Born in Kenya in 1965 to Ruth Baker and Barack Obama, Sr., Mark Obama Ndesandjo is an accomplished musician, author, artist and businessman. Prior to settling in Shenzhen, China, he earned a BS in Physics from Brown University, an MS in Physics from Stanford, and an MBA from Emory.
President Barack Obama with his brother, Mark Obama Ndesandjo. (Courtesy photo)
A half-brother of U.S. President Barack Obama, Mark consults worldwide, employing his considerable telecommunications, international marketing and branding experience gained as a senior manager at Lucent, Nortel and other companies. He is also fluent in Mandarin, both as a speaker and as a writer, and he’s an avid brush calligrapher, too.
As an author, he has published the novel, “Nairobi to Shenzhen,” as well as an intriguing autobiography, “An Obama’s Journey.” Musically, he’s released 3 piano CDs, “The Untimely Ones,” “Night Moods” and his own composition “Reflections on William Blake.”
KW: I found “An Obama’s Journey” fascinating.
MON: Thank you. It was a very difficult book to write.
KW: I can imagine. It’s so revealing emotionally. Plus, you had to deal with the burden of your brother being in the public eye.
MON: I’m so glad you liked it. Writing a book, you have to reach very deep inside of yourself to share a message that will touch the readers. Otherwise, people will know, and it won’t connect.
KW: Some of what you wrote about Barack, like how, for political reasons, he lied to the press about when he first met you, was very revealing.
MON: One of the focuses was just to share some of the important facts that have shaped lives in our country and in individuals in my family. Hopefully, people can take positive lessons from that, and use it to make a change or do something positive. I don’t speak for Barack. I speak for myself, as you know.
There are many things about him that are difficult and almost inscrutable. That’s part of the mystery and also part of the reason for his success. When he said that he’d only met me for the first time a couple of years before, when he really hadn’t, it was very surprising and disappointing to me, because it seemed like politics were taking precedence over family. Having been through the excesses and the extreme emotional politics of family dynamics had already made me very sensitive. But that being said, I support my brother. He’s a remarkable person, and he’s changed my life in many ways.
KW: What message do you think people will take away from the book? What did you hope to achieve by publishing the book?
MON: There were a few reasons why I wrote the book. One was that I wanted to tell my story myself, and not have others tell it for me. Another was that I felt my family is nebulous in many ways. A lot of people don’t understand it. It represents change which can be frightening to many people. I wanted people to know about the Obama family and where we come from, with a lineage traced back to the 17th Century. I think that’s a service the country needs to know. The other thing I wanted to talk about is the experience of being mixed-race. Many Americans, and more and more people around the world are going through this globalization of race, culture and religion. And we’re discovering that we don’t represent just one culture, but two or three. Growing up as a mixed-race kid was a very bumpy road, and I wanted to share how that experience helped form my identity, hoping that it might serve as a lesson for the kids of the world who are closer and closer physically as well as intellectually.
KW: I found your writing intense and moving, especially that chapter about the loss of your brother, David.
MON: Thank you so much. That was a tribute to my brother. I wanted to make sure that no one forgot him. He was the closest to me in many ways. We had the same mom and the same dad. In that chapter and the one on my step-father I try to pay my respects to two remarkable people. Part of my purpose was to express the humanity of these wonderful people in my family.
KW: Well, you certainly succeeded. But you also succeeded in painting your biological father as a monster.
MON: He was tortured. For a long time, I felt that it wasn’t a big deal, until I appreciated its effects on my life. For a long time, I couldn’t remember anything good about my father. That was one of my reasons for writing the book. How can a child actually not remember one good thing about his father? I would really try to, Kam, but I couldn’t.
KW: Professor/Author Dinesh Sharma asks: Do you feel that growing up with parents from two different cultures shaped you in any important ways?
MON: I talk about this in the book. Because of the issue of domestic violence, I instinctively gravitated towards my mother and bonded with her, her values and her culture, Western culture. She was a beacon of love in a family driven by conflict. And I associated my father with negatives. My father was brilliant, but doctorates don’t have currency with kids. Children look for love, but they don’t really care about degrees. So, I gravitated away from African culture, and towards being alone, reading books and my music: Chopin, Beethoven and Mozart, and towards the intellectual giants. I love Western culture in many, many ways. These cultural conflicts and also these cultural joys sustained me and kept me going in Africa for a long time.
KW: Were you raised by your mother to appreciate your Jewish heritage?
MON: Yes, I was always very proud of being Jewish. She and my maternal grandmother, who emigrated to America from Lithuania, were the ones who helped me with that by exposing me to music and intellectuals I really admired like Einstein. My grandmother would come to Kenya to visit us. I remember sitting on the bed with her, leafing through the Torah, even though I didn’t understand the characters. She’d be explaining the meaning of the characters, like “God,” in Yiddish, but she could only pronounce them in Hebrew. She was also very musical, and helped me learn piano. Although my mother was secular, she took me to a synagogue when I was very, very young. I remember the warmth of the congregation. They didn’t care about my skin color or where I was from. As long as I had a yarmulke on my head, I was fine. I considered Judaism as sort of a glue, like a 4th or 5th dimension, which cut across all of these cultures.
KW: When you first met him many years ago in Kenya, he was a different person, searching for his roots? How do you think he has developed as a person from then and now? How do you think he has evolved over time?
MON: When I first met Barack, we were both pretty arrogant. I was going to Stanford, he was at Harvard, and we both thought we were brilliant. I was shocked to learn that there was someone smarter than I in my family. I think he’s mellowed a lot since then, but he’s also distanced himself from Kenya and his Kenyan family as President. That’s quite different from the way he was 20-odd years ago. He’s a master of politics, and the challenge he’s facing is how to reconcile character and personality, and family and politics without turning them into a political instrument.
KW: Editor Robin Beckham asks: How would you describe your relationship with Barack now?
MON: I’ve been pretty open and candid in the book about my past experiences with my brother. But out of respect for his feelings and privacy, I’ve decided not to comment any further about our relationship. All I can says is: how could anybody take a job that gives you so many white hairs?
KW: Marcia Evans asks: Wasn’t your father just a product of his environment in Africa where men can have more than one woman, if they so choose? How would that part of your book help American and European readers, when we have a different culture?
MON: Sometimes, it’s a little more complicated than just having more wives. There were a number of issues in my father’s case that led him to turn out the way he did: childhood abuse, alcohol, domestic abuse. I wrote about them in the book. It’s not fair to lump him into a category suggesting he’s simply representative of a certain culture.