Kofi Anyidoho is a Ghanaian poet who hails from Wheta in the Volta Region. He entered the University of Ghana, Legon, as a mature student, having previously attended two teacher training colleges. He holds an M.A in Folklore from Bloomington, Indiana and a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature at Austin, Texas.
To his name, he has three published anthologies: Elegy for the Revolution (Greenfield Review Press, 1978), A Harvest of our Dreams (Heinemann 1984) and Earthchild (Woeli, 1985). He has contributed to and edited essays and papers on African literature. Among other prizes, his poetry has won the Langston Hughes prize, David Nicholson Prize and the BBC “Arts and Africa” Poetry Award.
Anyidoho’s poetry draws nourishment from the tradition of the Ewe cantor, who is the seer and the conscience of the ethnic group. But his poetry speaks for the entire nation of Ghana, the black race and the whole of humanity. He speaks from the mind of a free man seeking answers to the injustices of the world. A questioner of the place of the trampled man in a world where answers are fewer than questions. Yet he asked still.
LONG DISTANCE RUNNER
From Frisco once
we drove across the wide yawn of the breezy bay
to the Oakland home of Mike who fixed
a memorial dinner for his years among our people
5 They call for song and I sing the story
of our wounds: the failures and betrayals
the broken oaths of war leaders grown smooth
with ease of civil joys
They laugh they clap they call for more
10 For a change just a little change I sing
your dirge about their land’s defeat in the beauty
of her dawn: the ghost of Harlem standing guard
across their bridge of mirth their launching pad of dream and myth.
I sing also your long lament for Grand Geronimo
15 Amerindian chieftain who opened his heart a bit too wide
the lonely horseman who now perhaps only may be
still rides his old stallion across their dream their myth
forever riding his memory among mirages along eternities
reserved for him among snowfields spread across the breast
20 of the Earth this Earth and all his Earth.
Halfway through the songs I see the folly
and the wisdom of our choice in the cold stare
the shifting look in the eyes of our hosts our very kind hosts
Who are we to throw back at a man the image of things
25 he strove so hard to burn to ashes in history’s bonfires?
We know there is an agony in waiting for the long distance runner
who breaks the finisher’s line for the judges to declare he
jumped the starter’s gun stepped upon some other
runner’s toes threw him off balance and off the race
30 And what is a race, Cousin, without the rules
without other runners
But leave him alone leave him alone to his
glory looming large above his olive dreams.
This poem is Anyidoho’s indictment of white American civilization, built with the toil and at the expense of minority races as he mentions: the Amerindians (American Indians led by Geronimo) and the Negroes. This is a critical posture but the poet sidesteps being judgemental by speaking from the point of an entertainer; They call for song and I sing….They laugh they clap they call for more (line 5…line9). The voice of the poem is humorous from the beginning, referring to San Francisco as Frisco and using Mike for the more formal Michael.
The story of the poem is of a man of colour who attends his friend’s memorial dinner among white people. At their behest, he sings a song of his people’s suffering at the hands of oppressors (…the failures and betrayal/ the broken oaths of war leaders…). This amuses his audience and they call for more…(line 9). He changes the tune and this time, sings the transgressions of his white audience who have historically denied the wrongs with which they have developed their civilization, evidenced in the great Geronimo, a hero of the Apache Amerindian only being called a lonely horseman (line 16) who still rides his stallion across their dream and myth (line17). He is a mirage (line 18), only in their myth and dream, two words the poet uses twice (also in line 13). This prompts tension of his hosts. ..in the cold stare/ the shifting look in the eyes of our hosts…(lines 22-23)
From this point on, the entertainer is disillusioned about the fate of his audience and even pities their run to the end of the line of civilization, in denial of how they started off; …jumped the starter’s gun stepped upon some other /runner’s toes threw him off balance and off the race…(lines28-29). The poet, all through, is addressing a listener who Anyidoho refers to as “Cousin” in line 30. In fact, he refers to Ghana’s other Colossus of a poet, Kofi Awoonor (George Awoonor Williams) whose landmark poem, “Harlem on a Winter Night” is mentioned in line 12. (..the ghost of Harlem standing guard…)
The title of the poem suggests that the race to civilization is an athletic competition in which the white race seems to have excluded the Olympic spirit and run her way ahead in total disregard for the in-built rules and regulations. But Anyidoho gives a piece of advice…But leave him alone to his/glory looming large above his olive dreams… (lines 32-33). The verdict is that, there is no contest when an athlete has disregarded his competition and run off lawlessly…And what is a race, Cousin, without the rules/ without other runners? (lines 30-31). The manner in which the poem runs on with little regard for grammatical punctuation is testament to Anyidoho’s despair at the sad commentary that is bemoaned in this great poem. The irony is that the disqualified runner runs on.