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Over My Shoulder: Remembering Atieno Odhiambo David William Cohen Lemuel A. Johnson Collegiate Professor of African Anthropology and History The University of Michigan February 26, 2009 Yesterday, February 25, 2009, I learned the very sad news of the passing in Kisumu, Kenya of dear colleague Prof. E. S. Atieno Odhiambo, following an extended illness. I was not able to grasp the nature of this illness but I recognized that this illness was constituting an immense gap in a world of learning, among those many seeking understanding of Africa’s past and future. I have felt this gap, this disappearance of one of the most brilliant minds ever to contribute to comprehending Africa, as also the loss of an original and challenging “voice” over my shoulder. My earliest memory of Atieno. . .December 1973. . .the great hall of the Organization of African Unity in Addis Ababa. . .the International Congress of Africanists. I was presenting a paper on pre-colonial Luo history. Atieno was one of seven or eight lecturers and graduate students from Nairobi sitting just above and behind my shoulder. After the session wrapped, Atieno was the first to engage me. In a Congress in which there was an overhanging tension regarding Africanization of the academy and the questionable place of the scholar from outside, Atieno welcomed my contribution, through an engagement with the ideas and arguments of the paper. And I felt welcomed, as a scholar and colleague. We were, in a certain sense, kin, Atieno having been supervised to a PhD in History by Professor Bethwell Allan Ogot; in turn, Ogot and I were fellow students who had a few years earlier completed PhDs under the supervision of Roland Oliver at SOAS, University of London. In another way, we worked in different landscapes: I was formed in the study of precolonial eastern African history; Atieno was just establishing himself as a fresh and influential voice in the study of the colonial period. There was much to learn from one other. Atieno’s work on the deeper political and social contours of Kenya’s settler colony drew him to recognize how old orders and strongly held ideas and practices could engage and shape new economic and political forces and conditions. He was concerned with the partiality of African historiography, that studies of colonialism, nationalism, and decolonization had to take account of the real untidiness of historical development; that scholars must recognize the strangeness and consequent failures of compartmentalized knowledge produced in universities with research programs ordered in and divided among disciplines. Atieno’s first two books The Paradox of Collaboration and Other Essays (1974) and Siasa: Politics and Nationalism in East Africa, 1905-1939 (1981) reflected the extraordinary possibilities of a new historical literature formed through the exercise of questions, approaches, and theory from multiple sites and engaged with diverse literatures. If a unified Kenyan history could be synthesized it required more than an assemblage of pieces and regions. It would be constituted in the recognition of the salience of difference and contest—especially over class, wealth, access to resources, power--as much as the commonality of experience and affinity. Here, Atieno’s deep and extraordinary knowledge of, engagement with, Oginga Odinga and the works of his life—signaled early in Atieno’s early publications on the Luo thrift and trading corporation (LUTATCO)--moved understanding and meaning away from the easier stuff of labels and categories towards a search for that new historical literature that transforms the meanings and purposes of political economy, historical sociology, comparative politics, and historical anthropology. His early writing on Mau Mau was about the movement for sure, but also about the implications of “Mau Mau historiography” amid a search for some kind of unified history of Kenya or of decolonization. This was a metahistorical question unfamiliar to many working the furrows of recovering East Africa’s past in the 1970s, though it was certainly the subject of steamy debates in junior/senior common rooms at the University of Nairobi. Later, Atieno would join with John Lonsdale in a dedicated engagement with scholarship on Mau Mau (Mau Mau and Nationhood (2003). And, when the moment came to honor the father of modern Kenyan historiography, Professor Ogot, it was Atieno to whom everyone looked as the one to pull off this tribute, as he did in the collected volume honoring Ogot that Atieno edited: African Historians and African Voices (2001). We found common ground in the intriguing intersections of layered historical studies ("Ayany, Malo, and Ogot: Historians in Search of a Luo Nation," C.d’EA, 1987).) And we found common ground in the discoveries of histories that seemed a bit more complicated than the resident truths and histories that shifted the focus of historical interpretation and representation. The essential argument of my 1973 Congress paper—that the Nilotic Luo speaking migrants of the 17th century comprised not one cultural and historical formation but perhaps two distinctive strands--found its way into our first conversations but then also into the first chapter of our first co-authored book, Siaya: The Historical Anthropology of an African Landscape (1989). In our work together on that book, Atieno and I found ourselves in productive conversations regarding the possibilities of bridging the differences in orientation that distinguished precolonial African histories from those focusing on the colonial period. In those conversations, some of which were in Baltimore and Washington during Atieno visiting professor appointment at Johns Hopkins in 1985-86, where I was a member of the History faculty. These conversations continued through thick and thin across some twenty years, and through several published papers and two more books (Burying SM: The Politics of Knowledge and the Sociology of Power in Africa, 1992; and The Risks of Knowledge: Investigations into the Death of the Hon. Minister John Robert Ouko in Kenya, 1990, 2004), to complete what we came to call a trilogy. Atieno contributed the sentences that marked the final published account of our twenty year collaboration, published on page 271 of Risks: This work completes our trilogy. It moves from our original formulation of “the problem of knowledge,” in A. J. Ayer’s words, as we explored its multiple and unfinished contours in Siaya and in Burying SM, into the tenancious interstices of “the risks of knowledge.” The search for a comprehension of Ouko has unfolded in an age when doubt is every day superimposed on confidence, when questions face off against impunity, when the sure things sometimes seem shaped by fate. In this setting, uncertainty is the fragile formative ground of debate and critique. As I write this, I am aware of the fragility of my own knowledge of Atieno’s many-stranded career as a scholar and citizen. I ask those reading this to understand that Atieno is here and yet not quite here in this most difficult time of writing about a dear colleague, lost to me. It is Atieno, his hand, and his thought that are missed at this time of writing. I ask those who also knew him and who knew some of these and still other strands of his life to contribute their recollections of appreciation towards the recomposition of a life, not in an effort to produce a coherent, organic whole—because he for sure would not have accepted this—but to recognize the intersections of the many parts of his life with the many parts of the world he lived, and spoke about, and surely dreamed about. This is not one of those times, and there will never be another time, but there were times, episodes of intensive work together, when we could and would complete each other’s sentences and paragraphs even if we might not agree on the point at hand. Atieno’s head was “full of books” and my study table became full of yellow pads filled by Atieno’s hand. I sent him stuff off my computer; he augmented, adjusted, rewrote; I added, rewrote, refined; he refined and revised; I cleaned up; he cleaned up; papers, chapters, and books co-authored appeared. We searched among other duties and sometimes dire constraints to find times to work side-by-side. I traveled to Houston. He traveled to Ann Arbor. We once somehow found a midway point at Tri-Cities Airport in Johnson City, Tennessee, and worked in a motel room near the airport. We continued writing in the airport lounge as we waited for our respective flights, even becoming common witnesses to the crash of a small plane on the runway in our line of vision. We worked together in and around a series of incredibly rich workshops Atieno organized through the Center for Cultural Studies at Rice University. In 1986, we organized our schedules to meet in Beyreuth to complete Siaya, but while we met, the work was not really possible, as Atieno had just been released from some terrible weeks in detention in Kenya that began with his return from the academic year stay at Johns Hopkins. We shared a book manuscript but I could not know what he had experienced in that confinement in Kenya. Later, we arranged to meet and work for 24 hours in Basel, where he was for a month a visiting professor, but this too did not happen for reasons too silly to relate here. We experimented with our writing separately and together. At a meeting of the African Studies Association, Atieno asked—indeed, insisted that—every person who had been in Kenya in 1985 or 1986 (among some two or three hundred in the room) speak to what she or he thought was going on in the S. M. Otieno burial saga. When our book manuscript was “finished” we asked several individuals to read the manuscript and tell us “what the case was really about and how the story should be told!” We were delivered six scripts and we successfully pressed the publisher to add them to the end of the book as an “afterpiece”. Some of the critique delivered therein might have caused us to revise the manuscript but it was Atieno’s conviction that continuing debate and critique was a crucial piece of discussions moving among the several sites including public debates in Kenya, courtroom drama, and scholarship in fields such as law, sociology, women’s studies, anthropology, history, and religion. Burying SM was not only a text describing an incredible debate; it would appropriately itself become part of continuing and new debates over a range of issues pertinent in Kenya and the world. For Atieno, debate and critique, informed by philosophical reflection and knowledge of the everyday, was an essential piece of living in the world which could not