Among the many who died in the al-Shabab attack on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi last weekend was one of the great figures of African literature, the Ghanaian poet and novelist Kofi Awoonor. He had been visiting Nairobi to speak at the Storymoja Hay festival, a celebration of writing and storytelling.
Poet, novelist, playwright, actor, diplomat and statesman, Awoonor was born in 1935 in Wheta, in what was then the Gold Coast. His work was deeply rooted in the oral traditions of the Ewe people. His grandmother had been a traditional dirge-singer, and that influence is clear in his poetry. His first major writings were a translation from Ewe into English of the songs of the poet Akpaloo.
Like many African writers of his generation (one thinks, for instance, of the Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe, who died earlier this year) Awoonor was deeply shaped by Western cultures and traditions, but also deeply critical of the impact of the West upon what he saw as specifically African ways of being. As he puts it in one of his most famous poems, The Weaver Bird, in which the bird is a symbol for the West, ‘the weaver returned in the guise of the owner / Preaching salvation to us that own the house’ and concludes ’For new altars we strive to rebuild / The old shrines defiled from the weaver’s excrement.’ Or, in words of the final line of The Cathedral, modernity has built upon the ground of African spirituality ‘A huge senseless cathedral of doom’.
Like Achebe, Awoonor was profoundly cosmopolitan in his life and influences. But, even more than Achebe, he rejected cosmopolitan ideals in the name of authenticity. So much so, in fact, that he was occasionally drawn to a form of Ewe chauvinism, as in his 1984 book The Ghana Revolution. There was always in Awoonor’s writings the same kind of tension we can discern in Achebe’s work between the local and the global. However much politically he may have yearned for an authenticity rooted in the essence of a mythical African past, and have expressed an ambivalence towards modernity, his poetry was forever reaching out for more universal forms. His early works, in particular, seamlessly meld the traditional and the modern, the parochial and the universal. He draws upon the historical memories of the Ewe, but also upon Dante and Chaucer, Eliot and Neruda.
Awoonor was personally and politically close to Kwame Nkrumah, leader of the Ghanaian independence struggle, the first prime minister, and then the first president, of the independent nation, and tireless proselytiser for Pan-Africanism. Shortly after Nkrumah was driven out of office by a military coup in 1966, Awoonor went into exile, living mainly in the USA. He returned to Ghana in 1975. The country was still under military rule, and he was soon arrested for alleged involvement in a Ewe plot to overthrow the regime. He spent a year in jail, before being freed, an experience recounted in his 1978 collection, The House by the Sea. Awoonor went on to support Jerry Rawlings, the air force officer who took power in another coup in 1979, serving as Ghana’s ambassador to Brazil and Cuba and then as its envoy to the United Nations.
I wrote of Achebe that I have ‘an ambivalent relationship’ to his ideas but that ‘there is no ambivalence about his fiction’. This is even more true of Awoonor’s politics and his poetry. I am with Edward Said when, writing of postcolonial literature in Culture and Imperialism, he criticizes the ‘Caliban who sheds his current servitudes and physical disfigurement’ only by discovering ‘his essential pre-colonial self’. This is a Caliban that embodies ‘chauvinism and xenophobia’, a Caliban that leads to ‘négritude, Islamic fundamentalism, Arabism and the like’. ‘It is best’, Said observed, ‘when Caliban sees his own history as an aspect of the history of all subjugated men and women, and comprehends the complex truths of his own social and historical situations’.
As a politician and polemicist, Awoonor was drawn to the first Caliban. And yet there is, in the depth and complexity of his poetry, glimpses of the second. There is also a wit, a fire, a lyricism and a beauty about Awoonor’s work that marks him out as one of the most significant poets of his generation. As his friend and fellow poet, Kwame Dawes, who had invited him to Storymoja Hay festival, wrote of him in a harrowing orbituary, he was ‘a poet of witness, of great lyric grace and a remarkable capacity to combine his command of traditional Ewe poetics with a modernist lyric sensibility.’
Here are five of Awoonor’s poems that span his style, his themes and his vision. On Being Told of Torture, written after his detention in Ghana, is not just a glance back at his time in prison, but a celebration of the human spirit and of the capacity for struggle – and for love. Harlem on a Winter Night is his acid comment on the American Dream; The Weaver Bird tells of his disdain for the West; The Cathedral is a lament to an African spirituality destroyed by a soulless modernity; and To Sika, a tender song about his daughter that becomes a meditation on parent and child, history and tradition, faith and fate.
On being told of torture
Harlem on a winter night
Huddled pavements, dark,
the lonely wail of a police-siren
moving stealthily across
grey alleys of anonymity
asking for food either
as plasma in hospital jars,
escaping fires in tenements
grown cold and bitter,
or seeking food in community garbage cans
to escape its eternal nightmare.
Harlem, the dark dirge of America
heard at evening
mean alleyways of poverty,
dispossession, early death
in jammed doorways and creaking elevators,
glaring defeat in the morning
of this beautiful beautiful America.
The weaver bird
The weaver bird built in our house
And laid its eggs on our only tree
We did not want to send it away.
We watched the building of the nest
And supervised the egg-laying.
And the weaver returned in the guise of the owner
Preaching salvation to us that own the house
They say it came from the west
Where the storms at the sea has felled the gulls
And the fishers dried their nets by the lantern light
Its sermon is the divination of ourselves
And over new horizons limit at its nest
But we cannot join the prayers and the answers of the communicants.
We look for new homes every day,
For new altars we strive to rebuild
The old shrines defiled from the weaver’s excrement.
On this dirty patch
a tree once stood
shedding incense on the infant corn:
its boughs stretched across a heaven
brightened by the last fires of a tribe.
They sent surveyors and builders
who cut that tree
planting in its place
A huge senseless cathedral of doom.
Remember the Christmas
when on our way from Chelsea
you fell on the pavements
broke a tooth and I was mute?
Your mother thought I was cruel,
but your fall hurt me
in that all of us,
your clansmen, fell on alien ground.
Remember the morning walks
to your nanny’s
where you sulked and longed for home
the agony of flights and
and the pain of separation looming
large like winter moons?
I knew I was the tempest
that will blast your youth
and misery of infancy.
Oh, I was the Abraham
sacrificing my Isaac
waiting in vain for the ram in the thicket
for the dream long forgotten under tropical suns.
but what could I have done?
Was I not aware of the coming prophecies certainties
the final estrangement
prepared in secrecy
by the intervening gods of my household?
No. I was not seeking
an athanasia; how can I
the epilogue of my own long torment
understand the prologue I dreamt you to be?