THE green 1981 Chevrolet LUV pick-up in Homa Bay looks like an ordinary 30-year-old workhorse that has seen better days. Yet the pick-up holds stories and secrets that its present owner Joseph Owili Ongei will never know. It was the car in which Barack Hussein Obama Senior met his death on a cold night in December 1982.
He had returned to Kenya in 1964 from Hawaii where he had married Stanley Ann Dunham. Their son, Barack Obama Junior, was born in 1961 and in 2008 would become the President of the United States. As an economist at the Ministry of Finance in Nairobi, Obama Snr was entitled to a new car at regular intervals.
In 1981 he became eligible for another vehicle of his choice for the government to buy, with the purchase price deducted from his salary until the amount was recovered. He walked into the General Motors showroom and chose the Chevrolet LUV KB25 model, chassis 9583320, that was given the registration plate KTH 018.
Many of his peers considered it an odd choice. Other senior bureaucrats were going for sleek saloons that suited their status. Obama’s social life involved driving to drinking joints around Nairobi, where he would park the ChevLuv, as it was known, outside the bar and engage in loud conversation and backslapping.
He was involved in two traffic accidents before the third ended his life. In 1971 he reportedly killed a man in an accident, even though details are not forthcoming. Following that crash, he spent almost a year recuperating in hospital but was still left with a bad leg.
Upon his discharge in December 1971, he made a month-long trip to Hawaii where he visited his ex-wife, Ann Dunham and their son Barack. That was the last time the 10-year-old Obama would see his father alive. Obama Snr later lost his legs in another crash.
Shortly after he bought the pick-up in 1981, he was dismissed from the Finance ministry, either because of his drinking or because he had criticised a Treasury policy paper. He then sank into alcoholism and poverty. “He was just like Mr Toad (from Wind In The Willows), very arrogant on the road, especially when he had whisky inside. I was not surprised when I learned how he died,” said veteran writer Philip Ochieng who was one of his drinking buddies.
On the night of December 3, 1982, Obama entered his car for the last time. He died minutes later when his car hit a tree on Elgon Road in Nairobi’s posh Upper Hill. The report that followed the postmortem, written by longtime Nairobi police pathologist Dr Ayres Lorenco Ribeiro, said death was caused by “bleeding due to ruptured heart due to a traffic accident.”
The impact on his chest was so severe that the steering wheel broke. The wreckage was towed to the Treasury Building in Nairobi. It was stored in the basement for years alongside several other grounded cars until the August 1998 terrorist attack on the US embassy in Nairobi. Following the blast, the government issued a directive for all broken vehicles to be towed to a central yard outside the city centre.
Obama’s beloved ChevLuv lay there out in the open for another eight years until electrical technician Owili developed an interest in it. He had seen it at the government yard behind the Finance office where he worked but never gave it a second glance…until his longtime friend Bernard Raburu urged him to buy it. “Back then I was earning no more than Sh1,500,” recalls Owili who had just quit his job as a technician to join the Ministry of Finance. “I needed a pick-up in case I was retrenched, which was the norm back then, so that I could use it to do business,” he told the Star.
Little did Owili know that the “junk” he had just bought linked him to the President of the United States. “I paid Obama’s widow Sh78,000 for the car and took possession of it. I immediately had a mechanic dismantle the engine to overhaul it because it had been dormant for many years. I had the body towed to a garage in Grogan area, where a different mechanic worked on it,” recalls Owili. “For the impact to break the steering wheel, it must have been great,” said automotive mechanic Patrick Odundo who restored the vehicle. “It took a lot of work to make the car roadworthy again,” he said. “After I finished it, it looked very beautiful and everyone congratulated me.”
Due to cash constraints, it took Owili almost a year to get the ChevLuv back on the road. He then looked for the registration documents to transfer it to his name. “When I bought the car, I had no idea it was the one that the President’s father used to drive,” he narrates. “You can imagine my shock when I saw the log book.”
Apart from the registration document, Obama’s widow also gave him a copy of Obama’s identity card and death certificate, together with a letter authorizing the transfer. Owili drove the car in Nairobi for a year before taking it to his rural home in Homa Bay, about 250 kilometers from Obama’s home in K’Ogelo. “It is now old and cannot carry heavy loads anymore but I keep it because it was my first car and because I am proud to be associated with President Obama,” said Owili. “If President Obama wants to keep it as part of his family heritage, I can consider parting with it,” said Owili who said he had not considered selling it. Old cars can sell for tens of thousands of dollars on Internet auction site EBay. It is difficult to estimate what the ChevLuv would fetch.