Ghanaian Literature Week comes to an end today. Very thankful to all you who have read this blog and taken part in the activities for the week by reading a Ghanaian writer, poet, literary work or anything connected to Ghanaian literature (and that includes this blog, thank you). When Kofi Awoonor died, I curated a Storify (also embedded as a tweet down the page) to mark responses by twitter users. Please click here to see and re-live the announcement and immediate responses. I will end the week by sharing with you a couple more tweets that have come in tribute to the man Kofi Awoonor who has been the center of my study for the week. Many of these will lead you to blog posts and news responses from which you can read tons more responses from the literary world. His death has been a great loss. Thanks to Kinna Reads for putting the week together and you can read all the shared posts on the week here. Maybe you never had the opportunity to express your condolences or share your thoughts on the man. By adding a comment on this post, you would have fulfilled it. Keep reading African poetry.
Archive for the ‘Ghanaian Literature Week’ Category
Tags: #GhanaLit, Awoonor, Ghanaian Literature Week, Storify
Tags: Anyidoho, Awoonor, Ghana, poetry, The Last Dinner
Permit me to sneak in this poem by Kofi Anyidoho before #GhanaLit Week comes to an end. I should have left it entirely to your own interpretation but I talk too much, forgive me. It’s very simple and very short so ride along with me as we review ‘The Last Dinner’. This picture of Kofi Awoonor and Kofi Anyidoho above, taken by Nana Kofi Acquah should be archived as a national treasure.
For Ghanaian Literature Week, I had intended to focus very heavily on Kofi Awoonor’s work but I have added two poems from Kofi Anyidoho, his cousin and Ghana’s other great when it comes to Ewe poetry. I hope I gain audience with Kofi Anyidoho the next time I am in Accra since I realised that his Wikipedia page is greatly under-updated. I could volunteer a week to gather as much info on him as his schedule would permit and probably stuff up that page. It’s time we took our writers more seriously in Africa as a whole.
The man Anyidoho has six published anthologies: Elegy for the Revolution(Greenfield Review Press, 1978), A Harvest of our Dreams (Heinemann 1984), Earthchild (Woeli, 1985), Ancestral Logic and Caribbean Blues (1992) Africa World Press, Praise song for the land: poems of hope & love & care (2002) and The place we call home and other poems (2011). 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.
The Last Dinner
I am the helpless fish
Frying in your bowl of cooking oil
You lean against the kitchen wall
Smiling with the thoughts of coming feasts
But nature in time will call
You’ll render account squatting on your heels
Your hunger returns with new demands
And I will not be there to
Feed the needs of
This is a short poem by Anyidoho that seems to be a casual celebration of everyday life. But look deeper and you will see a ragingly deep meaning belying layers of seeming carelessness.
The poem is about a meal spoken from the perspective of the meal, for a break. Anyidoho is talking to us as a fish, which calls itself ‘helpless’ (line 1), while frying in a ‘bowl of cooking oil’ (line 2) that belongs to the one who cooks. ‘Smiling’ (line 4) with the expectation of ‘coming feasts’ (line 4) and satisfaction, the cook leans ‘against the kitchen wall’ (line 3). Anyidoho’s fish is sneering at the cook for what will come next because he tells him ‘but nature… will call’ (line 5). The cook will ‘render account’ (line 6), almost hilariously reminding that the cook will face judgment day for eating him up. But that account will be in a ‘squatting’ (line 6) pose on his heels, a response to the call of nature that will see him emptying his stomach of the feast long eaten. After that, new hunger will set in and with glee, the fish prophesies to him that ‘I will not be there’ (line 8) any longer ‘to feed the needs of recurrent appetite’.
This sounds like a poem written for humour but let us reason something out. Go back and take a look at the title: The Last Dinner. Usually this phrase refers to two historic things. Firstly, it is the name given to the meal last eaten by criminals who have been sentenced to death. You have a last meal that is prepared at your request. After that meal is eaten, your judgment day has arrived and your cup is full; away to the gallows. In this light, look at this fish, too talkative for a last meal, mocking the criminal on the way to his death! “Eat me today and there shall be judgment for you when I am gone”. A brilliant analogy.
