Kofi Awooner (1935-2013)

Ghanaian novelist and poet whose verse has been widely translated and anthologized. Awoonor studied at the University College of Ghana , University College, London , and the State University of New York at Stony Brook . In addition to teaching at the University of Ghana, he served as an editor of the literary journal Okyeame and as an associate editor of Transition. During the early 1970s he taught at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. He returned to Ghana in 1975 to teach but was arrested on political charges . His sentence was remitted in 1976, and he resumed teaching until 1982. From 1984 to 1988 he was Ghana's ambassador to Brazil and from 1988, to Cuba.

("Awoonor, Kofi (Nyidevu)." Merriam Webster's Encyclopedia of Literature, Merriam-Webster, 1995).


Kofi Awoonor (formerly George Awoonor-Williams) has written something noteworthy in almost all the major literary genres. As a poet, his name is to be found high on the list of the best contemporary African poets. His novel This Earth My Brother (1971) continues to attract critical attention. His major critical work, The Breast of the Earth (1975), is widely used as a standard introductory text on African literature and is frequently cited in African literature scholarship. All in all, his work as a creative writer, critic, and translator provides a clear demonstration of the enduring power and beauty of the African oral-poetic tradition.

Awoonor, born to Atsu E. and Kosiwo Nyidevu Awoonor on 13 March 1935, spent his earliest years in Wheta, Ghana, his birthplace, before moving with his family to Dzodze, some eleven miles away, where in 1939 he enrolled at the Roman Catholic Mission School. In 1943 he was transferred to the Presbyterian Mission School in the sea-and-lagoon town of Keta, where Awoonor spent the greater part of his youth. He had his secondary-school education there, at the Zion College of West Africa (1951-1954), before moving on to Achimota College in Accra for his so-called sixth form year (1955-1956). During these early years, he developed a strong attachment to the land, exploring its physical and human geography with an intimacy that was to leave an enduring mark on his sense of place. In much of his work Awoonor evokes these scenes of childhood with a tenderness so lyrical that its echoes remain with the reader for a long time. But there was something there more than the landscape, deeper than the lagoon and the sea, larger even than the people, a special factor that was to play a central role in Awoonor's creative universe, as he makes clear in the essay "Reminiscences of Earlier Days" (in The Writer in Modern Africa, 1968):

Their world was my real world of consciousness, of growth. It was formed in mysteries about life; it had to do with invisible living phenomena that pertained to everyday existence. I do not rationalize this world now, because I have returned to it, to the underlying energy that sustained it. The principle that I believe was at its base was continuity....

The magical and the mysterious relationships defining only the very simple and mundane have, beyond time and place, their anchorage in words. Our people say the mouth that eats salt cannot utter falsehood. For the mouth is the source of sacred words, of oaths, promises, prayer and assertions of our being. When the mouth says it, then it must be true. Truth is being, presence, affirmation. This is the source of my poetry, the origin of my commitment--the magic of the word in the true poetic sense.


The recurring pleasure of reading and hearing Awoonor's best poetry is that of listening to a voice deeply rooted in the secret pains and pleasures of the earth. His poetry constantly seeks out the magic of the word. It is primarily a poetry of the speaking voice, taking readers into its confidence, sometimes gently stirring troubled mental rivers, and sometimes complaining of neglect and waywardness, provoking shame out of hiding places, or soothing hurt with wisdom as ancient as the origins of death and life. The poet laments, complains, praises, blames, curses, and laughs, almost always in a voice whose musical rhythms crisscross with the heart's beatings and the sea's motions.

The constant search for new beginnings that is so much a part of Awoonor's creative universe may be an inevitable factor of the special circumstances in which his literary career began. Awoonor entered the University College of the Gold Coast, now the University of Ghana--Legon, in 1957 on the eve of Ghana's independence. He earned a B.A. with honors in English in 1960, the year in which Ghana became a full republic. After graduation he first worked as a lecturer in English at the University of Ghana from 1960 to 1963, then began work as a research fellow at the Institute of African Studies, Legon. The institute had opened a few years earlier, but it was not formally dedicated until 1963. On that occasion, Kwame Nkrumah, first president of the new first African republic, gave specific directives to the fellows, such as Awoonor, as to what their pursuits ought to be:

In studying the arts ... you must not be content with the accumulation of knowledge about the arts. Your researches must stimulate creative activity; they must contribute to the development of the arts in Ghana and in other parts of Africa; they must stimulate the birth of a specifically African literature, which, exploring African themes and the depth of the African soul, will become an integral portion of a general world literature. It would be wrong to make this a mere appendage of world literature....

In this way the Institute can serve the needs of the people by helping to develop new forms of dance and drama, of music and creative writing, that are at the same time closely related to our Ghanaian traditions and express the ideas and aspirations of our people at this critical stage in our history. This should lead to new strides in our cultural development.


