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Remembering Atieno Odhiambo

Wednesday March 4 2009


I’ve learnt with sadness the passing on of Prof E. S. Atieno Odhiambo, one of the most brilliant minds ever to contribute to comprehending Africa.

My earliest memory of Atieno — December 1973 — was in the great hall of the OAU in Addis Ababa. I was presenting a paper on pre-colonial Luo history. Atieno was one of seven or eight lecturers from Nairobi. After the session wrapped, Atieno was the first to engage me.
We were, in a certain sense, kin, Atieno having been supervised to a PhD in History by Prof Bethwell Allan Ogot; in turn, Ogot and I were fellow students who had a few years earlier completed PhDs.

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.

If a unified Kenyan history could be synthesised, it required more than an assemblage of regions; it would be constituted in the difference, especially over class, access to resources and power.

Here, Atieno’s deep knowledge of Jaramogi Oginga Odinga moved understanding away from the easier stuff of labels and categories towards a search for that new historical literature that transforms political economy, historical sociology, comparative politics and historical anthropology.

We found common ground in the intriguing intersections of layered historical studies. And we found common ground in the discoveries of histories that seemed a bit more complicated.
For Atieno, debate and critique was an essential piece of living in the world which could not be segmented into scholarly domains. It was 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.


Atieno certainly knew, and surely experienced bodily, the differences between the free republics of ideas, and those arenas of repression that so affected his teaching and writing career in Kenya from the early 1970s to his departure for Rice in the late 1980s.

When he did not have to go into hiding during the purge-like times when Kenyan security controlled free speech on the Nairobi campus and beyond, Atieno was close to a number of Kenyan intellectuals who found themselves in trouble and detention. Atieno was arrested, detained, and tortured 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 State turned upon them.

In Risks of Knowledge, we worked around the disappearance and death Kenya’s Foreign minister, Robert Ouko, in February 1990.

At times, this work felt risky, at least to me, because I could see that our intention, our approach, could be misunderstood. I worried for Atieno through this project of 14 years, if not also for myself, for I felt that many paths that Atieno had himself taken 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 knew that a greater country would only grow in those spaces where speech, writing, and debate would find protection.

The writer is Lemuel A. Johnson Collegiate Professor of African Anthropology and History, The University of Michigan ([email protected])