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The Obama Diaspora

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Malik Obama, being hoisted by villagers in Kogelo to celebrate his half-brother's election, November 2008.  

The Quiet One
Bernard Obama, Kezia’s youngest son, reportedly runs an auto-parts firm in Nairobi. The Sun caught up with him last year. He revealed little beyond the fact that he is a fan of the soccer club Manchester United.

The Pianist
Last month, Mark Ndesandjo, the president’s half-brother, released a self-published autobiographical novel entitled Nairobi to Shenzhen. Barack Obama has written that meeting Ndesandjo was “like looking into a foggy mirror,” and indeed, the two Ivy League–educated half-brothers have some superficial similarities. But as Nairobi to Shenzhen makes clear, they have very different feelings about their families. Whereas the younger Obama portrays his father as a distant, imperious, but talented man, Ndesandjo, who lived with him throughout his childhood, describes him as a monster and their relationship as “cataclysmic, debilitating, histrionic, humiliating, and overbearing.” In a press conference two weeks ago, Ndesandjo recalled that his father used to beat him and his American mother, Ruth. Those picking up Nairobi to Shenzhen for the unauthorized family story, however, will come away disappointed: It is a 350-page love story about a Chinese woman named Spring, filled out with cultural observations and digressive philosophical musings. There’s no mention of his feelings about the president, though some may be forthcoming: Ndesandjo says he’s has recently completed a memoir.

The Ex
Mark’s mother, Ruth Ndesandjo, who eventually divorced Barack Obama Sr. and married a Tanzanian, currently runs a school in Nairobi. In his memoir, Barack Obama was notably harsh in describing his first meeting with her, calling the encounter an “ordeal.” How Ndesandjo felt about the portrayal is unknown. In a 2008 interview with the Kenyan newspaper The Daily Nation, the only one with her on record, she refused to answer any personal questions.

The Defendant
If there is one person who has truly suffered from all the attention, it’s Barack Obama’s half-aunt, Zeituni Onyango. She first came to public notice when the Times of London began digging into the whereabouts of several of the more reclusive members of the Obama family. Through public-records searches and cold-calling, James Bone, a U.S.-based correspondent for the newspaper, was able to track her to Boston. After phoning her house three times—on each occasion the same voice answered, once claiming that Zeituni Onyango had died the previous summer—Bone traveled to Boston and staked out her address, a ground-floor apartment for the physically disabled in a public-housing complex. Eventually, Onyango, an elderly woman who walks with a cane, left her apartment to go shopping, and Bone approached her for an interview. Within days of the appearance of Bone’s story, the reason for Onyango’s reticence became clear: She was residing in the U.S. illegally, since a judge had denied her asylum appeal in 2004.

Since then, the president’s illegal-alien aunt has become a favorite target for the conservative fringe. (Glenn Beck has particular fun with ostentatious mispronunciations of her name.) Onyango herself has been driven more or less into hiding, emerging only for a brief August interview with a local television station and an immigration-court date in Boston, for which she disguised herself from photographers by wearing sunglasses and a curly red wig. At a hearing next February, she will likely learn whether she’ll be deported. In her TV interview, she said she wasn’t hoping for any special treatment from her nephew. “I don’t want to disturb him, because he’s got a big job to do.”

The Missing Obamas
“Missing” Obamas have been an ongoing target of the international press. It’s impossible to confirm how many are at large, and given the size of most African families, it’s hardly surprising that new ones keep turning up. Nothing is known of the president’s blood-relation aunts Auma and Sarah. Jael Otieno, Barack Obama Sr.’s fourth wife, is believed to be living quietly in Atlanta. Sayid and Zeituni have two brothers: Yusuf, who lives in Kisumu and has yet to speak to the press, and Omar, who moved to the United States sometime in the sixties. James Bone tracked him to Boston, where the trail went cold. Bone believes Omar has gone underground, but the reporter holds out hope that he’ll find him someday.

Additional reporting by Robert Oluoch.


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