Death of a Poet: A Short Look at the Life and Work of Kofi Awoonor

By Phil James

Ghanaian poet Kofi Awoonor died on September 21st in the horrific Westgate mall shooting that has claimed the lives of dozens of Kenyans and foreign nationals. Awoonor, who was attending the Storymoja Hay festival in Nairobi, was not only celebrated in his native Ghana, but he also received praise the world over as one of the greatest African poets in the world. Riding on the shoulders of Nigerian author Chinua Achebe, Awoonor fought to rebuke a weaning colonialism in the region while also taking a stand against government oppression. Exiled in the early 1970’s and Incarcerated for anti-government sentiments in 1978, his experience in prison was described in his 1978 book, The House by the Sea.

For most of his career, Awoonor would combine the English language with the rhythmic cadences of his native Ewe tongue. His verse is tense but dreamlike, a kind of panoramic account of a Ghanaian society in flux. He also dealt a lot with death. Consider the beginning of At the Gates, a meditation on the lingering imminence of the hereafter:

I do not know which god send me,

to fall in the river

and fall in the fire.

These have failed.

While searching my library up and down for any material on the poet, I could find but one book, a small pocket-sized collection called Messages: Poems From Ghana, which he both edited and appeared in. He left a small but indelible mark the world over by providing a voice for a struggling nation that today is perhaps one of the most stable on the continent.

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In 1967, he was exiled from his country after a military coup brought upon immediate government repression, but instead of hiding away, he used his time out of the country to pursue his graduate studies in London and his Post Doctorate degree at SUNY Stony Brook. In the end, though, he would need to return. Awoonor did not only urge freedom through his political activism, but also an awareness of suffering caused by such civil strife. Poems like “rediscovery” show just how sublimely he combined traditional verse with national identity in hopes for atoning for those who didn’t make it:

When our tears are dry on the shore

And the fishermen carry their nets home

and the seagulls return to bird island

and the laughter of the children recedes at night,

there shall still linger the communion we forged

the feast of oneness whose ritual we partook of.

Awoonor spent the last 25 years writing both poetry and non-fiction, which includes histories of his native Ghana. His death will not soon be forgotten, especially for the society he helped create by defying the political and sectarian violence that plagued so many other African nations in the late 20th century. His death is a reminder that the struggle against ignorance and violence is still not over, and that the tools to build a peaceable culture need to always be sharpened.

For all the political significance of his verse, there is a particular meditative quality to his verse. I will leave you with a part of “Stop the Death Cry”, where Awoonor leaves us a small portion of reassurance:

Let all of you stop the death-cry

   And let me hear.

It is home; I stood at death’s door

   and knocked throughout the night.

Have patience and I shall pay the debt.

Awoonor died tragically while continuing to impart the positive effects of poetry on a country weary of its own struggles. But verses like the one above suggest that he had the courage to rise above the absurdities of brazen violence and brutal sectarian killing.

Kofi Awoonor was 78.

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