The Story of Sankofa

A former student of Kofi Awoonor remembers the famed Ghanaian writer who was killed in a terror attack by Al Shabaab in Niairobi, Kenya.

Accra, Ghana 2006. Image credit Jonathan Ernst via World Bank Flickr (CC).

When Kofi Awoonor started as a writer, after his first book of poems, Rediscovery, had been published, he went to sit at the feet of traditional Ewe dirge singers to learn to master the roots of his own story. He later translated the work of three dirge singers as Guardians of the Sacred Word and Ewe Poetry. Going back to move forward is known in the Akan tradition as Sankofa, which had one of its representative symbols popularised – upside down – on the cover of Janet Jackson’s album, “The Velvet Rope.” Sankofa is what I did when I went to study the science of specific traditional remedies as research for my novel Tail of the Blue Bird. Still, it is also – in a way – what happened when I met Professor Kofi Nyidevu Awoonor in Nairobi. I connected to the man whose novel is quoted as the epigraph for my novel; I re-braided family ties worn loose by time and distance, I held the hand that wrote passages on Accra’s history that triggered my interest in the subject, the focus of my current research for a non-fiction book.

Kofi Awoonor, for me, was an institution. He retained an in-depth knowledge of several indigenous Ghanaian cultures and was incredibly well-read in the Western canon. His poetry and fiction reflect this dual heritage without sentimentality. Kwame Dawes describes Awoonor’s poetry as having an “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 the master class Kofi Awoonor led at Nairobi National Museum on Friday, September 20, 2013, he spoke of our connection to our ancestors, the circularity of things – how he had his grandfather’s peculiar cough, almost asthmatic but not quite. Looking at my journey, I see echoes of the ancestral bounty he has left me. When I was battling over the decision to become a full-time writer, the man who encouraged me was Atukwei Okai, a mentee of Kofi Awoonor’s. When I fought to open my novel with a ‘difficult’ section of transliterated Twi and intersperse it with Pidgin English, I did it knowing Kofi Awoonor had Ghanaianised the English language before me. When, as an editor, I encourage a diversity of poetries, a constant embracing of new influences and new syntaxes, it is no more than a re-framing of his admonition: “The universe is created out of music, the tragedy with humans is that we have stopped listening.”

Alas! a snake has bitten me
My right arm is broken,
And the tree on which I lean is fallen.
-From “Songs of Sorrow,” by Kofi Awoonor

My confidence as a writer derives from my ancestry of peculiar folk. Of course, all this is hindsight.

I was 14 when I first read Kofi Awoonor’s novel, This Earth, My Brother; I was stumped by its double-voiced narrative, which I barely understood, but my vision of Accra, where I lived, changed forever. Before the novel, I had read some of Awoonor’s poems in anthologies, but my relationship to poetry – as a reader – was not profound; Smokey Robinson, Gyedu Blay Ambolley and Curtis Mayfield had more clout then. However, This Earth, My Brother made me ask my father about the other uncle he had pointed out on his vast bookshelves. But, in the year I read This Earth, My Brother, 1988, Kofi Awoonor was moving from Brazil to Cuba as an ambassador, so I didn’t get to meet him. Regardless, the year coincided with the transformation of my relationship with literature. Again, with hindsight, I doubt that it was fortuitous. This Earth, My Brother was one prong in a trinity of stimuli; the other two being my literature teacher in Form 4, Elinor Torto, and the patron of the Achimota School Drama Club, Isaac Quist – also an English teacher. All three seeded a questioning approach to reading literature that has stayed with me since. In 1990, I would quit studying literature formally as I studied sciences for my A-Levels, but I would never stop reading.

The afternoon of September 19, 2013, at the Nairobi National Museum, was my first physical meeting with Uncle Kofi. I arrived late for the Storymoja Festival press conference. Approaching the amphitheater, I recognized a couple of writers I had been dying to meet – Wally Serote and Teju Cole – and a couple I knew well – Warsan Shire and Kwame Dawes, but at the end of a crescent of chairs in the open air space was a face which bore an uncanny resemblance to my late father’s. I knew Uncle Kofi from photographs; his face was typical of men derived from the West African Williams’: elongated enough to be North African, dark enough to be East African, serene in repose, yet animated with probing, twinkling eyes. Here, in the flesh, was the man who had composed reams of effortlessly accomplished poems, evaded government spies, represented Ghana as envoy to Brazil, Cuba, and the UN, taught literature, and written one of my favorite novels, This Earth, My Brother. I stole glances at him as the authors and festival directors answered questions from the media.

At the end of the Storymoja Festival press conference, he hugged me, then held me back to introduce his son: ‘Afetsi, this is your cousin,’ he said, then asked, ‘Are you Frank’s son or Jerry’s son?’ I answered, ‘Jerry,’ he burst out in a belly laugh. I can still feel the rumbles of. ‘Your father used to crack me up. I have stories to tell you.’ He insisted that I come and see him in Ghana and asked Afetsi to take my number and give me his. That was the first of three occasions I was in his presence. I did not know that the universe was pitching with me – three strikes, and I am back to the locker room, three times bereft.

I have come to learn that there are two kinds of mentors: those who, by the strength of their presence, inspire you through conscious imitation, adaptation, and evolution, and those whose influence, by their physical absence, you are unaware of – almost akin to how the absence of love can inspire great writing about love. The latter kind of mentor can not be a dictator. Absent mentors are influential because what we choose from their legacy is not influenced by their physical prodding; we are drawn to the elements of their legacy that resonate and that, ultimately, serve both mentor and mentee best. My teachers, Elinor Torto and Isaac Quist were the former kind; Uncle Kofi has the distinction of being both by three meetings with him after a lifetime of ‘absent guidance’. I was blessed to have met him; losing him was my curse. This is the other side of Sankofa – you come upon something in the forest: if you pick it up, you gather a curse; if you leave it behind, you forfeit a blessing. For this reason, I am carrying the kind of smile Smokey Robinson wrote so eloquently about in The Tracks Of My Tears. Don’t come too close.

A giant lies, far from the tree
that once shed incense
on infant corn. The ear rings,
the slap of his voice still
fresh in the morn of his fall

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