Awoonor's direct participation in the artistic traditions of his people was given great impetus by the vigorous national cultural programs that came with the general independence movement in Ghana. Nkrumah was a great lover of the arts and took personal interest in several artistic programs and projects. In an old issue of the Ghana Cultural Review (July-September 1965) there is a picture of Nkrumah chatting with Awoonor, Kwesi Brew, and others at the newly built Ghana Drama Studio following the performance of a play. The president was the patron of the theater group in which both Awoonor and Brew played key roles. It was perhaps inevitable that Awoonor's preoccupations as an artist should be infused with a deep commitment to cultural nationalism. He was part of a generation of people of artistic talent and skill who rose to meet the cultural challenges of Ghana's independence movement with its clear emphasis on what came to be known as "African personality." Other creative writers who were part of that movement include Efua Sutherland, G. Adali-Mortty, and Joe de Graft.

In a way, Awoonor was doubly prepared for his task: the national cultural movement helped define his concerns and provided a supportive climate for his creativity, and his family background and childhood cultural experiences had mapped out the paths he could most fruitfully follow. "I grew up," he writes, "on the lap of my grandmother Afedomeshi, a great singer of dirge songs.... Born into a community of drummers, dancers, and singers, my earliest recollections of Ewe oral poetry became the basic inspiration of my earliest writings" (The Breast of the Earth). For Awoonor, then, poetry became an old family heirloom that could be re-created and fed into Ghana's and Africa's cultural heritage. Awoonor began with Ewe oral tradition, but he did not end there. It was a point of departure, to other places, other people, and other times, though there is almost always in his poems a return to his primal origins and sources of inspiration.

The most clearly recognized specific point of departure for Awoonor's poetic career, one that he has himself frequently acknowledged and even analyzed, is the dirge tradition, especially the songs of Vinoko Akpalu, the greatest of all dirge composers among the Anlo Ewe. Indeed, Awoonor explains that many of his early poems are built around central thematic lines directly translated from Akpalu. The best known of these poems is Awoonor's "Songs of Sorrow," in which not just a line or two but whole segments are drawn from more than one Akpalu song and worked into the core of especially the first part of Awoonor's poem.

The poem opens with a complaint against Dzogbese Lisa, the Ewe equivalent of the Igbo's Chi, a personal god of destiny and dispenser of life's fortunes and misfortunes, made familiar to students of African literature by Chinua Achebe. The poet-persona's life road has taken him among thorns, "the sharps of the forest." The first stanza closes with an almost direct translation of lines from Akpalu: "The affairs of this world are like the chameleon faeces / Into which I have stepped / When I clean it cannot go." The first of these lines slightly alters Akpalu's original statement "Xexeamenyawo zu ganami mefa," where he sings not of chameleon (agama) but of hyena (ganami) feces. Ewe observation of the natural environment holds that the hyena's feces carries a stench that outlasts the fragrance of all perfumes. Awoonor's slight alteration endows the lines with an added sense of mystery, a state of almost mythical defilement.

The second stanza opens with yet another Akpalu original: "Xexeame fe dzogui dzie mele," translated as "I am on the world's extreme corner," offering the ultimate image of loneliness and personal misery. Later in the poem the persona's misfortunes are carefully itemized, among them a situation that is generally acknowledged in the tradition as the most severe of all calamities: no sons to give him a decent burial; no daughters to wail over his dead body. Akpalu's particular sense of loss and loneliness, which informs many of his laments, derives from the claim that he had no child of his own. He could not expect his individual line of descent to survive his death. This sense of desolation is captured in what has become a central Awoonor motif: the image of a fallen homestead surrounded by termite-eaten fences.

A dramatic change occurs in the second half of "Songs of Sorrow." The poet personalizes his lament by directly invoking deceased members of his own family, and the tone of lament finally gives way to a burst of angry pleas to his ancestors, including his maternal grandfather, whose last name is Awoonor's middle name, Nyidevu. The rest of the poem reminds one of the content and style of the traditional Ewe libation-prayer text, often part plea and part complaint with occasional threats. The speaker does not only ask for blessings from the ancestral spirits but also accuses them of neglecting their offspring, and he demands to know "Why they idle there / While we suffer / and eat sand." One special power of traditional oral poetry so well captured here is Awoonor's use of a series of evocative images and proverbial statements that strike home with the sharpness of anger and pain.

While "Songs of Sorrow" may best illustrate the tendency in Awoonor's early phase of borrowing liberally from Akpalu and other traditional sources, there are few other poems in which there is such extensive use of traditional lines. Significantly Awoonor omits "Songs of Sorrow" from all his poetry collections published to date, despite the poem's great popularity among students of African poetry. It remains an anthology piece of disputed authorship (among certain critics).

Poems such as "Songs of Sorrow" are directly and closely worked out from their traditional models, but others take off from the dirge form and mode and then move on into new areas of experience; in the process, they define those imaginative extensions of the traditional medium that have allowed Awoonor's voice to provide the peculiar experience of listening to several voices coalesce into a harmonious sensation of echoes of various times and places. Such is the overall impression left by even his first collection, Rediscovery, and Other Poems (1964).