be segmented into scholarly and public domains. It was appropriate, if not predictable, that Atieno would agree to draft the “Foreword” to Wambui Waiyaki Otieno’s provocative account of her life, from her viewpoint: Mau Mau’s Daughter: A Life History (1998—edited by Cora Ann Presley), and that Atieno would be one of the individuals encouraging Wambui—the widow of S. M. Otieno and the one vanquished in the judicial decision relating to the disposition of her husband’s remains—to complete this work, to make sure that publics would be able to read her life and her positions in her own terms. There was a question that seemed too common. How did we work this collaboration, write together, co-author, across different formation, different locations of our work, different experiences of living in the world? I have always sensed in these queries the anticipation of an answer: Cohen, in the US, provides the gestures to scholarly literatures and philosophical domains; Atieno, in Kenya, provides the empirical stuff. But this was wrong, always wrong! Despite Atieno’s rich and poetic sense of the complexities of the lived world of Kenyans, Atieno was generous in giving me space to work through what I understood was going on “on the ground” when I drew on my own field research in Uganda and Kenya or on my zest for close reading of court records, narrative accounts, and newspapers. Atieno’s strongest contributions were always in surprising reaches into world literatures, fiction, poetry, drama, music, philosophy, and biography. During times of our most intense work on Risks, and well after Atieno had harnessed his hands to a computer keyboard, he would send me two or three referential fragments a day, occasionally several in an hour’s burst. But Atieno’s strengths lay not only in being able to introduce into our work remarkably salient ideas drawn from Marx, Hobsbawm, Thompson, Mudimbe, and Garcia Marquez—who else among my close colleagues could quote from Gibbon, Paz, the Old Testament and the New, and Richard II, via Shakespeare?-- but also able to bring into play the word-games and songs of Kenyan children. In 1985-86, at Johns Hopkins, Atieno was a visitor who not only taught students working in different fields of history, he was also a visitor who turned up and participated in an extraordinary array of seminars and conferences across the university. The Johns Hopkins métier was the robust discussion of papers read in advance and Atieno always seemed the one in the room to have read the paper most carefully and the one most prepared to introduce ideas from unexpected regions of intellectual life. His interventions could be most productive; he never, however, required the discussion to turn in his direction. More, he came to the discussion and contributed to it uniquely and quietly. Atieno certainly valued the open quality of the Hopkins seminar. Once, in early October 1985, we traveled together with Rhys Isaac to a college in the southwestern corner of Virginia to give a few papers and classes for the faculty and students there. Atieno remarked the strong distinction between the Hopkins style of seminar in which people work together on a paper around a table and the architectures of classrooms and instruction at that Virginia college in which chairs and tables were riveted to the floors in lecture room style and the students were riveted to a learning environment that did not encourage open discussion. Curiously, importantly, the paper Rhys Isaac gave at the college that day was a compression of a longer argument that the Jeffersonian-Madisonian principles of freedom of worship came not out of an exquisite philosophical library, or some singular pre-constitutional theory, but rather out of the efforts to engage, to acknowledge, the rough and tumble struggles of Baptists, through petitions and otherwise, to find security in a colony, Virginia, whose religious and political life was ordered by the Established Church. Here, again, it was a history of a formative debate among people of all walks of life that was producing a free republic. When Atieno reached Rice and organized seminars and workshops there, he encouraged and expected conversation, participation, from around the room, bringing everyone into the discussion and debate, giving everyone occasion to speak. In the Rice workshops, the métier was not only an open seminar style, a la Hopkins; they were also constituted to bring together into common conversation scholars from Africa and the U.S, and scholars from multiple disciplines (including occasionally from outside the academy). I had the good fortune to be present at a few of these Rice events, and I recall thinking of them as the academic instantiation of the idea of “the republic of the taxi,” a construction that Atieno launched into our common work. Atieno certainly knew, and surely experienced bodily, the differences between the free republics of ideas and debate that he could uncover in everyday life, as well as those he could himself foster, and those arenas of repression and limitation that so affected his teaching and writing career in Kenya from the early 1970s through to his departure for Rice in the late 1980s. Where some of my colleagues in my field might be hard to find in their offices, Atieno was always there listening to students and lecturers, responding to questions, sharing his own library of published and unpublished work. . . at least when he did not have to go in hiding during the purge-like times when Kenyan security attempted to control free speech and expression and freedom of organization on the Nairobi campus and beyond. Atieno was close to a number of Kenyan intellectuals and academics—students and faculty—who found themselves in trouble and detention. Atieno and his university colleagues were experiencing McCarthy-ism Kenya style. Atieno was certainly threatened with arrest—“man, you have been warned!”