Well-known and beloved Ghanaian poet Kofi Awoonor was one of the casualties of the Westgate Mall attack in Nairobi, Kenya on Saturday. Awoonor, 78, was in Kenya for the Storymoja Hay literary festival, and his son was also wounded in the massacre.
Somali militant group al-Shabaab has claimed responsibility for the attack – The rampage took place in an upscale area of Nairobi, and is believed to have been orchestrated by extremists who were specifically targeting non-Muslim Kenyans and Western expatriates in the area. The attack is said to have been carried out by five to ten men with AK-47′s and hand grenades, and some were disguised as women. As of now, there are still hostages remaining inside the mall.
Professor Awoonor served as Ghana’s representative to the United Nations between 1990 to 1994, and his work as a writer combined the poetic traditions of his native Ewe people and religious symbolism, to depict Africa during decolonization. Awoonor studied literature at the University of London, and wrote radio plays for the BBC. He spent the early 1970’s in the United States, studying and teaching at universities.
Awoonor’s nephew, fellow poet Kwame Dawes, was also visiting Nairobi at the time of the attack, but was in a hotel at the time. He memorialized Awoonor in the Wall Street Journal on Sunday:
“I saw him a day earlier than that fateful day. It had been a few years since I had last seen him in Ghana. We embraced. We laughed a lot, sharing witty and biting jokes in sotto voce during an often-amusing press conference. That afternoon he gave hope and encouragement to so many poets and writers who gathered to hear him offer a master class for poets.”
Awoonor was planning to join poets Nii Parkes, Warsan Shire, Clifton Gachagua, and the novelist Teju Cole.
Dawes pointed out that Awoonor had been writing on the subject of death in his recent poetry. adding, “I take comfort in the sheer beauty of this lyric, and in the fact that at some level, he may have been ready for what he had to face in that mall yesterday:”
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
Image courtesy of YouTube.