The face of a massacre: eminent poet, diplomat Kofi Awoonor is killed


Kofi Awoonor was the grandson of a Ewe dirge-singer.

The weekend atrocity at Nairobi’s Westgate Shopping Mall  has left scores dead, and though most of the hostages appear to have been rescued from the Al-Shabaab militant group, I’m sure we’ll have more surprises in the hours to come.

One prominent name has surfaced among the dead:  Kofi Awoonor, the widely translated and anthologized Ghanian poet and diplomat born as George Kofi Awoonor WilliamsThe Telegraph coverage is here; Wall Street Journal’s Speakeasy writes hereCapital News in Kenya reports here.

There’s not much I can do about this weekend of massacres – but let me spent a few words, and least, on this 78-year-old African poet.  Let him put a face and a name on this massacre of anonymous victims.

Kofi Awoonor was born in the Gold Coast (now Ghana) on March 13, 1935, in the small farming village of Wheta. He was the son of a tailor and a chieftain’s daughter. His grandmother, however, was a dirge-singer, and much of his early work is modeled on this type of Ewe oral poetry.  Awoonor’s poetry, rooted in the oral poetry of his history, has kept close to the vernacular rhythms of African speech and poetry. “It is for this reason I have sat at the feet of ancient poets whose medium is the voice and whose forum is the village square and the market place,” he has said.

According to the Encylopedia Britannica: “Awoonor sought to incorporate African vernacular traditions—notably the dirge song tradition of the Ewe people—into modern poetic form. His major themes—Christianity, exile, and death are important among them—are enlarged from poem to poem by repetition of key lines and phrases and by use of extended rhythms. Each poem in Rediscovery and Other Poems (1964), for example, records a single moment in a larger pattern of recognition and rediscovery.”

According to critic Derek Wright, the poetry “both drew on a personal family heirloom and opened up a channel into a broader African heritage.” In Rediscovery (1964) and Petals of Blood (1971), Awoonor uses the common dirge motif of the ‘thwarted or painful return’ to describe the experience of the Western-educated African looking back at his indigenous culture.”

awoonorThe “Western-educated” part came from the painful experience of exile, a theme in his work. Awoonor was associated to the first president of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah, who was driven out by a coup in 1966.  During his exile abroad, he completed graduate and doctoral studies, receiving a Ph.D. in literature from the State University of New York at Stony Brook in 1972. He published a novel, This Earth, My Brother in 1971.  He was Ghana’s ambassador to Cuba and Brazil in the 1980s, and ambassador to the U.N. in the 1990s.

He was, apparently, controversial – enough so that Alhaji Abdul-Rahman Harruna Attah met him at the Ghana Association of Writers last year with a lot of negative preconceptions.  His anecdote about how he changed his mind is here.

His Promise of Hope: New and Selected Poems, with an introduction by fellow poet and scholar, Kofi Anyidoho, will be published next year with help from the African Poetry Book Fund, established by the editor of Prairie Schooner, Kwame Dawes, a poet and writer from Ghana.

Dawes described him as “a poet of witness, of great lyric grace and a remarkable capacity to combine his command of traditional Ewe poetics with a modernist lyric sensibility … one of the great African poets to have appeared in the twentieth century.”  At the time of the announcement last year, he added that “his agreement to be a part of this series is a tremendous coup.  We are extremely pleased.”

He was in Nairobi for the Storymoja Hay Festival, a four-day event that celebrates writing and storytelling.  “I had asked him to attend the festival to help celebrate some new initiatives in African poetry that I was spearheading, and his new book, Promise of Hope: New and Selected Poems, is to be the lead book of the new African Poetry Book Series to appear early next year,” Dawes wrote in The Wall Street Journal.

According to news reports, the terrorists invited Muslims to leave the mall with their hands up, and escape to safety.  Apparently Awoonor decided not to try and fake it.

I found this poem at the Africa Fund website.  (More of it is here.)

Excerpt from “This Earth, My Brother”

…He will come out of the grave
His clothes thrown around him;
worms shall not have done their work.
His face shall beam the radiance of many suns
His gait the bearing of a victor,
On his forehead shall shine a thousand stars
he will kneel after the revelation
and die on this same earth.

And I pray
That my hills shall be exalted
And he who washes me,
breathes me
shall die.
They led them across the vastness
As they walked they tottered
and rose again. They walked
across the grassland to the edge of the mound
and knelt down in silent prayer;
they rose again led to the mound,
they crouched
like worshippers of Muhammed.
Suddenly they rose again
stretching their hands to the crowd
in wasteful gestures of identity
Boos and shrieks greeted them
as they smiled and waved
as those on a big boat journey.
A sudden silence fell
as the crowd pushed and yelled
into the bright sharp morning of a shooting. …


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3 Responses to “The face of a massacre: eminent poet, diplomat Kofi Awoonor is killed”

  1. Ekpa Says:

    This Earth My Brother, has gone crazy! RIP Prof. Your killers have incurred the wrath of GOD upon themselves

  2. John Haynes Says:

    Thanks you (the wrong word) for this news. The most wonderful poet and inspiration to the school of African poets who took the oral tradition as their starting point, first through translation, and then through using features of it straight in English. In fact he didn’t write Petals of Blood as you account suggests, but much wonderful poetry and critical work in The Breast of the Earth. Such a shock.


  3. Ambassador Kofi Says:

    A man of his type should not die so early like this… my his gentle soul rest in perfect and may he find peace where ever he is now.. though you are gone but we still have you on our mind and our heart.