Kofi Awoonor: Dearly loved & missed. Tributes and more

It is a dark day at African Writers Trust thinking of Kofi Awoonor who died in Nairobi in the Westgate Mall attack. Kofi Awoonor was invited by Storymoja writers festival, 19 -22 September 2013, to celebrate writing and storytelling along with other writers from Ghana/… (Nii Kwei Parkes and Kwame Dawes) and Uganda (Femrite ladies and Beverley Nambozo Poetry Award girls) Also present were writers from Somalia, Kenya,and so on. Kofi was scheduled to perform on Saturday evening as part of a pan-African poetry showcase. Just two days ago I was reading Kofi’s poems and  biography, tracking his evolution as a writer and how he plays significantly in our times. Taking a break from his poems, I logged onto my computer and saw an email from Frank Chipasula with a link to terrifying images from National Geographic about the evil that’s going on in the Congo, how “the minerals in our electronic devices have bankrolled unspeakable violence in the Congo.” My heart sunk. I kept asking myself: How to stop this, how to stop this? Is this what Lumumba died for? Isn’t he turning in his grave wondering if there are no other compassionate souls to carry on the light?

Hardly did I know that I was to experience more anguish a few hours later. I went to the kitchen and had dinner, returned to emails and saw several from Beverley Nambozo about the Westgate Mall attack. Beverley was trying to reach the other Ugandan writers attending the festival if they were safe.The festival which had started in high gear was cancelled. I got the sense that people were scattering in the face of panic and chaos. I saw the images of the Westgate Mall attack, the blood carpeting the ground, the people who had innocently gone to shop looking as helpless as the Congolese men, women and children mining for gold. I realized how connected the cries for help. I emailed Frank Chipasula–he usually commiserates with me–a link to the images and went to bed with a heavy heart. In my message I said: I don’t know what our world is coming to.

Just this Sunday morning I logged onto my computer, oh the horror, saw Nii Kwei Parkes facebook message:

“It is confirmed, Kofi Awoonor, distinguished Ghanaian poet, statesman and lecturer died in the #WestgateMall attack. He was a literary hero for many years and is quoted at the opening of my novel. He was also my father’s cousin, my uncle, although his very full life meant that I only met him here in Nairobi three days ago. He asked me to visit him in Accra so he could regale me with tales of my late father as well as give me some leads for the book I am writing on Accra. Sadly, this is not to be.

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

RIP Prof. You will not be forgotten. Your legacy is stone.”

A terrible rage consumed me. This man didn’t have to die, not like this. This world poet, Ghanaian, African, Human, this wonderful poet. I wished I could twist the timeline to save all who had died in the mall. I felt such a deep helplessness. I quickly worried about the rest of the writers. I needed an update and I sensed I was not grieving alone. Many of us would be angry, sad, and shaken. I sent out a mass email to my network of writers and the emails poured in, some with comfort, others with confusion, more questions, confirmations, clarifications…

At Facebook, tributes like waves kept crashing in. Messages of shock, sadness and hope. How this tragedy has linked us, touched us. To honor the thread and the man we’re all mourning, I thought of posting some of the facebook and email messages here. This is also an invitation to you dear reader to add to the thread. To honor one of us who has died clutching ‘this earth, our brother.’ Apparently, Kofi’s son was also inside the mall. He was wounded, but is out of danger now. First was the speculation:

David Tumusiime: “Dreading to read that casualty list from the Westgate Shopping Mall attack in Nairobi. Reading report African writer Kofi Awoonor maybe among the dead. For some of us, it is like hearing Boko Haram got Wole Soyinka.

Raymond Mpubani “It’s not a maybe; he is among the dead.

I think the son went to pick up something at the mall. Professor Awoonor was in the parking garage waiting for him,” Dawes, a professor in the United States who is editing Awoonor’s latest poetry collection, told AFP by telephone.

“The son was shot while he was inside the mall. We don’t know at what point the professor was shot,” Dawes said.

Abubaker Adam Ibrahim: “My condolences to the family, friends and admirers of Ghanaian poet and academic Kofi Awoonor who was killed in yesterday’s tragic shootings in Nairobi. Prof. Awoonor was in Nairobi to attend the Storymoja Hay Festival, which has been cancelled as a result of this sad event. Sad day for African writers and lovers of literature. Total waste of a literary icon.”

