BARACK Obama’s half-brother has been helping to promote cheap Chinese exports in a low-profile business career while the Democratic senator has been winning worldwide fame in his race for the White House.
He has gone to extraordinary lengths to avoid public attention and his family links remain unknown to most of his acquaintances in Shenzhen, a border boomtown in southern China where he has lived since 2002.
Mark Ndesandjo is the son of Barack Obama’s late father and his third wife, an American woman named Ruth Nidesand who runs the up-market Maduri kindergarten in Nairobi.
Obama, however, refers to him simply as “my brother” and says he was the only uncontested heir after their father, a Kenyan, died in a car crash in 1982.
Friends say he has a long-term Chinese girlfriend in her 20s from Henan, a poor landlocked province that sends millions of migrants to the coastal cities.
He lives in Nanshan, a brash new district of high-rises and streets teeming after dark with young migrants eating spicy street food and cramming into bars, karaoke joints and massage parlours.
“He is big, strong and full of energy, speaks good Chinese and is a really easygoing guy,” said a Chinese friend, “He always wears a hat over his shaven head. I believe he has several consultancy jobs.”
Chinese officials said there are unanswered questions about his internet-based company, Worldnexus Ltd. It has provided corporate communications and website design to Chinese firms seeking customers in English-speaking markets, of which the United States is the biggest.
Worldnexus is not registered to conduct business in Shenzhen and officials at the city’s commercial administration bureau said this raised potential issues of taxation and compliance with the law by its customers.
The company’s Chinese-language website promises “increased communication efficiency” to clients and lists Shenzhen exporters of electronics and machine parts among its contracts.
The website lists an office address in the west of the city but despite a search of the area and checks with local police, no such building could be located.
Nor is Worldnexus Ltd legally registered in Hong Kong, where many businesses choose to incorporate for their China trade, according to an official data check.
Contacted by The Sunday Times last week, Ndesandjo said: “Thanks for your interest. However I am not giving interviews at this time.”
He did not respond to four subsequent requests for comment.
However Ndesandjo told a Chinese businessman last week that Worldnexus was not trading at the moment, saying that he hoped to “re-start the business next year” and adding that the website was “out of date.”
Any family connection between the Democratic presidential contender and the flood of Chinese imports that are blamed by many Americans for destroying American jobs could be politically embarrassing.
Obama has staked out a populist position on trade with China in the US election campaign, calling in December 2007 for a ban on all toys from Chinese factories until safety inspections were put in place.
But although the kinship between the two men is bound to cause a sensation in China – as in their father’s native Kenya, no distinction is drawn between full and half brothers – they do not appear to be close.
Ndesandjo, who had an elite education in the United States, collecting a degree from Brown University, a masters in physics from Stanford and an MBA from Emory, did not share Obama’s emotional view of his roots.
Obama painted a disappointed picture of his half-brother in his 1995 memoir, Dreams from My Father, in which he celebrated his own return to Kenya and rediscovery of his African inheritance.
At a rather tense lunch, Obama quoted “Mark” – his family name is never given away in the book - as saying Kenya was “just another poor African country” to which he felt little attachment.
Mark added: “there’s not much work for a physicist, is there, in a country where the average person doesn’t have a telephone.”
According to Obama’s account, Mark looked him in the eye and said: “You think that somehow I’m cut off from my roots, that sort of thing. Well, you’re right.”
“At a certain point I made the decision not to think about who my real father was. He was dead to me even when he was still alive. I knew that he was a drunk and showed no concern for his wife and children. That’s enough.”
Barack Obama senior fathered eight children by four different women.
Obama wrote that Mark didn’t want to ask himself a lot of questions about the meaning of racial identity, dismissing the idea with the words: “life’s hard enough without all that excess baggage.”
Asked last week whether he was quoted accurately in the book, Ndesandjo did not respond.
Obama wrote that on parting, “we exchanged addresses and promised to write, with a dishonesty that made my heart ache.”
Two decades after that encounter, the extended and complex Obama family is bound to come under further scrutiny as the US election enters its final months after the Democratic and Republican party conventions.
“That not enough has been written about his family is strange,” wrote columnist Roger Cohen in the New York Times last March, “If nominated, Obama’s family baggage will be pored over.”