The second, and probably more profound analogy, is the reference to ‘The Last Supper’ that Jesus and his disciples had on the night that one of them betrayed him to his crucifixion. That image has been reproduced in works of art by the great painters of the Renaissance era and this title is an echo to both the last supper that led to Jesus’ judgment and the works of art that were spawned from it. Judas the betrayer ate the fish and had to pay the price when his own judgment came, as he bought a field with the blood money he got and hanged himself. There are themes that echo in this poem and that story.
I hope that even though it is short, this poem’s resonance across time and application to not only a casual everyday thing as hunger but also concerns as grave as the last day of a condemned man, make it a worthy study of the literature of Kofi Anyidoho and a fitting contribution to Ghanaian Literature Week.
Tags: #GhanaLit, Awoonor, Ghana, Ghanaian Literature Week, Kofi Awoonor, Rediscovery
Today, I shall review a poem by our fallen poet, Kofi Awoonor, whose works I have decided to highlight for Ghanaian Literature Week. A lot has already been read, shared and reviewed for the week and you can follow the ongoing conversations on this aggregator post at Kinna Reads. The picture of Awoonor here is an artist’s pencil work of the picture I used on this previous post I reviewed for Ghanaian Literature Week. Credit to DanJSullivan for the pencil work and Nana Kofi Acquah for the original picture.
When our tears are dry on the shore
and the fishermen carry their nets home
and the seagulls return to bird island
and the laughter of the children recedes at night
there shall still linger the communion we forged
the feast of oneness whose ritual we partook of
There shall still be the eternal gateman
who will close the cemetery doors
and send the late mourners away
It cannot be the music we heard that night
that still lingers in the chambers of memory
It is the new chorus of our forgotten comrades
and the halleluyahs of our second selves
It is somehow poignant to be reviewing a poem on death and mourning by a poet who is dead and being mourned. This poem is one of Kofi Awoonor’s most studied poems and I will err if I don’t review it during this Ghanaian Literature Week in particular.
The poem is quite an easy read and so I will leave much of it to your own interpretation.
By saying ‘our tears are dry’ (line 1), Awoonor is telling us that his poem has something to do with mourning but then also, it is about hope. He goes on to paint different images of mourning for us, about “fishermen [carrying] their nets home” (line 2), “seagulls [returning] to bird island” (line 3), and the recession of the laughter of children at night (line 4).
Rather than be only about mourning, this poem is about hope, for which reason it is titled, ‘Rediscovery’. Awoonor says that after all the mourning has been done, there still will remain “the communion we forged” (line 5). The word ‘communion’ belongs to a class of words known as kangaroo words, being that, they contain another word which has the same meaning as themselves. In this case, ‘communion’ contains ‘union’ and they both mean same. Awoonor stresses that after those persons who we mourn have gone and we have left the mourning grounds, there will still remain the “feast of oneness whose ritual we partook of” (line 6), with them while they were alive with us.
The parting will not be easy, so that “the eternal gateman” (line 7) has to “send the late mourners away” (line 9). Awoonor’s 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 him across to the other side. Going on here, he tells us that the memory of what will remain most, after the communion feast we shared, will not be the music that accompanies their funeral but rather “the new chorus” (line 12) of those who have left us, “our forgotten comrades” (line 12) and in response, “the halleluyahs of our second selves” (line 13). The ‘forgotten’ are not forgotten literally but he uses the word to say that they have passed on. These last two lines allude to the Christian belief that anyone who dies and makes it to heaven, will spend eternity with the host of heaven, singing new songs. The ‘halleluyahs’ he refers to, comes from a Hebrew word that breaks down quite literally to Hail-Yahweh”, which translated response churches usually give as “Praise the Lord” after a song has been sung. The second selves Awoonor talks about makes me believe that he meant that with every person that we lose, we still stay connected to them by an inner, higher being, or the better us, responding to the chorus they are gone on to sing. We Rediscover our inner selves – the title.
Just read the poem over again with this understanding and reflect on the fact that today, it is Awoonor who is our forgotten comrade, who is singing that chorus, to whom our second selves must needs obey his leading here, and respond the necessary halleluyahs.
Rest in Peace, Awoonor. One day, we shall all sing that chorus together.