For a first book Rediscovery is remarkable for its confident handling of metaphor, thematic consistency, and pure lyricism. The title piece sums up the basic thematic thrust of the volume, the theme of tradition and continuity that has so far remained a constant and central factor in Awoonor's work. A poem of great evocative beauty, "Rediscovery" is at once nostalgic for the warmth and security of childhood joys, and self-assured with the solemn wisdom of knowing that life changes only to bring one back to one's various points of departure. The speaker dries his tears on the shores of childhood, shores that can exist in memory only, because they have been eaten away by the sea. He recalls the fishermen carrying their nets home, the sea gulls returning to their island, and the laughter of children receding at night. Suddenly his voice offers the pleasant realization that "there shall still linger here the communion we forged / the feast of oneness whose ritual we partook of." The eternal gateman closes the cemetery doors and sends the late mourners away, away from death and back to life, to "the new chorus of our forgotten comrades / and the halleluyahs of our second selves."

"Desire," the opening piece in Rediscovery, presents the poet in the image of a diviner; this is a culturally and biographically relevant point, since the name Awoonor is generally reserved for diviners. In "Desire" Awoonor Bokor, the diviner character, begins to probe the mysteries of the herb pot, pursuing his calling in the direction of the single quest that simultaneously leads into the past and into the future as a way of coming to terms with the present. His findings contradict those who see the past only in terms of travails and the future as filled with promised glories. In the end, the unfathomable mysteries usher readers into "the place of skulls," where the speaker finds himself reclining in an armchair, supervising the ceremony of the lost souls that would presume to be his pallbearers.

The quest motif and the diviner's revelations recur in several other poems in Rediscovery . In "Salvation" the speaker sets out by lantern light, past the "narrow strip / That is now the shores of childhood," past the sea and the funeral drums with their sounds of "Doom, Doom, Doom" still ringing in his ears, until he lands on far-off shores. But he has to return and "find ... salvation here on the shore, asleep." There is a familiar revelation awaiting all "Exiles" stranded on alien shores (in the poem of that name): the ultimate need for return, tedious, pain-filled return to "the dunghill that has mounted on their birth place":

They committed the impiety of self-deceit

Slashed, cut and wounded their souls

And left the mangled remainders in manacles ...

Lost souls, lost souls, lost souls that are still at the gate.


In most of these poems about the eternal quest for recovery from disastrous adventures in alien and hostile worlds, the tone is often a mixture of pity, muted sorrow, and gentle humor. In some cases, however, the humor yields to an ironic, subversive use of biblical language to debunk the alien system that seems to exercise such strong but generally injurious influence on the traditional culture for which this poet is a self-elected spokesman. "Easter Dawn" illustrates this tendency. In "We Have Found a New Land" Awoonor's sense of humor becomes a sharp, pointed weapon directed with devastating effect at the blundering self-deception of the "smart professionals in three piece / Sweating their humanity away in driblets." In their anxiety to be seen "in the best company," these lost souls have become ghosts walking through limbo toward hell's gate to plead for admission, having effectively "abjured the magic of being themselves." The two final lines of this poem represent a carefully balanced metaphorical statement and definition of Awoonor's poetic quest and its fundamental guiding principle: "Reaching for the Stars we stop at the house of Moon / And pause to relearn the wisdom of our fathers." The determination is to forge new paths into the future, but always firmly guided by a clear knowledge of the achievements and failures of the past. For Awoonor the poet, this is no abstract principle. It must find immediate realization in the true, original, creative, poetic voice, such as in "What Song Shall We Sing?," "My God of Songs Was III," and "The Return," where he seeks "the promise of a rebirth." That rebirth of the true poetic self must come not through a mere sentimental or nostalgic wish but by full participation in the rituals of the ancestral tradition, enacted in "My God of Songs Was Ill," at the end of which the poet's god bursts into "new strong songs."

Though a first book, Rediscovery is not the work of a novice. It offers the strong, self-confident voice of an artist who had realized at the outset of his career that he might be about to make a false start, so he took the precaution of serving his apprenticeship by drawing on the experts in the arts of eloquence in his own tradition.

Though much is made of Awoonor's tendency toward the elegiac, mainly because of the influence of Akpalu and the dirge tradition, the tone and mood of his laments are not necessarily of the heavy, brooding kind. Even in the work of Akpalu, the voice of sorrow frequently is superseded by that of critical denunciation and satirical comment. There are many of these qualities in Awoonor's poetry, even the early work.

"The Weaver Bird" (in Rediscovery) probably his most popular anthology piece, moves away from the strict lament over lost scenes of childhood, neglected gods, and homesteads into the contemporary historical reality of Europe's assault on Africa's treasures of the land and the mind. In the image of the weaver bird, notorious for its colonizing crusades, Europe's presence in Africa is sketched in sharp outline as a sinister despoiler of homesteads and sacred grounds. Africa also comes in for blame, because of its bemused indulgence of the arrogant visitors. Too late Africa realizes the tragic error when "the weaver returns in the guise of the owner / Preaching salvation to us who owned the house." Awoonor's use of the past tense for the African people's ownership of the house alerts one to the dilemma of a people reduced to servitude on their own soil. But the tragedy is seen as only a passing moment. The people are not to be dispossessed so easily; they could not be permanently persuaded into accepting false salvation from an ungrateful visitor. They would not join the communion of lost souls:

Its sermon is the divination of ourselves

And our horizons limit at its nest

But we cannot join the prayers and answers of the communicants.

