Otieno Amisi: Death of a Kenyan Poet

Posted: February 13, 2008 in Personalities
Tags: , ,

His was such a powerful voice, especially coming from a person of such small stature. Even as he was ailing, Amisi’s voice did not betray this when together with Prof Chris Wanjala and author Onduko Bw’ Atebe hosted Literary Giants on KBC Radio every Sunday afternoon. His unmistakable voice on radio was only but a facade of the daunting odds that must have weighed heavily on him in his last days.
Otieno Amisi, given to a cheerful disposition, never missed any literary event. One thing that struck a person upon meeting him for the first time was his small eyes, that burnt with so much life. I first met Amisi in 2002, when I was writing for the The Standard. He joined from Daily Nation as a theatre critic. Though we didn’t interact much then, from his pieces, I could tell he was a serious person.
In September 2003, a shake-up at the Standard, saw a number of journalists out in the streets without jobs. Amisi and I were among the unfortunate lot. In the course of our freelancing we would bump into each other in several functions. It is around that time that I heard that he had become a dad to quadruplets! I imagined it must have been tough surviving as a freelancer, in Nairobi, and having to raise four new babies.
My real interaction with Amisi came about in 2006 when he opened his blog – he is actually the one who ushered me into the world of blogging. “Dear friend,
I finally have a new blog, where we can share ideas on editing and writing. Just go to otienoamisi.wordpress.com Otieno Amisi,” was the message he sent me on October 25, 2006. And that is when I came to know the other side of Amisi. His fearless wit and intellect came out in his postings. His pen spared no one. When James Murua – http://www.nairobiliving.com – launched his website on social life in Nairobi, Amisi gave it a stinging review, in his blog, dismissing it not being ‘artistic’. This drew sharp reactions from people who thought Jaymo was doing a great job, including yours trully.
With our pens, Amisi and I had crossed s(words), and this brought about a healthy mutual respect. In the course of his blogging Amisi never shied away from getting into a fight, with whoever, as long as he believed he was right. He had opened my eyes to the exciting world of blogging. He would put enything he wrote in his blogs, and while most of it presented readers with interesting readings, others made for labourious reads.
Soon he opened another blog on poetry, and he did justice to it seeing as he was the secretary of Kenya Poets Association. Courtesy of http://www.writethatstory.com Amisi made a first when he launched a poetry e-book Back to the Future during the 2007 Nairobi International Book Fair, which was celebrating its tenth anniversary.
Then it was qiute clear that he was really ailing. After a lengthy hospitalisation at Kenyatta National Hospital – he included his hospital experiences in his blog – he lost use of his right hand and it was permanently in a sling. If anything, his ill-health served to drive him even harder. I remember seeing him hand-in-sling make his way through treacherous and slippery rocky gorges, during a trip organised for writers, by Kwani? Trust, to Hell’s Gate in Naivasha, in early 2007. Amisi also rarely missed the monthly poetry Open Mic organised by Kwani? at Club Soundd in Nairobi. And he almost always had a new poem to recite.
When Tony Mochama aka Smitta Smitten launched his poetry book – What if I am a Literary Gangster – in November 2007, there was no way Amisi would have missed out in the action. I reviewed the book in my blog and it generated quite a debate. To date, it is the most popular post on my blog.
On December 10 2007, Amisi called on me and gave me his review of Mochama’s book, and insisted that I publish it in my blog. I saw it an honour that Amisi would consider blog worthy of his review. Whenever we met he used to tell me a lot of nice things about my blog, which was naturally flattering. Amisi’s review, which I titled Gangster Poetry: Otieno Amisi’s Verdict was to be my last post for 2007, and that was the last day I saw him alive.
In the meantime, the political scene was getting heated up with politicians, making a nuisance of themselves, campaigning for the 2007 General Election. The violence that greeted the presidential poll results left many, including bloggers, shell-shocked. Come the bloody new year, the country is in ruins, and people are preoccupied with their safety. That is when I heard that Amisi had passed away. It also emerged that he did not even vote, which is as well, as he did not partcipate in the process that has almost reduced our dear country into a hell hole.
With Amisi’s death, Kenya’s writing fraternity has lost a committed journalist and a dedicated poet.
RIP Amisi, you lived the full life.

