On Awoonor’s On The Gallows Once; Life, Death And Life After Life

Posted: February 21, 2014 in Essays
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”I crossed quite a few

of your rivers, my gods,

into this plain where thirst reigns

I heard the cry of mourners

the long cooing of the African wren at dusk

the laughter of the children at dawn

had long ceased



night comes fast in our land

where indeed are the promised vistas

the open fields, blue skies, the singing birds

and abiding love?



History records

of heroism, barbarism

of some who had power

and abused it massively

of some whose progenitors

planned for them

the secure state of madness

from which no storm can shake them;

of some who took the last ships

disembarked on some far-off shores and forgot

of some who simply laid down the load and went home to the ancestors”


Ewe, Asante and many other African mythologies suggest that when a person dies, he moves to the other world by crossing rivers. This is the reason why corpses are buried with money so they can pay their ferrymen to the other world.  Death itself is not the end but a transition to the ancestral world. Not everyone becomes an ancestor after her death. The fellow should have led a decent life, died a natural death and had good character.  Those who do not make it to that world or do not accept their death [maybe they were murdered] become ghosts [oral tradition I heard as a child].  The African man’s time is cyclical. The phenomena of ancestor-ship [loosely sainthood] and reincarnation suggest that man is ‘’recycled’’ in the cosmic world. Dela Bobobee writes in Why Drape In Black Funeral Clothes,

‘’ life is a cycle, never to be linear

the present belongs to the living

and the past is for the ancestors

and the future is unborn-

waiting for a turn to start another circle’’

Kofi Awoonor explores the idea of transition in The Journey Beyond,

‘’ Kutsiami the benevolent boatman;

When I come to the river shore

Please ferry me across’’

Middle-east religions such like Christianity suggest that man’s time is linear and immortality is only of God.  Apostle Paul writes to Timothy that ‘’ He [God] only is immortal’’ [1].  King Solomon writes of what happens after death. He says that the spirit returns to God and the body lies in the grave [2].

                                            Gallows is defined as ‘’ an instrument of execution consisting of a wooden frame which a condemned person is executed by hanging.’’

 Stanza 1 tells us that the persona in the poem is dead- ‘’ I crossed quite a few/ of your rivers, my gods.’’

She is in the other world-‘’ into this plain where thirst reigns.’’ But she is conscious of what happens in

the world of the living- ‘’ I heard the cry of mourners/ the long cooing of the African wren at dusk/the

laughter of the children at dawn had long ceased’’ .  ‘’ the laughter of the children at dawn had long ceased’’ resembles a line in his poem, Rediscovery-‘’ and the laughter of the children recedes at night.’’  Children are naturally happy folks. Death changes that. These two lines show the role of children in the rites of mourning.

‘’night comes fast in our land’’

‘’Night’’ is a motif for ‘’problems’’, ‘’troubles’’, ‘’disaster’’ etc. It is foreshadow of what we should expect.

Stanza 3 shows that the persona was not satisfied with life. She is posing questions to the’’ gods’’ she was addressing in stanza 1, line 1.

Stanza 4 recounts what she heard and saw in her lifetime. Most probably, it is her history and that of her people.

The persona is not resting.  She is suggesting absurdity of human nature, an ideal embedded in The Theatre of Absurd [3].  In this work, the reaction of man is without meaning and seemingly, controlled by external force.  That is why she is talking to the ‘’gods’’ for answers.  She places the individual as an existentialist.

The persona is in this poem is different from Awoonor’s earlier ones.  His early works were translations of the Ewe master-poets. The persona was mostly exhorting herself or was a public dirge- orator / worshipper.  The one in The Journey Beyond was expecting death. But this one has actually made the transition. This shows the progression of thought of Prof.  Kofi Awoonor.  Maybe, it is a truer reflection of what aging brings.

I will be interested in seeing if the persona will get answers and what they will be. This and many more are what Prof. Kofi Awoonor’s last collection of poems,   The Promise of Hope; New and selected Poems, 1964-2013 promise.   I will be waiting to discover the thoughts of arguably, the greatest Ghanaian ever to have graced literati. I will be waiting . . .


1.  1 Timothy 6-16

2. Ecclesiastes 12- 7.

3.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theatre_of_the_Absurd


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