Since 1902

By Dann Okoth

The weather beaten apartment block B at Kariokor Flats off Eastleigh Avenue, Nairobi, would not pass for much save for its close association with Barack Obama.

The flight through a dingy staircase leads to door B1-29 on the third floor. A supple young girl opens the door to reveal a neatly furnished, but modest living room.

A section of Kariokor flats in Nairobi where Democratic presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama spent time with his cousins who lived in the estate in he first visited Kenya in the 1980s. Photo: Anne Kamoni/Standard

We scour the room with our eyes to see any traces of the Senator without any success.

But the occupants are media-shy and have been keeping in private.

"We were instructed not to talk to the media or anybody about the Senator," says Lorna who gave us the interview on phone after a lot of prodding.

new status

Indeed, house number B1-29 on the block and its occupants could assume new status if the Democratic presidential candidate wins the November 4 poll.

Obama spent some time with his cousins who lived in the block in mid- to late-1980s when he visited Kenya.

"He used to come and visit his cousins who resided in the block whenever he visited Kenya," says Lorna Awuor who is married to one of Obama’s cousins Mr Joseph Nyande.

Although Lorna and her family did not stay at the apartment then, the fact that Senator Obama visited the house and the attendant celebrity status accorded Obama’s relatives, however distant, have propelled the new occupants to a higher status in the city estate.

"We only moved here about eight years ago when aunty Zilpa Nyande who is also a sister to Keziah Obama, the Senator’s half sister left the house for my husband Joseph Nyande," she says.

"The fact that the Senator visited and spent some time in this apartment gives it a lot of importance. As relatives we also share in the limelight and fame, although it is often unsolicited and unwarranted," she adds.

His roots

She says her husband also had contact with Obama as he came to Kenya to discover his roots. "Obama made efforts to visit and get to know anybody who might have been related to him in Kenya. That is how he ended up at Kariokor," She said.

"My husband and the rest of the cousins used to gather in this house and would chat for hours with the Senator whenever he visited."

However, by then Obama had not quite established himself in US politics so such visits did not attract outside attention. She says Obama visited his cousins in Kariokor Flats more than a dozen times between 1986 to early 1990.

Zilpa has since moved to Ukraine in Europe where she works, while Lorna’s husband Joseph is also currently in Europe where he has gone on a work assignment.

Long before Kenyans knew who he was, apart from a small group of family and friends who knew his father, he had been rising step by step on the path that would elevate him to the pinnacle of American power.

In his last visit to Kenya in 2006, he had already as the Illinois made great achievements that would propel him to the top. The first time he declared he would seek public office was in 1990 when he was a 28-year-old studying for his law degree at Havard Law School.