There have already been many tributes, and the articles linked below express the loss much more beautifully than I can. Every life lost – rich or poor, young or old, African or not – was a shining star (suddenly, brutally extinguished). But Professor Awoonor brought a power and passion to our world that only writers can bring. Born in Wheta, Ghana, the eldest of ten children, he based much of his early poetry on traditional dirges, wedding celebrations and other oral expressions of his native Ewe tribe, in the griot tradition.
He was also a diplomat, a statesman. Professor Awoonor was Ghana’s ambassador to Brazil and Cuba; and the country’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations from 1990 to 1994, where he headed an anti-apartheid committee. Prior to this, he had been jailed in 1975 for several months on political charges. He was passionate about what he called the “distresses” of his country and “the chicanery of politics and the men who indulge in them.” He had no illusions about Ghana’s struggles, and seemed to feel that they were not over. He studied at the University of Ghana, London University and the State University of New York (SUNY) Stonybrook; and taught at universities in the United States and Ghana.
Awoonor and his son were in Kenya for the Storymoja Hay Festival, a four-day literary event. “Together we are discussing the birthing pains of countries,” said Awoonor. He was scheduled to speak with fellow Ghanaians that same evening, as part of a celebration of poets from East and West Africa. The festival closed early after a tribute to Professor Awoonor (as the siege at the mall continued), with requests to donate blood for the many injured in the Westgate attack.
Jamaicans may not be as familiar with Professor Awoonor’s work as they are with another African literary giant who passed away not long ago, Chinua Achebe. But Ghana and Jamaica do have strong cultural, linguistic and historical links. Most of the Jamaican Maroons, for example, were from a special group called the Coromantyns or Coromantees – mostly from the Fante and Asante tribes of Ghana, very brave people. My English niece worked in Ghana for six months and said she was constantly reminded of Jamaica (which she had visited three times previously) in the way people spoke, behaved – and looked (people often say that my Jamaican husband looks like Kofi Annan. He does).
And the connections remain; poet Kwame Dawes, for example, was born in Accra but grew up in Jamaica. Kwame has been living and teaching for many years in the United States and is currently Chancellor Professor of English at the University of Nebraska and the Glenna Luschel Editor of Prairie Schooner. He gives back generously to the literary world; he founded the African Poetry Book Fund last year and is co-founder and director of the Calabash International Literary Festival in Jamaica. I have warm memories of him tutoring me during a Calabash workshop series in Kingston.
Kwame had participated in the Storymoja poetry event with Professor Awoonor (his uncle) the day before he died. He tweeted afterwards that Awoonor was “full of jokes” at the event, and shared a photo of them on the panel together.
“It is a big tree that has fallen,” said his brother Robert. Professor Awoonor’s son Afetsi was with him in the Westgate Mall and was wounded. He returned to Ghana with his father’s body.
Professor Awoonor’s funeral will take place on October 3, followed by a state memorial service on October 11 and a final burial in his hometown in southeastern Ghana on November 11.
This was one of the last poems that Professor Awoonor wrote, which the Wall Street Journal published online after his death. It will appear in a new collection of his poems scheduled for publication next year.
ACROSS A NEW DAWN
Sometimes, we read the
lines in the green leaf
run our fingers over the
smooth of the precious wood
from our ancient trees;
Sometimes, even the sunset
puzzles, as we look
for the lines that propel the clouds,
the colour scheme
with the multiple designs
that the first artist put together
There is dancing in the streets again
the laughter of children rings
through the house
On the seaside, the ruins recent
from the latest storms
remind of ancestral wealth
pillaged purloined pawned
by an unthinking grandfather
who lived the life of a lord
and drove coming generations to
despair and ruin
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
We are the celebrants
whose fields were
overrun by rogues
and other bad men who
interrupted our dance
with obscene songs and bad gestures
Someone said an ailing fish
swam up our lagoon
seeking a place to lay its load
in consonance with the Original Plan
Master, if you can be the oarsman
for our boat
please do it, do it.
I asked you before
once upon a shore
at home, where the
seafront has narrowed
to the brief space of childhood
We welcome the travelers
come home on the new boat
fresh from the upright tree
Related articles and links:
http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/remember/july-dec13/poetry_09-25.html Death of Kofi Awoonor in Nairobi Attack is “Great Loss” for Ghana and Poetry: pbs.org
http://www.pbs.org/newshour/art/blog/2013/09/poet-kwame-dawes-remembers-uncle-kofi-awoonor-with-reading-of-the-weaver-bird.html Poet Kwame Dawes remembers uncle Kofi Awoonor with reading of “The Weaver Bird.”
http://ghanagist.com/tribute-to-prof-kofi-awoonor-by-kwame-dawes-a-wall-street-journal-feature-ripkofiawoonor/#.UkYdtxYSwyE Tribute to Professor Kofi Awoonor by Kwame Dawes – a Wall Street Journal feature
http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2013/09/i-will-say-it-before-death-comes-the-murder-of-kofi-awoonor.html I will say it before death comes: The murder of Kofi Awoonor: New Yorker
http://www.hayfestival.com/storymoja/index.aspx?skinid=10¤cysetting=GBP&localesetting=en-GB&resetfilters=true Storymoja Hay Festival Nairobi
http://storymojahayfestival.com Storymoja Tribute to Professor Awoonor
http://petchary.wordpress.com/2012/11/24/african-postman-we-remember-differently/ African Postman: “We Remember Differently” – Chinua Achebe
http://petchary.wordpress.com/2012/11/11/african-postman-fifty-years-of-the-african-writers-series/ African Postman: Fifty Years of the African Writers Series
http://petchary.wordpress.com/2012/06/19/african-postman-the-dangerous-mix-of-politics-and-religion/ African Postman: The Dangerous Mix of Politics and Religion/Wole Soyinka