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Comments
  1. IOK says:

    I didn’t know Otieno Amisi but from browsing through his blog…he must have been quite a guy. He led his life to the fullest and it’s a sad fact of life but we all must go when our time comes. May he rest in peace. He will be dearly missed.

  2. Jesse says:

    Sad. We corresponded a few times. It was rocky initially, but we were buddies in the end. My pole sana.

  3. Waweru Mugo says:

    This is really sad. It appears I am living in another world, otherwise, how come I am hearing this for the first time? Thanks Ngunjiri for informing me of this tragic news. I have known Amisi from my SoJ days, met him while he was in KT and late in the freelance world. I joined him in once in organising a a talent concert for the refugees in and around Nairobi sometimes back and the event was very successful, ofcourse owing to his giving all! The last time, we met, we agreed to talk sometimes later, it was an evening and were in a rush to get to the mathrees and head for our respective homes/ estates. He sent me an sms sometimes in Nov 2007 asking me to see his work in a local publication. I saved the sms planning to check out his stuff but erased it when I was sure I now knew the publication and where to get it. I havent read it to date, poor me! And you know what, on Feb 12, 2008, i tried a couple of times to call the guy, not knowing he had since moved on. I thought I would try it later on, and been postponing it… and now this. Pole sana, AMISI. Rest in Peace. God bless.

  4. Kenyan Poet says:

    What!!

    And you are saying he passed away in December!! That was over 2 months ago. I am surprised that nothing about his death was ever given any blog/air/newspaper/mag space. The very space that he dedicated his life to. I must say I am saddened to hear of his death knowing that he is the only person who liked playing ‘the devil’s advocate’ especially when most of us were going gaga about most art events.
    I think its a shame for Standard papers or even Oakland Media(where he was an editor until the time of his death) not to dedicated their precious space in remembrance of their own. Have we become too pre-occupied with vanity that we are slowly missing out on the essence of what makes a man different from other species?
    So long Amisi, I am glad you left this wretched place we call earth.

  5. Peter Nyoro says:

    It is a shame that my first ever participation in a blog is to talk about the death of my great friend Otieno Amisi. I first met Amisi in 1987 when we were both freshmen at Kenyatta University. Our friendship was consolidated at the National Youth Service in Gilgil where I was fortunate enough to share a barrack with him. Amisi, naturally, did not finish the training – he just vanished one day, never to return! Of course he could not stand the nonsense that was the Pre-university youth service.(ours was not even pre-university as we had alaready done one semester at the university!) we all feared the worst for Amisi, as the authorities had made it clear that those who did not participate in the training with written permission would not be allowed back at the university. But Amisi did. We never cared how he did it, we were just happy he was back! Our friendship later blossomed and together with a few of our friends, we went ahead to publish a magazine “The Campus Beacon” which we literally hawked at Kenyatta and Nairobi Universities and at JKUAT (then JKUCAT). I still keep the two editions that were published before we left.

    To learn of Amisi’s death on the internet is most shocking and a big shame! not to mention that this is happening about two months after his death! i last met Amisi during the 10th NIBF in September last year, and i was fortunate enough to receive copies of his latest poems (on CD). Later on we exchanged a few emails as he tried to persuade me to have them published. Unforunately we had just released a poetry book (which we launched during the book fair) and could therefore not publish another poetry book just yet.
    There can be no better friend than those you have suffered together, and Amisi and I did suffer together – at NYS, KU and later tarmacking! His death is a huge blow to the world of art.
    Amisi is gone, when will there be another?

