The Cathedral – Kofi Awoonor

Posted: January 30, 2012 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’.

On this dirty patch
a tree once stood
shedding incense on the infant corn:
its boughs stretched across a heaven
brightened by the last fires of a tribe.
They sent surveyors and builders
who cut that tree
planting in its place
A huge senseless cathedral of doom.

This poem is a protest poem, loved much for its message and brevity than for any respect for literary devices. It is one of Kofi Awoonor’s more popular poems.

The poem begins in line 1 with the poet pointing to a ‘dirty patch’ where he claims ‘a tree once stood’ (line 2). He goes on to describe how the tree was the blessing of the local tradition, since it was ‘shedding incense on the infant corn’ (line 3). In religious tradition, incense is used as holy liquid, useful for purifying and perfuming. The use of ‘infant corn’ gives a sign of life and abundance. There was a lot to eat and there was promise of growth. The tree’s boughs ‘stretched across a heaven’ (line 4), holding brief for a large and fulfilling spiritual/physical existence. The next line brings some sort of doom, spelling ‘the last fires of a tribe’, which could have been the last meal of the physical existence or the last sacrifice to the spiritual gods. Awoonor tells us that there was a promising local tradition until the last fires.

His first mention of any sort of assumed civilisation and modernity comes with the mention of ‘surveyors and builders/who cut that tree’. Awoonor is obviously unimpressed by the literal uprooting of that tree that represented the life and breath of the local traditional existence. He mourns the removal of the religious methods that existed before ‘they’ (line 6) came. Whoever ‘they’ were who sent these surveyors and builders, Awoonor does not mention but he rants on that these artisans planted in the place of his tree ‘A huge senseless cathedral of doom’ (line 9).
The meaning of this poem is defined when you realise that Awoonor calls the place where the cathedral is standing, ‘a dirty patch’ (line 1). It is called ‘dirty’ only because in his eyes, the ground is desecrated by the casual planting of a new religion as though it was another tree. How could anyone remove the ancient symbiosis of life and spirit that existed under that tree, from which the whole tribe drew its existence? It’s only fair that the cathedral, a symbol of imperialist and colonial oppression, is called ‘senseless’ (line 9). You will realise also that Awoonor respects the rules of first line capitalisation in keeping with the first sentence of the poem but breaks this rule in the last line when he announces the senselessness of the cathedral that is planted on his holy ground. He makes us know that no wisdom will justify the imposition of a new religion in the place where an old one freely grew. In the larger sphere, the cathedral symbolises not only the change in religious and spiritual experience but also the purity of local fellowship and freedom which was stolen by the imposition of a colonial government.

This poem is definitely a beauty.

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  1. Joshua Nkoom says:

    Whoa!,i read this poem in my school library but never understood it.You have the poetic eyes and mind,this indeed is a great review.Thanks!


  2. ginasmom says:

    with his educational background,it’s obvious he is well travelled, and in touch with other cultures, as well lifestyles completely different from his own.As you elegantly put it, he is mourning the loss of some traditional practices and life style that’s being replaced by the impositions of the colonial government. He’s being in the government, i guess fully supports it, so do you find any contradiction in this?. How would you compare him to Ngugi Wathiong’o from Kenya in terms of mourning the loss of what has been? Finally any idea what year he wrote this poem?. Sorry i’m a being a bit lazy, in not looking this up, if you don’t have an answer, i can do that tommorow. Another great analysis.


  3. I appreciate your closing the circle from the end of the poem back to the beginning, with its ‘dirty patch’. It is a brief work, but that link makes it seem endless in another light. As always, thanks for pulling me into verse.



      well, this is yet another gift from one of the masters in african poetry. i have read quit a few pieces by Awoonor, at least i can remember his lament: “dzogbese lisa has done us evil” (or something like that) in his SONGS OF SORROW, but this piece has proved that his lament about the rape of Africa is not a fluke but deeply rooted in his soul. he is really an african soulja. your analysis was great; i believe many will love always to return to your site for insightful reviews, cooments, and analysis. More please


  4. Odontoidprocess says:

    In fact,Kofi Awoonor is realy a poet and the poem has helped me to do my assignment, thanks a lot and may God bless you with more years


  5. Nusienyo says:

    Sesi, your detailed exposition on this poem by my “godfather”, Prof Awoonor has been a great relief to we the student populace in the language faculties. Kudos, ‘Mawuga Sogbo Lisa, adanuwortor wor asi wor afor wor ta wor kuku da de edzi’ will reciprocate your kind gesture to us. More grease to your palm.


