By Obi Nwakanma
George Kofi Awoonor-Williams became just Kofi Awoonor. He chose to be piquant and to shed the vestiges, at the same time, of his colonial past. He died last week. He was 78 years. He did not die from age related problems. He was still quite active; mentally alert and vigorous. He was killed in the Nairobi terrorist event staged by Al Shabaab, the Somali equivalent of Boko Haram, which had taken over the Westgate Mall, a high end shopping Mall in Nairobi last week, and massacred mall visitors. By last count, the death toll from the four-day siege and holdout had been officially put at seventy-two people. More are suspected to be crushed under the rubble of the collapsed mall, and therefore unaccounted.
Among the known dead was Kofi Awoonor – poet, diplomat, and distinguished Ghanaian public servant. Awoonor had gone to Nairobi to attend a literary festival in the Kenyan capital. He had been invited to read his poems, and presumably had taken that final time out, either to shop, or sight-see in Nairobi, and became trapped into the terrorist melee. It is a powerful irony that a most pleasurable outing would end in a turn of unforeseen violence. It would be the kind of irony that could have tickled Kofi Awoonor’s imaginative depth both as a poet as well as a dramatist.
It could as well be that he has lived out his own powerful elegiac irony. By all accounts Kofi Awoonor was one of the most vital poetic voices of the 20th century in Africa whose poetry cut a pathway towards the illumination of the inherent power of the modern African imagination. At the core of his early work was Ewe orality – the proof, as his generation of African modernists sought to give – that African oral forms had the grace and power of rhetoric or poetic authority. Born in 1935 in Wheta, Ghana, to a Sierra-Leona tailor father and an Ewe mother from near Togo, Kofi Awoonor embodies what we must recognize today as the hybridity of the modern African shaped by the forces of modern migrations and transnationality. He was uncompromisingly a Ghanaian nationalist intellectual shaped by the pan-Africanist movement.
It was the Pan-Africanism of Nnamdi Azikiwe and Kwame Nkrumah that nurtured Kofi Awoonor’s early political and intellectual development. He was deeply involved in Ghana’s early postcolonial politics as a propagandist for Nkrumah in his capacity as Head of the famous Ghana Film Corporation which was a lynchpin in the shaping of Ghana’s public imagination in the 1960s in the Nkrumah era in power.
Kofi Awoonor read English at what was then the University College, Legon, now the University of Ghana. It is regrettable that not many Nigerians of the current school age know much about Kofi Awoonor these days with the decline in Humanities education and cultural production, and the general paucity in contemporary literary scholarship in West Africa particularly, as well indeed as the cultural and political boundaries that have since risen within the African cultural landscape since the earlier flowering of Modern African literature, with its crosscurrents and interpenetrations through the shared discourses of the 1960s and ‘70s.
But any African who went through secondary school from the 1960s to the 1980s would have read the poetry of Kofi Awoonor, particularly the famously anthologized “Song of Sorrow” in Donatus Ibe Nwoga’s or Senanu and Vincents anthologies of Modern African poetry. Awoonor is equally present in the famous Penguin anthology of African poetry edited by Ulli Beier and Gerald Moore. Kofi Awoonor was a central figure of what I have called the “Renascent Africa” movement in African postcolonial modernity that flowered from the late 1950s to the 60s. Ghana’s modern literature begins, some critics claim with Caseley Hayford, Michael Dei-Anang, and Ralph Armattoe, and includes in poetry, figures like Kwesi Brew and Frank Kobina Parkes, and the playwright Efua Sutherland.
Kofi Awoonor acts as the bridge with later Ghanaian poets and writers like Ama Ata Aidoo, Ayi Kwei Armah, Kofi Anyidoho, to the more contemporary. He was until last week, Ghana’s living most important writer. Kofi Awoonor was very much part of the Mbari movement too. His important first collection of poems, Rediscovery was published by the Mbari Press, Ibadan in 1964. In the 1960s, Kofi Awoonor’s friendship with the Nigerian poet, Christopher Okigbo, led to fruitful collaborations with Rajat Neogy, in publishing Transition the most influential continental literary magazine of that era. Kofi Awoonor was Assistant Editor to Christopher Okigbo who was editor of Transition West Africa. Such transcontinental collaborations seem rare these days in spite of the easier modes of modern communication.
Awoonor’s friendship with Okigbo came to good use too in Okigbo’s last journey to Ghana in 1966 with his friend the poet J.P. Clark in their journey to return Emma Ifeajuna, the leader of the January 1966 coup to Nigeria. Kofi Awoonor was kind to flesh out details of that trip and his part in it to me in 1996 after he had given the CBAAC lecture at the National Theatre in Lagos. Few Nigerians know that Awoonor was one of the first people Ifeajuna contacted on arriving Ghana after he fled from the ruins of his coup. Awoonor himself fled from Ghana at the collapse, not long after, of Nkrumah’s government.
He went to England, studied for the MA, wrote plays for the BBC, and then to the United states where he earned the PhD at State University of New York, where he also taught in its African Studies program. He wrote his allegorical novel, This Earth, My brotherpublished later by Heinemann, and the collections of poems, Ride Me, Memory, an epigram he took from Okigbo, and Night of My Blood, as well as Breast of the earth, one of the most incisive studies of modern African cultural imagination, all while he was in the United States.
He returned to Ghana from his exile, was arrested on coup charges, jailed, released, and remained active in Ghana’s public life, having served as Ambassador to Cuba, Brazil, and his last gig, as Ghana’s envoy to the United Nations.
Kofi Awoonor was shot in Nairobi, and the point of this essay is to remind us all that like the sun on rubbles of Dennis Brutus’ own poem, our wordless supplication must be to seek relief from this pain of meaningless violence from terrorists. There is something to learn in the Kenyan terrorist massacres last week: it could happen here; and anyone can be victim, poet or carpenter.
The Nigerian authorities must pay attention to the evolving methods of terror and terrorism as Africa has become part of its globalized field. As for Kofi Awoonor: the end has come for the poet, and now he truly awaits the coming of the sun “for the snake-shrouds of homecoming…” It’s a profound loss to African poetry. Ah! This earth, my brother.