So I was quite taken aback last night at around 9.20 p.m. when my sister-in-law told me, and my wife confirmed, that -- according to the day's Standard newspaper (which I hadn't fully "gone through" yet, as the day had been filled with errands and an early graduate lecture) -- Prof. Atieno-Odhiambo had died (of 'dementia', as reported by his wife) at a hospital in Kisumu City, Kenya, on Wednesday, February 25. That was, incidentally, the same day that George Rarieya (Uncle George) died. I was quite, quite taken aback! I hadn't known that Atieno was back in the country. My thoughts suddenly ran back to that Thursday scene, and I just shook my head in disbelief as I recounted it (my wife, Joan, and her sister giving me a telling look).
When we got back home I checked The Standard and confirmed that it was really true.
Atieno was a leading scholar -- in Kenya, Africa and the world. He ventured boldly beyond the presumed boundaries of his discipline (history), and so extended them. He was much respected, and much liked, by many who knew and remember him (and who are still here) at the University of Nairobi. One of his most memorable works is the one he co-authored with David William Cohen, titled, Burying SM: The Politics of Knowledge and the Sociology of Power in Africa.
S.M. Otieno had been a dignified and very professional city lawyer with a deep sense of what it meant to be a cosmopolitan Kenyan, and what it meant to be charitable. He was a true embodiment of the Kenya (and Kenyans) we want. He had married across ethnic lines, but the cultural-and-legal controversy surrounding his place of burial, following his death in December 1986, sparked off the worst inter-ethnic animosity (since TJ Mboya's assassination in Nairobi 1969) between members of the Kikuyu and Luo communities -- to which his wife and he respectively belonged.
Perhaps even more insightful and intellectually riveting is the book, again co-authored with William David Cohen, titled Risks of Knowledge: Investigations Into the Death of the Hon. Minister John Robert Ouko in 1990. I read an extensive excerpt a few years ago, and was greatly impressed.
Surely, Atieno-Odhiambo has died too soon!
He was one of those few you always looked forward to seeing again, with feeling, upon their return, however brief, to the country. It was not supposed to be like this!