  6. mateko says:

    Interesting review. Gave me better understanding.



    Kofi Awoonor is undoubtedly one of Africas greatest poets.


  8. Amamchukwu says:

    This poem explains in a special way the incursion and rape of the rich African culture, our beatiful religion by the imperialist europe and their allies. Its a good one from kofi awoonor.


  9. emmanuel quainoo says:

    Ghanaians must really open their eyes to the truth how can a castle-church that housed slaves right beneath it bring salvation to the brown skin-man. The spirits love you PROFF.


  10. Zealous white says:

    I love dis my people, it’s too gr8, as i always tell my people => assuming that the colonia masters didnt come, Africa coulder be the best place in the world. They destroy our believe, our sense of humility and then plant corruption till date.
    Thats master


    • kristie333 says:

      i don’t think so. if the colonial masters did not come, Africa would still be in the uncivilized state. we would still be killing twins, our women would still be just housewives and above all, we would not have received JESUS CHRIST in to our lives whom we so much enjoy today. our colonial masters may have done bad things to us, but believe me they gave us many better things. corruption u say, is all our faults. don’t try blaming the whites on that.


  11. oluwa says:

    African poetry at its best, the real problem with modern Africa.thumb-up for Awoonor,Nkrumah of our time.


  12. C2 Baba says:

    Kofi Awoonor has done much for africans,I wish could be like him.


  13. olayemi alabi says:

    What a wonder poem that a poet that loves his traditions or the traditions that were already in existence


  14. Joyce says:

    The poem is one of ma cherished poem,it simply lament the displacement of africa traditional society by the encrouching colonial encouter with the west.


  15. Kojo arthur says:

    A lovely master piece, i enjoy it


  16. Paakwasi says:

    D@ is beautiful


  17. kwame says:

    awoonor is dead


  18. Samuel says:

    may his soul rest in peace!!!


  19. maurice william odongo says:

    RIP from kenya


  20. Laura says:

    Pretty nice post. I just stumbled upon your weblog and wished to say
    that I’ve really enjoyed surfing around your blog posts.
    After all I’ll be subscribing to your feed and I hope you
    write again soon!


  21. Kititi says:

    may his soul rest in peace


  22. Kieran Maynard says:

    I heard about the tragedy in Kenya and that Kofi Awoonor lost his life there. Thank you for sharing his poem.

    Liked by 1 person

  23. Dela says:

    I have been inconsolable on the loss of Awoonor’s life. This is hard!


    • Hateka, Sk says:

      Is a big blow!!!!!!!!!!!!! sorry to all youngsters who chanced upon Awoonor’s literary works recently. He is indeed a formidable force in literature. my prayer is that,the young men and women of today Ghana will go back to the very principles that made us true and patriotic citizens as espoused by Awoonor and shun this western way of living that is deeply rooted in corruption.


  24. avornyo philip says:

    i have since i got to know about him enjoyed his works,he was a good poet,and as you know no deep thinker will be forgotten,meaning his memory lives till end of time


  25. Awoonor is indeed a great poet. May his soul rest in perfect peace!


    • KWAKU REX says:

      this industrious man went in peace and came back in pieces, what a saddened atmosphere that has engulfed us as Ghanaians and Africans. May your soul rest in perfect peace……………………


  26. Ofoe Felix Teye says:

    yes, this poem has a strong information about how the rich African culture was suddenly and totally eroded by western culture. The Affirmation of life has been turned into something else


  27. Brilliant review, Dela. And thanks for the follow :-)


  28. i like that poem too much because it help me in my study.


  29. Apart from whatever that transpired, Ghana is generally a gifted state.
    Which is a real truth which is very difficult to be disagreed


  30. Ogboh Nnenna says:

    Thanks for this great review,it have realy helped me understand what this poem is realy talking about.


  31. […] The Cathedral – Kofi Awoonor. […]


  32. Abubakari Abdulai says:

    Hmmmm we’ve lost a great sea of poet.a man of patrotic especialy on his poem “the weaver bird” RIP


  33. Jake Jacobs says:

    it’s a pity we have lost an inspirational poet


  34. Agyei Assim Prifty says:

    The poem ‘ cathedra’ written by Kofi Awonoor emphatically based on the theme of religion. The coming in of the colonials in Africa was not to mustard the cultural soil of Africa but to ‘fireseed ‘ the cultural heritage.


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