Goretti Kyomuhendo: “Banange! I’ve just read the news from the Monitor and was about to send an email to us. Was Kofi attending the StoryMoja festival? This is sickening, I tell you! I met Kofi about 3 times, and the last was in Durban at the festival in 2006, I think. I was seated with him in the audience, with Chenjerai Hove, and he put up his hand to ask a question from two young writers who were presenting at the time. One of those young  writers was Yvonne Adhiambo, and in her reply, she referred to Kofi as ‘some of you aspiring writers…’ Aaah! I almost fainted! Kofi an aspiring writer! Anyhow, in his modest way, Kofi just laughed it off. I am really saddened that he’s gone, and in such a horrible and senseless way. They say he was with his son, and he was injured and is now admitted in a Nairobi hosp.

Yes, the FEM girls are well, Mildred. I tried calling Bev, but the network was poor. And is Nii in Nairobi as well? Storymoja was talking of inviting him to this festival.

Prayers and strength.”

Ayeta Anne Wangusa: “Yes heard the news. So sad. The femrite gals are safe. Read from Bev’s email. We have been watching the tragedy unfold on tv since yesterday.”

Beverley Nambozo: “Nii is well. Kwame Dawes was also with us. Kofi was supposed to be in yesterday’s poetry session . By that time, the situation was scanty. His son was shot but discharged from hospital. some femrite girls have left for Kampala, the network is bad. us, we leave in the morning. there is a Ugandan girl in the mall. the attackers have now separated men from women, that is what the Ugandan girl has said on facebook. It i so sombre.”

Nii on his facebook post: “To circumvent the individual queries, yes, I’m in Nairobi, quite close to the Westgate Mall, but I’m fine. Thanks.” On his twitter: “I muse on gifts given and swiftly taken away. I waited my whole life to meet my uncle, Kofi Awoonor, and 2 days later he is gone.”

Dawes posted: “Kofi Awoonor’s death is a sad sad moment here in Nairobi. We have lost one of the greatest African poets and diplomats. I’ve lost my uncle.”

Susan Kiguli: I have been numb since yesterday when the news of Kofi Awoonor’s passing came by text message from Isaac Tibasiima who heard it on BBC and then It was confirmed by a deeply sad and shaken Mwalimu Bukenya and the news has been making its rounds here . We are deeply sad and deeply confused by the pictures we have been watching on the television screens. It is comforting to know that we mourn an accomplished wordsmith who needs no introduction. He has done his best and that cannot be taken away. His fingerprints are here with us , his tongue remains and his soul is alive. I am grateful that all the writers from here are safe. We will keep faith and hope always

Thanks Midi and all for the messages.

Frank Chipasula: Kofi Awoonor [1935—2013]* I can’t accept this!!!

LOVERS’ SONG (Kofi’s poem)

Call her; call her for me, that girl

That girl with the neck like a desert tree

Call her that she and I will lie in one bed.

When you went away

Isn’t it seven years?

Shall I fold mine and say I am cheap

Returned unsold from the market

If they marry a woman don’t they sleep with her?

Isn’t it seven years now since you went away?

From Frank M. Chipasula. Ed. Bending the Bow: An Anthology of African Love Poetry. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2009, p. 89.

Ojoma Akor: “Really sad, Africa has lost a literary icon. His popular poem “Songs of sorrow” was part of the NECO syllabus a few years ago and my students and I enjoyed reciting it off hand. He died a great man. May his soul rest in peace.”

Kwabena Agyare Yeboah:

Awoonor The Spirit Man Is Gone
the night speaks of the cousins
who mat at the shore
in a howling silence
rekindling the voice of the flute
that adorns glorious dirges
awoonor,
the day is sleeping
your sail has seen darkness
and Keta’s wall is maimed kutsiami !
ferry the eagle home as times merge as memories
that fade journeys
into a cast eternity
on this path called home
mortals will gather tears
and trail your walk awoonor,
mention us to the forebearers
and sleep not on our struggles
adieu, son of the land

 

Tyemba Jess: “Damn. I met him when I went to Ghana in ’95. Gracious cat.”

Chuma Nwokolo: “The utter, utter, utter inadequacy of words”

Patricia Jabbeh: “The Senselessness of Violence Has Struck the Motherland Again: Oh, Come Bring the Mourners and Dirge Singers: Kofi Awoonor, Africa’s Great Poet is No More, Oh, Come, Women of the Town, Let Us Wail this Horrible News.