We look for new homes every day,

For new altars we strive to re-build

The old shrines defiled from the weaver's excrement.

This denunciation of Europe's presumptions and impositions on the will of Africa is remarkably calm but nonetheless biting. Its total effect is that of presenting a person of confidence whose anger refuses to yield to screams and hysteria. Later, in Awoonor's "Songs of Abuse" (from Ride Me, Memory, 1973), gently biting satire gives way to direct verbal assault of the most provocative kind.


In 1965 Awoonor quit his research fellowship at the Institute of African Studies to become the managing director of the Ghana Film Industries Corporation, a post he held until 1967, when he left on a Longman Fellowship to study for an M.A. in English at the University of London. He left Britain for the United States in 1968, taking an assistant professorship at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. While teaching at Stony Brook, he also enrolled for the Ph.D. in comparative literature, completing the program in 1972. He served until 1975 as chairman of the comparative literature program at Stony Brook and also held visiting professorships at the University of Texas at Austin; Queens College, New York; and the New School of Social Research, New York.

Awoonor's return to Ghana in 1975 brought to an end the most productive years of his literary career to date. His time in the United States not only furthered his distinguished academic career but was a period of vigorous and varied creativity, with several books published and at least three other manuscripts completed.

The harvest of these American years began with the publication of Messages: Poems from Ghana, a 1970 anthology he coedited with Adali-Mortty (with 1971 on the title page); Night of My Blood (1971); and This Earth, My BrotherMessages remains the only major anthology of Ghanaian poetry, although it omits all the older poets of the early days of the independence movement, such as Michael Dei Anang and Raphael G. Armattoe. However, this limitation is somewhat compensated for by the full representation the book gives to the generation of literary talent that emerged as the cultural voices of independence. Several went on to become major talents in contemporary African literature: Joe de Graft, A. Kayper Mensah, Ayi Kwei Armah, Kwesi Brew, Amu Djoleto, Cameron Duodu, and Efua Sutherland.

Night of My Blood deserves its reputation as Awoonor's most important collection of poems so far. It incorporates most of the poems of Rediscovery. This means that one needs only to read Night of My Blood to have a good grasp of Awoonor's poetic development up to that point. The major thematic preoccupations remain unchanged. However, a firmer grasp of style and technique has entered his poetry. The general impression is that of a poet who has digested the work of older poets enough to sing in a strong, clear voice rooted in tradition and yet with unexpected variations and changes in mood and tone.

The voice of lament is still evident in Night of My Blood, but the lament is no longer so much for neglected gods as it is for the short-lived joys of the independence dream. The language itself is no longer under the heavy and direct influence of Akpalu's style, though the imprint of the traditional models is in evidence. "More Messages," for instance, is cast in the lament mode, retaining much of the authentic mood and proverbial style of the traditional dirge, yet exploring the idiom of new as well as old experiences. The eternal search for the "lonely miracle of redemption" finds the speaker crawling and sitting by the roadside,


the palm kernel, eating of the white

with the visiting mice

throwing the chaff to the easterly wind.

Unlike the traditional dirge singer, however, this speaker would not look to death as the end of his sorrow. Despite the countless agonies of the journey, the ferrymen with their heavy cargoes of flesh, and the hunter "beaten by desert rain and thistle" returning home with an empty gun, regardless of past failures and present doubts, the aim is not the quiet and loneliness of the grave but a firm rededication to life and its promise of new seasons of good harvest. This is no time for unending tears.


A sense of increasing urgency has entered Awoonor's poetry at this point, even in poems cast in the dirge mode, such as "At the Gates," and especially in sections of the longer poems that dominate the second half of the collection. To register the correct effect and set the right mood and pace, he begins to explore more consciously the rhythms of the drums and the dance. He has become a choreographer, a mover; readers seem to work out the dance sequence with him:

No, no your hands must encircle the invisible.

Your hips must harmonize with your feet.

Your chest must beat the time.

Yes, my dance, my movement,

They must tell the primal story

of birth waters, blood, umbilical cords

in defiance of moon marks at every turn.

Yes, my dance, my movement

They are not steps, no:

they are journeys, roads, avenues, boulevards

Dream boulevards of life incarnate.

In the rhythms of the dance, he explores the regions of mystery beyond the physical world and the self in search of the sustaining energy that governs continuity in a universe forever threatened by fragmentation and disintegration.


Another significant development that enters Awoonor's poetry in Night of My Blood is the technique of the collage. Ezekiel Mphahlele, in his introduction to the original Doubleday edition of the collection, describes such a style in terms of a musical medley. The technique operates in two main ways. At one level, Awoonor pulls together themes, images, lines, and line sequences from several of his earlier poems. At another level, he draws on a baffling range of apparently disparate and fragmentary experiences, historical, mythical, or purely symbolic. All these scattered bits are then pasted onto a wide canvas and are held together by a coherent rhythm and movement, the essential unity of which is sometimes registered in certain basic thematic lines repeated in a carefully regulated pattern. The poems in which this technique is best seen are necessarily long, among them "Night of My Blood," "I Heard a Bird Cry," "This Earth, My Brother," and "Hymn to My Dumb Earth." The title piece takes for its canvas the history of the migratory journeys of the Ewe, recounting the terrors of that journey, the rituals and unfailing endurance of the trekkers, and their eventual triumph over all the tribulations of that search for a new home. This basic model is, however, re-created as the history of all the people of the land in its new geopolitical arrangement, embracing all of modern Ghana at one level and all of Africa at another level of poetic symbolism.

