Lights go out on brave photojournalist William Oeri
You should have met William Nyabuti Oeri at the Nation newsroom tea point. With a huge mug of tea, the former military man regaled colleagues with banter as they stood in queue for their turn.
From his juniors at the photo desk, reporters, editors, drivers to ageing copytakers, Oeri had something for everyone before he retreated to his desk to upload pictures. A teetotaller, the man enjoyed his cup of tea and pots of uji. Colleagues will remember Oeri’s legendary tea cup — and the tenacity around it.
Photographers under him admire his bravery and energy. “Get your camera and call the driver,” was the refrain to his understudies as he dispatched them to tough assignments such as fires, accident scenes and police shoot-outs. The former military man loved energy draining assignments — riots, emergencies, political rallies, and interviews with high profile newsmakers that required diversity of shots in presentation. In the many interviews that yours truly has conducted, Oeri was my photographer.
We have interviewed Kofi Annan, Tanzania’s Salim Ahmed Salim, William Ruto, Raila Odinga (many times), Kiraitu Murungi, Anyang Nyong’o and all the caboodle, with Oeri’s huge cameras clicking away. But it is an interview with Raila – then Prime Minister — and former Gachoka MP Mutava Musyimi (Rev) that remains the most memorable. In every sense, Oeri never pretended to be the sophisticated English-tweng’ing types, wearing heavy glasses and with bundles of unread novels on the desk.
The man oozed raw, unfettered energy and was very comfortable in his skin. (He once invited me to his neighbourhood and insisted that we park our cars and walk for more than two kilometres away from his suburb, searching for the devil knows what). So before we settle for the interview with Raila, Oeri has made a thousand clicks. Heaving from one corner of the room to the other with his camera, Oeri would take more shots, consistently flashing lights on Raila, who will frequently reach out to his pocket to fetch a handkerchief to wipe an afflicted eye. Raila gets increasingly uncomfortable and starts losing his flow of thought.
But the same Oeri comes to the rescue. One of Oeri’s biggest assets in the trade was his multi-lingualism. He could easily warm his way to the hearts of many news subjects with rare ease. It is a gift that earned him long-lasting friendships with newsmakers and became a valuable asset in his trade. He interrupts the interview in Dholuo, and Raila, in a chuckle, tells ‘Japicha’ that the shots are enough. The conversation returns to live. But Oeri continues snapping away at his camera. His tendency to shoot questions in interviews could occasionally be unnerving. But that was Oeri. We let him be. He was amiable, jolly, modest and respectful. Give it to him, despite his modest academic endowment, Oeri waded his way into, and shared boardroom tables with, highly intellectual, talented editorial honchos who have been driving sensitive national conversations through their platforms for the past decade. And he never cowed to speak his mind.
Those who know Musyimi can tell you that he can be painfully reflective in his interviews. Careful to place the right word in its space, and cautious to accurately attribute his quotes and philosophize on deeply complicated subjects. The preacher’s English is impeccable.
After pontificating on all manner of subjects, and often circumventing the heart of questions, a restless Oeri requests if he can ask the Reverend a question. Musyimi readily accepts with a warm smile. Mheshimiwa, why don’t you contest the presidency? Oeri fires, his camera poised and ready. Musyimi’s response to the camera man’s question became the story. While we pour barrels of ink, Oeri told his stories with images. He has documented some of the biggest news events in Kenya. He has used pictures to speak truth to power, expose our vulnerabilities as a society, call action to help those in pain, document history and provide the occasional cheer.
Only last week, a jolly Oeri walked to my desk at the ‘People Daily’ and offered to take me out for lunch. I declined, saying I had too much on my hands and tight deadlines to beat, but promised to be available later this week. The camera lights went dim on the veteran in a road accident on Sunday evening. Fare thee well, William Nyabuti Oeri. Whence cometh yet another.
— The writer is the Political Editor at People Daily [email protected]