Lament with Drums for the Hero: for Kofi Awoonor By Patricia Jabbeh Wesley

Oh, my mothers, what sort of grief is this?
Kofi Awoonor, poet of poets,
father of the father of poets,
dew catcher, so that those walking
behind do not wet their garments,
Kofi, the one from whom we drank
before we knew how to hold the jug,
before we knew ourselves,
before we knew words, father of poets,
oh, which lappa shall I put on now?
So, they say our mother’s great son
has been laid waste by angry men?
Oh, what words can we use now, Kofi?
Did you leave us a word somewhere
on your garment, in the pool of blood,
the word you would have used
to tell this other story?
Now, what shall we use to wipe
our eyes now that you are gone?
Oh, may the millipedes not find home
in our mother’s dwelling.
May the sun not shine on the hut
of those who took you so violently.
But where are the words now, father?
Oh, my mother, so you say, where
now shall we dwell on our homecoming?
Show me the homestead
that will welcome us home now,
Kofi, show me the homestead.”

Wanjohi Wa Makokha: “The famous composer of the lucid and widely read Songs of Sorrows….now you exit living on tongues of our hearts a new song of sorrow….R.I.P.

Hearth of Darkness. There is no poetry here, by these embers. There is no folktale, to tell. The new night is livid with silences, wet ones. In this time without light, no sound, no word oozes out of empty hearts here. The artists of Evil write verse thus?”

Okey Ndibe: “Kofi Awoonor was one of the most learned, most humble men I ever met. He was witty, passionate about literature, full of life, a renaissance man who capped it all with wisdom, a man of the world who had an abiding love of the earth where his umbilical cord was buried. I was fortunate to know him, to learn so much from him, to call him a friend and inspirer. In the words of your countryman and rival, I say, why are we so blest? Invoking the title of his extraordinary novel, I say, This earth, my brother…May you continue to soar from beyond the grave. The indomitable Awoonor, enchant heaven with your songs!”

Dawoud Bey: “Saddened to learn of the death of poet Kofi Awoonor in the attack at the mall in Nairobi while attending a book festival there. Condolences to his family and the many who knew, loved, and learned from him.”

Kwani Trust: “The Poet & Statesman, Kofi Awoonor, who was in Nairobi for the Storymoja Hay Festival has died in the Westgate Mall siege. It is with great sadness that we send our condolences to his family, friends, the team at Storymoja Africa & the larger writing community. It has been a very sad weekend here in Nairobi, and it is our hope that the remaining hostages are rescued”

Via Byamugisha Moses: “Prof.Awoonor (killed in the yesterday’s Kenya terrorist attack) was born in Ghana when it was still called the Gold Coast. He went to university there and went on to teach African literature at the University of Ghana. While at the University of Ghana he wrote his first poetry book, Rediscovery. Like the rest of his work, Rediscovery is based on African oral poetry. In Ghana he managed the Ghana Film Corporation and founded the Ghana Play House. He then studied literature at the University of London, and while in England he wrote several radio plays for the BBC. He spent the early 1970s in the United States, studying and teaching at universities. While in the USA he wrote This Earth, My Brother, and My Blood. Awoonor returned to Ghana in 1975 as head of the English department at the University of Cape Coast. Within months he was arrested for helping a soldier accused of trying to overthrow the military government and was imprisoned without trial. After ten months he was found guilty and released. The house by the Sea is about his time in jail. After imprisonment Awoonor became politically active and has written mostly nonfiction.From 1990 to 1994 Awoonor was Ghana’s Ambassador to the United Nations where he headed the committee against apartheid.”

The University of Nebraska is about to release a book of his collected works: The Promise of Hope. New and Selected Poems, 1964-2013 Kofi Awoonor. Edited and with an introduction by Kofi Anyidoho. Foreword by Kwame Dawes

“A celebration of the work of one of our important world poets for readers both inside and outside Africa.”—from the foreword by Kwame Dawes

“We pay homage to Kofi Awoonor as a poet not only with a profound vision and articulation of the world, our world, but also with a gift of words that is at home in poetry, in prose, in critical literary studies, and equally in major essays about our African, our human, condition.”—from the introduction by Kofi Anyidoho

This volume is published in association with the African Poetry Book Fund.”

Kwabena Opoku-Agyemang Africa Kills Her Sun”: Awoonor Passes On

Beatrice Lamwaka: “Rest in Peace Kofi Awoonor. You will always shine on.” The Weaver Bird

Storymoja/Aleya Kassam: To all poets, artists and lovers of literature

To celebrate and honour the late Professor Kofi Awoonor, Storymoja and the Hay Festival (UK) invite you to a memorial tribute at the National Museum tomorrow, 23rd September 2013 between the hours of 6.00pm and 9.00pm.