"Night of My Blood" recounts much precolonial history, and "Hymn to My Dumb Earth" presents the terrors, triumphs, and lessons of postindependence experience. This hymn bursts out suddenly, then calms down into the rather plaintive sounds of George Frideric Handel's Messiah (1742) and the Ghanaian national anthem. The various contradictions built into the independence experience are effectively captured in the various voices, tunes, and rhythms. The Christian, biblical voice blends into an uneasy harmony with the rhythms of jazz, dirge, and political demagoguery. Names, sounds, events, poetic lines, and passages are freely evoked from the entire range of African and Western experience. There is a tone of irreverence lurking behind some of the biblical invocations: "O, Come all ye faithless"; "Our Father who art in heaven / do whatever that pleases you." The satiric tone foregrounds fundamental contradictions and blunders:

A new Constitution is drawn up

filled with webs of brilliant arguments

and quotations from Plato's Republic.

Africans know about such Grecian matters.


Everything comes from God.

In the end readers are compelled to query the truth of this last statement, which runs as a disturbing refrain throughout the entire hymn. Perhaps God does not have to take the blame for it all. The collage technique becomes an appropriate metaphor for a bewildering experience that failed to produce an expected harmony.


This technique is also the central idiom for the narrative discourse of This Earth, My Brother . Of all his creative writing outside of poetry, Awoonor is best known for this novel. Described by the author as a "prose poem" and subtitled An Allegorical Tale of Africa, this work has a complex structure, and although it is generally considered a novel, none of the conventional terms of classification fits it perfectly. The discourse unfolds at two levels, each representing a different kind of consciousness, a different kind of reality. The first level is that of the narrative proper, the story of Amamu, the protagonist. It is also the story of the society that makes and unmakes Amamu. This is the level of everyday, mundane reality, a reality in which the individual and society are both threatened by physical and psychic disintegration. At this level the narrative is carried by a normal prose style.

It is on the second level that this work is probably more interesting to the analyst and certainly more challenging. Made up of the prologue and the "(a)" segments of each chapter up to 12, this level draws readers into the world of dream and myth from which one can look back on and make better sense of the disturbing reality of the first level. The "(a)" segments are poetic interludes that draw upon a variety of images and powerful symbols of myth and ritual to provide a running commentary and a larger vision concerning the "revolting malevolence" of the main narrative. Chapter 2, for instance, follows Amamu through a typical working day of despair, among helpless crowds of citizens whose rights the makers of laws seem determined to ignore or frustrate, among an army of beggars and the unemployed, and among the negligent and decadent elite into whose hands the fate of the independent state of Ghana has fallen. At the end of it all, he parks his car "near a forgotten refuse dump" and disappears into the darkness of a house "painted in a dim blue."

Then comes the poetic interlude and commentary of "Chapter 2 (a)," sketching in carefully selected images the building of the nation and structural weaknesses that clearly portend its imminent collapse:

Bricks cement mortars pounding. A nation is building. Fart-filled respectable people toiling in moth-eaten files to continue where the colonialists and imperialists left off....

Woman, behold thy son; son, behold thy mother. This revolting malevolence is thy mother. She begat thee from her womb after a pregnancy of a hundred and thirteen years. She begat thee after a long parturition, she begat you into her dust, and you woke up after the eighth day screaming on a dunghill.

The pregnancy of 113 years represents the period of formal British rule over the Gold Coast. It began with the signing of Commander Hill's "Bond of 1844" and ended with Nkrumah's declaration of independence on 6 March 1957. Newly independent Ghana, then, is that baby screaming on the dunghill. But the dunghill that appears again and again throughout this work is more than a symbol of death and decay. It is a fertile patch, transforming rot into manure. The dunghill is the paradoxical symbol of life through death, of regeneration through degeneration. This paradox is central to the theme of This Earth, My Brother. The basic picture of Amamu's society is one of rapid degeneration of the dreams of independence, but the poetic interludes lift readers above the decay of dunghills, offering lavender mists and other colors of beauty seen in the eternal butterfly of rainbow seasons, in the regenerative capacity of even the dunghill and, above all, of the mythical woman of the sea.


The central myth of This Earth, My Brother is the myth of the mermaid. Known in West African mythology as Mammy Water, she is the magic woman, healer, lover, and spiritual guardian who takes the men she befriends into the depths and mysteries of the sea, prepares them to be strong, endows them with spiritual healing powers, and then sends them back into society to offer hope and a cure for the society and the individual's various ailments. The mythical woman of the sea first enters the story early in the prologue; she is sitting on the protagonist's lap, dripping water, with her eyes rolling in circles of little fires. She is also breathing gold and cinnamon pollen and shedding tears of moon dust.

