By Teju Cole
Kofi Awoonor, in his last public appearance, a poetry master class, in Nairobi, on September 20, 2013. Photograph: Storymoja Hay Festival/Msingi Sasis.
On Saturday, September 21st, the Ghanaian poet Kofi Awoonor was shot dead at Nairobi’s Westgate mall by terrorists. He was one of dozens of innocent victims of the massacre, for which the Somali group Shabaab claimed responsibility.
I was about a mile away during the attack, giving a reading at the National Museum. During the reading, as word of the attack filtered in, people answered their phones and checked their messages, but, onstage and oblivious, I continued taking questions from the audience, including one about “the precariousness of life in Africa.”
The massacre did not end neatly. It became a siege. In my hotel room, about half a mile from the mall, I was woken in the mornings that followed by the sounds of gunfire, heavy artillery, attack helicopters, and military planes. In counterpoint to these frightening sounds were others: incessant birdsong outside my window, the laughter of children from the daycare next door. I read Awoonor’s poems, and watched a column of black smoke rise from the mall in the distance. The poems’ uncanny prophetic force became inescapable. A section of “Hymn to My Dumb Earth” reads:
What has not happened before?
An animal has caught me,
it has me in its claws
Someone, someone, save
Save me, someone,
for I die.
Just three days earlier, on Thursday, I’d sent an e-mail from Nairobi to a friend in New York. “Kofi Awoonor, Mongane Wally Serote, and Kwame Dawes are here at the Storymoja Hay Festival. These are senior African boys!” He wrote back: “That’s wonderful. It’s important they be a full fledged part of all conversations, youth movements and Internet notwithstanding.”
I sat next to Awoonor at the press conference that opened the festival that day, excited to meet the man behind the books. Awoonor was a jovial man, dark-skinned and fine-featured, wearing a batakari, a striped tunic, which gave him a regal air. Coming in late, he had joked, “I apologize. When you said 4 P.M., I thought you meant 4 P.M. African time, which is 5 P.M.”
Awoonor, widely considered Ghana’s greatest contemporary poet, was a member of the literary generation that came of age in the fifties and sixties. Many of these writers were published in the Heinemann African Writers Series, the tan and orange spines of which could be seen on the bookshelves of homes across the continent. The series, under the editorship of Chinua Achebe, was the first flowering of African literature in English.
Awoonor shared with many of his illustrious contemporaries an intense engagement with both African tradition and African modernity. The influence of T. S. Eliot was strong, and Awoonor’s poems are often dense and mysterious. But, like Achebe, he also gave voice to a culture under rapid and destructive change from colonial influences, and he expressed a disillusionment with the violence that marred the post-colonial project. From “This Earth, My Brother”:
The crackling report of brens
and the falling down;
a shout greeted them
tossing them into the darkness.
Like his late friend Christopher Okigbo, he was invested in the ritual and chthonic possibilities of African vernacular language, in his case Ewe. From that Ewe tradition came the feeling for elegy, which he applied with seriousness and dark irony to the serial crises of post-independence Ghana. The Ewe language also gave his poetry strong musical cadences, so that even when the meaning was opaque, the lines were fluent.
On Monday, on the third day of what would prove to be a four-day siege, about a hundred and fifty people made their way across uncharacteristically empty roads to Nairobi’s National Museum. An impromptu memorial had been organized for Awoonor. Kwame Dawes, the Ghanaian-Jamaican poet, spoke warmly about the man he considered an uncle.
On Friday, Dawes had shown me the first volume in a new series on African poetry. That book (which Dawes edited, and which will be published by the University of Nebraska Press early next year) was an orange-colored, handsomely designed hardcover of Awoonor’s “The Promise of Hope: New and Selected Poems.”
“It’s got to be good,” Dawes had said of the design. “It’s got to be good because it’s intended to last.” His pride in the finished project was justified. Now, at the memorial, I asked Dawes if Awoonor had seen the volume he showed me.
“I showed it to him for the first time here in Nairobi. I told him, ‘This is it.’”
“And what did he say?”
Dawes smiled. “He said, ‘This is good.’ That’s what he said. ‘This is good.’”
Awoonor’s son Afetsi had accompanied his father to Nairobi, and we’d all been at the same hotel. Afetsi was injured in the attack—shot in the shoulder—but he came to the memorial, with a white bandage slung across his right arm. He had the same serene and easy smile as his father, and we embraced warmly.
The Ghanaian High Commissioner was there as well, as were three other members of Awoonor’s family who had flown in after the tragedy. (Awoonor had served as Ghana’s Permanent Representative to the U.N. in the nineteen-nineties, and he’d come to the Storymoja Hay Festival at the behest of the Ghanaian government.)
One of the authors at the festival, the young Ghanaian poet Nii Ayikwei Parkes, during his eulogy, referred to Awoonor in the present tense. As he corrected himself, replacing “is” with “was,” grief took sudden hold, and his voice cracked.
After Parkes’s eulogy, I read out Awoonor’s short poem “The Journey Beyond”:
The howling cry through door posts
carrying boiling pots
ready for the feasters.
Kutsiami the benevolent boatman;
when I come to the river shore
please ferry me across
I do not have tied in my cloth the
price of your stewardship.
The most resonant moment of the evening was the least anticipated: someone had made an audio recording from the master class that Awoonor had given at the Festival on Friday. And so, in the silence of the auditorium, we listened to about a minute of his final lecture. And there he was, speaking to us in his own voice (how startling its clarity), as though nothing had changed: “And I have written about death also, particularly at this old age now.
At seventy-nine, you must know—unless you’re an idiot—that very soon, you should be moving on.” Then he added, with both levity and seriousness, “An ancient poet from my tradition said, ‘I have something to say. I will say it before death comes. And if I don’t say it, let no one say it for me. I will be the one who will say it.’”
Teju Cole is a photographer and writer. His novel “Open City” won the Internationaler Literaturpreis in June. He contributes frequently to Page-Turner.
Source: The New Yorker