In September this year, during the terrorist attack by the al-Shabaab militants at the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, among the many killed, was a 78-year-old Ghanian poet, novelist, dramatist, professor, diplomat and activist, Kofi Awoonor. He was in Nairobi for the Storymoja Hay Festival, a 4-day celebration of writing, thinking and storytelling.
His nephew and fellow poet, Kwame Dawes, who was in Nairobi with him for the same festival, wrote about him in the Wall Street Journal. Over in The New Yorker, Teju Cole, another writer who was in Nairobi for the same festival and knew Awoonor, also wrote a touching essay about him. And, there are a couple of obituaries in The Guardian and at BBC News.
Awoonor’s poems and storytelling were rooted in his native and still-prevalent Ewe traditions. This gave his language a strong, rhythmic, dirge-like quality. There is also an oral performance-driven aspect to his works – as if they’re meant to be read aloud. One of his earliest works was a translation from the original Ewe into English of the songs of the famous Anlo poet and lyricist, Akpaloo.
His most famous poem continues to be The Weaver Bird, from his first collection, Rediscovery and Other Poems (1964). It describes Western imperialism in Africa through the symbolism of the weaver bird, a colonizer that defiles and destroys its host tree. The poem also shows how the colonized, the Africans, indulged this behavior.
Some critics have written that his later poetry, when he was more intensely focused on political activism, did not have the same quality as his earlier works.
However, this particular poem (his last), Across a New Dawn, that the Wall Street Journal published after his death, shows great literary skill and a superior dexterity with language, surely. [For copyright reasons, the full poem is not shown below. Please click the WSJ link for the full version.]
But who says our time is up
that the box maker and the digger
are in conference
or that the preachers have aired their robes
and the choir and the drummers
are in rehearsal?
No; where the worm eats
a grain grows.
the consultant deities
have measured the time
with long winded
arguments of eternity
And death, when he comes
to the door with his own
inimitable calling card
shall find a homestead
resurrected with laughter and dance
and the festival of the meat
of the young lamb and the red porridge
of the new corn
– Excerpt from “Promises of Hope: New and Selected Poems,” selected by Kofi Anyidoho, University of Nebraska Press and the African Poetry Book Fund, 2014
Death was a theme he wrote about often and not just due to his age. He had started to contemplate and try to understand death during his 1975 imprisonment (without trial) In Nairobi, when he was, for some time, on death row. He had just returned from the US, having published a couple of books that the Ghanian military government did not appreciate, and was accused of helping a soldier to overthrow the government. After his release, he did not write much poetry or fiction, focusing instead on non-fiction related to his activism. In the last few years, however, he had started returning to poetry.
Before he died, he gave a lecture at the Festival. Here’s a bit of what he said:
And I have written about death also, particularly at this old age now. At seventy-nine, you must know—unless you’re an idiot—that very soon, you should be moving on. An ancient poet from my tradition said, ‘I have something to say. I will say it before death comes. And if I don’t say it, let no one say it for me. I will be the one who will say it.’
Another recent poem, To Feed Our People, has this:
Do not dress me yet. Lift me not onto that mound before the mourners. I have still to meet the morning dew, a poem to write, a field to hoe, a lover to touch, and some consoling to do before you lay me out.
One of Ghana’s most prominent men of letters died of a senseless, violent terrorist act in September this year. It is a shame that, sometimes, it takes something like this for our global consciousness to become aware of and seek out a poet’s works. [On a personal note, it breaks my heart that I put Awoonor on my “to-do” list and am only just getting around to learning more about his wonderful work and legacy.]