September 23, 2013

Ghanaian poet, Kofi Awoonor killed in Kenya attack

Ghanaian poet, Kofi Awoonor  killed in Kenya attack

By Japhet Alakam, Uduma Kalu, Jimoh Babatunde, with agency reports

“I AM on the world’s extreme corner
I can only go beyond and forget.
My people, I have been somewhere
If I turn here, the rain beats me
If I turn there the sun burns me
The firewood of this world
Is for only those who can take heart
That is why not all can gather it.
The world is not good for anybody”

IN one of his celebrated poems entitled Songs of sorrow, legendary Ghanaian poet, Kofi Awoonor, wrote “the world is not good for anybody.”

The world as described by the poet decades ago is still applicable today as the world’s literary community was, yesterday, thrown into deep mourning following the killing of Prof. Kofi Awoonor, 78. The former UN envoy was among the 39 killed during a terror attack on Westgate Mall on Saturday in Nairobi, Kenya. He died from injuries sustained in the attack.

The Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta also lost his nephew and the nephew’s fiancee to the terror attack. The news which is coming barely few months after the death of Africa’s literary giant, Chinua Achebe, was seen as another great loss to the entire literary community.

Great author

Awoonor was a great author whose work combines the poetic traditions of his native Ewe people and contemporary and religious symbolism to depict Africa during decolonization. Professor Awoonor was one of Africa’s greatest voices and poets and his works will forever inspire knowledge and strength and hope.

The Ghanaian government confirmed Awoonor’s death, yesterday. Awoonor’s son had been shot in the shoulder during the attack, for which Somali militant group Al-Shabab has claimed responsibility. Awoonor’s son  was treated and discharged from hospital late on Saturday. In addition to the 39 people killed, it is estimated 100 were injured in the attack.

The late Prof. Kofi Awoonor

The late Prof. Kofi Awoonor

Awoonor was in Nairobi to speak at the Storymoja Hay Festival, a four-day celebration of writing, thinking and storytelling. Along with Ghanaian poets Nii Parkes and Kwame Dawes, he was due to perform on Saturday evening as part of a showcase of award-winning poems from both sides of Africa.

He said during the festival that the event had “the best representation of Ghanaian authors that we have ever had” and commended the fellow authors and writers there: “Together we are discussing the birthing pains of countries,” he had noted.

During a poetry masterclass that Awoonor held at the festival he discussed mortality and said he was unafraid of death. Julie Muriuki, a writer who attended, posted on a blog afterwards: “I’ve been looking for my writing voice and Awoonor has shown me where to find it. I’m eternally grateful.”


Reacting to his death, chairman of Association of Nigerian Authors, ANA, Remi Raji, described the killing as an indication of the terrible situation in Africa. He said: “It is an indication of the terrible situation we have in Africa. For the continent to lose such a great writer in such a way is sad.”

Raji descibed him as a great writer in the generation of other writers like Ayi Kwei Armah, Kofi Anyidoho, Ama Ata Aido and others.

Prof. Tony Afejuku of the English and Literature Department of the University of Benin described the death of Kofi Awoonor as a big blow to African literary clan. Afejuku who said that African literature cannot be completed without the mention of Kofi added, “I remember his novel, This Earth, My Brother and his poem Songs of Sorrow.

Afejuku said the novel is significant in African literary experience, adding, “It is a novel that I always want to read and read again. His death coming after the death of Chinua Achebe is really a big blow to African literature. I will be honouring him by reading the book again tomorrow.”

Award winning poet and columnist Ogaga Ifowodo, while condenming the attack in the name of God said ‘Ah, “This earth, my brother!” Awoonor, please ask this God what he had in mind when “creating” the sort of fanatics that bedevil our world.”