  6. Otieno Otieno says:

    According to family sources, Otieno Amisi breathed his last on December 27, the date of the General Election most Kenyans would love to forget in a hurry. Shortly after recovering from the shocking news of his death, I joked to a friend that the guy was probably running away from post-election violence or had been undecided on whom to vote for. I know a lot of people will find it insensitive to joke about a dead man. But the Amisi I knew would not take offence with this, if he were alive. He had this special ability to humour anyone about anything anytime. One of the moments that linger in my mind was when he made a joke about this street beggar whom he thought had pasted tomato sauce on his shoulders to fake a wound. Another time, we spent almost the whole night joking and laughing our heads off in my house in Umoja. Both of us were then working on the Features desk at Standard. The last time we had a good laugh together was on the phone. I had just read the story of his new experience as a father of quadruplets in Nation’s Living Magazine, written in first person. He bragged about how tough a man he was such that he could make four babies with a single shot. I prefer to leave it to the artists and art writers to comment about Amisi’s exploits in theatre. After all, he once told me that poets don’t write for non-poets like me. I knew him better as a journalist, having been classmates at the School of Journalism and worked in the same newsroom. He always injected his creativity and imagination into a story and I bet you won’t lay your hand on a pedestrian story with Amisi’s byline on it. But he never quite made it big in the profession the way we know it in Kenya. No smashing bylines to remember on a Standard or Nation splash (page one). Didn’t rise to a senior editor at one of the two major local dailies either. Features editor at the Kenya Times. Later, Revise editor at Oakland Media Services. Yet the lack of big titles or bylines had completely nothing to do with Amisi’s journalistic abilities. Instead, it was an indictment on the profession and practice of journalism in Kenya, where mediocrity is often rewarded at the expense of competence. Consider the infamous tsunami of 2003 at Standard, for example. Tom Mshindi, newly appointed as managing director, arrived at Likoni Road with a gang of acolytes from Nation and elsewhere. They said they had come to turn the paper around, and that that would entail removing the chaff. Amisi would find himself among the jobless, replaced by some people I know who could not write an “intro” or even tell a story. It was not lost on some of us that some in the gang that hounded him out of Standard were responsible for his earlier exit from Nation in circumstances that were less than professional.

  7. Unbwogable says:

    It is sad to loose such a valued Kenyan writer. It is great that has left a legacy worth his caliber.

  8. Kimathi Kenneth says:

    i have read the blog how comes i dont know this guy he
    seems to be a great writer and was ready for any fight
    may he rest in peace gud day.

  9. I feel saddened by the death by my friend and colleague,Amisi Otieno.I was many years older than Amisi Otieno but we related very well because of having one common love we had – for literature and literary criticism.Amisi was an indefatigable and enterprising man of letters who wrote neither for glory nor for profit.He wrote for furtherance of a literary movement which he and Okumba Miruka started in their tender years.Miruka went into book reviewing snd pedagogical writing whilst Amisi founded New Age, a literary newspapers.Amisi Otieno kept that exceptional publication rolling and hitting the streets in an environment where all news revolved around politics and hardly the arts.Amisi Otieno was a dynamo who wrote as fast as he talked, never taking long in a place nor on an idea.You learnt that he was in a rural area , teaching, and then suddenly you learnt that he was in Nairobi working with a newspaper.He always moved on.He gave me a volume of his poetry and essays to edit and he later joined me on one project or another.I would meet him, operating from David Gian Maillu’s house.He had an immense interest in popular culture and Maillu symbolised for him a quintessential popular writer.I run a programme on the KBC called Literary Giants.Amisi had written a book for writers.I invited him to discuss the book.We became co-presenters of the programme.Soon it became a habit to spent Sunday afternoons with Onduko Atebe, and all the writers and critics we interviwed on this programme.I did not know that he was ill.Onduko announced to me on 26th January 2008 that Amisi Otieno was dead.I do not believe it to this minute.That lively man, that zest, that enthusiasm for the arts, still make me to refuse that Amisi Otieno is dead.

