THE GHANAIAN LITERATURE WEEK: ON AWOONOR AND THE JOURNEY LEFT

Posted: November 23, 2013 in Uncategorized
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  I reproduce this extract   from my online project, Epistles To A Young Poet

Dear friend,
It has been a sad, sober moment for many of us in Ghanaian 

literati. On Sunday morning, our worst fear was confirmed. The

 man who has been the face of Ghanaian poetry for many years

 met his untimely death in Kenya whilst attending a literary 

festival. A friend had posted on Facebook, “Awoonor is missing.

 Please, say a little prayer for him’’ the previous afternoon. Less 

than 24 hours later, his body was identified.
 

Hmmm …

I never met the good old professor. I encountered him through his 

poetry in 2003, I think.  My father had bought an anthology 

titled,” A SELECTION OF AFRICAN POETRY.”  Introduced and 

annotated by K.E Senanu and T. Vincent for me. He was one the 

five  Ghanaian poets featured in that edition. The others included 

his cousin, Kofi Anyidoho, Yao Egblewogbe, Otukwei Okai and Kwesi Brew. 

About five years later, I studied his poem REDISCOVERY for my 

WASSCE core literature exams.

 

It is easy to say that ‘’Prof’’ as he was affectionately and 

universally called was proud of his heritage. His poems were 

rooted in Ewe lyricism. In fact, his early works were translations of 

the Anlo poet and lyricist Akpaloo.  Perhaps, this was the 

apprenticeship that honed the art of Awoonor.  To this,  he said,  ‘’ 

it is for this reason I have sat at the feet of ancient poets whose 

medium is the voice and whose forum is the village square and the 

market place.’’  Part of his lyricist nature could be attributed to 

the fact that he was the grandson of an Ewe dirge-singer. His 

cousin, Kofi Anyidoho also wrote in similar style.

 

In “REDISCOVERY”, Awoonor wrote ‘’

 

                                                            There shall still linger here the communion we forged

 

                                                                        The feast of oneness which we partook of

 

 

This is his desire that even after the storm we will be one.  In that 

particular poem, he spoke of an ‘’ Eternal Gateman’’. Even 

 

though he did not make a direct reference, this poem had a 

mythological feel. In direct terms, he wrote about ‘’Kutsiami the 

benevolent boatman’’ in “THE JOURNEY BEYOND.”  It seemed 

 to me the latter is a continuation of the former. So the persona 

got passed by the ‘’eternal gateman’’ in “REDISCOVERY” and 

then got ferried by Kutsiami to the other world where the silent 

 fathers live. The significant difference is that ‘’we’’ was used in  

REDISCOVERY signifying the communal approach whilst ‘’I’’ 

was used in THE JOURNEY BEYOND.  It means even though 

people die as a group, the ‘’journey beyond’’ is an individual 

voyage. In these two poems, Awoonor managed to tell us the full 

story of Ewe mythology of death and the life after.

 

He explored the theme of conflict between African and European 

cultures in “THE CATHEDRAL”. He wrote,

 

 

 

                                         They sent surveyors and builders

 

                                                                          who cut that tree

 

                                                                          planting in its place

 

                                                                         A huge senseless cathedral of doom

 

That view was not exclusive to him. David Diop expressed this 

same sentiment in the ‘VULTURE

 

 

 

                                                                             In those days

 

                                                                         When civilization kicked us in the face

 

                                                                         When holy water slapped our cringing brows

 

                                                                         The vultures built in the shadow of their talons

 

                                                                         The bloodstained monument of tutelage

 

 

 

Gabriel Okara had this to say in “PIANO AND DRUMS

 

 

 

                                                                          And I lost in the morning mist

 

                                                                      of an age at a riverside keep

 

                                                                     wandering in the mystic rhythm

 

                                                                     of jungle drums and the concerto

 

 

 

Awoonor spoke about how he felt Africans (especially politicians) 

have been brainwashed to the extent that they had no urge to 

wear African clothing. Thus, in “WE HAVE FOUND A NEW 

LAND”, he wrote,

 

 

 

                                                                      The smart professionals in three piece

 

                                                                   Sweating away their humanity in driblets

 

                                                                  And wiping the blood from their brow’

 

 

 

 

The good professor had a good sense of humor. Awoonor in his 

lifetime explored negritude themes with the potency of Soyinka. In 

him we had a bridge between these two thoughts that dominated 

the early post-colonial African poetry scene.

 

That said, there are two things that I wish ‘Prof’ did not do. The 

first has to do with his 1984 book, “THE GHANA 

REVOLUTION:  A BACKGROUND ACCOUNT FROM A 

PERSONAL PERSPECTIVE”. This work was based on his 

imprisonment and personal bitterness towards the military junta 

that he felt was dominated by Akans. The historical antecedent to 

this work has naturally been on diminishing returns. This work has 

been pulled out of history and assaulted in a way that has 

misrepresented the author. In this system of political kung fu, 

anything and everything is possible. In this case, ‘Prof’ has been 

unduly victimized. With the benefit of hindsight, I am sure the ‘old 

man’ would have done things differently.

 

The second has to do with his yet to be released collection, 

PROMISES OF HOPE: NEW AND SELECTED POEMS”. By 

the time he accepted the deal in 2012 from University of Nebraska 

Press and the African Poetry Fund, I felt he should have made it 

an anthology and collected  works from second and third generation 

poets. It seemed to me to have been a perfect opportunity to put 

the ailing poetry writing in Ghana on life support. I thought it 

would have been wonderful to have an anthology edited by Kofi 

Awoonor and Kofi Anyidoho under the patronage of the series 

editor, Kwame Dawes. Maybe, they thought of it as a later project.

 

 

I can imagine ‘Prof’ answering me with this witty and instinctive response,

 

                                                                      My voice is hoarse, I know

 

                                                                   But I shall learn to wear it well.

 

                                                (Concluding lines of ‘MY SONG’ by Kofi Anyidoho)

 

 It will be an injury to poetic justice to take anything away from the 

‘old Prof’.  He paid his dues with all his might until the last 

moment of his life. Julie Muriuki recounted some of his last words 

to them. Julie wrote, “he told us [that] when you want to write, 

look back at how your ancestors used to speak, go back and listen 

to the stories of your people and then you would know what to 

write about.”  This is his commission to us who are left on this 

earthly journey.

 

Would you stand and be counted?
 

“This Earth, My Brother’’

 

 

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