Renowned Ghanaian poet and statesman Kofi Awoonor was among the 62 people confirmed dead in an attack by Somali Islamist militants on a Nairobi shopping mall.
The announcement of his death led to an outpouring of grief in his home country. President John Dramani Mahama expressed his “shock” at the news, adding: “Such a sad twist of fate.”
Awoonor, 78, was killed and his son was wounded at the Westgate mall, Ghana’s Deputy Information Minister Felix Kwakye Ofosu said. Awoonor had been due to appear at the Storymoja Hay literary festival in Nairobi on September 21st.
Kwame Dawes, a cousin of Awoonor as well as a poet who was in Nairobi at the time of the attack, said Awoonor and his son were not together when the shooting started.
“I think the son went to pick up something at the mall. Professor Awoonor was in the parking garage waiting for him,” Dawes, a professor in the United States who is editing Awoonor’s latest poetry collection, told AFP by telephone.
Awoonor was Ghana’s representative to the United Nations under the presidency of Jerry Rawlings from 1990 to 1994. He was also president of the Council of State, an advisory body to the president, a post he left earlier in 2013. He was most noted for his poetry inspired by the oral tradition of the Ewe people, to which he belonged. Much of his best work was published in Ghana’s immediate post-independence period, part of which he spent in exile after the first president and post-colonial icon Kwame Nkrumah, to whom Awoonor was close, was overthrown in a coup. His books included “Rediscovery and Other Poems”, published in 1964.
The announcement of Awoonor’s death sparked widespread shock in Ghana.
While he was head of the Council of State, Awoonor was often in the press during a period that included the death of the sitting president John Atta Mills and the disputed 2012 election.
Awoonor’s death occurred on Nkrumah’s birthday, adding to the sense of grief.
“He straddled many, many, many worlds,” said Esi Sutherland-Addy, an associate professor at the University of Ghana who knew him through literary circles.
“He’s an elderly gentleman. You would have thought that such a person would pass away peacefully. That’s what you wish for. This is just absolutely the last thing that one would have thought.”
Awoonor returned to Ghana in 1975 and was later arrested and tried over his suspected involvement in a coup, according to a biography from the US-based Poetry Foundation. He was released after 10 months, and the foundation said his imprisonment influenced his book “The House by the Sea”.
During his time in the United States in the early 1970s, Awoonor was chairman of the comparative literature departure at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. He was also Ghana’s ambassador to Brazil and Cuba in the 1980s, the foundation said.
“Kofi Awoonor is easily one of the great poets of Africa and has been for many years,” Dawes said.
Awoonor wrote in both English and Ewe, a language predominant in Ghana’s east and other parts of west Africa. He used the syntax and structure of that language in his English poetry, Dawes said, a move that distinguished him from other writers.
Dawes said he plans to release the new book in 2014.
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