Obama's Half Brother Makes a Name for Himself in China

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Vincent Yu / AP

Mark Ndesandjo, one of President Obama's half siblings, has penned a semiautobiographical novel describing a physically abusive father who is patterned on Barack Obama Sr.

On the streets of Guangzhou and nearby Shenzhen, Mark Okoth Obama Ndesandjo is turning heads. Since holding a press conference for his semiautobiographical Nairobi to Shenzhen: A Novel of Love in the East on Nov. 4, Ndesandjo, a half brother of U.S. President Barack Obama, has appeared on television in Hong Kong, and his picture has been splashed on the front pages of China Daily, the South China Morning Post and other regional newspapers.

Ndesandjo had shunned the limelight until now. He is one of two children born to Barack Obama Sr. and his third wife, an American teacher named Ruth Nidesand, whom Obama Sr. met while the two were students at Harvard. Tall and slim like the President, Ndesandjo had avoided any association with the Obama name. For most of his life, he used only his stepfather's Tanzanian surname, Ndesandjo, but he has now added Okoth, a word from the language of his father's Kenyan tribe, the Luo, as well as his original surname, Obama.

His novel, written in diary form, is based on his experiences growing up with an abusive, alcoholic father and moving to China, where he fell in love with a Chinese woman and began working with orphans. President Obama's name is mentioned just once, when Ndesandjo thanks several people, including "Barack," in the foreword. With this book, Ndesandjo says he's stepping into the public eye in order to raise awareness of domestic violence, promote volunteerism and share his tale of starting a new life in a new land. "I am an Obama, and a large part of my life was a repudiation of that," Ndesandjo tells TIME. "To a certain extent, my brother ... opened my eyes to things that I had left behind for a long time." (Ndesandjo is still reticent about detailing his personal life beyond the fictionalized account, saying he may save that for a second book, a true autobiography.)

Ndesandjo's life was hardly ordinary even before the world discovered his connection to the President of the United States. Educated at international schools in Nairobi, Ndesandjo, an American citizen, moved to the U.S. after high school, where he earned physics degrees from Stanford and Brown as well as an executive M.B.A. from Emory University. Soon after 9/11, he was laid off from his marketing job at telecommunications-equipment maker Nortel Networks in Atlanta. He decided to reinvent himself by moving to China, a country he had visited with classmates while at Emory. Since 2002, he has taught English and worked as a business consultant in Shenzhen, a 14 million–strong metropolis in southern China, just across the border from Hong Kong.

His self-published book was released just days before his brother's visit to China. Ndesandjo says he plans to introduce his wife, a native of Henan province whom he married last year, to his brother before he leaves China on Wednesday. During the course of TIME's interview in Guangzhou, Ndesandjo, who speaks fluent Mandarin and practices Chinese calligraphy, was overwhelmingly positive about his life in China and the Chinese people and culture. "I'm so happy my brother is coming to China because I've experienced the warmth and the graciousness of the Chinese people," he says. "If we can continue seeing the mutual positive points in these two great cultures, I think it'll be good for the world in general."

The two brothers have met a handful of times, the last of which was during Obama's Inauguration in Washington. In his 1995 memoir Dreams from My Father, Obama describes his first encounter with his brother, an ambitious student who had severed ties with his father's side of the family as well as his African roots. "I don't feel much of an attachment [to Kenya]. Just another poor African country," Ndesandjo says in Dreams. He goes on to say, "You think that somehow I'm cut off from my roots ... Well, you're right."

One of Obama Sr.'s eight children with four women, Ndesandjo was raised by both birth parents until their divorce in the early 1970s. He has refused to tell reporters his age, but he is likely to be in his early 40s. Ndesandjo says his father was brilliant but that alcoholism drove him to beat his wife and children. "The relationship I had with my father was a difficult one," he says, fighting back tears. "I didn't have positive memories of my dad because of domestic violence."

Ndesandjo says his mother, who runs a kindergarten in Nairobi, inspired him to work with children. A trained pianist, he has given piano lessons to Chinese orphans and performed at an event in January that raised $37,000 to alleviate poverty in China. Harley Seyedin, president of the American Chamber of Commerce in South China, the organization that sponsored the charity event, has been a close friend of Ndesandjo's for the past six years but only learned of his friend's relationship with the President last year when reading news reports. "He's a very private person and he wanted to continue to live his modest lifestyle," says Seyedin. "But his primary message is raising awareness of domestic violence, and to get the message out, you have to go public." To underline this message, Ndesandjo has arranged for 15% of the proceeds from book sales to be used to help orphans in China.

As a Kenyan American in China, Ndesandjo is part of a growing community of Africans who have migrated to cities like Guangzhou to do business. Ethnic strife in China has made headlines in recent months after 200 Han and Uighur Chinese were killed in July, in the worst ethnic violence in decades. That same month, a Nigerian man was critically injured trying to escape one of many visa checks in Guangzhou's sizable African neighborhood. Also this year, a half-African-American, half-Chinese contestant on a Chinese reality-TV show and a half–South African, half-Chinese athlete on China's national volleyball team became the subjects of a flurry of racist comments in China's blogosphere. But Ndesandjo is optimistic about ethnic-minority life in China, saying, "If you make an attempt to understand where these attitudes come from, it can really help."