Posts Tagged ‘kofi awoonor’

                 233                                                           Credit-

”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.




  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 


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, 


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’’