  10. On Monday 18th February 2008,at the Kenya National Theatre, at 11 am,Kenyan creative writers , led by D.G Maillu and poet Mutu Gethoi, will hold a press conference on political events which have gripped the Kenyan nation after the December 27 General Elections.The events have put the citizens of this country in a very awkward and unprecented position.I will chair this meeting to argue that literature and art continue to be a criticism of life.Creative writers have been writing about the ills which have thrown us into turmoil.They have even suffered the brutalities and indignities for it.Come to the meeting and challenge the people who are engaged in art and life.

    Professor Chris L Wanjala
    Writer and Critic
    Director,Nakhatama Research and Literary Agency,
    Professor of Literature , University of Nairobi.

  11. Comrade R.I.P;Though the pen never dies. The ink on your ‘gone’ hand is still wet before our eyes and papars; even as we still moan but with hope.As I look up the sky, I see your scribing soul, decorating the clouds and Heavens.The stars,are your thoughts and inscriptions.
    I refuse to mourn in pain but consoled that you are gone to come back again, and again in our hearts through your great pen and works. R.I.P.

  12. Amisi, yaye! Amisi yawa! Why the rush? Why the hurry to leave? How could you forget all the plans we had? There was the writing school we were going to open. There was the magazine we were going to start. There was the literary talk show we were meant to begin, among many many other noble, nouvelle and inspiring ideas you came up with.

    Amisi, yaye! Amisi Yawa! Why did you have to run off in such a hurry at such a young age? All that promise, all that talent, now gone – gone forever. I mourn your death with bitter tears. But i am consoled that you left us with gems of your work which we shall always remember you by.

    R.I.P. my good friend Otieno Amisi.

    N.B.

    I am sure the good lord and all his angels will want to know how everything is back here on earth. please recite to them your poem on beggars. It will give them the true mood of the world – or at least africa.

  13. Kingwa says:

    Amisi was a great poet, and was very passionate about literary matters. Indeed, his eyes sparkled whenever he was among the literary fraternity or at such events. He loved to ruffle feathers, sometimes i got the feeling that it was out of pure mischief, to get people out of their comfortable thinking zones and talking, engaging in discourse and dialogue. He was a great guy. I was one of his fans on the KBC programme ran by prof. Chris and Bwatebe. Kenya has lost a great resource, this was a guy that was about art for arts sake and about changing the world through journalism. He was among the last of the idealists standing. RIP brother. May the rest of us left keep on cherishing the ideals and living with the passion that you always had to advance art. At least then, your legacy will live on. RIP.
    Thanks for this tribute Ngunjiri. At least he has not gone totally unremembered.

  14. Alphayo Otieno says:

    Now I know what Shakespear meant when he said:
    “The World’s a stage, and all men and women merely players, they have their exits and enterances, And one man in his part plays many parts”.

