The Ghanaian poet and diplomat, Kofi Awoonor, was one of the fifty-nine people murdered last month in Nairobi by Islamist terrorists. He was attending the Storymoja Hay Festival, a literary event held annually in the Kenyan capital. During the festival, his new collection of poems, Promise of Hope, was scheduled be released in the African Poetry Book Series, an initiative directed by the Ghanaian-Jamaican poet and scholar, Kwame Dawes. The book had not been presented when the murderers stormed the venue and pumped hot lead on the crowd.
What an absurd way to go.
Much was written about Awonoor in the heat of the incident, and much that was passionate, mournful, and laudatory. Understandably, he was presented in those tributes as an elder statesman of African literature, at the solemn end of his long life, now transitioned into eternal glory. But little was said of his work, either as a writer or as a politician. It was as if people didn’t care, as if the sympathy required for speaking about the perplexing manner of his death precluded any reflection on what he accomplished.
Awoonor belonged to the generation of writers identified with the modernity of African letters. The list also includes Ahmadou Hampate Bâ, Chinua Achebe, Assia Djebbar, Wole Soyinka, Bessie Head, Mongo Beti, Mariama Bâ, Pepetela, Leopold Senghor, Lilia Momple, Camara Laye, and many others. The history of this literature is such that while some works may be representative of certain moments in history, one cannot fully appreciate the literature without an understanding of the role of writers as intellectual figures.
This is what made Awoonor an interesting figure. He was primarily a poet and wrote several volumes, among which are Rediscovery (1964), his first book, and The House by the Sea (1978), published after his imprisonment at the Usher’s Fort in the 1970s. He also authored the novel This Earth, My Brother (1971), besides Guardians of the Sacred Word (1974), a study of indigenous poetic traditions of the Ewe, and Breast of the Earth (1972), a study of the impact of traditional African cultures on contemporary arts and letters.
His clear-voiced poetry was earthy, elegiac, warm. It spoke of his reverence before the accomplished Ewe poets whose work enriched his, and whom he celebrated in the masterful study of his native poetic resources.
The poem “At the Gates” (Night of My Blood) gives an idea of this debt:
“Don’t cry for me
my daughter, death called her
it is an offering of my heart
the ram has not come to stay
three days and it has gone…”
These poets were not anonymous. Awoonor named them in poem after poem as practitioners of a living art.
I remember him from the picture on the cover of his novel, dressed in a white safari suit. But another picture of him also struggles with that innocent one in my mind: a portly, dark man in a sharp navy-blue suit, hands in pockets, a pair of designer sunglasses hiding his face from the glare of the Lagos sun.
In October 1994, Awoonor was in Lagos to give a lecture at the Center for Black and African Arts and Civilization, CBAAC. As a reporter, I went to cover the event. I no longer remember the lecture’s title, but I recall that he spoke passionately about the destruction that slavery had brought upon Africa, how endogenous knowledge of medicine and technology had been ruined by that long night of human hemorrhage. He got a standing ovation, of course, and perhaps even caused a few people to shed tears.
I was not impressed. In October 1994, US President Bill Clinton had invaded Haiti to reinstate the democratically-elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. The democratically-elected but undeclared president of Nigeria, Chief MKO Abiola, was in jail. To me, an impassioned speech about the evils of slavery sounded misplaced, at best, or escapist, at worst. I wanted to challenge him, but there was no opportunity for questions.
However, I asked for an interview and he obliged. But it would have to be early the following day, at the residence of the Ghanaian ambassador. He had a plane to catch.
Fine. With my colleagues Waziri Adio and Gbemisola Adeoti, I was at the venue on Oyinka Abayomi Crescent at 8am. Imagine what it must have taken three reporters to leave Ojodu, Ikeja and Ketu and be at Ikoyi that early on a working day. But the poet refused to give an interview. He simply refused to honor his word, and he didn’t care to give a reason. In fact, he was so cavalier about it. He could not be bothered.
And there we were, all excited to hold the diplomat to the moral principle of the poet that we knew him to be. Hard to forget that.
Akin Adesokan, professor of comparative literature at the University of Indiana, United States of America, writes a monthly column for Premium Times