The Journey Beyond – Kofi Awoonor

Posted: April 5, 2011 in GHANAIAN POETRY
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Kofi 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 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.


I, the hunter
I, the hunted
I, the jailor
and the jailéd
5 I ask no wage
nor expect same
Cursed unto this servitude
I, Kutsiami.

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.

  1. Excellent review and an equally excellent response. Great post and analyses.


  2. Always enjoy your analyses. Great work Dela. A good response too!


    • Dela says:

      Thanks Desmond. There are quite a few other poems reviewed here which I hope you enjoy reading too.


      • rosemond akumiah says:

        greetings to you dela. could you please help me with the review of these poems by Awoonor?
        SONG OF WAR
        TO SIKA
        will be very pleased to get your help.pls notify me in my email.thank you


  3. Justice says:

    nice one there although I am reading this with a teary eye…sad times


  4. J says:

    Thank you for your analysis of this poem. I did not know of his work before now, and I am sorry to learn of it on such a sad occasion as this. I am sure that Kutsiami “the benevolent boatman” will ferry him across.


  5. […] The Journey Beyond – Kofi Awoonor […]


  6. Larry Rasty says:

    Very Good one!


  7. […] Kyei, Lade Wosornu, Michael Dei-Annang, W.E.B du Bois (Ghanaian for a few months before his death), Kofi Awoonor, Kwesi Brew and the host of former-generation writers, Ghana has not produced another bigger band […]


  8. […] staunch belief in a man on the other side of the life and death divide is also seen in his poem The Journey Beyond, which I have previously reviewed. He talks about ‘Kutsiami’, a boatman who will ferry […]


  9. Diana says:

    I love this analysis.


  10. sharkmellon says:

    Poetry is spiritual. Deeply spiritual. In every sense, this poem is spiritual. Awoonor indeed has left a great store of treasure and you search him out masterfully.


  11. Dzorgbenyuie says:

    ‘Kutsiami’, literally translated means ‘linguist of death’. who at the same time ferries one across.May his gentle soul rest in peace.


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