-- and he was arrested and detained, and tortured, across an extended period in 1986. I know that Atieno took incredible risks in associating himself with colleagues in trouble. I wish I could say that about more of his colleagues in those dark days who showed none of the same courage when some of us working outside Kenya tried to assist with Atieno’s release in 1986. The future and authoritative biographies of figures such as Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Raila Odinga will surely note the devoted support, at his own great risk, that Atieno gave to these individuals when the Kenyan state turned on them. I knew not enough, or perhaps too much, regarding Atieno’s engagements in the early 1980s, but I sense that future histories of Kenya will have to attend to these years, will have to give space to these activities, as constitutive of the greater democracy that Kenyans have sought in recent election. These are gap years in my knowledge of Atieno’s career. While, doing fieldwork in Siaya between early 1979 and 1981, I visited Liganua on several occasions, bringing fish, rice, bread, tea, and sugar to Atieno’s mother, I did not catch sight of him. I know that there were many strands to his life that I knew little of, and I do not comment here on the “republic” of his household in Houston, which I visited several times, treasuring the warmth of his family, and the richness of the intellectual lives that they enjoyed in that house. . .or home. In Risks of Knowledge, we worked through the productions of knowledge developing around the disappearance and death Kenya’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, Robert Ouko, February 1990. We marked the significance —and anticipated the long-running importance of—the openness of the questions of who killed Ouko and how and why. We did not, emphatically, try to solve the question of “who dunnit”; rather we attempted to grasp and interpret the specificities in play as knowledge unfolded or was constructed around the forensic efforts of detectives, commissions, and others to sort through the evidence to reach—and not reach—answers to the question of who killed Ouko and knowledge of Ouko and his demise was elaborated as publics themselves sifted through the public records for meaning and for answers. We did not go “to the field” to achieve a privileged understanding of the various routes to knowledge but rather drew upon, and directed attention towards, the extraordinary public record developing out of the many investigations. At times, this work felt risky, at least to me, because I could see that our intention, our approach, could be misunderstood as the next, and maybe better, investigation of the crimes themselves. I worried for Atieno through this project of fourteen years, if not also for myself, for I felt that many paths that Atieno had himself taken in his own now suddenly too short life were paths that overlapped with the generation of Ouko. For too many years, they had their loyalties questioned by those in power in the country that they loved. They saw the breakage of ideas and ideals of a Kenya republic by those entrusted to assure the delivery of a better Kenya to the next generations. They saw that their own personal safety lay in the difficult spaces between home and exile. They knew that a greater country would only grow in those spaces where speech, writing, and debate would find protection. * * * Less than a year ago, I wrote these words to Atieno on the difficult occasion of his retirement from Rice. I found a voice behind my shoulder, suggesting poetry, suggesting many strands, suggesting questions as much as answers. Atieno: Friendship discovered in the productions of ideas, shared ways of thinking about things. Friendship found in the turning of ideas into words. Friendship made in the animation of phrases, in the placement of commas, in the open declarations of thoughts held within. Sentences as in a lyric carrying additional meanings and powers. Three books, articles, chapters. Twenty some years of never having a thought without the presence of another voice. Relationships unfolding not from the thing itself, but more so the making of the thing. A way of looking at the world, and writing about it. Five hundred years. Keywords: risky knowledge, sociology of power, poetics, republics of taxis, landscape. Owiny, Omolo, Obalo, Ogelo, Ogot, Ouko, Otieno. . .crossers of boundaries. Add Obama? Siaya, Atieno, nation, history, Luo? In which order shall I put them? I need the other’s voice. David William Cohen Ann Arbor June 14, 2008 It is now 2009, Atieno. This is too soon. I shall not stop writing with you at my shoulder. There is still history to do, and to make, for you, because of you. With love and greatest consolations to your family. Be in peace. David