KOFI AWOONOR: The Man and His Legacy – By Dr. Padmore Agbemabiese

Something has happened to me,/The things so great that I cannot weep;

Asia 728x90

The rain has beaten me,/And the sharp stumps cut as keen as knives

Alas! A snake has bitten me/My right arm is broken,
And the tree on which I lean is fallen/Kpeti’s great household is no more

Agosu tell them…………..I shall go beyond and rest. I shall go beyond and rest.

(Words of Kofi Awoonor, but rearranged by the author)

It is our elders who once said, “You cannot use your palm to cover the face of the Sun.” This adage can be ascribed to the man, Agbonugla, Henoga Kofi Nyidevu Awoonor, the poet, the scholar, the diplomat, the essayist, the novelist, the visionary and the elder statesman of Ghana. The achievements and life experiences of Henoga Kofi Awoonor transcends almost every facet of Ghana’s sociocultural and political history. The vitality of his life, the immense nourishment from his Ewe roots which became the source of his literary genius is now his legacy pointing scholarship to the centrality of orality in literatures, not only in Africa, but the world at large. He was born in 1935, in the humble community of Wheta, Ghana, where dirge songs popularly called Akpalu or Nyayito and at times Agohawo, were sung on joyful occasions or when moments of sorrow occurred. He attended Achimota School and later the University of Ghana, where he laid the foundation for his great literary future. In later years, his versatility in literary writing became apparent when he sat through the intellectual halls of Europe and the United States. While at the University of Ghana, Legon, he worked in the Institute of African Studies, specializing in oral poetry. Through the years he became the editor of Okyeame, a literary magazine of the early sixties, and also served as an associate editor of another transnational intellectual journal, Transition. In the mid-sixties, Awoonor was the Director of the Ghana Film Corporation and laid the foundation for the National Film and Television Institute (NAFTI). These facts of Awoonor’s life may in part explain his accomplishment and promise empowering us to proclaim unequivocally that Awoonor lives, he wakes with us daily. It’s Death who is dead, not he.

Awoonor and Pan-Africanism

The birth of Pan-Africanism by W. E. B Dubois, George Padmore, Nnamdi Azikiwe and Kwame Nkrumah across the shores of the Black world nurtured Kofi Awoonor’s early political and intellectual development. He was deeply involved in Ghana’s early postcolonial politics and on becoming the Head of the Ghana Film Corporation he worked assiduously to ensure that the intellectual field became the lynchpin in the shaping of Ghana’s public imagination in the 1960s.

On such a day who would dare think of dying?

So much Freedom means that we swear we’ll postpone dying

until the morning after.” –Kofi Awoonor

It is regrettable that many Ghanaian students in today’s junior and senior high schools, as well as in the tertiary institutions, know so little about Kofi Awoonor’s contribution to African Literature due to the decline in Humanities’ education and cultural production in our institutions of learning. There is also the general paucity in contemporary literary scholarship in Africa and Ghana in particular, as there seems to be cultural and political boundaries that have risen within the African intellectual landscape since the flowering of Modern African literature, with its crosscurrents and interpenetrations by alien discourses. On the other hand, any Ghanaian and for that matter African student, who went through secondary school education from the 1960s to the 1980s should have read the poetry of Kofi Awoonor, particularly the notably anthologized “Song of Sorrow” in Senanu and Vincent’s A Selection of African Poetry. Kofi Awoonor is one of Africa’s most celebrated and honorable writers, who believed in uplifting the consciousness of Africans and in particular Ghanaians, through literature and has been cited in numerous journals and texts in and out of Africa. He was, indeed, a great poet of precocious genius.