Tags: Awoonor, Ghana, Harlem, Harlem on a Winter Night, New York, poetry
Two months ago, we in Ghana woke up one Sunday morning to the news that our own Kofi Awoonor had died in the senseless massacre of civilians by Al Shabaab militants in the Kenyan Westgate mall attack. It was a difficult loss for us in the arts here and I have decided to review a couple of his poems for readers who may not be used to the man and his style. My luck is that I share the same mother tongue with him and if I translate along in my head, it makes me see better what he intends to convey in his poetry, even when it is written in English. Primarily, he wrote for an Ewe audience and is hailed with Kofi Anyidoho (also reviewed for Ghanaian Literature Week) as the two principal voices for Ewe poetry. Read this tribute I wrote a day after Awoonor died and while at it, visit Nana Kofi Acquah’s photo blog for amazing photography from Ghana as we celebrate literature from Ghana. I will do other posts on Awoonor as the week proceeds, hang on. I want to dedicate this #GhanaLit week predominantly to his works and memory.
Kofi Awoonor was one of Ghana’s leading poets and wrote previously under the pen-name George Awoonor Williams. He is probably 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. I review here Harlem on a Winter Night.
Harlem on a Winter Night
Huddled pavements, dark,
the lonely wail of a police-siren
moving stealthily across
grey alleys of anonymity
asking for food either
as plasma in hospital jars,
escaping fires in tenements
grown cold and bitter,
or seeking food in community garbage cans
to escape its eternal nightmare.
Harlem, the dark dirge of America
heard at evening
mean alleyways of poverty,
dispossession, early death
in jammed doorways and creaking elevators,
glaring defeat in the morning
of this beautiful beautiful America.
Usually, I don’t do literary style and device criticism of the poetry I review but look at the structure of the first three lines of this poem. I have been studying a bit about styles of poetry and I came across a style known as imagist. Imagist poems paint pictures and let you see scenery by contrasting ideas. This style of imagist poetry originated with the Japanese in their haikus and anyone seeking to read haikus should hop over to Celestine’s blog at Reading Pleasure for tons of them. Why am I talking about haikus? Because Awoonor’s first three lines are written to mimic a haiku. The way you identify a haiku is by checking to see if it is 3 lines usually unrhymed, with syllable count by line at 5-7-5, adding up to 17. The opening three lines here make that 5-9-7, adding two syllables each to the last two lines, but they should pass as some sort of flawed haiku for their structure, imagery and unrhymed three lines. Don’t stretch that too long though; it’s just a personal observation. In any case, haikus will end on the third line.
The poem is a description at winter time of Harlem, a district of New York on Manhattan Island. Awoonor is describing this district to us and in his first three lines, he immediately tells us that the pavements are dark and huddled (line 1), expressing a sense of loneliness. He emphasizes that in line 2 by calling a blaring police-siren ‘lonely’ as it steals its way across town.
In the fifth line onwards, Awoonor tells us why he writes this poem at all. Harlem is one of those poor districts, probably taken for granted by authority and consequently, overridden by criminals and gangs. There are poor people ‘asking for food’ (line 5) ‘as plasma in hospital jars’ (line 6). This gives a feel that they are destitute, so poor they need reviving food like life-blood, served as supplements on hospital handouts. They escape ‘tenements’ (poor housing with only basic amenities; line 7), which themselves have become too ‘cold and bitter’ (line 8).They would rather seek food in ‘community garbage cans’ (line 9), living like stray dogs and cats in order to find some solace and escape ‘eternal nightmares’ (line 10). Is this America? Yes. Awoonor is not mocking Harlem. He is mocking America and sympathizing with Harlem because he goes on to call Harlem ‘the dark dirge of America’ (line 11). He is almost asking if, surrounded by all the abundance, a suburb could be so neglected. The dirge, ‘heard at evening’ (line 12), is an allusion to the siren-blare from line 2 which he also calls a ‘wail’. That wail of the siren is like the dirge of all Harlem, paraded stealthily across the streets like a funeral procession for a neighbourhood that has no reason to be poor. He talks about ‘alleyways of poverty/dispossession’ (lines 13-14) that evoke robbery and impersonality. The ‘dispossession’ could refer to people getting robbed of their possessions in the district or America in subtle denial that it knows Harlem. But Awoonor is not asking America for explanations for Harlem. He has concluded that Harlem is ‘glaring defeat in the morning’ (line 15), after the night has passed, ‘of this beautiful, beautiful America’ (line 16). America, too beautiful, too developed, too rich to have as poor a suburb as Harlem. In this context, ‘beautiful’ is not only literal but also refers to the country’s economic might. His emphasis on the word ‘beautiful’ is to buttress the utter disbelief he feels that America has a slum, a Harlem unlike any he has probably seen in his home country, or continent.
