Posts Tagged ‘Awoonor’

Kofi Awoonor

Kofi Awoonor

The smart professionals in three piece
Sweating away their humanity in dribblets
And wiping the blood from their brow

I was among the very first people who heard the news of his passing, I should suppose, because when I did, nobody on my twitter timeline had tweeted it. I waited for confirmation and watched a few government and official feeds but found nothing. Finally I read it again from one very trusted source and that was it. Kofi Awoonor was dead.

We have found a new land
This side of eternity
Where our blackness does not matter
And our songs are dying on our lips

Today, he would have been 79. I will be celebrating him in a series of tweets and posts along with Kinna of Kinnareads. The hashtag to use is #Awoonor79.

Standing at hell-gate you watch those who seek admission
Still the familiar faces that watched and gave you up
As the one who had let the side down,
“Come on, old boy, you cannot dress like that”
And tears well in my eyes for them
Those who want to be seen in the best company
Have abjured the magic of being themselves
And in the new land we have found
The water is drying from the towel
Our songs are dead and we sell them dead to the other side

He was a fighter who took on life in the most activist of ways. In this poem, Kofi Awoonor tells of a period when the African identity was gradually stolen. Those ‘smart professionals’ (line 1), the elite, gave up their tie and dye for ‘three piece’(line 1) suits, while wiping the blood of their essence from their brows (line 3). They copied the whiteness of their colonizers, in a usurped ploy ‘Where our blackness does not matter’ (line 6). He calls them candidates at ‘hell-gate’ (line 8) seeking passage to this death, while ridiculing the ‘magic of being themselves’ (line14). He cries for them (line 12).

But from line 15, Awoonor sympathizes with the guilty and now says, ‘the new land we have found’ (line 15). He makes himself a part of the redemption because he concludes:

Reaching for the Stars we stop at the house of the Moon
And pause to relearn the wisdom of our fathers.

In those two lines, Awoonor talks about Rediscovery of a true self that he joins his brothers to pursue, “relearn[ing] the wisdom” (line 19) of the generations that went before.

His death has been a great loss and we shall tell of his legacy till we ourselves are gone. Happy Birthday, Kofi.

Illustration by The Black Narrator of Awoonor and his bibliography

Illustration by The Black Narrator of Awoonor and his bibliography

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.

Awoonor and Anyidoho courtesy Nana Kofi Acquah (@GhTog)

Awoonor and Anyidoho courtesy Nana Kofi Acquah (@GhTog)

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
Recurrent appetite


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.

Awoonor : Flickr Creative Commons DanJSullivan

Awoonor : Flickr Creative Commons DanJSullivan

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.

Kofi Awoonor - Portrait by the amazing Nana Kofi Acquah

Kofi Awoonor – Portrait by the amazing Nana Kofi Acquah

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.

Kofi Awoonor  A day ago, Prof. Kofi Awoonor was shot dead! I have lost a bit of myself for 24 hours.

I knew Kofi Awoonor! I knew him because all poets know each other. I knew him because the spirits of all poets are fellow citizens of one country. His works have stayed with me ever since I first read his acclaimed ‘The Cathedral’. Today, he’s gone, shot by cruel terrorists who ambushed the mall he had walked into in Kenya. Our country has lost a citizen.

Kofi Awoonor has been a mentor. I don’t say this because he is dead; I say it because like me, he was Ghanaian, Ewe and a poet. And like me, he had a story to tell, which he spent his life telling. I listened to him. Nothing can so immediately take away this sorrow I feel.

I reviewed ‘The Cathedral’ and ‘The Journey Beyond‘ on my blog previously. Over the years, I have read his many works including Rediscovery and Songs of Sorrow. Awoonor was a man who lived daring death: calling it by name and different names in all the poetry he wrote. He didn’t fear to go.

But the manner of his departure has left me mourning, has left Ghana mourning, has left Africa mourning. If there were any voices introducing the English reader to the song of traditional Ewe poetry, his sounded loud beside Anyidoho’s. The gap his death is leaving is too monstrous to be called a gap. This chasm!

We will not have another Awoonor. The immensity of his loss will take a while to fathom, that he died at the hands of cruel men will take  a longer time to accept, that we shall no longer hear his voice will be everything crippling to cause our silence. We shall hear him across the stars. When we have cried and the tears now fail us, sobbed till our voices be hoarse with tremulous weeping, we shall hear him, the voice of laughter, bidding us to carry ourselves and trudge on from this place where he has fallen.

Kofi Awoonor, Rest in Peace. Don’t console us, don’t stop us from weeping. Just Rest in Peace.




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.