Some literary critics indicate that Ghana’s modern literature begins with Caseley Hayford, Michael Dei-Anang, and Ralph Armattoe, which includes poetry of individuals like Kwesi Brew and Frank Kobina Parkes, and the playwright Efua Sutherland. Kofi Awoonor acts as the bridge between the later Ghanaian poets and writers like Ama Ata Aidoo, Ayi Kwei Armah, Kofi Anyidoho, and to the more contemporary writers. Awoonor’s transcontinental importance is rooted far in the 1960s when he published his first collection of poems, Rediscovery with the Mbari Press, Ibadan in 1964. In the 1960s, Awoonor’s relationship with the Nigerian poet, Christopher Okigbo, led to fruitful collaborations with Rajat Neogy, in publishing Transition the most influential continental literary magazine of that era. Such transcontinental collaborations seem rare today despite the easier but sophisticated modes of modern communication.

Awoonor the Scholar and Educator

Kofi Awoonor is not the kind of writer one reads with intentional celerity and youthful casualness. Awoonor has an uncanny gift to officiate the marriage of words in a terpsichorean atmosphere to neutralize or disarm psychological inertia. Any reader of his works will discover that often a stream of antagonistic and agreeable words manage to find a user-friendly community in his creative works. His poetic words glance off white pages like wiggling feet of our greatest traditional dancers glancing off dancing floors. In fact, his facility of artistic creativity is one of a kind. In each of his works are themes that richly add to the fictionalized milieu of post-independent Africa. If we extend our evaluative wings to his work, This Earth, My Brother, one sees a body of post-colonial scholarship or a social/political critical theory.

Through his works and his teachings, Awoonor has sown the seed of a literary career in his students through the use of the motif of traditional folklore. His works, which span a period of four decades touch on diverse range of issues that deal with Africa’s perspectives on the slave trade, colonialism, the double consciousness, the personality of the educated African, and the corruptions in African politics. A short list of his works includes, though not limited to, Poetry: Rediscovery and Other Poems (1964), Night of My Blood (1971), Ride Me Memory (1973), Guardians of the Sacred Word (1974), The House By the Sea (1978), Until the Morning After (1987), and The Promise of Hope: New and Selected Poems (to be published in 2014). His novels include This Earth, My Brother (1971), and Comes the Voyager at Last (1992). His non-fictions include The Breast of the Earth: A Survey of the History, Culture, and Literature of Africa South of the Sahara (1975), Ghana: A Political History from Pre-European to Modern Times (1990), and The African Predicament: Collection of Essays (2006). He wrote two plays, The Ancestral Power (1972), and Lament (1972). Emphatically all his works thematically call on Africans to uphold African traditional culture as the realm from which to rediscover the African personality, the African sense of being, and knowledge.

Awoonor, the Sociopolitical Analyst

Awoonor’s political engagements take deep roots in his close relationship with Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s first president, whose Africanist ideology seems to have had a lot of influence on him. His entry into mainstream politics in Ghana came through another close ties with the former president of Ghana, H. E. Flt. Lt. Jerry John Rawlings. This was a rejuvenation of a desire long held captive inside him due to the lack of fertile political soil on which it could be sown. He justified his involvement in politics by stressing that African politics is constructed from a socio-cultural base so whoever believes that the literary scholar or poet had no business in politics or that the poet is a naïve politician in misinformed. His post-political entry pieces include: The Ghana Revolution (1984), Ghana: A political history from pre-European to modern times (1990), Latin America and Caribbean Notebook, (1992), Africa: The marginalized continent (1995), Herding the Lost Lamb (2002), The African Predicament: Collected essays (2002), and the forthcoming The Promise of Hope: New and selected poems

Political Career and an Elder Statesman

Kofi Awoonor served as Ghana’s Ambassador to Brazil and Cuba from 1984-1990, and climaxed his political career with a high profile diplomatic appointment as Ghana’s permanent representative to the United Nations from 1990-1994. During his tenure in the United Nations, he headed the committee against apartheid. Awoonor has held other many high profile positions in the United Nations and other international posts in the academia including the President of the African Literature Association (1998-1999). He also received many international awards such as the National Book Council award for poetry in 1979. He was also the Chairman of the Council of State of Ghana from 2009 to 2013.Within the accomplishments of Kofi Awoonor are blazing academic and political trails, reams of knowledge and intellectual legacy borne out of a humble beginning and a passion for intellectual pursuit.