    I cant write about Amisi alot. It will be revealing the side many of his friends never knew. A more personal and private life that only a friend like me knows. We lived in the same house many times. In Nairobi as writers for the features desk at likoni, we shared my house. In Homa Bay as a corespondent for the Standard, we shared his house at the Homa Boys High School where he taught litrature. Oketch Kendo assigned common feature jobs together. We were like brothers. Since I moved over to the US last July, I only communicated with Amisi on SMS thrice. The last time, we engaged, he wanted me to get him some willing publisher to publish his e-book so he could earn royalties since he had lost a job at Oakland. He told me he was freelancing the Business daily and that It was hard to earn a living. Now one of these days I was at a Library here in Kansas City and managed to get some viable poetry publishers. I talked to them then text Amisi that finaly his dream was about to be realized. He did not reply. I gave it the benefit of doubt that he could have been sleeping then given the nine hour time difference central America has with Nairobi. I tried calling his number and it was unreachable! The next day I read some reveiew by Tony Mochama that reffered to Amisi as the late! I was struck! While I was in January trying to keep in touch with a long-time budy, he was already in his grave! I will never forget how we walked with you from Kayole to Likoni Road when our cheques delayed; how we ate sukuma wiki; how we spent time at the Likoni Rd library; how we travelled to Kisumu in Eldoret Express to see our sibling whenever we had earned; how we regularly visited our friends in Eldoret; how we trecked long miles in Keiyo district to write features; how we slept in grass thatched huts at your Asembo Bay home; how we burnt huge logs to warm your lonely and dump hut and drive away intruder mamals; how we jointly visited Homa Bay to try and make peace with your estranged wife, Florence; how we whiled away our evening at the Homa Bay pier in 1996 only to come up with creative features on the water hyacinth; how I collected you from the village in Asembo, brought you to Nairobi and asked Opanga to accomodate you at the Features Desk; how you told me that you miss just a loaf of bread when I was at your bedside at Kenyatta Hospital and how I just brought that; how I with my wife visited you at your maskan in Kalyole and we saw you running down stairs to get us sodas and above all, the numeorus phone texts you sent me that you were now worried of your health! Rest in peace ja Kokise! We shall meet. Not here in the US nor in Africa but at the features desk in heaven where I am sure you are already a sub-editor re-writting illitertae intro from quack scribes.

  15. Web Bandit says:

    Farewell Amisi. I really enjoyed sparing with you about my skill (or rather lack of) in the writing business. I respected the fact that you werent those who spent their time on the sidelines but decided to jump headfast into the blogging scene. You will be missed. Rest in peace.

  16. tony mochama 'smitta' says:

    It’s quarter to seven on a friday morning. There’s a red streak of sunrise in the east, and tears in my eyes as i read all the tributes to Otieno amisi, esp. the one by Alphayo. I last saw amisi at a story-mmoja function in early december at Impala. Amisi, an old pal and spur-mate in lit-wit, asked me for my book…
    ” I want to review it,” he said, eyes shining with mischief, “then you can defend your territory.” A week later, he did, on this very blog…
    Two and a half weeks later, Otieno was gone – altho i did not learn of his demise till one of those false peace paues in mid-January.
    I was stunned, standing still on loita street, feeling the sorrow swell in my heart, my throat hot, feeling that terrible feeling of loss … remembering that when i last saw him, as i handed him my book, the look we exchanged, i somehow knew we were saying goodbye (he looked heart-breakingly frail) … that Amisi was in his wonderfully mischievous way determined to fire the last salvo in our ‘literary wars,’ in a final act of art defying death, even when we know that in the end, death eats us all. I miss my friend Amisi, much …

  17. I learnt of Otieno Amisi’s death with great sorrow and sadness.He was a friend and teacher who was so down to earth in his daily life,a man who had done alot in his short life.I knew him as an intelligent warrir in the literary world.Kenya has lost a hero.
    we had plans.We wanted to start like a critical fire accross the literary scene.i went to Kisii in decmber and when I was back on January 15 this was my first Nairobi literary shock!That a friend had gone with terrible mess that was eating the country then.Double loss for Kenya,for his family and for all his friends and the literary scene.
    Brother rest in peace.I hope you now know life wherever you are,because you lived and you live in the work that you left us with.
    I will now read your blogs and work so that i remember you forever and may be strive to show the beauty of your work.
    So saddened by your demise.See you brother ion the after-life.

  18. Samuel Mbajah says:

    Was very devastated to learn of Amisi Otieno’s demise. He was my teacher at Homa Bay High School and also a colleague at Raliew Secondary School. All the comments posted here succintly capture the content and character of Amisi. May you rest in peace “wuod jaduong’.”

  19. Gregory Julius Juma says:

    What?

    Ati Otieno Amisi died in December and it was never published in the media coz of Siasa? I knew Otieno Amisi while i was freelancing for the Standard in Kisumu together with Alphayo Otieno. He was a very hamble person and i have never met anyone that had beef with Otieno.