For novelist and critic, Prof. Okey Ndibe, “Kofi Awoonor was one of the most learned, most humble men I ever met. He was witty, passionate about literature, full of life, a renaissance man who capped it all with wisdom, a man of the world who had an abiding love of the earth where his umbilical cord was buried. I was fortunate to know him, to learn so much from him, to call him a friend and inspirer. In the words of your countryman and rival, I say, why are we so blest? Invoking the title of his extraordinary novel, I say, This earth, my brother…May you continue to soar from beyond the grave. The indomitable Awoonor, enchant heaven with your songs!”

Another award winning poet, Uche Nduka, who described Awoonor as a  poetic master, said the news is horrible, while the 2012 NLNG winner Chika Unigwe, said,”My heart goes out to the victims of the Nairobi mall shooting.”

Prof. Olu Oguibe, in a dirge for Awoonor, ‘Wake for Awoonor’ wrote, “May his murderers die a thousand deaths/A thousand deaths to his murderers/World without end.” Another poet, Obi Iwuanayanwu, wrote a dirge for Awoonor.

Prof. Kofi Awoonor was born in Ghana on March 13, 1935 when it was still called the Gold Coast. He was a poet and author whose work combined the poetic traditions of his native Ewe people and contemporary religious symbolism to depict Africa during the era of decolonization. He went to university there and went on to teach African literature at the University of Ghana. He started writing under the name George Awoonor-Williams. While at the University of Ghana he wrote his first poetry book, Rediscovery. Like the rest of his work, Rediscovery is based on African oral poetry.

In Ghana he managed the Ghana Film Corporation and founded the Ghana Play House. He then studied literature at the University of London, and while in England he wrote several radio plays for the BBC. He spent the early 1970s in the United States, studying and teaching at universities. While in the USA he wrote This Earth, My Brother, and My Blood. Prof Kofi Awoonor returned to Ghana in 1975 as head of the English department at the University of Cape Coast. Within months he was arrested for helping a soldier accused of trying to overthrow the military government and was imprisoned without trial. After ten months he was found not guilty and released. The house by the Sea is about his time in jail. After imprisonment Awoonor became politically active and has written mostly non-fiction.

His other works include; Comes the voyager at last; The African Predicament; This earth my brother; Until the morning after, A Political History from Pre-European to Modern Times (1990) The Breast of the Earth: A Survey of the History, Culture, and Literature of Africa South of the Sahara and others.

Songs of Sorrow by Kofi Awoonor

Dzogbese Lisa has treated me thus
It has led me among the sharps of the forest
Returning is not possible
And going forward is a great difficulty
The affairs of this world are like the chameleon faeces
Into which I have stepped
When I clean it cannot go.
I am on the world’s extreme corner,
I am not sitting in the row with the eminent
But those who are lucky
Sit in the middle and forget
I am on the world’s extreme corner
I can only go beyond and forget.
My people, I have been somewhere
If I turn here, the rain beats me
If I turn there the sun burns me
The firewood of this world
Is for only those who can take heart
That is why not all can gather it.
The world is not good for anybody
But you are so happy with your fate;
Alas! the travellers are back
All covered with debt.
Something has happened to me

The things so great that I cannot weep
I have no sons to fire the gun when I die
And no daughter to wail when I close my mouth
I have wandered on the wilderness
The great wilderness men call life
The rain has beaten me,
And the sharp stumps cut as keen as knives
I shall go beyond and rest.
I have no kin and no brother,
Death has made war upon our house;
And Kpeti’s great household is no more,
Only the broken fence stands;
And those who dared not look in his face
Have come out as men.
How well their pride is with them.
Let those gone before take note
They have treated their offspring badly.
What is the wailing for?
Somebody is dead. Agosu himself
Alas! a snake has bitten me
My right arm is broken,
And the tree on which I lean is fallen.
Agosi if you go tell them,
Tell Nyidevu, Kpeti, and Kove
That they have done us evil;
Tell them their house is falling
And the trees in the fence
Have been eaten by termites
That the martels curse them.
Ask them why they idle there
While we suffer, and eat sand.
And the crow and the vulture
Hover always above our broken fences
And strangers walk over our portion.