It is within the context of this myth that Amamu's career falls into a coherent, meaningful pattern. His despair and sudden disintegration have not often received favorable analysis among critics. A typical objection is raised by Atukwei Okai, who puts him in the same corner with the unnamed protagonist of Ayi Kwei Armah's The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born (1968) and accuses them both of having a special disease called "Amamuosis," moral impotence. However, seen against the background of the woman-of-the-sea legend, Amamu's career suddenly begins to assume a more positive significance. His lonely, though haughty, initial stand against the general corruption and lack of energy in the ruling elite offers some hope for the future, however bleak and uncertain. Even his ultimate despair, madness, and death by suicide become necessary stages of a regenerative process of nature that turns the dunghill into a fertile patch and death into a gateway to new beginnings. Amamu's death at the scene of his childhood dreams is a return to his eternal woman of the sea, the mythical principle of creativity and healing that must come to refertilize a despoiled earth.

The regenerative capacities of the feminine principle, fully established in Awoonor's novel, contrast sharply with the satirical evocation of the potentially destructive masculine principle in one of the two short plays Awoonor contributed to Cosmo Pieterse's Short African Plays (1972). Ancestral Power is remarkable for its striking use of metaphorical and proverbial language, and for the brief but powerful sketch of its main character. Akoto is typical of the domineering male with criminal tendencies, and he hides behind frequent and possibly empty invocations of mystical ancestral powers, a mere cover for an unacceptable aggressive display of manliness against his family and the community. His elaborate boasting of how he called lightning down on his father-in-law's house is brought to an abrupt end when the police arrest and charge him with "arson, assault and battery." His final plea is not deserving even of a frightened child, let alone of ancestral power: "I have taken purgative; I drank it this morning. Please."

Awoonor's second play, Lament , is a short piece of poetic drama in which three voices speak in passages from some of Awoonor's poems. The First Voice, female, is assigned segments of "Lament of the Silent Sister," the poem dedicated to the distinguished poet Christopher Okigbo in Night of My Blood. The sudden, violent end to Okigbo's brief career is captured in sharp, startling imagery: "He was erect like the totem pole of his household / He burned and blazed for an ending." The two male voices in the play draw mostly on passages from "I Heard a Bird Cry," a long poem of which Awoonor has written in The Breast of the Earth, "I tried to capture a total mood of the Ewe lament, its stock images, its flow and direction, its ability to digress ... and above all its persistent preoccupation with the human condition."

A remarkable change occurs in Awoonor's poetry in his third collection, Ride Me, Memory , mainly through the widening of the thematic and stylistic range of his poetry. There is no clean break with earlier preoccupations. The dirge mode and style, for instance, continue in the final section, "African Memories." The poem "To Those Gone Ahead" is one of the most lyrical laments in the entire Awoonor corpus. But Ride Me, Memory, as a whole, moves away from the lament into other areas of the oral-poetry tradition and into artistic traditions outside Awoonor's immediate ancestral heritage. The collection, significantly, is dedicated to "Herbert Weisinger, Frank Platt, Calvin Canton, and all messengers of love and peace." The work is a testimony to the commonality of human suffering, struggle, and aspiration, compelling a celebration of various successes, however small. Quite understandably, Awoonor displays deep sympathy for the experiences of the African people of the diaspora, incorporating several lines and themes from African-American literature and music into his poetic sketches. A particularly dramatic dimension of the poetry of Ride Me, Memory is Awoonor's use of the hilarious poetry of abuse. In "Songs of Abuse" he draws directly on the techniques of traditional Ewe halo, a special type of poetic insult organized as a contest involving two sections of the same town or neighboring villages. A musical-poetry group on each side composes and publicly performs songs of insult directed against members of the opposing group. The public performance is often attended by some of those being assaulted in the songs, whose turn to perform will fall on another day.

Following the example of the halo poets, Awoonor begins "To Stanislaus the Renegade" with an open address. This is no satire or indirect attack. The subject of the verbal attack must be identified and made known to all. Before launching into his streams of insult, Awoonor, like his ancestral masters, attempts to justify his use of insult, his maledicta, by recounting how Stanislaus has provoked him with shameless behavior and ingratitude. Three types of insult commonly encountered in halo are all used by Awoonor. First there is insult directed at physical ugliness and lack of personal hygiene. Stanislaus, readers are told, stinks so badly that "The jail [he] occupied in Poonaville, Tennessee / was burnt down after [he] escaped; / They could not eradicate the smell." The second type of insult, that directed at immoral behavior, is scattered throughout the poem. Stanislaus is a frequenter of brothels, a thief, a cheat, and a drug trafficker. The third and probably most hilarious and pleasantly shocking type of abuse is the use of obscenities. The poet concludes his song of abuse with another usual feature of halo, the boast or the challenge, challenging his renegade comrade to single combat, and boasting of how he, too, has come of age.

