Otieno Amisi: Death of a Kenyan Poet

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 onĀ editing and writing. Just go to 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 – – 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 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.