Kofi Awoonor: A writer with 'fire in his mouth'
That one of Africa's greatest, most gentle English-language poets should have been killed in the recent terror attack at the Westgate mall in Nairobi, Kenya, while seeing to the publication of his latest volume, should not pass without at least a memorial note.
He was Kofi Awoonor of the Gold Coast (now Ghana), who had put his country on the world's literary map. In 1957, Ghana became the first African colony to achieve independence. And so a new era rolled out for the continent.
As I reported in this paper (then the Weekly Mail) in October 1987, Awoonor and I had met up as members of a delegation of African writers in Rome.
The scene is an air-conditioned luxury bus, parking outside the Colosseum.
By then we had been honoured by the president under the trophy of an elephant's head, been served numerous aperitivos on Felliniesque rooftops by none other than Mother Teresa, and even dined in the Pope's private villa. I was about to get off the bus when a hand touched my shoulder. Stay.
As this was Awoonor's hand, I could only oblige. We had had enough of playing along, he explained, and were now in boycott mode. Didn't I see the TV cameras of Italy's 32 TV channels just waiting to film poor Africans spilling into that arena once again?
By way of reply I said I thought forced gladiatorial spectacles and thumbs-up, thumbs-down imperial procedures were as outdated as the ruins about us. But Awoonor was of another persuasion.
Nowadays, he smiled, no African muscleman would be stupid enough to be forced to face a lion. Not even with an assegai and a bit of grass mat. So let us rather halt debt reclamation and, for that matter, apartheid with our pens. Then to while away our peaceful sit-in, he quietly told me the story that still has me wake at night in horror.
Meanwhile, it should be noted that when the late Es'kia Mpa-hlele published his anthology African Writing Today with Penguin in 1967, which was inevitably banned in South Africa, Awoonor had been allocated his due space. As George Awoonor Williams, he appeared with this contributor's note: "Born in 1935 near Keta in the Toga region, father from Sierra Leone and his mother from Togoland."
He had by then published his first volume with the Mbari Writers' and Artists' Club in Ibadan, where Mphahlele had become an editor. Mbari had also released the likes of such future troubadours as Dennis Brutus and Arthur Nortje.
Often reprinted has been his Rediscovery, which had been the title poem of his debut volume. With these devastating lines he encapsulates the conditions of political autonomy: "There shall still be the eternal gateman/ who will close the cemetery doors/ and send the late mourners away."
I knew that, based in the United States, he had agitated for an African Literature Association to be formed. Only now will this flourishing network hold its annual conference here in South Africa (at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg next year).
His criticism in The Beasts of the Earth (1976) once set the standard. Also I was aware that, for supposedly assisting a political fugitive, he had served a spell in his homeland's Ussher Fort prison.
Probably because we were about the last of the old style of mission-educated postcolonial poets in Rome – among far better-earning prose writers, playwrights and general polemicists – the friendship developed. He would send me his collected poems of 1963-85, published in the US by his regular outlet, the Greenfield Review Press, as Until the Morning After. He had a co-publisher called Woeli in Accra.
This was a hint that I should reciprocate by return. His dedication was signed Brazilia, 88. By 1993, Dr Awoonor, as he was usually credited, had had his diplomatic duties transferring him to the United Nations.
As New African reported in December that year, there he was "long known as a man with fire in his mouth" – that is, one unafraid to speak his mind. In this instance, however, he was defending the privacy of his country's first lady, who in her residence had installed a whirlpool bath, costing half the nation's health budget. Evidently Ghana was still wincing over the public scandal of a minister's wife of their first independent government who had flown all the way to the old colonial capital, London, to purchase a golden
From New York Awoonor retired home to his family, and to fight out in the free press an answer to critics of his The Ghana Revolution. Evidently he was accused of endangering the general interest by fanning tribal rivalries.
But still, sustaining his reputation as something of a classic, there was always his novel, This Earth, My Brother … Originally released as number 108 in the Heinemann African Writers Series in 1971, it had been reprinted frequently. In his record of publishing African authors, James Currey describes it as a sort of Chinua Achebe work. Plus humour.
But this is the story he told me, back on that steamy bus.
The scene is now Takoradi, or even the shore off Cape Castle from which for centuries specimens of black ivory were shipped abroad at the rate of 100 000 a year. Today bored crewmen on supertankers, making promises of a better life elsewhere, lure the local lasses to stow away on board.
As this was a quarter of a century ago, before the days of condoms and Aids, by the time they had nearly crossed the Atlantic and acquired every other venereal disease, these human toys were apparently routinely disposed of. In their wake, overboard goes the evidence of ear-rings and high-heeled shoes.
Since this crime is said to occur in Brazilian waters, Awoonor as Ghana's ambassador there was heading a murder investigation. An assistant had fished out the body of a 14-year-old Ewe girl. Case open.
May the circumstances of his own tragic death be interrogated with equal vigour.