Report & Essay

Otieno Amisi A Tribute
Tony Mochama

 Otieno Amisi’s last critique was published about a month ago (Literary Discourse, February 17, 2008), post-humously – a month after his death on January 16.

The problem with dying during a period when a nation is undergoing the proverbial Chinese “interesting times” is that one’s demise is buried under an avalanche of stampedes.
On the day Amisi died, Pentagon member, Mr Najib Balala, was running helter-skelter through Kenyatta Avenue, with GSU officers wielding tear-gas cannisters in hot pursuit.
These were dangerous times; live bullets were being used to disperse demonstrators in the Opposition strongholds. In fact, the police shooting of an unarmed protester was captured by a KTN cameraman.
A jolly George O was making fun of a ‘psycho-cop’ and paid dearly for his harmless antics. His last words: “Why have you killed me?”
Amisi’s death was a quiet affair, sad and I do not know what his final words were. I do however know what his final critique was on my poetry anthology What If I Am a Literary Gangster? and what his last words to me were.
On December 2, 2007 at Impala Grounds, Nairobi, where Story-mmoja was holding an event, he took the book from me and said: “I am going to do a review of this anthology.”
Then blinking bright owlish eyes at me, and smiling impishly, he added: “I look forward to reading your response.”
When I learned of Amisi’s tragic passing, from fellow-journalist, Francis Ilahaka, as I loitered along Loita Street several weeks later, I told my editor, Ms Jane Godia, that I would do a tribute to Amisi.
Then I thought of our decade-long amiable relationship with Amisi over the years (1997-2007) and realised it was actually a series of literary skirmishes that never degenerated into personal hostility.
Amisi was playful, sometimes biting in his literary criticisms. He sharpened his pen, without poisoning the tip, and fenced wits careful not to hurt.
And so instead of the usual ‘lionising’ and eulogising, I will simply bid him farewell.
Dear Amisi, in your last critic Critics divided as ‘gangsters’ invade the literary scene, you sounded the alarm that men such as Kiraitu Murungi (Song of my Beloved), Raila Odinga (An Enigma in Kenyan Politics), Kalembe Ndile (My Squatters, My Struggles, My Dreams) and myself (What I if Am a Literary Gangster?) have joined ‘the literary fray.’ This is better than the mass history fed to our youth.
Back to my book, you wrote that some say this “footloose underground writing with urban lingo should be encouraged.”
I tend to agree with those some, in the sense that I think poetry ought to move beyond the merely ‘heavy letter’ stuff, so that high school students can see the art as the foundation of both critical thought as well as recognise all that is beautiful about the ‘lingo’.
You said that my approach to serious international issues like global trade imbalances and freedom is light-hearted. True, but not quite. Look at the irony, as demonstrated in the poem Trading Places.
I prefer, Joe Ngunjiri’s views on my work as showing “a soft heart,” to Egara Kabaji’s who merely sees “defiance, with no poetry or art in it.”
My poem Sad Dodo begins: “A girl I knew once told me, that I thought it was ‘cool’ to be sad, and spitting Dido at me she told me I’d end, my life dead as a Dodo ”
Is that not poetry? Don’t we all end life dead as dodos?
This story was originally published in the Standard newspaper on March 23, 2008
Tony ‘smitta’ Mochama is a poet and journalist who lives and works in Nairobi. A Law graduate, Tony is also a vodka connoisseur, gossip columnist extraordinaire, and has a collection of short stories coming out soon titled – ‘The ruins down in Africa’. He has also been called a ‘literary gangster’, from time to rhyme. His collection of poetry, ‘What if I am a literary gangster?’ was published by Brown Bear Insignia in 2007.

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