• PROTECTIVE: Auma Obama won't discuss her brother's performance as president. Picture: MARTIN RHODES

  • PROTECTIVE: Auma Obama won't discuss her brother's performance as president. Picture: MARTIN RHODES

IT's never easy being the sibling of someone extremely famous. This is compounded when he's one of the most powerful men in the world and you've grown up apart, on far-flung continents, in different cultural and ethnic societies. Auma Obama comments, somewhat tartly, that people are usually disappointed when she tells them there's nothing special about her relationship with Barack.

"It's boring. We're just a brother and sister who see each other whenever we have the time," she says. That is revealing in itself, for many families connected in similarly unusual circumstances might ensure their paths never crossed. But it's clear from her book, And Then Life Happens (St Martin's Press), that their relationship is more than a biological incident. It's a friendship.

It was Barack Obama, in his early 20s back in 1984 when he was working in "the projects" in Chicago, who first reached out to his half-sister, who was working in Germany.

Her hands trembled as she opened the letter with the Obama name on it, for it was so similar to her father's. He'd been dead for some time. She and Barack ran into each other's arms on the railway station in Chicago: "I was so surprised he knew me immediately! "

He took her home to his flat, told her he was a good cook, proved it, then sat her down and pelted her with questions about his father. He followed that with a trip to Kenya to meet his family, a visit he captured evocatively and beautifully in his book, Dreams from My Father.

But that wasn't enough, it seems, for publishers across the world. They asked Auma repeatedly to write a book about her brother, "which obviously I wasn't interested in doing. But, I always wanted to write about my family, especially my father and how he coped living between two cultures, African and western. Barack and I, as his children, were very much a part of that movement between cultures, and it wasn't easy, it made our lives complex," she says in her erudite English. It trips quickly off the tongue with none of the Germanic inflections you might expect from someone who's spent 16 years of her adult life there. She wrote her book in German. It was translated into English by American Ross Benjamin to speed up the publishing process.

Auma was still in her mother's womb when Obama senior went to study in Hawaii. There he met Barack's mother, Ann Dunham, an anthropology student whom he married when she fell pregnant. Barack hardly knew his father, who moved on to Harvard, where he studied econometrics. In time, his parents divorced.

Obama senior met a young woman, Ruth, at Harvard, who was so infatuated by the tall, intelligent young Kenyan that she followed him to Nairobi, married him and had two sons.

Auma was only four years old when it was decided that she and her older brother, Abongo, should live with their father and stepmother Ruth in a plush Nairobi suburb.

She did not see her mother, Kezia, for the next seven years and the complexity of the cultural clash emerges in a letter her stepmother wrote home, "explaining how she couldn't relate to us, her husband's black children", she writes. "She described how hard it was for her to bathe us, because she so disliked touching us. Our father must have known . what Ruth thought of his family and friends. How could he have accepted that without denying himself?"

Her father's intense personal bitterness and disappointment were reflected in his working life because his Luo tribe was not in power. It was the turn of the Kikuyu.

Auma was 13 when her stepmother moved out. The following years were fraught; her father had a bad accident, lost his job and she was occasionally sent home because school fees weren't paid: "My father's friends and our relatives whom he'd been so supportive of in the good times had just deserted us."

The emotional pressure culminated in a nervous breakdown. But Auma had mentors at her elite Kenya High School in Nairobi and they soon had the gutsy teenager back on her feet. Her relationships with her father and Abonga, however, continued to deteriorate. By the time she'd won a German Academic Exchange Service scholarship to study German at Saarland University, in Saarbrucken, she was no longer talking to her father.

She left Kenya without his knowledge and his permission, a brave move at the time for a woman brought up in her culture. But she was terrified her father would prevent her going. She had reconnected with her mother when her stepmother left home and, in time, Kezia visited her in Germany.

Auma's early years there were tricky for a young African unversed in European culture. She chuckles as she recalls her naivety in her love affairs and her stays in host German homes, one so hippy that they offered her marijuana.

In time, she married an Englishman, lived for four years near London and gave birth to their daughter, Akinyi, now 15. But she couldn't cope with the infamous British reserve. "I was quite offended when they didn't return my hospitality," she comments, recalling her efforts to make friends by asking neighbours to tea.

Her marriage didn't last and she returned to Nairobi to work for the non governmental organisation (NGO) CARE International. Recently, she established the non profit foundation, Sauti Kuu, which helps young people become economically independent : "My organis ation sets out to change the victim mind-set of youth, to empower them to do things for themselves."

She's fairly fierce as she talks at some length about the effects of colonisation on Africa and her humanitarian work with grassroots NGOs that use sport to reach out to the youth.

"I am not favourable to the word 'help'. It indicates that the other person is passive and we want to enable young people to find their own potential."

Her life has been challenging in terms of cross-cultural marriage and stepbrothers and step sisters. But she says firmly: "In Africa we do not talk of 'step' or 'half', we just are."

And, she writes, "it was not always simple to introduce Barack to his relatives without getting lost in the confusion of the familial relationships".

She's protective of her brother's presidential status, refusing to comment on the fact that he has not visited Kenya since he was inaugurated. He chose Ghana instead, presumably due to its then clear commitment to democracy. Auma's reserve extends to his presence at her book launch in the US: "What a question!"

When pressed on his reading of it, she says: "I can't give you a definitive on that, but I am assuming that he has."

I'd say it's a sure bet he's read it. Their relationship is characteris ed by Auma's description of her brother's reaction to her after their first meeting. Barack wrote: "I knew at that moment that I loved (Auma) so naturally, so easily and fiercely."