By Japhet Alakam & Prisca Sam-Duru
As the world and entire literary community mourn the death of one of Ghana’s most prominent men of letters, Kofi Awoonor, the organisers of The Storymoja Hay Festival, an event put together to celebrate writing and storytelling in Nairobi, which the Poet attended and was due to perform last Saturday evening as part of a pan-African poetry showcase before his death, organised a special tribute in his memory.
After his death was confirmed, The Storymoja Hay Festival in Nairobi was shut down early on Saturday in the wake of the Westgate Mall attack. However, organisers and members of Nairobi’s literary community, as well as Occupy Nairobi poets, came together on the festival’s site on Monday and paid a glowing tribute to Professor Kofi Awoonor, the Ghanaian poet and diplomat who was among the 68 killed in the attack.
Storymoja founder Muthoni Garland announced the event on Sunday evening, saying “we are devastated by the loss of Professor Awoonor, but hope must prevail.” She added that Storymoja “is committed to find ways to honor the work and spirit of this great African author and intellectual.” Members of the public were encouraged to share their thoughts and tributes under a blog post on the Storymoja website.
Awoonor, who was 78, was due to perform at the literary festival on Saturday and Sunday alongside poets from Ghana and other African countries died as a result of injuries he sustained during the terrorist attack at the Westgate shopping mall, in Nairobi.
While the hostage situation developed at the Westgate Mall two miles away, writers, 150 fans and friends of Awoonor gathered at the National Museums of Kenya’s Louis Leakey Hall. Remembrances and readings of his works were performed for more than two hours. “A climate of fear permeates the air, but […] love and respect were palpable in the room”, the festival posted on its Facebook page.
Awoonor’s poetry, both well-known and unpublished works, were read by people including American PEN President Peter Godwin, Nairobian poet Michael Onsando and Kenyan writer and actor John Sibi-Okumu, who passed on condolences from English-Kenyan author Marjorie Mcgoye-Oludhe, who was indisposed to attend in person. Sibi-Okumu said, “I never met Kofi Awoonor personally, but he was my friend nonetheless because he lived in my house with every book I read”.
And here in Nigeria,reactions have continued to pour in. Playwright, author and former Deputy Editor Guardian Newspaper, Ben Tomoloju said, “The death of Professor Kofi Awoonor in the Nairobi mall shooting is a terrible shock. I mean a shock not only in the sense of an individual, but a real culture-shock.
I join all peoples across the world to sympathise deeply with all the bereaved for this irreparable loss. I also condemn terrorists and terrorism anywhere. Along this line, it is a rude blow on our civilisation to have an African literary titan and cultural institution wasted by these bandits of the most depraved character.”
He described Professor Kofi Awoonor as one of the most outstanding pioneering figures of Modern African Literature. “I read some of his works in the secondary school when he was writing under the name Awoonor Williams. His works in the area of African oral literature influenced some of my plays, especially those in which I experiment on the dramatic elements of oral performance. I am talking about those three old oral poets featured in his anthology, “Guardians of the Sacred Word”.
He was a citizen of the world with a great passion and love for Africa. Hence his feeling more comfortable with the ancestral name, Kofi Awoonor.” In his research, he also highlighted the historical connection between his Ewe ethnic nationality in Ghana and the Yoruba of western Nigeria. So, you can see why his works inspire on a pan-African scale and beyond. I know he has written his way into immortality, but the nature of his death in the hands of the bigoted Al-Shabaab brutes is a rude shock. But it should strengthen our collective will to wipe out the savagery represented by these terrorists in the name of religion.
For Dagga Tola, former Lagos ANA chairman, who was visibly angered by Awoonor’s death, found voice through a poem; Who dare to flute an elegy for the master dirge maker.
Awonoor’s Song of Sorrow is made into a Song of bomb blast, extinguishing life out of the Poet.
Africa’s desecration goes on nonstop, the strangers are still with us, with all of their creed for profit and greed, and doctrines of God and killing in the many names of one God, of unknown innocent fellow victims, be a way of making a system in rot decree itself out of rottenness.
Where else can anyone be safe, if the Poet in the delivery of words is silenced by the sound of a bomb.
Kofi Awoonor was born in Ghana 1935, and after his first book of poems in 1964, he went on to publish several books of poems including, “The House by the Sea“ which chronicled his time in detention in Ghana on death row in the 1970s. He is often best known for his novel, “This Earth My Brother,” and for many, he is known as the other great African diplomat.
Until very recently, he has never stopped holding a university post in Ghana or outside of Ghana. He is called affectionately, “Prof” by Ghanaian friends and writers. His new book, “Promise of Hope: New and Selected Poems,” is supposed to be the lead book of the new African Poetry Book Series to appear early next year.