World News

09.24.13

Kofi Awoonor, the Ghanaian Poet Killed in Westgate Mall Attack

Among the victims of Al-Shabab’s Nairobi mall massacre was Kofi Awoonor, a 78-year-old poet and statesman in town for a literary festival. Michael Daly celebrates the part of the man that will live on.

Kofi Awoonor was the very opposite of the terrorists who killed him. 

He was not a destroyer seeking to become exceptional by killing. 

He was a creator who achieved worldwide renown by writing poetry. 

The 78-year-old from Ghana came to Nairobi last week to participate in the annual Storymoja Hay literary festival. He gave a master class in poetry Friday, as the killers were preparing to do their worst. He was due to address the gathering later Saturday when he went shopping with his son at the Westgate mall. 

Awoonor there encountered gunmen who had slipped in from Somalia with the sole purpose of murdering as many non-Muslims as they could. But the Al-Shabab attackers were only able to kill the mortal part of him that he had in common with everybody. His poetry survives, drawing on the African oral storytelling tradition, imbuing stark English with the ancient tones and cadences of his Ewe tribe. His living voice can be heard in one of his most recent works, cited in a posthumous tribute written by his fellow poet Kwame Dawes. The likes of Al-Shabab and other death worshipers would be right to see their ultimate defeat in the faithful sentiments of this poem, which reads in part: 

And death, when he comes

to the door with his own

inimitable calling card

shall find a homestead

resurrected with laughter and dance

and the festival of the meat

of the young lamb and the red porridge

of the new corn

Also surviving are Awoonor’s legacies as a diplomat who really practiced diplomacy and as a teacher who gave psychic life to his students, in his home country and, from 1968 to 1975, at the State University of New York on Long Island. He brought not just Ewe to English, but a tribal embrace to the angst-ridden homeland of Billy Joel.

“He had the ability to make people seem special,” an undergraduate named Steve Becker was quoted as saying back in 1976. “He could take the basic disenfranchised student and make him feel human. If somebody said something stupid, Kofi would never say, ‘That was stupid.’”

As reported back then in The New York Times, Awoonor recounted to his students witnessing younger sister’s birth back home, a memory that gave measure to the distances of culture and time he straddled with the grace of a single life. He remembered standing “in the birth chamber, the same mud floor with the icons of grandmother’s gods and the corner for the chicken.”

“We watched the birth of a tiny red crying thing, as my mother lay writhing on the mud floor in agony,” he recalled, and anybody who thought about it would have surmised that he must have started life in the same way.

During his time at SUNY, he lived with relatives in the Bronx and liked to go fishing on Long Island Sound. The New York Times later reported that he hosted a variation on a suburban cookout that began with slaughtering a goat. The event was enough of a success that he tried it again, but the animal made a getaway.

As the time approached for him to return to Ghana, he purchased textbooks on behalf of the university back home where he would then be teaching. He also secured seeds for the farm run by one of his 17 siblings (his father having had five wives). He did not seem to have been planning anything but a quiet existence.

His eyes were alight; his opinions in keeping with a man who had named his daughter The Human Being Is More Precious Than Gold.

Awoonor had been gone only a few months when word came that he had been arrested on unspecified charges. Awoonor would later say that a friend from his school days had come to him saying he feared for his life. Awoonor had driven the friend to Togo only to be accused of abetting the escape of a plotter in an unsuccessful coup.

Fellow poets in America and elsewhere clamored for Awoonor’s release, and he was finally released after 10 months in solitary confinement. He paid a return visit to SUNY.

“I never thought I would be free,” he was quoted as saying.

He proceeded to demonstrate that his sense of humor was unimpaired.

“I hope the time will come soon when you get into jail in the U.S,” he went on. “I will be in a position to organize world support on your behalf, and when you get out, I will organize a reading for you—at the University of Ghana.”

His reading at SUNY included a poem that he had written behind bars addressed to his daughter Amewsika. Her name, The New York Times noted, means “the human being is more precious than gold” in Ewe.

Where am I? Well, very near you.

But there ware iron bars on my door

A man stands there with a gun

He brings me food and water

Now and then.

And I dream that soon

You and I and all of us

Will be free!

When he was asked if he intended to stay in America, he said his father had died and he was now needed in Ghana as the patriarch of the family. He did return to New York to serve as Ghana’s ambassador to the United Nations between 1990 and 1994. His incarceration seemed to have convinced him that he needed to have a more immediate impact on day-to-day affairs. He was a leading voice for economic equality and against apartheid.

Or course, he remained a poet, and he had a new book about to come out when he arrived in Nairobi for this year’s literary festival. He had a lively conversation that with another poet and a Princeton professor named Paula Kahumbu on Friday night. His eyes were alight; his opinions in keeping with a man who had named his daughter The Human Being Is More Precious Than Gold.

The next morning he ambled into the mall with his son. The son was wounded in the shoulder, but the father was killed by monsters who place no value on human beings at all. Al-Shabab managed to deepen the horror by live-tweeting the massacre.

A measure of what the murderers had not been able to kill came with a tweet by Kahumbu on Monday. She announced that there would be a memorial at the National Museum in Nairobi that night for the one and only Kofi Awoonor, the poet who was the very opposite of a terrorist.

“Bring a candle,” Kahumbu tweeted.