To place this kind of poetry, as well as Awoonor's laments, in their proper context, one needs to look at his work as a critic and translator of the Ewe oral-poetry tradition. In Guardians of the Sacred Word: Ewe Poetry (1974) Awoonor presents translations of dirge and halo poetry by three major oral poets. His twenty-five-page introduction is rich in its grasp of the essentials of the Ewe oral tradition and the natural and human environment in which this poetry thrives. Of the three poets, the oldest and best known, Akpalu, Awoonor's primary model, stands out as a man whose creative industry is credited by the Anlo Ewes with the establishment of the traditional funeral songs performed at almost all funerals in the area. His preeminence, even after his death, confounds the long-held notion that oral tradition does not leave much room for the flowering of individual creativity. The other two poets, Komi Ekpe and Amega Dunyo, are representatives of halo. They are also equally gifted in the lament, ably balancing their devastating vitriolic compositions against the somber, reflective, and philosophically deep mood of songs of sorrow. Literature in translation is often a poor substitution for the original, but the songs in Guardians of the Sacred Word often come across with freshness and power.

In The Breast of the Earth Awoonor makes a substantial contribution to the critical evaluation of Africa's vast literary heritage. Subtitled A Survey of the History, Culture and Literature of Africa South of the Sahara, this 387-page study (based on Awoonor's doctoral dissertation) makes a largely successful attempt at providing a unified view of Africa's varied forms and traditions of literary expression. It demonstrates an important principle that has informed most of Awoonor's own work, the principle of creative continuity between oral forms and written literature. Unlike most other surveys of African literature, Awoonor's study goes beyond a mere mentioning or brief sketch of oral tradition as the major origin of written African literature. In seeking to establish how literature in Africa is a creatively continuous art beginning with the oral narrative, Awoonor dwells at length on oral tradition in its various manifestations, then moves on to literature written in African languages, before finally turning to contemporary literature written in European languages that were imposed by the colonial order. Probably the richest part of the book is chapter 12, where Awoonor discusses "contemporary samples of English-speaking African poetry," citing Mazisi Kunene, Okigbo, and himself as examples of poets writing in an English that speaks with a voice grounded in the fertile soil of Africa's cultural heritage.

With all these achievements behind him, Awoonor returned to Ghana in 1975 to a senior lectureship in the English department of the University of Cape Coast. The confused political situation in Ghana soon engulfed him. He was arrested for suspected subversion on New Year's Eve 1975 and detained in solitary confinement without any charges or immediate trial. Eight months later he was finally brought to trial and charged with allegedly aiding Brig. Alf Kattah to escape lawful arrest for alleged involvement in a coup plot. In a trial that lasted two months, the prosecution failed to prove Awoonor knew that his friend was a fugitive from justice when he drove him to the Togo border town of Aflao. He was nevertheless found guilty and sentenced to twelve months. He was released on bail the same evening, ten months after his arrest, and never returned to jail. His sentence was formally rescinded in April 1979. Awoonor tells the full story of that experience in The Ghana Revolution (1984), and the experience of political detention inspired several of the poems in The House by the Sea (1978), the house in the title being the Ussher Fort Prison in Accra, the old slave fort in which he served his term.

The House by the Sea suffers from a lack of the usual lyrical evenness associated with Awoonor at his best. It does, however, contain several pieces of great lyrical power, among them the two poems dedicated to Pablo Neruda, as well as "Departure and Prospect," "On Being Told of Torture," and the final piece, "The Wayfarer Comes Home." But too many of the poems in the collection are fragmentary. This is especially true of those in part 2, "Homecoming," which are poems that were originally written on toilet paper in prison and hurriedly smuggled out. In any case, even in their fragmentary state, the poems make a significant statement on the creative mind under extreme conditions of repression. They are a testimony to the spirit of endurance.

The House by the Sea presents poems in which Awoonor's political vision obtains a sense of urgency. Almost absent are poems in which he chooses only to reflect with a sense of detachment on politics, history, and culture. Words seem inspired by a larger vision, an experience of political repression and cultural genocide as contemporary, global realities, so pressing that the poet must not only reflect and complain but also must define and urge action, in word and deed. In the face of the brutal experience of Neruda and his contemporaries in Latin America, Awoonor sees the need to celebrate the revolutionary creative spirit that has the courage to defy political repression, even to the death. In the face of such repression and assassination squads, the greatest thing is for the human spirit to endure and identify itself with that global "octopus of this undying liberty." The call for perseverance in the face of death reaches a climactic moment in "On Being Told of Torture," one of Awoonor's most successful attempts at confronting the raw brutality of political torture. It is easy for the spirit to break once the body is beaten into submission, but he calls for the determination to "make a reckoning in the red bright book / of history." Political justice can only come by the miracle of one's own hands. Awoonor, like Wole Soyinka and Ngugi wa Thiong'o, two other African writers with personal testimonies of political detention without trial, has provided, in The House by the Sea, a record of the need for even the poet to transform his dreams into visions and his visions into the courage to wake his society with warning shots fired through "the barrel of the pen."