Professor Awoonor was a great African, a leading light whose footsteps leave big footprints. His legend must live on, inspiring poets and writers to be witness and chronicler of our times. We invite you to come pay tribute to him and all souls lost in the Westgate Mall siege and those bereaved, and just like the late, great professor, stand in solidarity with them by crafting words and painting pictures of the mind.

Come and sign the sympathy book for his family at the tribute, or leave comments here or write to us blogs@storymojaafrica.co.ke to submit your tribute. We request that all who are planning to come, carry a candle and we will participate in prayer and moments of silence. Download the Ghana national anthem and come with a copy so we can sing in solidarity with our Ghanaian kin whose loss we feel so deeply.

BNPA

This year’s Storymoja event was planned for poets to experience what is close to literary heaven, with carefully selected poets like Prof. Kofi Awoonor, Nii Parkes. Prof. Kwame Dawes, Fatou Were, Clifton Gachagua, Warsan Shire, Dr. Neal Hall, Sitawa Namwalie, Wangane Wally Serote and Michael Onsando. From the moment Warsan read from her collection, teaching my mother how to give birth and shared how words enable her to understand her own home and identity and Wally Serote on how poetry was all he had while in solitary confinement during the Apartheid regime, we knew there was a lot to learn.

Prof. Awoonor’s death in the hands of such brutality on 21st September 2013 is a reminder of how fragile our lives are and how we should seize moments that come our way with liberty, strength, joy and peacefulness.

The BN Poetry Foundation will continue working with Storymoja. In 2014, when the poetry award will include all poets from the continent and the winner will be announced at the festival in Nairobi. We will continue with literature’s celebration, poetry’s manifestation and honour the lives of those who paved the way like Prof. Awoonor, Okot p’ Bitek and many others.

We stand with those giving in Kenya and the entire world. Every day, people are killed and we feel helpless. There is strength in comfort and joy in knowing that there are others standing with us. May we always have literature as our comfort and the words of poetry to help us make meaning of those times.

One of Kofi’s final poems: ACROSS A NEW DAWN

Sometimes, we read the

lines in the green leaf

run our fingers over the

smooth of the precious wood

from our ancient trees;

 

Sometimes, even the sunset

puzzles, as we look

for the lines that propel the clouds,

the colour scheme

with the multiple designs

that the first artist put together

 

There is dancing in the streets again

the laughter of children rings

through the house

On the seaside, the ruins recent

from the latest storms

remind of ancestral wealth

pillaged purloined pawned

by an unthinking grandfather

who lived the life of a lord

and drove coming generations to

despair and ruin

 

*

 

But who says our time is up

that the box maker and the digger

are in conference

or that the preachers have aired their robes

and the choir and the drummers

are in rehearsal?

 

No; where the worm eats

a grain grows.

the consultant deities

have measured the time

with long winded

arguments of eternity

 

And death, when he comes

to the door with his own

inimitable calling card

shall find a homestead

resurrected with laughter and dance

and the festival of the meat

of the young lamb and the red porridge

of the new corn

 

*

 

We are the celebrants

whose fields were

overrun by rogues

and other bad men who

interrupted our dance

with obscene songs and bad gestures

 

Someone said an ailing fish

swam up our lagoon

seeking a place to lay its load

in consonance with the Original Plan

 

Master, if you can be the oarsman

for our boat

please do it, do it.

I asked you before

once upon a shore

at home, where the

seafront has narrowed

to the brief space of childhood

 

We welcome the travelers

come home on the new boat

fresh from the upright tree

From Promises of Hope: New and Selected Poems,” selected by Kofi Anyidoho, University of Nebraska Press and the African Poetry Book Fund, 2014

© DejiToye 23 Sept, 2013 (For Kofi Awoonor, 1935 – 2013, who was killed by Al Shabab terrorists in Nairobi,Kenya while attending the Storymoja Hay Festival)

Agoo, to the minder of the road

Though, this— bumpy, unbeaten

May not be the choicest path

To tread to ancestordom

Let the burs spare his hems

And the stumps mind his feet.

 

Agoo, to the keeper of the gate

Though dispatched in haste

And bearing no words from us

Keep it doubly open

Forthe last songs he never sang.

 

Agoo, to the owners of the house

Though we mourn, let them make room

And merry— a poet calls.

