POET’S PROFILE – KOFI AWOONORKofi Awoonor is one of Ghana’s leading poets and wrote previously under the pen-name George Awoonor Williams. He is cousin to Ghana’s other poetry great, Kofi Anyidoho and both of them have shared poetry in which they were talking to the other. Awoonor was born in 1935 at Wheta, in the Keta district of Ghana and had his schooling variedly in Ghana, the UK and the US. He taught literature also in the State University of New York, Stony Brook and the University of Cape Coast in Ghana. He has acted on stage, written for radio and been the director of a film company. At one time, he was Ghana’s ambassador to Brazil.
The distinction Awoonor’s poetry makes is its strong use of vibratory and rhythmic Ewe pronouncements. He is credited with popularising Ewe poetry and folk songs and many of his English poems have been twined with Ewe words in the right places. That is his open invitation to all who read his works to come to the understanding of his roots. He shows that primarily, he thinks in his local lingua and then in English, if it so requires. His published works include Rediscovery and other Poems and Night of my blood.
THE JOURNEY BEYOND – KOFI AWOONOR
The bowling cry through door posts
carrying boiling pots
ready for the feasters.
Kutsiami the benevolent boatman;
5 When I come to the river shore
please ferry me across
I do not have on my cloth-end
the price of your stewardship.
This poem is an appeal. The first line tells us that there is a cry and so we know that all is not well. People are crying as they carry boiling pots ready for feasters. It is most likely a funeral and if Awoonor’s Ewe background is to be well considered, this tells us of a typical burial occasion among the Ewe people where feasting is a norm too.
But who is the dead man? In line 4, Awoonor calls a man by the name Kutsiami. This is a word that translates literally as Death-Linguist (for Ku-Tsiami) in Ewe. And this linguist is supposedly a benevolent boatman who must needs carry the dead man across a certain river. This is traditional among Ewes to say that “someone has crossed a river” as a euphemism for “he is dead”. By line 5, we know that Awoonor is talking about himself as the dead man. He makes a plea to the supposed linguist to take him across without asking a price for the duty, for “I do not have on my cloth-end/ the price of your stewardship” (line7-8). It is very common to see many old and poor Ewe folk in Ghana tie their money in a small bundle at the end of their cloth. This is invocation of a traditional ideal also and pitiful to know that the man for whom a whole feast is being commemorated is too poor to pay a boatman. Typically, ferry charges along the Volta River are very reasonable and this baffles. Perhaps, Awoonor is stating his displeasure at the fact that money is spent feasting at the dead man’s funeral after he is gone than is thought to be shared with him while he is alive. So much so that he lacks even the trifles to pay his journey to the other side.
I have found that the best way to appreciate poetry is to respond to it. On the 6th of September 2007, I wrote this response upon reading Awoonor’s poem.
BEFORE THE JOURNEY BEYOND
I, the hunter
I, the hunted
I, the jailor
and the jailéd
5 I ask no wage
nor expect same
Cursed unto this servitude
My response is simple. Kutsiami himself, who is a hunter of souls, is also hunted. He jails dead people in another world, but he himself is jailed. So in response to Kofi Awoonor’s plea to ferry him across the river without a charge, he tells Awoonor that he himself “ask no wage/Nor expect same” for the disquieting reason that he has been cursed to do this ferryman’ work. This servitude. Death itself is bound to its service. The title I gave it is a conversation with Awoonor’s title. He has come to The Journey Beyond and he talks to Kutsiami. Kutsiami responds to him Before The Journey Beyond. The scores are settled and terms are agreed before the final journey is undertaken.