    Rest peace. Otieno.

  20. Clifford Oluoch 'Eastlander' says:

    I learnt of Otieno’s death in early January through a friend and I let out a loud curse.
    We met in December (8th?) during the Storymoja nyama choma fest and we bonded well, exchanging ideas. He then offered to do an article and interview me on my ‘Eastlander’ series. I was a bit uncomfortable knowing how sharp his pen cut.
    Unfortunately we never got to the interview and I never got to see him again.
    It came as a shock when I learnt of his death, but writers never fade…..

  21. John Ochieng says:

    To me and to many, Otieno Amisi was a mentor and a teacher.

    He was literally giant of all shades, a wordsmith per excellence.

    We havea indeed lost a critic who spared no one especially pretenders and joyriders in the world of literature.

    RIP

  22. Achumbo Shadrack says:

    To me reading the tit bits of Otieno Amisi’s Journey in life invokes a strong feeling in my mind on how us as human beings can live a life such wholesome without being “such reasonably rich”. Men of Letters are conceived adorable and even more past their demise as they live gaping holes unfulfilled. All this time reading Amisi’s eulogy, I am amazed on how he lived my life and a bet of a lot us without fully knowing him. I can small, ear and feel Amisi’s life on my wet pulps type this piece. Amisi went to Homa-Bay High School a neighboring school at by home place where in the early 90s teemed with academic elites. Their performance in football only rivaled their delicate display in arts especially theater that Amisi excelled in along the expansive shows of the great lake victoria. Trekking from my local primary school “Lake Promary School”back to my home place “Sofia Estate”in the evenings, I could stop marveling the interaction with some of the guys that Amisi epitomised.

    “Nera okew South Nyanza” cant stop epitomosing yourlife.

    All I can say is RIP.

  23. Chikeo says:

    I still read Amisi’s blog.His critism about literary was so mature,that i lost track of time when at his blog.
    Just like Wahome we have lost a
    hero and role model to many of us.

  24. DR AA says:

    I knew Hamisi when he was a teacher @ Raliew high school. I heard of his death 2 months after his burial. I pity him + his family , may the Almighty rest his soul in eternal peace. AMEN.

  25. Stephen Derwent Partington says:

    Just stumbled upon this present site and tribute because I’d been looking at Otieno Amisi’s blog. I didn’t know him at all, but now I’m pleased to think that I know those of his writings that survive on the web… And glad to know that there was someone who seemed, from his blog, to have worked hard to get Kenyan poets read.

    Sorry I never met him…
    Stephen

  26. Chrisman letters says:

    Thanks

  27. Chris Wanjala is of Kenya’s nationality and reveals himself in his public lectures,prose fiction,poetry,and literary essays as a critic of affectation,deeply aware of the destruction of traditional African culture by modernity,

  28. Nduri Oketch says:

    Otieno, no word can truly capture my feeling than Ámisi’- your own name- which literally translates to ‘I’m missing you or I miss you’ depending on the intonation. I might not have met you physically to know the kind of person you were, but in your friends, their tributes and above all in what you cherished most: Literary Art- I feel I know you like you have been a long-term friend.

    No need for much, I can’t mourn your death as a literary dumb who may think you are wholly gone. I know and History can confirm that tho’ gone, you still live in your immortal works of art, which made me know you. And to all the friends, let us be consoled strong in the belief that death is just but a sad transition to a more peaceful life.

    Goodbye wuod Kokise, fare thee well!!!

  29. Enoch Ochieng says:

    This i have stumbled on.but poetry aint dead.RIP Otieno.

  30. clement Argwings Arua says:

    I write to mourn my friend several years after his death.Otieno was a humble man.In his last days he remained brave.Deep down he knew that the curtain of eternity was closing fast on his life on earth but he maintained a stoic mien.R.I.P osiepa.Anyone out there who can immortalise his works?

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