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The Obama Diaspora

When Barack Obama’s half-brother George releases his autobiography early next year, he may transition from Kenyan bad boy to best-selling author. How are the fellow members of the far-flung First Family adjusting to their sudden associative celebrity?


Barack Obama and some of his extended family in Nairobi, 1988. Clockwise from top left: Abo Obama (half-brother; runs a cell-phone shop in Nairobi), Abon'go Malik Obama (half-brother; started a foundation in honor of his father, Barack Obama Sr.), Barack Obama, Bernard Obama (half-brother; runs an auto-parts firm in Nairobi), Auma Obama (half-sister; works for CARE International in Nairobi), Kezia Obama (stepmother; promotes Bingo for a British gambling concern).  

To reach the home of George Obama, the president’s youngest half-brother, you skirt around the skyscrapers of central Nairobi and head north twenty minutes toward Huruma, one link in a necklace of slums that encircles the Kenyan capital. Turning off a half-built highway, you plunge into a warren of honking cars, minibus taxis, stray cows, and open roadside sewers. In the afternoon, Huruma’s alleys flood with children in neat school uniforms who skip past clapboard kiosks selling cigarettes, sodas, eggs, and detergent. You stop at a soccer field, an uneven red-dust pitch with netless goals, and ask one of the young men who are standing around in knots whether they’ve seen George. Everybody knows him: He used to be a quite a soccer player. You get directions to his house, a single-story tin-and-cinderblock structure, and finding it empty, manage to cadge his cell-phone number from a neighbor. You call George and then you wait.

Eventually, he appears with an entourage of young men, who fan across the gravel alley, like a street gang readying for a rumble. George is the tallest and the skinniest and clearly the leader, striking a 27-year-old’s cocksure pose, his elbows jutting, his long slender fingers delicately holding a cigarette. In his height, slim build, and long, expressive face, you can catch a glimpse of his half-brother, Barack. But the resemblance is obscured by evidence of a harder life: George’s eyes are misty, narrowed into slits by heavy lids, and his arms are flecked with scars. The product of a relationship between Barack Hussein Obama Sr. and a Kenyan woman named Jael Otieno, George never knew his father, who died when he was 6 months old. You hold up a hand in greeting as you walk across swirled scraps of paper and discarded plastic, and explain why you’d like to talk. A barefoot child scurries over to hand George another couple of smokes, bought individually for a few shillings from a nearby kiosk. As he clamps one between his lips and lights up, George shivers despite the midday warmth.

Little but a name and a few strands of DNA link this man to the current occupant of the White House. Yet over the course of the last year, George Obama has found his life transformed by the fearful power of associative celebrity. In August 2008, around the time his half-sibling Barack was accepting the Democratic nomination, Italian Vanity Fair reported that it had tracked down George to Huruma, dragging him into the vortex of a faraway political freak show. (Drudge’s headline: “Obama’s ‘lost’ brother found living in Kenya—in a hut!”) Since then, he’s been pestered by tabloids, subjected to embarrassment—a minor marijuana arrest made international news—and has unwillingly auditioned for the role of Billy Carter in this latest, and most unprecedented, version of America’s First Family. But along with the glare of exposure has come the glint of opportunity.

Early next year, George is scheduled to publish a memoir, Homeland: An Extraordinary Story of Hope and Survival, and embark on a U.S. publicity tour. “The story would have interest whether the guy was related to the Obamas or not,” says David Rosenthal, the publisher of Simon & Schuster. “It’s somebody who was born in relative privilege in Africa, who becomes a little bit of a bad seed, and ends up working as an activist.” But surely Rosenthal would not have paid a reported six-figure advance had George’s story come with a different last name.

Despite the book deal, there’s little outward evidence of change in George’s modest existence. He carries an expensive touchscreen phone, but he still lives in his same house in the slums. George is co-writing the book with Damien Lewis, a self-described “author, war reporter, and adventurer” with some experience in this line of work (in 2005, Lewis co-authored a memoir called Slave with a Sudanese woman named Mende Nazer, who had been sold into bondage). Rosenthal says that he doesn’t know how the two men are dividing the advance, and neither Lewis nor the book’s agent would comment.

When he’s asked, last month, to talk about his memoir, George nods slowly, a smile flickering at the corners of his mouth. “I’ll give you an interview,” he says with a slow drawl. “But you have to give me 500 pounds.” He then cocks his head toward the tough-looking fellows standing behind him. “What about my bodyguards? You have to pay them, for their time.”

He eventually accepts, in lieu of payment, a series of invitations to lunch. For the meetings, he picks one of the most expensive restaurants in town, the Safari Park Hotel, where a giant elephant statue dominates a lobby styled after a supersize village hut. George is good company: He talks about sports, boasting that the youth soccer team he coaches is doing well in the local league, and politics, complaining about Kenya’s notoriously corrupt elites. He says that no matter how well his book sells, he plans to stay in Huruma—it is home. But when the conversation verges onto anything personal, he refuses to budge from his monetary demands. “What do I get?” he demands to know. To the suggestion that he might want publicity for his forthcoming autobiography, he shakes his head and mutters, “They’ll have to pay me.”


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