African Postman: Death of a Poet


Ghanaian poet, playwright, diplomat and teacher Kofi Awoonor, 78, was among the casualties of the terrorist attack on Nairobi‘s Westgate Mall on September 21.

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.

Kofi Awoonor, 1935 - 2013.
Kofi Awoonor, 1935 – 2013.
Traditional chiefs from Dzelukope, hometown of celebrated Ghanaian poet, professor, and ambassador Kofi Awoonor, await the arrival of Awoonor's coffin from Kenya, at the airport in Accra, Ghana, Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2013. Mourners sang funeral dirges and traditional leaders poured libations Wednesday for the beloved literary icon, as hundreds gathered at the airport where his body was brought home days after he was slain in the Kenya mall terror attack. Awoonor had been in Kenya with his son to take part in a literary festival, when he was among the more than 60 civilians killed at the Nairobi mall. (AP Photo/Christian Thompson)
Traditional chiefs from Dzelukope, hometown of celebrated Ghanaian poet, professor, and ambassador Kofi Awoonor, await the arrival of Awoonor’s coffin from Kenya, at the airport in Accra, Ghana, Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2013. Mourners sang funeral dirges and traditional leaders poured libations Wednesday for the beloved literary icon, as hundreds gathered at the airport where his body was brought home days after he was slain in the Kenya mall terror attack.  (AP Photo/Christian Thompson)

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.

John Henry Martey Newman, chief of staff at the Ghanaian presidency, signs the condolences book for Kofi Awoonor in Accra. (Photo: Christian Thompson/AP)
John Henry Martey Newman, chief of staff at the Ghanaian presidency, signs the condolences book for Kofi Awoonor in Accra. (Photo: Christian Thompson/AP)

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).

Kwame Dawes
Ghanaian-Jamaican poet Kwame Dawes is now Professor of English at the University of Nebraska. (Photo: Eliza Griffiths from Kwame’s website, kwamedawes.com)

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.

Kofi Awoonor (left) and Kwame Dawes at Storymoja in Nairobi. (Photo: Msingi Sasi)
Kofi Awoonor (left) and Kwame Dawes at Storymoja in Nairobi. (Photo: Msingi Sasi)

“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

From “Promises of Hope: New and Selected Poems,” selected by Kofi Anyidoho, University of Nebraska Press and the African Poetry Book Fund, 2014

kofiawoonortribute_2680998i

Kofi Awoonor's son Afetsi, who was wounded in the Westgate Mall attack, mourns his father as he departs with his body for Ghana.
Kofi Awoonor’s son Afetsi, who was wounded in the Westgate Mall attack, mourns his father as he departs with his body for Ghana.

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&currencysetting=GBP&localesetting=en-GB&resetfilters=true Storymoja Hay Festival Nairobi

http://storymojahayfestival.com Storymoja Tribute to Professor Awoonor

https://petchary.wordpress.com/2012/11/24/african-postman-we-remember-differently/ African Postman: “We Remember Differently” – Chinua Achebe

https://petchary.wordpress.com/2012/11/11/african-postman-fifty-years-of-the-african-writers-series/ African Postman: Fifty Years of the African Writers Series

https://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

 


22 thoughts on “African Postman: Death of a Poet

  1. This is a fine tribute and your Jamaican connection gave it a personal national touch. Interesting that there are now videos of Kwame Dawes (a poet I really love and admire by the way) on the web performing Kofi Awoonor’s ‘The Weaver Bird’. Great guys. I feel like Awoonor’s loss is mine. And so it is that we lose another, Chinua gone, Kofi gone too… More lights shining in the fires they started burning across several souls including mine. May the times be kind to us all.

    PS: Would you put that extended tribute up already 😉

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    1. Thanks so much, Su’eddie! Yes, it’s a great Jamaican connection isn’t it, although so sad that it feels almost like a “broken link”… I also wrote a couple of pieces on Chinua Achebe and other African writers. If you search for “African Postman” on my blog, you will find them. Well, it is up to other Africans to carry on the flame now, and carry it around the world… Yes, PROMISE I will write more about Professor Awoonor. PS You can find Kwame on Twitter @kwamedawes and get in touch with him on his website, why don’t you? He is a marvelous person and I admire him so much, too. Although he does not visit Jamaica often these days…

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      1. Guess time isn’t so friendly for the good Professor Kwame – hmmm… Thanks for the links. I sure would have to get to him soon. Promise kept and locked. Counting on it 🙂
        I would have to go check the African Postman link – catchy title that. African Postman. 🙂

        Dancing to the thought already!

        Like

      2. Yes. I am a huge fan of Burning Spear (Winston Rodney) and that is one of my favorite songs of his! My Jamaican friends complained once that they don’t get much news from Africa (except for bad news) so I decided to start the series. I look for interesting and inspiring stories! I am so glad you linked up with Kwame. Isn’t that cool.

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      3. Really cool! Just keeping touch is fine by me… Wow! Some guy he is. Ah! I see the connection to the Postman now. I still think it is really lovely. Wish I had gotten the inspiration first 🙂 … I might start such a series soon. I think it sad we don’t have too much real news coming from these parts except the bad as you rightly said. The media sure doesn’t do too well for us and many of us ignore those good things happening. More like the case of counting our burdens over our blessings. Isn’t that the human thing. Achebe wrote once: ‘writers don’t give prescriptions, they give headaches!’ Hee hee hee. Oh well. Lots of inspiring stories and I think I would make it a duty to every once in a while post something of the like on my blog.

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      4. Yes, that was the idea. Many Jamaicans of course feel a kinship with Africa, yet don’t really know the progressive things that are happening there (or even how people are living). They just see headlines about civil wars etc. Keep in touch Sueddie (I know we will!)

        Like

    1. Thank you – it was just a summary as there is SO much more that could be written about him. I wanted to show the Jamaica/Ghana connection too. You are right (and I didn’t comment but it is so clear) – almost a premonition of what was to come in that beautiful poem…

      Like

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