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Brotherly love: Obama's half brother searches for identity

 Mark Okoth Obama Ndesandjo
Mark Okoth Obama Ndesandjo (AFP/Getty Images)

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Mark Okoth Obama Ndesandjo
Businessman, musician, author
Thursday, November 12, 2009; 10:00 AM

President Barack Obama's half brother Mark Okoth Obama Ndesandjo has lived in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen for seven years. They both share the same father. Obama Sr. married Mark's mother, Ruth Nidesand, while he was studying at Harvard after divorcing President Obama's mother, Stanley Ann Dunham. The elder Obama and Nidesand lived together in Nairobi, where Mark spent most of his childhood.

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Nairobi to Shenzhen is a loosely autobiographical work of fiction about a child of mixed-race growing up and experiencing domestic violence with an abusive father. Ndesandjo says the memories were so bitter that he stopped using the name Obama but later changed his mind when his half brother was elected president of the United States.

Ndesandjo was online from China on Thursday, Nov. 12, at 10 a.m. ET to discuss his book, his search for identity and his relationship with his brother who he plans to see when the president visits China next week.

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Washington, D.C.: Your story seems very similar to your brother's. Your father must have left an indelible mark on your life. I read that you were inspired to finish the book by your brother winning the election. Is this true and can you explain?

Mark Okoth Obama Ndesandjo: Thank you for the question. There are similarities between the two books and I think, to a certain extent, that fathers and sons are of the same cloth. The challenge in life, I found out later than my brother, I believe, is recognizing the things that connect fathers and sons early enough so one can avoid making the same mistakes.

The experiences that I had living with my father impacted me in obvious and also subtle ways. The subtle ways involved an emotional hardening that made it difficult for me to understand why I did certain things later in my life. The book was and is a sort of series of vicarious reflections (for the protagonist David) in which he tries to understand himself through understanding his father. I think this is a learning process that never stops and this book is a first step of sorts.

It was my brother and the people around him, the tremendous movement from fear towards hope that helped the chanage. At first hesitant, over the campaign I became very proud and that helped me reach back into my past and ultimately complete this book.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: I realize this is a book of fiction, yet I also have read you have based this upon your life, as do many fiction authors. What I believe many readers will ask, I will ask now: about how much of what you write about the character's mother, father, and half brother is fiction?

Mark Okoth Obama Ndesandjo: There is no half brother depicted in "Nairbobi to Shenzhen.'" This is a question that I also struggle with because I know that when I wrote this book it was first as an autobiography over seven years ago. At the time I had shunted a lot of the painful memories to the back of my mind but as I wrote this autobiography I was confronted with a fundamental problem and that is that I didn't know my father in his good parts as well as his bad parts. It was hard for me to remember any positive things about father. I also knew that to write a book that was honest I could not describe my father in a way that made him a cartoon. The reason for this is that I truly believe that everybody has good parts as well as bad parts. My father started life herding goats, in a very poor village in a very poor province of Kenya and managed by force of will, persistence and intellect to get to Harvard, after which he had a successful life, before it crumbled and alcoholism and domestic violence took over. Such a man must have had personally redeeming qualities, as does everyone.

At that point I started to consider my father in his fullness. I remembered that my mother had told me that my father, when he was six years old, had been abandoned by his mother. My mother told me, "Mark, something like that must affect a man very deeply." I remembered this story and I imagined what would my father have said aabout his life if he had written a diary that detailed the most significant moments of his life. I started to write this diary because I wanted to imagine the good parts as well as explore where the bad parts had actually come from. But at that point it was no longer an autobiography.

Since it was no longer an autobiography, it had become a novel. Over the years I continued this novel on and off, particularly in the last few remarkable years. The novel draws closely from four characters in my own life: my father, my mother, myself and my grandmother. As I write this book I'm always faced with the question, where does the author end and the character begin? I believe that a novel or autobiography must have authenticity (for example, music must ber true to connect to a listener) and the person I know best is myself. An autobiography will be coming out that answers many of the qeustions that the novel raises.

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Glenside, PA.: What kind of brother is President Obama? Also, despite the failings of your father, what was it that made all of his children so remarkable?

Mark Okoth Obama Ndesandjo: That's very kind of you. I think that in some ways conflict and creativity coexist. As in any family we agree on things and we disagree. I love my brother and in some dark moments, especially during the campaign, there were some dark moments when my whole family supported me. I believe it's the diversity of our family -- not just the gifts of my father -- that helped us have some success. It is the ongoing mix of being in different situations and being unafraid of self-doubt that have been a part,if not all, of what has helped us through our challenges. In my case, the music that comes through my mother and perhaps the Jewish influence have helped me cope.

