”Every old person who dies in Africa is like a library destroyed by fire”. An assertion by Ahmadou Hampate Ba that is beginning to make an inroad into our subconscious in the form of a clearer meaning. It was, and has always been a festival of ‘oneness’.
That is what Storymoja or Umoja dictates in Swahili. Now, it is a story of blood, ‘Mogya’ as the Asante or Fante-Twi would speak. Finally, ‘Kutsiami, the benevolent boatman has ferried Awoonor across’ The Horns and The Nile of African on a ‘Journey Beyond’ . Indeed, Al Shabab has treated us thus. It has led Africa-“a senseless Cathedral of doom among the sharps of the forest” of Al Quaeda. Yet “on this dirty patch” called Africa, a tree call Awoonor once stood.
As a student of African Literature, there is no compromising an early meet with Prof. Kofi Awoonor, either in African oral literature, poetry or the prose narrative, and in rare cases, in all the genre of the study.
I met Prof. Awoonor for the first time, albeit casually, as a green horn in the studies of African literature during my first degree days at the Department of English and Literature, Delta State University, Abraka. We had to make a choice between Awooner’s This Earth, My Brother (1971) and Ayi Kwei Armah’s The Beautyful Are Not Yet Born(1968). Prof. Sam Umukoro, perhaps, for Amah’s ingenious marching of theme with copious corrupt symbols of phlegm, dirt, filth, rot, ugliness, aging, opted for The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born at expense of Awoonor’s This Earth, My Brother.
The reason we needed to make a choice between both texts was essentially because both writers were from the same country (Ghana). I wasn’t satisfied with just a mention of Awoonor’s. Further, I was nudged by a burning curiosity to meet Awoonor again, and more intimately .
That opportunity did not come until the rare privilege of being an MA student under the ever towering Prof G.G Darah, a living oracle of African oral literature.
That chilled morning of August 28, 2012, (as the last page of my assignment sheet still bears the incision of Darah’s red ink: “A brilliant and scholarly effort” ) Prof. Darah tossed a copy of “Oral Literature: Ritual Drama, Prose Narrative, Poetry”, a 58-page extract of Awoonor’s book: The Breast of the Earth: A Survey of the History, Culture, and Literature of Africa South of the Sahara (1975), on my desk and said “do a critic and submit in two weeks”. This opportunity turned out the most intimate I was to have with Awoonor since my dream of meeting him in person at this year’s ISOLA (International Society for the Oral Literature of Africa) conference at Abidjan in October has been cut short by his sudden demise.
Awoonor, no least, can be compared to the likes of Kwabena Nketia, Mazisi Kunene, Djibril Tamsir Niane, Isidore Okpewho, J P Clark, Anene-Boyle, G.G Darah and Prof. Wande Abimbola in their chequered efforts to sustain studies in oral African literature.
Unlike Anene-Boyle who relied on Isidore Okpewho’s effort in a more innovative classification of African oral literature, Awoonor weaved his classification of African oral literature of drama, prose narrative and poetry around performance, transmission and occasion. Perhaps, it is because Awoonor was an unrepented student of Ruth Finnegan that his classification of African oral literature essentially, is hinged on the conventional genre of drama, prose narrative and poetry.
Awoonor contributed so well to the studies of African oral literature to have pointed out that masquerade performance of mask dance was the best class or form of dramatic performance. He further stressed the symbolic essence of the mask which, itself is impersonation and an imitation of the real to railroading his view of ritual drama. There is no doubt that Awoonor, by this sort of beamed a light on ritual as source of African drama.
A lot has been said, referring to Ruth Finnegan and Allan Ricard as floodgates to the studies of African Literature. In as much as I would want to salute Ruth Finnegan who left all the comfort of Europe to commence a doctoral dissertation on African oral literature in 1961, I’d add here that what Finnegan did was documentation. Africans couldn’t have commenced a study or research into what to them was a culture.
Like every other aspects of the African culture, folktales, myths, dance, song, proverbs, epics, legends and oratory are inherent, and are picked up as an African child grows up in his ancestral home . Hence, there is usually no need to create a study. Incidentally one of Finnegan’s challenges, and indeed a surprise to her in 1961 that there was no easy accessible studies on African oral literature to which she could turn to give her some ideas of what was known in the field.
The pressure to have Finnegan eat her vomit didn’t come easy. It should be noted that Finnegan’s two and a- half- page “Note on Epic” argues that “ epic hardly seems to occur in Sub-Sahara Africa”- a comment that provoked reactions and a proof of abundance of the epic tradition in Africa. Scholars of African oral literature such as Awoonor, and his Ghanaian kinsman, Kwabena Nketia reeled out copious Akan dirge; Mazisi Kunene of South Africa did Emperor Shaka the Great; Djibril Tamsir Niane of Mali came out with Sundiata and our own Clark used his “Ozidi Saga” to stun the literary world and browbeat Finnegan into a much expected apology which came 37years after.
Indeed, Finnegan erred in her claim that Africans had no epic in their oral tradition. Yet it is now our responsibility to preserve materials of oral literature henceforth.
Admittedly, we can only give a better account of this liability lowered on our shoulders by Finnegan’s admittance, and at the same time ensure that the effort of Awoonor’s Akan dirges (“Songs of Sorrow”) and efforts of other scholars of African oral literature in convincing the world that the epic tradition remain relevant in Africa.
Mr OKOFU UBAKA, a scholar and political analyst, wrote from Warri, Delta State.