Blog Post

'I move into the gates, demanding...': A Tribute to Kofi Awoonor

Kofi Awoonor (Credit: FH Communications Bureau via Flickr)

I first met Kofi Awoonor as an excitable 17-year-old high school student then in the Sixth Form.  We had been set Awoonor’s This Earth, My Brother as one of our A-Level texts, and needless to say no one, including the English teacher, seemed to have the faintest clue what the novel was about.  I decided to set off to find out for myself and took a bus from school to Cape Coast University, some 50 miles away to speak to the big man himself.  Without cell phones or internet there was no chance of booking an appointment at the time so I just showed up on the university campus and asked around until I was pointed to his office.  He was at a lecture so I sat down patiently outside his office to wait.  The man materialized in what seemed to me like hours later and kindly ushered me into his office, where I was completely dazed at the number of books pressed closely together on his bookshelves.  “We are studying This Earth My Brother, and I want to know what really caused Amamu’s madness at the end of the book,” I blurted out in a complete haze of bewilderment and awe to be finally speaking to THE AUTHOR. 

Can you imagine!  Rather than answer me directly, he asked me several questions first to ascertain that I had actually read the novel and then to prod me into finding an answer for myself.  I left as unenlightened as when I arrived, but with one firm conviction: Kofi Awoonor was not just a writer, but a superb human being for having taken the time off what I later discovered to have been an incredibly busy schedule to attend to an absolute imbecile that I then was, and likely still am now.  It took me at least another fifteen years or so to fully understand the novel, and I now rate it as one of the best examples of modernist alienation in African literature, to be read alongside Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North, Dambudzo Marechera’s House of Hunger, Ngugi wa Thiongo’s A Grain of Wheat, Yvonne Vera’s Without a Name,  and Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians, among various others.

But there was another tie that I had with Awoonor, and perhaps not a very happy one.  Jeebo and I used to run away from school most Tuesdays to go and lie on the beach reading poetry and eating bananas with canned sardines.  Jeebo was just a grade above me, but that didn’t prevent me from seeing him as by far the most advanced consciousness in the entire school and even greater than our teachers. Jeebo read everything including Karl Marx but was especially interested in poetry and the short story, which he promoted with the idea that you could pack more of them into a day than you could novels. We read Ring Lardner, Edgar Allan Poe, TS Eliot, Robert Frost, Walt Whitman, Leopold Senghor and Kofi Awoonor, among many others.  Lots of Kofi Awoonor, including “At the Gates”, the first lines of which seem eerily appropriate on his sudden death: 

At the Gates

I do not know which god sent me,
to fall in the river
and fall in the fire.
These have failed.
I move into the gates
demanding which war it is;
which war it is?
the dwellers in the gates
answer us; we will let that war come
 ...
 who knows when evil matters will come.

I declaimed the full poem from memory in the dinning hall at school once in protest over something or other and was promptly hauled before the Headmaster and threatened with suspension.  I saved myself by saying that well, I couldn’t have possibly been inciting a riot if I didn’t start my speech with “chooooo-boi”, which is typically the popular call to arms in my country.  It was just a poem, I said, and by one of the authors on our A-Levels reading list who also happens to be a respectable professor at the University of Cape Coast (I had to pull out all my cards; I was pretty desperate by that point!).  The Headmaster was somewhat skeptical, but could find no riposte to what I had said so let me off with a very stiff warning.  “I have my eyes on you, Ato” he shot at me, as I left his office in some degree of hurry and no small trepidation.

I was later to meet Kofi Awoonor several times in different contexts after high school, and each instance gave me further confirmation of my first impressions of him.  Awoonor was no ordinary writer but a man of absolute principle,  a committed Pan-Africanist and a soul of both effervescent passion and magnanimous intellect.  An absolutely inspirational human being.  This is not just Ghana’s loss.

May his soul Rest in Peace.

Ato Quayson is Professor of English and Director of the Centre for Diaspora and Transnational Studies at the University of Toronto, where he has been since August 2005. He did his BA at the University of Ghana and took his PhD from Cambridge University in 1995. He then went on to the University of Oxford as a Research Fellow, returning to Cambridge in Sept 1995 to become a Fellow at Pembroke College and a member of the Faculty of English where he eventually became a Reader in Commonwealth and Postcolonial Studies.