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Albany, N.Y.: Do you have any plans to meet your brother, our president, when he visits Asia in the coming days?

Mark Okoth Obama Ndesandjo: Thank you for saying he's my brother and not just my half brother. I am so happy he is visiting China. The Chinese people are warm, gracious and great hosts. To understand China and its culture it is good to be here and experience China. My brother and his great team already knows this. President Obama and his great team already know this. My plan is to introduce my wife to President Obama. She is his greatest fan.

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Anonymous: I'd be interested to hear about your experiences as a black person in China. Have you encountered any difficulties? Have things changed since you first moved to China seven years ago, and if so, how?

Mark Okoth Obama Ndesandjo: Thank you for your question. In my book, there is a scene where Spring (David's love) visits a Shenzhen orphanage for the first time. In a room filled with 60 cots, baby in each cot, she puts out her hand to one of the babies in the cot. Its big, black eyes look up at her and it grasps her finger and refuses to let go.

This happened to me too. The baby didn't think of black or white or yellow or brown. I have lived in Shenzhen for almost seven years. I speak the language and am married to a Chinese woman. Speaking for myself, I have generally been very happy while I have been here. The key is to have an openness and curiosity about the culture and it very much helps to give back or help those in need no matter where one finds onself in life.

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Chesterfield, Virginia: Mr. Ndesandjo, Do you have any plans to visit the United States and how can I get a copy of your book?

Thanks.

Mark Okoth Obama Ndesandjo: I will likely visit the U.S. sometime next year. The book is available on amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com, buy.com and thank you very much for considering buying this book. Fifteen percent of the money is going to help disadvantaged children and orphans.

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Deming, N.M.: Where did you go to school and where have you taught? I ask because I read of your insights into the rigidity of textbooks and education in China. I would appreciate it if you were able to compare the degree of this rigidity to schools in other countries and what you believe this says about these different cultures?

Mark Okoth Obama Ndesandjo: Thank you for your question. I believe you are referring to David's (in the book's) description of a school book he sees when he arrives in China. This does not necessarily reflect my own opinion but it (and the book) reflect some points of view that I have come across in my experience as an English teacher working with Chinese as well as foreign teachers the brief time that I was a teacher.

Right now my focus is on discussing the book but the autobiography will address some of these facts and insights, not only about China but particularly about the U.S. and Kenya.

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Brooklyn, N.Y.: How have you and your family been treated in China? Was there any change in the way your family has been treated after your brother became president?

Mark Okoth Obama Ndesandjo: So far we are happy in China. Naturally I have gotten more phone calls from reporters since the election but people have tried to respect our privacy and most have been very gracious.

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Falls Church, Va.: Why did it take you so long to speak out?

Mark Okoth Obama Ndesandjo: Thank you for your question. I never really wanted to be in the position that I found myself. I wanted to continue focusing on the simple, low-profile but important things in my life: music, studying Chinese, loving my wife, practicing caligraphy and teaching orphans to play piano. I have tried all along to maintain this equilbrium. The exceptions that I have made such as talking to the media have been fundamentally motivated by a desire to help disadvantaged children, raise awareness of issues such as domestic violence (most people don't talk about this) and the power and importance of volunteering and service. Without these I would truly not have the energy todeal with these challenges.

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Washington, D.C.: Did you know your brother when you were young?

Mark Okoth Obama Ndesandjo: When I was very, very young I heard rumors but I never explored that question deeply because at that point I had closed myself emotionally to many issues related to my father.

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Ashburn, Va.: You made a cameo appearance in your brother's book 'Dreams from my Father'. Barak is visiting Kenya and he drops by to visit you and your mother. You are about to go to Stanford. Have you too had any contacts afterwards ?

Mark Okoth Obama Ndesandjo: Yes.

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Austin, Tex.: What is your educational background?

Mark Okoth Obama Ndesandjo: I have a Bachelor's in physics from Brown University and I also completed the requirements for a Bachelor of Arts in mathematics (noted on the transcript -- I could not pay for the BA diploma). I have a Masters in physics from Stanford and an Executive MBA from Emory University.

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Washington, D.C.: There's a lot of news analysis and coverage of China in the US media, how accurately do you think that reflects China as you see it?

Mark Okoth Obama Ndesandjo: There are so many points of view about China that it's a little hard to answer this question but I would encourage Americans to know that China is fundamentally about family. It is like a network of families reaching across a big country and touching each other. To give an example, on the Chinese New Year, 240 million people in the space of two days move across the country to join their families. A few days later 240 million people return. Understanding China in many ways requires recognizing the tremendous importance of family here.

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