In Memoriam: Kofi Awoonor
By Fahamisha Patricia Brown
Keep the faith, my boys,
after I am gone (from “for Tenu and Afetsi: A Hymn”)
Kofi Awoonor, poet/scholar/teacher/diplomat, was killed in the September 2013 attack on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya. Those who remember him from his days at SUNY, Stony Brook, know him as the scholar/activist who applied his creativity to poetry, novels, drama, and his scholarship to African history, literary and cultural criticism, and socio-political criticism which landed him in a Ghana jail.
While I am not certain that he was ever a dues-paying member of the African Studies Association or the African Literature Association, I do remember his presence at the ALA conferences held in Ghana in 1994 and 2006. I also remember meeting him in the early seventies at a meeting of the ASA or perhaps it was the African Heritage Studies Association in New York. What I remember about our encounter was his willingness to share thoughts with a young scholar who had taught only two courses in African Literature and had just read and taught his “allegorical tale of Africa” This Earth, My Brother (1971) in a team-taught course on African history and literature. (My historian colleague believed that our students could learn more about African history and cultures from its novelists than the then mostly European and white American historians.)
In the introduction to his work, his now fellow ancestor Chinua Achebe described it as “ a medley of forms—intense and tight sequences of poetic prose alternating with more open stretches of realistic narrative and now and again broken by shots of running commentary, all moving sometimes forward in time, sometimes backward or in circles and at yet other times completely flung outside our accustomed historical time scale (vii). His 1975 study The Breast of the Earth: A Survey of the History, Culture and Literature of Africa South of the Sahara extended the same eclectic approach to history and cultural criticism. It remained on my supplemental reading list well into the 90s. Later I would continue to teach poems from Night of my Blood (1971) and The Latin American and Caribbean Notebook (1992) in my courses on “perspectives in Black literature” and “poetry of the African world.”
He was an informal “Prof” to me as he was a formal one to so many of his former students.
Let the dream not die, master,
Let the dove coo at dawn again,
Let the masthead rear its head out of the storm
And share the night with me on this sea.
Before death comes, master,
Let me dance to the drums you gave me.
Let me sit in the warmth of the fire
Of the only native land you gave me (from “Of Home and Sea I Already Sang”)
Death came for Kofi Awoonor not at home in bed surrounded by friends and family but in Kenya (still Africa) where he was scheduled to be honored by and to participate in the Storymoja Hay Festival, a four-day celebration of oral and written story. Instead, he met death. We celebrate his life and mourn his death.
Raise the song for me, my kinsmen,
I am gone, I am gone. There is nothing more to be
Said. ( from “The Ancient Twine”)
Fahamisha Patrica Brown is Associate Professor of Urban Studies and Human Services at Metropolitan College of York and chair of the Publicity and Media Relations Committee of the African Literature Association.