I first met Kofi Awoonor (killed in the terror attack in Nairobi, Kenya, this week) as an excitable 17-year-old high school student in the Sixth Form. We had been set Awoonor’s This Earth, My Brother as one of our A-Level texts, and needless to say, no one, including the English teacher, seemed to have the faintest clue what the novel was about. I decided to set off to find out for myself and took a bus from school to Cape Coast University, some 50 miles away, to speak to the big man himself. Without cell phones or the Internet, there was no chance of booking an appointment at the time, so I just showed up on the university campus and asked around until I was pointed to his office. He was at a lecture then, so I sat down patiently outside his office to wait.
The man materialized in what seemed to me like hours later and kindly ushered me into his office, where I was wholly dazed at the number of books pressed closely together on his bookshelves. “We are studying This Earth My Brother, and I want to know what caused Amamu’s madness at the end of the book,” I blurted out in a complete haze of bewilderment and awe to be finally speaking to the author. Can you imagine! Rather than answer me directly, he asked me several questions first to ascertain that I had read the novel and then to prod me into finding an answer.
I left as unenlightened as when I arrived but with one firm conviction: Kofi Awoonor was not just a writer but a superb human being for having taken time off from what I later discovered to have been an incredibly busy schedule to attend to an absolute imbecile that I then was, and likely still am now. It took me at least another fifteen years to fully understand the novel. I now rate it as one of the best examples of modernist alienation in African literature to be read alongside Tayeb Salih Season of Migration to the North, Dambudzo Marechera’s House of Hunger, Ngugi wa Thiongo’s A Grain of Wheat, Yvonne Vera’s Without a Name, and Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians, among various others.
But I had another tie with Awoonor, and perhaps not a very happy one. Jeebo (his nickname) and I used to run away from school most Tuesdays to go and lie on the beach, reading poetry and eating bananas with tinned sardines. Jeebo was just a year above me at boarding school, but I considered him the wisest creature that happened to be walking on the face of the earth at the time. We read lots of Awoonor, including a poem whose title I cannot readily remember but that seemed uncannily appropriate at this time of his sudden death. The opening lines of the poem read something like this:
At the Gates
I do not know which god sent me,
to fall in the river
and fall in the fire.
These have failed.
I move into the gates
demanding which war it is;
which war it is?
the dwellers in the gates
answer us; we will let that war come
who knows when evil matters will come.
I promise to provide the entire poem once I get to my library; writing this on impulse while traveling).
I declaimed the full poem from memory in the dining hall at school once in protest over something or other and was promptly hauled before the Headmaster and threatened with suspension. I saved myself by saying that I couldn’t have possibly been inciting a riot if I didn’t start my speech with “chooooo-boi”, which is typically the popular call to arms in my country. It was just a poem, I said, and by one of the authors on our A-Levels reading list who also happens to be a respectable professor at the University of Cape Coast (I had to lay down all my cards; I was pretty desperate by that point!). The Headmaster was somewhat skeptical but could find no riposte to what I said, so let me off with a very stiff warning. “I have my eyes on you, Ato,” he shot at me as I left his office in some degree of hurry.
I later met Kofi Awoonor several times in different contexts after high school, and each instance confirmed my first impressions of him. Awoonor was no ordinary writer but a man of absolute principle, a committed Pan-Africanist and a soul of effervescent passion and magnanimous intellect. He was an absolutely inspirational human being. This is not only Ghana’s loss.