‘Agoo’ is a word of salutation, in both Ewe and Yoruba languages, that a visitor offers to the owner of the house at he approaches the door; used in the sense of asking for permission.

 

Kwame Dawes honors Kofi

Teju Cole Letter from Nairobi

Nana Nyarko Boateng You Ambushed Me

Wole Soyinka Remembering Kofi Awoonor: Humanity and Against By

Nii Parkes My hero: Kofi Awoonor

Regarding the attack: “Al-Shabab said the attack was in response to Kenyan troops in Somalia. There are about 4,000 Kenyan troops in the south of Somalia, where they have been fighting the militants since 2011.

On its Twitter feed, al-Shabab – which has links to al-Qaeda – said it was behind what it called the “Westgate spectacle”.

According to BBC news: “Some witnesses said the gunmen had told Muslims to leave and said non-Muslims would be targeted.

“They came and said: ‘If you are Muslim, stand up. We’ve come to rescue you,” said Elijah Lamau.

He said the Muslims left with their hands up, and then the gunmen shot two people.

…The correspondent in Nairobi for the Economist, Daniel Howden told the BBC he spoke to one man with a Christian first name but a Muslim-sounding surname who managed to escape the attackers by putting his thumb over his first name on his ID. However, the man told Mr Howden that an Indian man standing next to him who was asked for the name of the Prophet Muhammad’s mother was shot dead when he was unable to answer.”

—-

” A statement signed by Mr Felix Kwakye Ofosu, a Deputy Minister of Information and Media Relations on Sunday morning, said Prof. Awoonor died in Nairobi from injuries he sustained during an attack on the Westgate Shopping Mall on Saturday morning, which Somali militant group Al-Shabab has claimed responsibility for. The statement said Ghana’s High Commission in Kenya has confirmed Prof Awoonor’s untimely passing and indicated that his son, who also sustained injuries in the attack, survived and is currently responding to treatment.”  To read more in the New Vision

 The Telegraph

To add your tribute, leave a reply on this page or send to Email: mildredbaryaATafricanwriterstrust.org

Thank you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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5 Comments. Leave new

Goretti Kyomuhendo
September 23, 2013 3:29 am

Thank you, Mildred, for sharing all these inspiring comments about our literary hero.

Reply

My pleasure, Goretti. There’s so much comfort and hope in these messages

Reply
Emmanuel Monychol
September 23, 2013 7:52 am

“I would like to offer my condolences to what has happened to one of our great African elders and mentor of African writing.

Although I have never heard of him or seen him (physically), the fact that he offers his time to give talks on African writing makes him mentor to all young and budding African writers—we are deprived.”

Excerpt from an Email sent by Emmanuel Monychol to Nii Ayikwei Parkes

Reply

I have been deeply shaken by the news of the Kofi Awoonor’s passing. I never met Kofi Awoonor in person but all of us who attended school in Uganda remember his work and his name. I fancied I knew him personally because I had such great admiration of his work as a poet and was fascinated by his sharp strong memorable images. I do remember that when we looked at some of his poems as undergraduates the magical poet Rubadiri stated: “I am introducing to you a most important African voice” . We regarded this as very high praise from one poet to another and I use the word the poet in the sense Frost used it as a praise word.

I think that a poet whom you read and you think of a circle of other poets, a poet who acts as connection, a lynch pin is a powerful poet. When I met Kofi Anyidoho’s work as a graduate , I thought ah !Kofi Awoonor and this poet shares something with him and when I took a closer look at Christopher Okigbo I saw a connection and the same for Atukwei Okai and in some way Gabriel Okara.

It is hard to pay homage to Kofi Awoonor- how does one do that? Where does one fetch the words from? The mastersmith paid us a visit and we are grateful and we will remain in rememberance and awe.

My third year undergraduate class meets today at 8pm and we shall pay our respects to this maestri and the craftsman of words. May be in that way we will build bridges and continue gingerly stepping in well paved and superior paths.

I feel strongly Kofi Awoonor is not gone , I think he has just passed on the scroll and Nii I think he met you to make sure that you will always remember that you are carrying the mace of poetry.

May Kofi Awoonor’s great spirit of poetry live on.
Susan Kiguli

Reply
Goretti Kyomuhendo
September 23, 2013 10:15 am

Well said, Susan. I was privileged to meet Kofi – humble to a fault and he found time to engage with us all who were participating in the same festival. The mad gunmen may have taken his life but us the writers shall have the last laugh! His wonderful poetry immortalised him! The fools didn’t know that!

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