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Kofi Awoonor, Guardian of the Sacred Word

A special guest post by Niyi Osundare.

Eni re dara ile                 A splendid man has joined the earth

Gbee gbee, ofere gbee   Carry him, carry him, good wind, carry him

Kofi loo, o digba              Kofi has gone, adieu

Gbee gbee gbeee             Carry him, carry him, good wind, carry him

Ofere gbeeeeeeee            Carry him, carry him, good wind, carry him


(Click to Enlarge) Ghanaian poet and writer Kofi Awoonor, whose poetry will be featured in a memorial reading on Monday.
(Click to Enlarge) Ghanaian poet and writer Kofi Awoonor, whose poetry will be featured in a memorial reading on Monday.

Kofi Awoonor was not just a prominent African poet; he was one of those pioneers of the art that showed succeeding generations how to do it. At a time when his contemporaries were trying to out-Eliot TS Eliot and match Ezra pound for pound in a hot imitation of Euro-Modernism, he took a decision to look inwards, to his African roots, and he reclaimed our voices with the beauty and power of the traditional oral verse of the Ewe: its deeply elegiac tonality, its rich allusive idioms, its essentially humanistic preoccupation. In a classic case of what anthropologist call participant observation, he was a Western-educated Ewe man who lived among Ewe poets, broke bread with them, asked them for some of their creative secrets, studied them, then gave their predominantly oral verses the wing and wonder of the written medium. And he did all this without stealing the fire from the forge of the traditional poets; without striving to override his indigenous benefactors. As the Yoruba would say, Kofi m’o woo we, o ba’gba je (Kofi knew how to wash his hands; so he ate with the elders). He served faithfully at the temple of indigenous wisdom; the gods rewarded him with laakaye (wisdom, insight, profundity).

     This loric wisdom, this tellurian capability illuminated all his thinking, all his writing: his prose fiction (This Earth, My Brother); his literary/cultural criticism (The Breast of the Earth); and, of course, his numerous poems. No high school student of my generation would forget ‘Song of Sorrow’ in a hurry (‘Dzogbese Lisa has treated me thus. . . .’ ). That is an Ewe-poem-in-English whose delicate simplicity and affective magnetism bring happy intimations of the lines of JP Clark and the wistful lamentations of Okot p’Bitek. Bless Ulli Beier and Gerald Moore who made these poems available to us in a compact Penguin edition. Yes, they did, and transformed the landscape of written modern African poetry for ever.

     The debt African poetry owes Kofi Awoonor is huge and many-sided. Kofi Anyidoho (who was lucky to have been a hunter in the same cultural/linguistic forest as Kofi Awoonor) would bear me out. So would Atukwei Okai, Kwadzo Opoku-Agyemang, Femi Osofisan, Tanure Ojaide, Odia Ofeimun (of the ‘New Broom’ sensibility), Obiora Udechukwu, Jack Mapanje, Akeem Lasisi, Ademola Dasylva, Remi Raji, and yes, Niyi Osundare. Awoonor opened our eyes to the infinite but long ignored (and often long denied) possibilities of oral literature, and its positive, liberating indigeneity. He showed the world that African Guardians of the Word sang and danced before Homer was born; they sang and performed their lyric before the advent of the earthy tales of Chaucer. Awoonor taught us to honour our tongue the way we do our pen.

     A poet who enlightened creative sensibility with a healthy dose of socio-political sensitivity, Awoonor combined the liberation of Africa’s literary idiom with the liberation of Africa’s politics. A proud and committed pan-Africanist, he spent most of his time and energy as Ghana’s Ambassador to the United Nations as Chairman of the Organization’s Anti-Apartheid Committee where he rallied world opinion against that racist scourge and contributed significantly to the bolstering of world opinion which eventually sent the Apartheid monster back to hell where it truly belonged.

     We will never forget the violence that took this gem away from us, the authors of that violence, and the urgent need for a juster, safer, saner world free of the current bestialities and the monstrous mayhems that are their tragic offspring.   

     We will miss Kofi Awoonor’s large heart, the melody of his mind, the sizzle of his songs, his boldly interrogative impulse,  the thunder of his laughter, his sheer joie de vivre, that ‘blue-black’ beauty of his proudly Ghanaian face. . . . .

A mighty tree has fallen

The birds have scattered with the wind

Behold their songs like flying seeds

In the wondering sky

Niyi Osundare, New Orleans, Sept. 28, 2013.
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