Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Obama's half-brother in Shenzhen

SHENZHEN: The news release didn't say who Mark Ndesandjo was. Nor did the posters and e-mails promoting the concert. But the 200-odd people who showed up over the weekend for the fundraiser at a posh hotel resort in this boomtown knew who he was.

The man in a Chinese-style brown silk shirt who played piano to raise money for orphans was the half brother of Barack Obama.

The guests had a rare encounter with Ndesandjo, and they knew it. After all, he has been dodging the media since his family ties were made public last summer.

Ndesandjo has lived in Shenzhen, which borders Hong Kong, for the past seven years. And not surprisingly, the announcement for his piano concert identified him as a strategic marketing consultant, for he has also helped start a chain of eateries in China called Cabin BBQ.

Ndesandjo has a thin mustache, shaved head and a gold stud in his left earlobe. He has a slight resemblance to the US president-elect and shares the same trim, athletic physique. But he speaks Mandarin, is a vegetarian and practices Chinese calligraphy.

On Friday, the day of the concert, he said he had just finished a novel called Nairobi to Shenzhen, but was yet to find a publisher.

But he declined to confirm even basic details about his past or discuss his relationship with Obama. He uses the surname of his mother, Ruth, the third wife of his father who died in 1982. He was born in Kenya and moved to the US when he was a child was all that he said.

His Chinese friend and restaurant business partner, Sui Zhenjun, too, didn't know about Ndesandjo's relationship with Obama, though they had known each other since his arrival in China in 2002. "It wasn't until July when media reports started surfacing about him being related to Obama that I found out they were related," Sui told Associated Press. "He called and told me" about it.

Ask Ndesandjo what he wants, and the reply would be: a low-key life separate from Obama. No one mentioned his family when he was introduced at the charity concert and cocktail party, sponsored by the American Chamber of Commerce in South China.

But would Ndesandjo be present at Obama's swearing-in ceremony? During brief remarks on stage, he said he would visit the US in a couple of days, apparently to attend today's presidential inauguration. If he didn't make the trip, he would embarrass his family, he said.

He, however, told the guests that chamber president, Harley Seyedin, was fond of the president-elect. "I like my president, too!" he said, the closest he came to mentioning Obama.

With his Chinese wife watching, Ndesandjo began his performance with a Chinese tune called Liuyang River, followed by what he said was Chopin's First Nocturne. His third and final piece was a jazz tune by Fats Waller called Viper's Drag.

He played with passion, at times hunched over the keyboard or rocking back with his eyes closed and lips slightly parted in expressions of ecstasy and agony.

Footage from a Chinese TV newsreel posted on YouTube shows him practicing calligraphy at home and teaching children how to play the piano, praising them in Mandarin and English.

What drew him to charity? He said he visited a Shenzhen orphanage shortly after arriving in China and saw rows of sleeping babies, with two harried nurses trying to care for them.

"One child with big black eyes seized my finger and would not let it go," he told the guests. That made him decide to help orphans in the best way he could.

After the concert, Ndesandjo chatted with friends and shook hands with some guests, slowly walking out of the hall . He ignored the pursued journalists, slipped into an elevator and melted into his "low-key life" as the door closed.

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