US President Barack Obama’s half-brother made a rare appearance yesterday in southern China, his home for seven years, to launch a novel he says draws on his painful childhood under an abusive father.
Mark Okoth Obama Ndesandjo — who had the same, late, father as the US president — has kept a low public profile since reports surfaced last year that he was living and working in the southern Chinese capitalist and manufacturing haven of Shenzhen, around an hour’s train ride from Hong Kong.
After repeatedly shunning media attention, Ndesandjo’s first major public appearance to launch his debut novel comes less than two weeks before the US president travels to China for the first time.
While he said his work, Nairobi to Shenzhen, is a fictional account, it started off nearly 10 years ago as an autobiography and “reflects many experiences in my own life as a child brought up in Kenya,” including a troubled relationship with his father.
“My mother used to say of my father, he’s a brilliant man but a social failure,” Ndesandjo told reporters at a press conference in Guangzhou.
“I remember times in my house when I would hear screams and I would hear my mother’s pain.” His American mother Ruth was his father’s third wife.
“My skin had turned hard emotionally for so many years because of what I’d seen my mother go through,” Ndesandjo said.
Ndesandjo’s book details how the protagonist David makes an improbable journey to China in 2001, inspired by his “growing love for a beautiful Chinese woman and a young orphan,” and reflects Ndesandjo’s own marriage to a young Chinese woman and his charitable work for Chinese orphans.
He was less forthright about his relationship with his famous brother, however, saying that they are in touch and an upcoming autobiography, for which he still hasn’t found a publisher, would give a fuller account of their family background and ties.
“We’re family, I love my family,” Ndesandjo said.
“I was so proud of my brother,” he said of Obama becoming the first African-American US president.
At a news conference in which he would only take five written questions drawn from a box, he avoided any mention of politics or US-China relations but said Americans could learn from China’s culture and deep-rooted family ties.
“China is about family ... there is a tremendous, wonderful sense of family here,” he said.
Fifteen percent of proceeds from sales of the book, whose cover depicts a dead tree against a red background, will go to charity.
“I wanted to be known as a writer, not for my relationship to the president,” said Ndesandjo, who speaks with an American lilt.