Hos Maina: A eulogy…

Hos Maina

I was the sub-editor on duty at the Daily Nation sports desk one Sunday evening in the early 1980s. Reports of league matches were streaming in from stadiums across the country. The big match of the day in Nairobi was a Kenya Breweries versus AFC Leopards game.

The photographer assigned to cover that match was Hos Maina. The practice in those days was for the photographer to go into the darkroom and produce a contact sheet of all the pictures he had taken and take it to the Editor to select the one he liked.

But on that day, Hos brought me two things: the contact sheet and one print which he had gone ahead to produce without waiting for my authority. I looked at the picture for a while, with widening eyes and a breaking smile. It wasn’t necessary to ask him why he had breached the rules to make himself who he was not. It was all there.

It was a black and white close-up shot of the AFC Leopards technical bench, Coach Robert Kiberu in the middle of it. The men’s eyes were frozen with concentration on the action out there. You could see the stiff, protruding nerves on their necks and, in the case of some, beads of sweat on the forehead. Some hands were held out, others supported their chins and others lay tensely on the laps.

Breweries versus Leopards matches were always hard fought affairs and this picture must have been taken at a particularly tense time for the cats. This picture told the whole story – worry, anxiety, suppressed breathe. To the best of knowledge, certainly in my experience, this was the picture that changed sports photojournalism in Kenya. Before it, the word action picture always denoted furious action in the pitch, in the court, in the ring and in the pool.

Hos Maina changed all that. He proved that an action picture could come from an ordinary dug-out bench.

And it could be, as Harold Evans, once editor of the London Times said, a moment frozen in time (that) “preserves forever a finite fraction of the infinite time of the universe.”

“This is good, Hos,” I told him. “I want more like this.”

He smiled, his gamble having paid off. He had recently returned to Kenya from the United States and he looked at things differently. He loved badminton and basketball, both of which he played. He used to bring me reports of them, too, until I told him one day at the Desk: “Hos, why don’t you drop sports reporting altogether and concentrate on photography. Your pictures are very good, but I have problems with your copy.”

He asked simply: “You think so?”

“Yes,” I replied, unsure about how he would take the assessment.

“Ok,” he said without one word more or any hint of disappointment. His career as a sports reporter ended there and one of the greatest photojournalists to come out of Kenya got focus. He brought me copies of the American magazine, Life and we thumbed through it with a voracious appetite, deciding which kind of pictures he would take. We would stare at some for long periods and return to them later.

Pictures of the action on a spectator’s face or a coach’s reaction are now commonplace in the media. But I remember how this revolution started because I happened to be in the middle of it. Hos had first tried to get a job at the Standard Sports Desk. He went and spoke to a polite and helpful man called George Obiero, the Sports Editor. George didn’t have an opening, but he referred Hos to the Nation Sports Desk. When he came, he asked me whether I was Dick Agudah, who happened to be my boss. I wasn’t, I told him. In that case, I might as well be the man he was looking for, seeing as it were that I was acting in Dick’s place. That’s how our relationship started. It went on to the end of his life, encompassing our families in the course of its fifteen years. Good as he was, he struggled to get the attention of the big boys at the Nation. He didn’t confine himself to football, or even sports. His eyes were wherever a good picture was, including those of his own family. His break came in 1982, during the putsch that attempted to topple President Daniel arap Moi’s government.

He was the only Nation photographer in the dangerous streets of Nairobi that day. When rebel Air Force soldiers seized the only broadcasting nation in the country, the Voice of Kenya, and announced they had overthrown the government, mobs of looters invaded the city. They looted the shops and from fellow looters. The rebels helped them, sometimes shooting open locks that were too hard to open. Then loyalist soldiers ousted them, first from the broadcasting station and then from the streets, taking down hundreds of lives in the process. The city was a theatre of death.

There was no public or any other form transport and I never asked Hos how he got himself to town. But I was with him throughout the mayhem, having walked from Kariobangi South to the city centre myself, naively, or foolishly believing that my press pass would exempt me from the curfew that the rebels had imposed. It was a wild day. Only seven of us had made it to work that day, and when a thoroughly shaken Moi announced his own curfew, we found ourselves trapped in the building. It was far from safe. After loyal troops retook Broadcasting House around midday, they spread out into the streets. Leaning on a window sill, we watched them racing along Moi Avenue through the narrow lane between Tembo Co-op House and the IBEA Building.

One soldier looked to his left and saw us. He stopped and took aim. As we dived onto the floor, a volley of automatic rifle fire slammed into the wall of the building near where we had been. We “swam” on the floor and locked ourselves in the farthest toilet where we sat, waiting for the worst. Mercifully, they didn’t come. The Nation wasn’t published on August 2 because enough staff couldn’t come to work. And when it did hit the streets on August 3, it contained a plethora of typographical errors the editor felt obliged to apologise for in a Page One note on August 4. Things had still not returned to normal.

None of us was as brave as Hos was. He traversed the city carrying his camera inside a kiondo (traditional Kenyan bag carried by women) covered with sukuma wiki (kales). Each time he saw a good shot, he pulled the camera out, snapped, and returned it into the kiondo. When confronted by troops and looters, he said he was just looking for food for his family, as they could see for themselves. If he hadn’t been that resourceful, he most certainly would have lost his camera to the looters or been killed by the highly excitable soldiers.

