Twenty-six years ago, a junior clerk walked into his manager’s office seeking audience. His name was Louis Armstrong Otieno.
He was 20 years old at the time and working for Post Bank Kenya. He wanted nothing more than to be made a presenter of the company’s popular show, ‘Post Bank Premium Bonds Draw’ that aired just before the news on Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC) TV.
“Respect protocol. You cannot walk in without an appointment,” he was told as soon as he stepped into the office.
Mr Otieno did not give up. Instead, he redoubled his efforts to reach his boss. These efforts finally yielded fruit and he made his debut on television as a presenter on the show.
It wasn’t long before audiences began to notice the young man with a projecting voice, quick wit and easy screen presence.
Comments on his grasp of Kiswahili and English started streaming in. Soon, TV stations wanted Otieno as an anchor on prime time news.
A few years after he had become the darling of many for his spectacular performance on the Post Bank show, he appeared on KBC TV, all suited up and ready to read the 9pm news.
“I was the youngest. Anchoring was the preserve of veterans. The co-anchor I was paired with told me to get out of his chair,” Otieno recalls.
His career in media grew as he commanded such authority in the studio that he became one of the highest paid anchors of his time.
Then things started crumbling. First came the news that he was falling out with his editors and crew. His critics mentioned arrogance. They said he was becoming bigger than himself.
“He was unpredictable and moody, so you had to approach him with caution,” said a former colleague who asked not to be named.
Otieno says he dismissed the accusations as an occupational hazard. Anyone doing the kind of work he was doing – putting top politicians in the hot seat and squeezing information from them like only he could – was bound to have enemies.
Rumours of alcoholism and hedonism began to creep in, revealing a crack in the personality of Kenya’s finest TV news anchor back then.
Still, Otieno put on a brave face and continued dazzling audiences. Behind the scenes, however, social media users projected the image of a man whose personal life was falling apart.
Otieno fought on.
“It comes with the territory. I often reminded them that I was not in it to be famous but to be effective,” he says.
But it was the news that he had been named in murder investigations involving a college student, Careen Kipchumba, that finally brought his promising career to a halt.
As suddenly as he had appeared on the screen, Otieno disappeared.
Snapshots of some of the powerful interviews he did would emerge, a brief reminder of a man who once had so much control of news content that media houses accorded him a whole team of producers to work with.
“I remember feeling the power around him. He stepped into the show and everyone went quiet,” says Brenda Beja, one of the people who appeared on Otieno’s show in his heyday.
But today, he is a shell of his former self. The power has been sapped. The spring is gone.
At his home in Nairobi, The Standard team was met by a man who cannot even walk straight, having lost his sense of balance.
His hearing is gone and he can no longer hear the powerful interviews he once gave. For this interview, The Standard had to write the questions on a piece of paper for him to read.
“I cannot even hear my own voice,” he says, choking back tears. “I cannot hear my daughter when she comes home from school.”
His Standard Five daughter stands shyly behind the couch and watches as her father breaks down while he explains how much his life has changed.
Otieno suffered an acute pancreatic infection that crashed his hearing system.
With the disease taking over his life and his fame dimming, friends fled.
His phones, he says, rang incessantly when he was a popular TV anchor. They went mute as soon as he was fired. The powerful politicians and business moguls who once begged him for interviews all left.
Otieno says his condition has taught him the fluidity of friendship and vanity of fame. It has also drained the last shilling of his savings from his former job.
According to his sister, Joan Obuya, the family has taken loans to pay for his medical bills, but the burden has become too heavy.
“Our mother retired and we lost two siblings recently. It has been a difficult time,” she says.
Otieno is seeking help. He says he is telling his story to reach out to anyone who saw his passion and dedication during his days as a TV anchor.
“I performed my job as a national duty. Not showbiz, not entertainment. I held platforms for debate and discourse for both opinion leaders and ordinary Kenyans,” he says.
At the end of the interview, his daughter nods and gives him a thumbs up – it is the new language that father and daughter have developed since he lost his hearing.
It will cost Sh4 million to fully restore his hearing and balance. The family says they have run out of money to pay his medical bills and thus opened a pay bill number for wellwishers to assist. the paybill number is Louis Armstrong Otieno 333957.