THE stale smell of last night’s beer hangs in the Kaloleni Public Bar, a down-at-heel tin-roofed tavern sandwiched between a butchery and a panel beater in Nairobi’s Eastlands.
In its heyday the insalubrious boozer was a favourite of Kenya’s founding politicians and President Barack Obama’s father, Barack Obama Senior. It was here that he had his last drink of whisky on November 24, 1982.
Afterwards, he left in his pickup truck, crashed into a tree and died, aged 46.
The proprietor, George Anyim, is a 44-year-old barrel of a man with a cannonball head and a greying goatee beard. He is the third generation of Anyim to run the pub having inherited it, and its stories, in 2003.
“The elite used to drink here, those who had gone abroad to read,” said Anyim. In recent decades the pub, like the neighbourhood, has faced “challenges”, he said. The neighbourhood has suffered neglect and competition has increased from other pubs including, close by, ‘Rescue Bar’ and another called ‘Nameless’.
“It’s not the glory days that it used to be,” said Anyim. “The big people are gone.”
Today the ‘mugumo’ tree that Obama Sr. used to sit under has been chopped down, the garden is paved with uneven flagstones, and the sky shut out by sheets of corrugated iron. The portable television sets on the wall are caged, like the bar counters.
On a raised seating area are four heavy pew-like painted wooden benches, part of the original seating.
But the pub’s current state masks an illustrious history. “Independence started here,” said Anyim.
“Those who fought for independence used to come here: Kenyatta Sr. was here, Obama Sr. was here, Tom Mboya was here, Odinga Sr. was here,” he said ticking off the names of famous politicians who led Kenya to independence in 1963, plus Obama Sr. who only returned from the US the following year.
Back then the pub had two entrances and two bars, or chambers: the ‘House of Lords’ was for the elites, and anyone else who could afford bottled beer or branded liquor; cheap moonshine was on offer in the adjoining ‘House of Commons’.
Obama Sr.‘s preferred drink was whisky, said Anyim, whose father Crispo worked with him at Kenya’s Treasury until his early death. The nickname, ‘Mr Double-Double’, came from his habit of ordering double whiskies, two at a time. Obama Sr. was, in the end, a notorious drunk but a popular one.
On the night he died, Anyim said, “Obama Sr. left in a joyful mood, he had bought people many drinks, whole rounds. We don’t know why he was so happy.” When word of his death got around, regulars were “shocked” and saddened, said Anyim.
President Obama arrives in Kenya late Friday but Anyim acknowledged that the days when the Kaloleni Public Bar was the place to be are long past, and the chance of a presidential visit non-existent.
Nevertheless, he said, if Obama stopped by he would happily pour him a glass of whisky in his father’s honour.
“The first tot is on the house,” he said, “but after that he has to pay.”