Awoonor can never be forgotten. Rest in peace, wise old man. We shall tell your stories to our children.
Tags: #GhanaLit, Ghana, Kofi Anyidoho, The News From Home
Welcome to Ghanaian Literature Week hosted at Kinna Reads. This week, forgive me in advance as I flood your emails and WordPress feeds with reviews of beautiful poetry coming from Ghana. I can’t wait to discover new writing and other interesting posts on Ghanaian literature from the aggregator post on Kinna’s blog. Unfortunately, I’m unable to take part in any events that may happen in Ghana, but if any of you want to take part actively, join the discussion on twitter with the hashtag #GhanaLit. You won’t regret it, trust me.
I have looked a long time for poetry that comes from the era of Ghana’s last coup d’etat that happened on 31st December 1981. Incidentally, the coup was followed by three years of the worse famine and drought in the history of Ghana as a nation. My late dad used to tell many stories of how there was death spread across the land and my mum to this day tells countless stories of how difficult it was to live one day after another in a military regime starved of food. Just by very good fortune, I found this poem by one of Ghana and Africa’s leading poets, Kofi Anyidoho. This poem was written on 1st August 1983, in the eye of the famine and the early years of a military regime that ruled for 11 years till 1992. It’s a keepsake. (I am beginning to change my diction now about poetry from Africa. Any leading poet in Africa is a leading poet in the world. Anyidoho is no exception).
The News From Home – Kofi Anyidoho
I have not come this far
only to sit by the roadside
and break into tears
I could have wept at home
without a journey of several thorns
I have not spread my wings
so wide only to be huddled into corners
at the mere mention of storms
To those who hear of military coups
and rumours of civil strife
and bushfires and bad harvests at home
and come to me looking for fears and tears
I must say I am tired
tired of all devotion to death and dying.
I too have heard of
all the bushfires
the sudden deaths
and fierce speeches
I have heard of
all the empty market stalls
the cooking pots all filled with memory and ash
And I am tired
tired of all these noises of
condolence from those who
love to look upon the anger of the hungry
nod their heard and stroll back home
worrying and forever worrying
about overweight and special diet for dogs and cats.
Like an orphan stranded
on dunghills of owners of earth
I shall keep my sorrows to myself
folding them with infinite care
corner upon corner
taking pains the foldings draw circles
around hidden spaces where still
our hopes grow roots even
in this hour of finite chaos
Those who sent their funeral clothes
to the washerman
awaiting the mortuary men to come
bearing our corpse in large display
Let them wait for the next and next
season only to see how well earthchildren
grow fruit and even flower
from rottenness of early morning dreams
I am tired
tired of all crocodile condolence.
Kofi Anyidoho spent years away from Ghana studying first for an M.A. in Folklore Indiana University-Bloomington and a PhD in Comparative Literature at the University of Texas at Austin (I’ve visited that lovely campus). It was from one of these places I suppose he writes this poem from far away, upon hearing the difficulty that is engulfing his country in 1983.
The poem opens sadly, with Anyidoho lamenting that he has not ‘come this far’ (line 1) only to weep at foreign roadsides, far away from home. He could have stayed and ‘wept at home’ (line 4) without this ‘journey of several thorns’ (line 5). This last reference makes it seem that it was not an easy journey he made and would have preferred that on top of his difficulty, he did not have to ‘break into tears’ (line 3) on foreign shores. But what makes him cry? We will find out.
The second paragraph continues the lament, saying that he has ‘not spread his wings so wide’ (line 6-7); another reference to the fact that he flew out of the country on a foreign mission at the time this poem was written. This spreading of wings may also refer to the fact that, being out in the world, he was embracing a bigger world than what Ghana offered him, more freedom from a military regime, more release from a famine. But the news he heard from Ghana was terrible and before that line 7 closed, he was ‘huddled in corners’, losing his spread wings at the ‘mention of storms’ (line 8). The storms; troubles from home; home Ghana.
