Kenya's Westgate mall siege: Ghanaians mourn poet Kofi Awoonor

The only Ghanaian killed in Kenya’s Westgate mall was a poet, statesman, and professor who crafted a distinctive way to write about the world.

Christian Thompson/AP
A well-wisher signs the condolences book for Ghanaian poet, professor, and former ambassador Kofi Awoonor, seen in the framed photograph, at Awoonor's residence in Accra, Ghana, Sept. 23, 2013.

Kofi Awoonor carried many titles during his life: ambassador, prisoner, presidential advisor, and professor among them.

But he was best known for his poetry, his skill and knowledge of prose so renowned that Mr. Awoonor was invited last month to speak at a literary festival in Kenya’s capital Nairobi.

On the morning before he was scheduled to give a talk, the 78-year-old Ghanaian took a trip to Westgate mall. There, he became a victim of the bloody siege claimed by terrorists from Somalia-based Al Shabab that killed 61 civilians and left 39 unaccounted for.

Mourners bade farewell to Awoonor at a private funeral on Thursday in Ghana’s capital Accra, and his ashes will next month be buried in the eastern village of Wheta, where he was born.

With his death, Ghana lost a respected and, at-times, fiery elder statesman. He was a trailblazer in the country’s literary scene, known both for the way he wove west African tradition into his poetry and for his aptitude at writing essays, plays, and novels.

“It’s a real loss,” says Kwame Dawes, a cousin of Awoonor and a professor at the University of Nebraska who traveled with him to Nairobi. “It’s sad because we have so many beautiful and strong memories of him.”

Awoonor was a product of Ghana’s post-independence era, channeling the exuberance of a newly independent country and the 1960s renaissance in black writing into his first book, “Rediscovery and Other Poems,” published in 1964.

Forgoing western poetic structures, Awoonor used the rhythms of Ewe, a language spoken by people in eastern Ghana and parts of neighboring countries. He harnessed the declarative, call-and-response beat of Ewe folktales and dirges into his poetry at a time when Africa was breaking out after years of colonial marginalization.

In “Songs of Sorrow,” a poem stylized after a traditional funeral dirge, he wrote:

I am on the world’s extreme corner,

I am not sitting in the row with the eminent

But those who are lucky

Sit in the middle and forget

I am on the world’s extreme corner

I can only go beyond and forget.

“There’s no question in my mind that Kofi Awoonor became excited about literature, about teaching, about writing at the time when there was a great deal of energy and excitement around writing and around black writing,” Mr. Dawes says.

His passionate embrace of Ewe tradition occasionally brought controversy and allegations of being exclusionary to other ethnic groups in Ghana, where ethnic identity runs strong but rarely becomes the basis for conflict.

His political views, particularly his close friendship with the first president Kwame Nkrumah, were a liability in Ghana’s early years, where a succession of often-repressive military rulers held power in the late 1960s and 1970s. Awoonor was arrested and jailed for 10 months for allegedly being involved in a 1975 coup plot. 

In the last two decades, Awoonor played a role in Ghana’s young democracy, both as a representative to the world and a counselor to the head of state. He was Ghana’s ambassador to the United Nations from 1990 to 1994, as the country wrote a new constitution that ushered in democracy after decades of upheaval.

Former president John Atta Mills appointed him chairman of the Council of State, an advisory body to the presidency made up of prominent Ghanaians. In that role, he helped shepherd Ghana through Mr. Mills’s death last year and the succession of John Dramani Mahama, who won presidential polls earlier this year.

Between stints in government, he taught at universities in Ghana and the United States. In the classroom, he was an indomitable figure, Mr. Dawes says, a professor who didn’t suffer fools and challenged people to rethink their dogmas.

Even his relatives weren’t spared his critical eye.

“He would always come and tell me, ‘Sophia, you are young in politics, we don’t do it this way, we do it this way,’” says Sophia Ackuaku, a niece and aspiring parliamentarian.

“We politicians, [if] we need any advice, we can always call him,” Ms. Ackuaku says.

Awoonor stepped down from the council earlier this year, and began working on an anthology of new and selected poems to be published next year. He was also thinking about what to write next, Dawes says.

The upcoming anthology was one of the reasons he traveled to Nairobi’s Storymoja Hay literary festival.

Awoonor’s whereabouts were unknown for almost 12 hours after the shooting started at Westgate mall, Dawes says. Perhaps he was looking for his son Afesti, who was at the mall with him. But when Afetsi emerged from the mall, wounded but alive, Awoonor’s death became clear.

The family thinks that perhaps Awoonor tried to negotiate with the attackers, or went to help people, Dawes says. Or perhaps he let his salty tongue – honed from years of teaching students and advising politicians – get the better of him, and hurled one last insult at the gunmen.

"Life is such that it may have been that he was just trying to run in to see where his son was and they killed him," Dawes says. "And there was no drama, just a man, a man 78 years old, brutally shot down."

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