We got marooned in old Nation House that night, there being no transport home, and drunk the last milk-less and sugarless tea to the dregs before being relieved the following morning. Without cigarettes, those who smoked puffed at rolled up newspapers before they ran out of matches. Almost all the pictures of the coup attempt in the Nation of August 3, 1982 were by Hos Maina. From then on, there was no turning back. He took great football pictures but he was now needed everywhere. And soon, he would attract the attention of the world media.

Reuters, the international news agency, wanted to fill a vacancy in their Nairobi bureau. Two friends, Hos Maina and Sam Ouma, were among the applicants who found themselves at the interview. Afterwards, Sam recalls what happened. “I said to Hos, I really need this job, and so do you. Let’s pray for each other, you for me and me for you.

Both of us will be happy for whoever gets it. May the best they think it is, get it. And with that we shook hands. Later, Reuters announced that it is Hos who had got the job. I was very happy for him and we both wished each other good luck.”

The ending of this tale is one of the greatest tragedies to befall journalism in the world. It shook the media across the world. Hos and three colleagues were murdered by an enraged mob in Mogadishu, Somalia, on Monday July 12, 1993. The four were separated from a convoy of media cars as they tried to photograph a United Nations helicopter assault and were attacked by angry locals. Killed with Hos were fellow Kenyan photographer Dan Eldon and sound technician Anthony Macharia, all of Reuters, and German photographer Hansi Krauss of the Associated Press. I was relaxing at home when I got a call from my brother Stanley: “We have bad news here which I am not sure you have heard. There was an attack on a group of four Reuters journalists in Mogadishu. Three are confirmed dead and Hos is missing.”

I composed myself and asked him in a daze: “Hos?”

Gor Mahia FC have a dedicated group of female supporters known as the K’Ogalo Divas among other names. They follow the team wherever it goes adding extra colour to the legions of fanatical fans.

Yes, he said, and went on to explain how, according to the latest news reports, a mob had set upon the newsmen. I listened in silence and my brother seemed to know I felt. I knew this because he ended the call with these words: “Hos is resourceful. I am sure he somehow managed to get away from that mob. By the end of the day, I am sure this is what we shall learn. He will survive.”

I put the phone down and stared out of the window. I had been with Hos the day before he left for Mogadishu. When he told me he was going to Mogadishu to cover the civil strife there, I had said to him: “Hey, Hos, this travel is getting too much. We are getting no time for ourselves.” “I know,” he said and shrugged in resignation. At that time, we had started an education magazine called Achieve. He was the Photographic Editor and I was the Executive Editor. He had invested every aspect of him into the project, and often told me: “Achieve is the future.”

The next thing I did was go to Finance House, which housed the Nairobi offices of Reuters. I was a familiar face there on account of the innumerable interactions I had with Hos. The first person I ran into was his nephew, Tony Njuguna, who also worked there as a freelance photographer. We looked at each other with heavy faces.

“Anything other than what I know?” I asked him.

“No,” he told me. “They say he’s still missing. We are expecting a report in the next hour or so.”

I went away. I sat in the same restaurant adjacent to Finance House and ordered myself a cup of tea. I never drank it. I just started reversing the clock, in futility. An hour or so later, I went back to find Tony walking aimlessly around the office. He had a thin film of tears in his eyes and I could see he was working extremely hard to stay calm.

“It’s confirmed,” he told me “He’s dead.”

We embraced tightly. “I am sorry,” was all I could say. Then we arranged to meet at Hos’s house later that evening. The funeral arrangements for my friend began in earnest. Things have never been the same again. For years, I have remembered Hos each time I see a poorly taken picture. Never in my career had I met such an imaginative photographer. Since his death, I have been on assignments that seemed made in heaven for the genius of Hos Maina. Sitting at home one day in 1982, Stanley had asked Hos to explain the source of his unusual courage. He seemed to find difficulty putting a finger to it but he told my brother something that remains in our home to this day: “I see the world through the lenses of my camera.”

I spoke for his family during his funeral mass. But I could never do it as well as Jonathan Clayton, his colleague at Reuters. In Images of Conflict, a book published to celebrate the work and life of the fallen four in Mogadishu, Clayton summed up Hos’s life with great simplicity and profoundness:

“Hos nearly died in a car crash a little over three years ago. A local Catholic priest read the last rites, but Hos fought back from the precipice of death, spurred on by the thought of his young family, to resume work a few months later. But it was to be a long, hard – and often thankless – road back. Permanent injuries often left him depressed and frustrated that a job once so easy had become difficult. But never once did he think of quitting, only of ways to accelerate his return to peak performance. He spent hours learning new techniques to overcome the disability of a half paralysed right hand and examining ways to make the business of transmitting photographs easier for him to manage. It is a dreadful irony that by the time of his death, he was shooting his best photographs for several years.

During those last terrifying weeks in Mogadishu, he had won front pages on newspapers across the world and much praise from the London picture desk. He was immensely proud to be back at the top of his profession. In that way, at least, he died a happy man.”

I am sure he did and, although not acknowledged, the shot in the arm that he gave sports photojournalism in Kenya will endure for ages. He is undoubtedly one of our greatest photojournalists ever and no anthology of Kenya sports can be complete without a mention of his contribution. He made studying football pictures, as with his other pictures, fun.

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