I will travel to Ghana to be present at the burial of Kofi Awoonor. I will because he is a great Ghanaian poet. I will because he is a remarkable African thinker and mentor. I will because he traveled to Jamaica from Ghana to bury my father, his dear friend and mentor, in 1984. I will because he is my uncle, my mother’s cousin.
Last night, I received news that Kofi Awoonor, the Ghanaian poet, diplomat and academic had been shot to death by terrorists in the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya. I got the news in my hotel, which is about five minutes from the mall.
The news came through diplomatic channels in Ghana. “Barring a miracle, we have lost him. Get some sleep, we have a long wake ahead.” This was the note his protégé and fellow Ghanaian poet, Kofi Anyidoho, sent to me. The Ghanaian ambassador to Kenya and Awoonor’s son later went to identify the body.
Kofi Awoonor and I were in Nairobi for the Storymoja Hay Festival. I had asked him to attend the festival to help celebrate some new initiatives in African poetry that I was spearheading, and his new book, “Promise of Hope: New and Selected Poems,” is to be the lead book of the new African Poetry Book Series to appear early next year.
He agreed to come and join poets like Nii Parkes, Warsan Shire, Clifton Gachagua, and novelist Teju Cole for Storymoja Hay Festival, a literary festival held each year in Nairobi.
I saw him a day earlier than that fateful day. It had been a few years since I had last seen him in Ghana. We embraced. We laughed a lot, sharing witty and biting jokes in sotto voce during an often-amusing press conference. That afternoon he gave hope and encouragement to so many poets and writers who gathered to hear him offer a master class for poets.
He did not make the next session. The final day of the festival was cancelled, and our final session for Sunday that was to focus on Poetry and Activism was cancelled.
Kofi Awoonor was born in Ghana 1935, and after his first book of poems in 1964, he would go 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.
Those who will carry the heaviness of loss will be his immediate family beginning with his son who was shot and wounded in the Mall and who had traveled to Kenya to be with his father and to support him. There are other siblings, other cousins, other extended families, thousands of past students, and a Ghanaian nation that will mourn his death deeply.
Awoonor’s verse is distinguished by its almost seamless combination of the syntax, cadence, and posture of the traditional Ewe poetic tradition, and the lyric concerns of modernist poetry. His confidence in his Ewe voice and culture made him more likely to reshape English prosody than for English prosody to alter him.
In his last poems, he continues his fascinating dance with the prospect of death that began with the tactile and violent possibilities that haunted him during his time in prison. Now, he embraces inevitability and faces it with grace and peace:
And death, when he comes
to the door with his own
inimitable calling card
shall find a homestead
resurrected with laughter and dance
and the festival of the meat
of the young lamb and the red porridge
of the new corn
I take comfort in the sheer beauty of this lyric, and in the fact that at some level, he may have been ready for what he had to face in that mall yesterday.
There is a certain heaviness to fear, to disquiet, to anxiety. It is all too familiar to so many people around the world. It is the product of terror. Driving through Nairobi today, it has been hard for me because I am mourning and a death, and yet I am seeking to fight the heaviness of fear that has consumed the city.
I remember a phrase that Kofi Awoonor, my father and their fellow revolutionary cronies would use to describe themselves, “Old campaigners,” they would say, “I am an old campaigner!” This, too, gives comfort.
Kwame Dawes, Ghanaian born Jamaican poet and writer, is Chancellors Professor of English at the University of Nebraska and Editor of Prairie Schooner. He is the author of “Duppy Conqueror: New and Selected Poems” (Copper Canyon, 2013). Dawes is series editor of the African Poetry Book Fund which is set to publish Awoonor’s latest collection, “Promises of Hope: New and Selected Poems” in 2014.