The Eschatology and Kofi Awoonor’s Life

The central concern of Awoonor in his works is about the dispossession of Africans of their sociocultural heritage, and the forced implanting among them of European institutions and ideas. It will not be an understatement when one concludes that as in his own book, This Earth My Brother, Kofi Awoonor is the lawyer Amamu, who has become a religious sacrifice who, because he represents the greatest loss to the community, stands out as the most efficacious offering and whose death adumbrates an ultimate salvation for his land since he is better able as an ancestral force to effect the changes he had not the power to effect while living. The situation is even more plausible when we consider how the light of African identity seems to be tenuously cast aside as the social and spiritual, the natural and supernatural decay and deliverance appears to be pulling Africa and Ghana in particular in opposite directions.  Ghanaians have all too soon forgotten the once clarion call “We prefer poverty with servitude in freedom than slavery in tranquility.” Awoonor seems to remind all Africans of these words “Woman, behold thy son; son, behold thy mother. This revolting malevolence is thy mother. She begat thee from her womb after a pregnancy of a hundred and thirteen years. She begat thee after a long parturition she begat you into her dust, and you woke up after the eighth day screaming on a dunghill” (This Earth My Brother, Awoonor).

The Man and His Legacy

Reading through his works of poetry, novels and essays, it could be said that he has lived out his own powerful elegiac ironies. By all accounts Kofi Awoonor was one of the most vital poetic voices of our century in Africa whose poetry cut a pathway towards the illumination of the inherent power of the modern African imagination. At the core of his works is orality in African societies which give credence to the fact that African oral forms have the grace and power of rhetoric or poetic authority. Awoonor has celebrated over four decades (from the 60s till today) of fervent involvement in literature and the arts, and another two decades (from the 80s to the 90s) of passionate involvement in politics. He once said in an interview that his works “reflect a life-time engagement in literature and politics, my two passions.”

Today, as “the talking drums are sounding, sounding dirges of a fallen warrior, a fallen hero,” we recall to memory the prophetic words of Kofi Awoonor, uttered many years ago,

Within the airwaves we carry our hutted entrails;

and we pray; shrieks abandoned by lonely road-sides
as the gunmen’s boots tramp. I lift up the chalice of hyssop and tears
to touch the lips of the thirsty sky-wailing in a million spires
of hate and death; we pray bearing the single hope to shine
burnishing in the destiny of my race that glinting sword of salvation.

(This Earth My Brother, 1972)

We will not have another Awoonor, the poet, the essayist, the playwright, the statesman and visionary. We will only hear the name, Kofi Awoonor, mentioned as it will appear and reappear with some frequency in discussions and anthologies of contemporary African literatures and the place of aurality in literatures. Indeed, the immensity of his loss will take a while to fathom, and that he died at the hands of cruelty, will take a longer time to accept. That we shall no longer hear his voice will be crippling enough to cause us a deep and long silence. But, once in a while, we shall hear him from beyond the horizon sitting in the ranks of the ancestors. And when we hear his voice, we will cry till our tears fail us, we will sob till our voices become hoarse with timorous weeping. But one thing remains certain, we shall hear him, with the voice of laughter, herding the lost sheep home, pleading feed our people. It’s here we’ll see Kofi Awoonor again resurrected with laughter…at the festival of the meat of the young lamb and the red porridge of the new corn bidding us to carry ourselves and trudge on from the place where he has fallen.

Like Nii Parkes, my feeling of personal loss is profound, but, as my literary hero, Awoonor lives on. History reminds us that absent heroes are powerful because their legacy is not influenced by their exit. Often, we will be drawn by the elements that resonate from their works and that, ultimately, will serve best both Awoonor and we, who carry his message on, across the world.

Dr. Padmore Agbemabiese is a Professor of English and African American and African Studies at Tri-C, Metro Campus, USA