Obama, Obama Ndesandjo also had a strong mother who “navigated choppy waters,” he said. Ruth Baker Ndesandjo, who still lives in Nairobi with her second husband, was born in the US to a family that fled the pogroms in Lithuania, and then made their way to Boston.
She broke with tradition in many ways, said her son, particularly when she chose to marry a black man in the 1960s and move to Africa.
“My grandparents were very against her going to Africa to marry this foreign person,” he said. “She’d never been on a plane in her life but he invited her, and she went.”
Ruth Baker met Barack Hussein Obama Sr. while he was studying at Harvard University in Boston and married him in 1964, following him to Africa. She stayed in Kenya after their divorce but broke off all ties with her ex-husband’s family. Obama Ndesandjo — whose younger brother David later died in a car accident — said he hated his father, refusing to use his name and taking his stepfather’s surname, Ndesandjo, until Barack Obama indirectly changed his mind.
“I hadn’t had contact in [two] decades with the Obamas, because I had shut them out of my life,” he said. “And then I saw Barack doing such amazing things, and everywhere I turned, I saw him and I was proud of the impact he was having. My father pushed me away from my heritage, and in a sense, Barack made me proud and eventually I reached out to him.”
It was a nighttime dream that finally prompted Obama Ndesandjo to make contact with his brother, just prior to Barack Obama’s 2008 debate in Austin against Hillary Clinton.
“Daniel in the Torah talks about dreams and the power of dreams,” he said. “I woke up in a cold sweat, having dreamed about Barack, and my wife was my Daniel, telling me to go see Barack. Otherwise I would have gone back to bed and eaten Grape-Nuts the next morning. It was time to reconnect.”
They did, and it was their first time seeing each other in nearly 20 years. When Barack Obama became president, his half-brother visited him in the White House in 2009, but there hasn’t been much contact since between the two brothers. Obama Ndesandjo feels it’s now up to his sibling to make the next move. He knows it will take some time.
“Our family’s not a normal family when it comes to smoothing things out,” he said. “We’re pretty bumpy and there are moments of intense elation and intense disappointment which have characterized my sibling relationships. We’re like a herd of cats, and putting us together like a normal family is going to be a little difficult.”