Ghanaian Poet, Novelist and Diplomat remembered

Okello Oculi

Okello Oculi is the Director of Vision 525 Initiative

There were songs in those days that lifted the spirits of young people from across the globe as in their hundreds they hurried to Spain to defend the beleaguered country against Franco’s fascism. Years later a Frenchmen would pay tribute to them in a splendid and tender movie documentary To Die in Madrid.

At first glance the parallel may seem inappropriate. It may seem crude and uncaring, given the suffering, the awful tragedy and the unpardonable waste of human lives; but it is there never the less. One can hear echoes of songs from across Africa as the Ghanaian novelist and poet Kofi Awoonor lay dying on that September morning of 2013, shot by the cruel guns of the multi-national Al Shabaab Somali, confronting the Kenyan/American war machine.

Hours before he was gunned down Awoonor had told audience of eager students at Nairobi University that the country needed to take responsibility for its own the destiny. He deplored that Kenyans had stopped believing in themselves when what they needed is to thirst for power and seize control and go for economics as a platform for success.

The great Chinua Achebe once remarked that Awoonor was always focused on Africa’s seeming purposelessness and self-destruction. In one of his poems Awoonor laments about the failures of postcolonial governance in Africa:


I have no sons to fire the gun when I die

And no daughter to wail when I close my mouth

I have wandered in the wilderness

The great wilderness men call life

The rain has beaten me......

A snake has bitten me

My right arm is broken

And the tree on which I lean is fallen


Awoonor was clearly a man on a freedom ride, hastening to the old Jaramogi Odinga’s call to battle. Despite its President Uhuru Kenyatta’s name, it was Not Yet Uhuru in Kenya has Odinga had affirmed years ago. Uhuru is the Swahili word for Freedom.

Like Wole Soyinka and Ngugi wa Thiongo, Awoonor had served prison time for allegedly aiding and abetting a military coup. Soyinka and Ngugi both wrote prison diaries. Upon his release from prison in 1969 Soyinka penned down The Man Died. When Daniel arap Moi finally released him from the elder Kenyatta’s jailhouse, Ngugi wrote Detained: A Writer’s Prison Diary. Awoonor did the same when he wrote The House By the Sea, upon regaining his freedom. It was bitter literary gift to his country.

Unlike Kenya or Nigeria, Ghana borrowed the Latin American tradition of honoring celebrated writers and artists with high powered diplomatic positions. Awonoor served as Ghana’s ambassador to Brazil (1984-1988); and was its Permanent Representative to the United Nations (1990-1994). In 1971 when he won the Nobel for Literature, Pablo Neruda of Chile was his country’s ambassador to France. Although in the years ahead, dictator Pinochet would cause his death.

If we were to use W.E.B. Dubois’ category of the talented tenth, Kofi Awonoor would be among the line up of Independence Africa’s literary First Eleven; sharing the honor with Camara Laye (Guinea), Leopold Senghor, Birago Diop, Cheik Ahmanu Kane (Senegal); David Rubadiri (Malawi); Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, J.P. Clark and Christopher Okigbo (Nigeria); Okot p’Bitek (Uganda); Ngugi wa Thiongo (Kenya); and Tayeb Saleh (Sudan). Too bad the colonial language they rode upon alienated them from their village roots.

Until some unease crept in and burst out in rebellion, and Ngugi began to write in his Kikuyu mother tongue. And Achebe promised he would produce a work in his own Igbo language. Something Achebe did not live to fulfill. Awoonor on his part turned to melodies and the proverbs of his own Ewe people. It yielded a rich coterie of poetry that ran parallel with and close to daily life as experienced by the majority poor in Africa.

His death at the high brow shopping mall in Nairobi by a bullet, that leveler of human bodies regardless of class, sadly put an end to his life and his mission to help restore African pride and purpose. A simple hatred from a simple Diaspora Somali religious wrath saw him in that shop with a simple racist resentment. It was a moment Awonoor most probably smiled at, advisedly, as his last poem to Africa. In that flash of thought and resigned panic, he may have recalled these lines from his own pen:

Kutusiami 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

This reference to struggling market women all across Africa holding their little cash in bundles tied around their waist is a tender and touching tribute.

I met him in Rome. Madam Mariapia Fanfani, former First Lady of Italy, had hauled him from his ambassadorial seat in Brazil to join a group of African writers to talk about the role of literature for fermenting peace. What remains in my memory are two little details. As we waited for a bus ride to a dinner with top Italian businessmen, a thrill seized a man from Sierra Leone unto offering a yell of ecstasy so loud that it shook the hotel. Awoonor promptly named it a ‘’braying’’ as melodious as a donkey at song. No one protested that label. He later asked for some meat to be put on a skeleton of a children’s story I had done. He said he liked it; but added that, like Brazilians, we should learn to see our politics like a game of football; loving our leaders when, once in a while, they score goals.

Born in 1935, Ghana’s leader, Kwame Nkrumah, brought the thrill of charismatic politics into his vibrant, youthful and idealistic twenties. Nkrumah’s subsequent fall and the violence and economic ruin that military rule brought, introduced a bitterness into his life. Travelling to University College London for a Masters degree and a doctorate from Sony Brooks University in New York, he also took solid academic learning to an increasingly bitter literary output.

 His scholarly works were ambitious, notably: The Breast of the Earth: A Survey of the History, Culture, and Literature of Africa South of the Sahara (1975); and Ghana: A Political History from Pre-European to Modern Times (1990).

He died in Kenya, a country with a record of hounding into exile Ngugi wa Thiongo, its globally celebrated literary luminary. Jomo Kenyatta, its founding ruler, forced Ngugi to flee for security in Uganda in 1966 for defending Oginga Odinga’s freedom to deliver a critical speech to students. Now teaching in an American university, Ngugi may well see the drop of Kofi Awoonor’s blood on Kenya’s soil as a pan-African libation to a smoldering anger over unfulfilled war for economic justice that Mau Mau warriors waged in the 1950s. That would draw a smile from Kofi as he travels on his way to After Africa.