“This is not only Ghana’s loss”

Ato Quayson remembers the celebrated Ghanaian poet and intellectual, Kofi Awoonor (1935-2013), who died this week.

Cover of "The Promise of Hope: New and Selected Poems, 1964-2013" by Kofi Awoonor.

I first met Kofi Awoonor (who died this weekend in the terror attack in Nairobi, Kenya) as an excitable 17-year-old high school student then 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 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 completely 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 really 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 actually read the novel and then to prod me into finding an answer for myself.

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 the 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 maybe fifteen years or so to fully understand the novel, and 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 there was another tie that I had 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 alas 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 full poem once I get to my library; writing this on impulse whilst traveling).

I declaimed the full poem from memory in the dinning 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 well, 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 was later to meet Kofi Awoonor several times in different contexts after high school, and each instance gave me further confirmation of my first impressions of him. Awoonor was no ordinary writer but a man of absolute principle, a committed Pan-Africanist and a soul of both effervescent passion and magnanimous intellect. An absolutely inspirational human being. This is not only Ghana’s loss.

Further Reading

A private city

Eko Atlantic in Lagos, like Tatu City in Nairobi, Kenya; Hope City in Accra, Ghana; and Cité le Fleuve in Kinshasa, DRC, point to the rise of private cities. What does it mean for the rest of us?

What she wore

The exhibition, ‘Men Lebsa Neber,’ features a staggering collection of the clothes and stories of rape survivors across Ethiopia.