POET’S PROFILE – KOFI AWOONOR
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.