In 2000, at the dawn of the new millennium, Joseph Owili Ongei bought a green Chevrolet LUV KB20 model, chasis number 9583320.
What he did not know, however, was that he had become the new owner of the car that claimed the life of Barack Obama Sr, the father of US President Barack Obama.
“It was one of the many cars put up for disposal by the Treasury,” he says, “And the only reason I got it was that it had been left behind by purchasers. All the others in the yard had been bought except the green pick-up.”
Owili, who then worked for Ministry of Planning as a technician, says he paid Sh175,000 to Jael Atieno Onyango. Owili, who had previous knowledge of Jael before buying the car, says the latter met Obama Snr in the early 1980s at the Treasury, where she, too, worked.
Ownership records showed the car last belonged to Dr Barack H Obama, who bought it from General Motors in 1981.
Obama had been working for the Ministry of Finance when he bought the car, in a scheme that apparently saw senior officials at the ministry identify cars and have them bought by the ministry, after which the individual employees would have their salaries deducted monthly to recover the cash.
Obama Snr died on November 24, 1982 before he could settle the loan. After the fatal accident, the car was towed to the Ministry of Finance’s junk yard.
History mentions Jael Atieno as the mother of George Hussein Onyango, one of President Barack Obama’s half-brothers. In the President Obama’s Dreams From My Father, his half-sister Auma tells him how she had given up on her father, but told him to be a good father to her new born half brother George, whose mother was ‘a young woman he was living with.’
The young woman referred to here is Jael. Since she was the last to have been living with Obama Snr, she was listed as the next of kin to the deceased and ended up inheriting rights to the car and many other properties he left behind.
Obama Jnr quotes his half sister Auma in his book as saying: “So I told him, ‘Roy and myself, we’re already adults. We have our own ways, our own memories, and what has happened between all of us is hard to undo. But with George, the baby, he is a clean slate. You have a chance to really do right by him.’”
Except for the fact that George would be the only child the relationship between Obama Sr and Jael yielded, less is said and heard about Jael.
Owili admits to having known that Jael was still an employee at the Ministry of Finance in 2000. He, however, says he has no idea when she left the ministry, and to where, only saying he heard that she left the country.
On the day Owili bought the car “she herself escorted the car as it was towed – together with other cars meant for disposal – from Bomb Blast area to a yard at the Department of Resource, Survey and Remote Sensing (DSRS) in Bellevue, Kapiti Road.”
Eight years later, the ‘Obama’ name would build traction. Obama Jr had won senatorial position in 2004 and was on the campaign trail looking for votes to be the first black President in America.
That is when Owili realised that the car in his possession bore a lot of historical importance to the world. The name written on the car log book issued to him showed that the last owner of the car was Obama Sr, who Jael had told Owili, was her husband.
“All I know about her now, after that transaction, is that she left Kenya for a different country – probably the United States,” Ongei says.
Official documents show that Obama Sr was killed in a car accident in Nairobi on November 24, 1982 aged 46.
In her 2011 book, The Other Barack: The Bold and Reckless Life of President Obama’s Father, Sally Jacobs narrates the story of an out-of-control Obama Sr, who had a penchant for the bottle, crushing onto a tree while heading home from a bar he frequented. “Six years after his return to Nairobi, he was unable to hold on a handful of highly promising jobs.”
Owili says he renovated the car after purchasing it and used it at his rural home in Kochia, Olare in Nyanza to do agribusiness. After numerous engine repairs, the old, rusty car lies in his homestead. Owili believes that the car is of historical significance.
For now, Owili says he will keep the car at his homestead. To him, it is a relic; something that through a single tragedy may have shaped the history of a family; the story of a young mullato in the United States who would eventually become President of the most powerful nation on Earth.
“Who knows what may have become of every member of the Obama family had this car never killed him? Would Obama Jr have ever become president?”.