In the next stanza, he clarifies things. He is talking to those who hear of ‘military coups’ (line 9) and ‘civil strife’ (line 10) and ‘bushfires and bad harvests at home’ (line 11). This was the picture of those dark days of Ghana’s last coup and famine. Fires burnt huge farms and farmland, the harvests were terrible, people were protesting and the government was mean. But Anyidoho was protesting something and we had better listen. He was protesting to those who hear these rumours from his home country and come to him ‘looking for fears and tears’ (line 12), expecting him to carry, express and the explain the dark days of his homeland; he was protesting that he himself, huddled up in a corner, unable to take flight, had become ‘tired of all devotion to death and dying’ (line 15). He calls this devotion because he had probably heard too much of it and though it was hard, it had almost become second nature, a burden too difficult, too tasking that he had was tired of going on bearing and hearing more bad news everyday. He was tired of them telling him about it like he did not already know.
In the next stanza, he tells us why. It is because he says that he also has heard of all the ‘bushfires’ (line 17), ‘sudden deaths’ (line 18) both from famine and military upheavals, and ‘fierce speeches’ (line 19). I will guess that this reference to fierce speeches was an actual reference to the architect of that coup, Ghana’s former president Jerry John Rawlings, who, even from his days as a young flight lieutenant who had toppled an elected government, was popular for making ‘boom’, declarative, passionate speeches. After he resigned from the presidency in 2001, he was nicknamed ‘Boom’ for the continued explosiveness of his utterances. This should surely be Anyidoho’s reference.
He continued to say that he had heard of ‘the empty market stalls’ (line 21), a picture of abject poverty and hunger, and ‘the cooking pots all filled with memory and ash’ (line 22); memories of feasts gone by and ashes of foods that could have been eaten but were burnt in those raging bushfires (ref. line 17).
The next stanza is a slight protest at the people surrounding him, in the country he was in, who offered ‘condolence’ (line 25) at his country’s misfortune while at the same time, ‘love to look upon the anger of the hungry’ (line 26). This sadistic demeanour that makes them ‘nod their head and stroll back home’ (line 27) (stroll; a careless word with no urgency), and go on to worry forever about ‘overweight and special diet for dogs and cats’ (line 28). Anyidoho is abhorred by fake condolence that does nothing to help his starving country while his guests can afford to be obese over excess food and plan junk special diets for their pet dogs and cats. He abhorred.
But we begin to see light in the last three stanzas because Anyidoho likens himself to ‘an orphan stranded/ on dunghills of owners of earth’ (line 29-30), who has decided to fold his sorrows kept to himself ‘with infinite care’ (line 32) so that these folds will conceal spaces in which he can plant new hopes that will ‘grow roots’ (line 36) ‘in this hour of finite chaos’ (line 37). Where is the light? He calls the chaos finite; there will be an end to it. It will end soon, just like my hope and prayer for Somalia.
Look at the stanza before last! Anyidoho says that there are people who have ‘sent their funeral cloths to the washerman’ (line 38-39), expecting to attend funerals even when men have not yet died; the attitude of people who had written Ghanaians off long before their country totally came to its knees. These people were only waiting for the mortuary men to carry out corpses of people left orphaned on the dunghills of the owners of earth. But listen, Anyidoho says that even on the dunghills, the ‘earthchildren’ (line 43) will sprout, ‘grow fruit and even flower’ (line 44) from what right now looks like ‘rottenness of early morning dreams’ (line 45). Rottenness of the hopes they once had for a country that preceded all sub-Saharan Africa to independence. [Note: two years later, Anyidoho published a collection of poetry titled Earthchild (Woeli Publishing, 1985)].
He closes by saying that while he waits, he is tired, tired of all fake love and the condescending rottenness of ‘crocodile condolences’ (line 48). Why crocodile condolences? Because that will make you remember ‘crocodile tears’, accepted as insincere effusion for a cause one mocks in disguise. Anyidoho deserves applause for providing this beautiful poem reviewed for Ghanaian Literature Week.