One of Ghana’s leading lights was violently put out last month, and the shock waves could be felt all the way to Nebraska.
Poet Kofi Awoonor was killed Sept. 21 along with more than 60 other people at Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya, by terrorists who raided the mall over that weekend.
Awoonosr, who was in Nairobi for the Storymoja Hay literary festival, was an icon of Ghana’s literary and political communities. The 78-year-old writer was not only one of Africa’s most respected and visible poets, but he had served Ghana as a diplomat and in government advisory positions over several decades.
His loss was felt not only in Africa, but in Lincoln as well.
Awoonor was the first major African poet to sign on to be published in the African Poetry Book Series, a new imprint of the University of Nebraska Press. His book for the series, “Promise of Hope: New and Selected Poems,” a compilation of past works along with new poems with a forward by fellow poet Kofi Anyidoho, is scheduled to be released in early 2014.
Kwame Dawes, editor of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s literary magazine, the Prairie Schooner, was instrumental in landing Awoonor for the book. Dawes had asked his friend and mentor to attend the literary festival in Kenya with him in order to talk to other African poets about the book series.
Dawes was in a hotel a few blocks away from the shopping center when he heard that Awoonor had been killed and one of the poet’s sons, Afetsi Awoonor, had been wounded.
The poet was widely known in his home country, not only for his many books of poetry but also for his statesmanship. Awoonor didn’t always find himself on the winning side politically, but even occasional stays in prison didn’t dim his patriotism.
He studied at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, where he became the chairman of the comparative literature department. He taught at universities in Ghana.
He also had served as Ghana’s ambassador to Brazil, Cuba and the United Nations. He more recently served as a member of the Council of State, an advisory body to Ghana’s president.
Dawes had a more personal connection to the poet, who was his mother’s cousin and one of his father’s best friends. Dawes knew him as Uncle Kofi.
“My recollections of Uncle Kofi revolve around his close friendship with my father and their commitment to laughter, sharp wit and the pleasure of language and literature,” Dawes said in an email interview, adding that Awoonor flew from Ghana to Jamaica to be at his father’s funeral when he died in 1984.
“That gesture and the way he performed a ritual for the dead in our backyard after all the formalities were over, and finally his magnificent poem for my father, taught me a lesson about friendship, and about the importance of art even in the most tragic moments.”
Hundreds of Ghanaians also were affected by his death. They gathered with Ghana’s political leaders Wednesday to meet the plane that brought Awoonor home.
The family will have a funeral, which Dawes will attend, Thursday. There will be a state memorial service on Oct. 11 and a burial in Wheta, his hometown in southeastern Ghana, on Nov. 11.
Many poets and other writers have reacted to Awoonor’s death by celebratory or mourning pieces, published online in blogs and poetry websites.
In Dawes’ blog on the Speakeasy website, is a poem he wrote from Nairobi. It’s titled “Rehearsing Mourning at the Hotel Sankara.”
“For Kofi Awoonor,
Do not dress me yet
lift me not
onto that mound before the mourners.
I have still to meet the morning dew
a poem to write
a field to hoe
a lover to touch
and some consoling to do
before you lay me out.”
This story contains material from the Associated Press.