Awoonor's recent book of poems Until the Morning After (1987), which won the 1988 Commonwealth Poetry Prize for the African area, consists in part of selections from his earlier work, and in part of new poems, some of which are translations of works originally composed in Ewe. The nine works in the section titled "New Poems," in theme, subject matter, style, technique, and language, reiterate many of Awoonor's basic preoccupations. The first few are in part laments over "life's tears" or "life's winds and fate." But as always with Awoonor and the Ewe dirge tradition, there is hope beyond death. Life itself is seen as an "act of faith" in the eternal miracle of the seeding time that must come even after the fires of life have raged over the houses, reducing them all to stump walls:

Along a hope hill and fields

when dreams crush like petals

in a protective foil

against our fate

We move on, carrying I say

a singular faith in death

the only companion in this valley.

The poem "Act of Faith" makes a sudden transition from the lament to satire and poetry of abuse when the land's miseries are laid at the door of the "professional acrobats" who, believing they are "destined rulers," goad the young men to their deaths in attempted seizures of power:

these hypocritical tax dodgers

and their fraudulent briefs and lies

these leeches who live on the fat

of a lean country

devourers of corpses in foetal state

whose claim is supported by an ecclesiastical order....

There is much of Ghana's recent political history written into these metaphors.


The final poem, "For Ezeki," dedicated to Ezekiel Mphahlele, opens with a salute to "the homestead and the ancestors," then moves into an evocation of all the joys and sorrows of the exile in his perpetual search for a home and a hope, and the final return to the land of birth:

to seek memories along the goat paths, home

to those lingering shrubs of childhood

denuded by exile tears.

We say


the snake that dies on the tree

returns home to the earth.

Readers follow Mphahlele, the elder South African poet, in his travels and struggles against oppression and alienation. His brave, irrevocable return to life among his own people to share with them "their meagre meals ... in freedom's name" provides the ultimate poetic image: "to postpone dying until / the morning after freedom."


Between the publication of The House by the Sea and that of Until the Morning After almost ten years elapsed. At least part of the explanation for the paucity of Awoonor's creative writing since his release from prison must be sought in a decisive change in his life, leading increasingly to direct participation in national politics. Following his release he went back to his job at the University of Cape Coast, where he became a professor and the head of the Department of English, and later dean of the Faculty of Arts. But he was no longer content to play the regular academic, observing his nation's political life from the false security of what he calls "the outlaws' hill."

As a first step, he became a founding member of the Action Congress party, one of the many political parties that contested elections to establish a civilian government to replace the military rulers who had locked him up. For a time he contemplated running for a parliamentary seat, but he finally settled for the position of general secretary of the party. His party won only a handful of seats and was relegated to the background. He later joined a group of intellectuals who decided to offer intellectual support to the military government of Jerry John Rawlings, the young air force officer who first seized power in June 1979 and launched a program aimed at the revolutionary transformation of Ghanaian society. Awoonor still backs that program, and after serving for several years as Ghana's ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary to Brazil, with accreditation to five other countries in the Central American region, he was appointed Ghana's ambassador to Cuba and then to the United Nations. He was also a key member of the National Commission on Democracy, a body charged with the task of researching and formulating a program of action leading to a new kind of democracy, one based on the special conditions and traditions of Ghanaian society.

To all these direct political activities Awoonor brings the special gift of the power of the word. He has become a major political essayist. This branch of his career began in 1972 with the small pamphlet Come Back, Ghana , privately printed and circulated to all those involved in the task of rebuilding Ghana, including members of the new military junta of Col. I. K. Acheampong. This twenty-three-page pamphlet, dedicated to "Kwame Nkrumah who died to show us the way," is a brief political analysis of Ghana's problems, with suggestions on how they could be solved. Awoonor's next major work in this direction was The Ghana Revolution , a work that has drawn mixed reactions. His latest, Ghana: A Political History from Pre-European to Modern Times (1990), is an intellectual's gift to a nation in search of solid foundations for popular and just structures and principles of self-rule, firmly placing Ghana's current problems within the context of political and cultural history.

Whether Kofi Awoonor returns to his earlier preoccupation with imaginative writing or not, he has already secured a safe place within the canon of African literature, both for the quantity and the quality of his work. In particular his poetry is notable for its intense lyricism. He is classed with a select group of African poets who have been most successful in bringing African aesthetic norms to bear on their writing in English, a group that invariably includes Mazisi Kunene, Okot p'Bitek, and Christopher Okigbo. The contribution of these poets to world literature lies in the great poise and power with which they can take a second language with its own literary heritage and peculiar linguistic structures and yet use it so as to capture effectively the rhythms, the essential imagery, and the often elusive thought patterns of their first language and culture.

Awoonor's career demonstrates that such an achievement does not come through chance or through a cursory encounter with primary sources of literary sustenance. It is not enough to be born African. It is essential that the writer serve his apprenticeship with African experts in the art of eloquence. Awoonor's researches into African oral culture have played a crucial, formative role in giving shape and direction to his own creative skills.


  • Further Reading
    • Dennis Duerden and Cosmo Pieterse, eds., African Writers Talking: A Collection of Radio Interviews (London: Heinemann, 1972; New York: Africana, 1972), pp. 29-50.
    • John Goldblatt, "Kofi Awoonor: An Interview," Transition, 41 (1972): 42-44.
    • Bernth Lindfors, Ian Munro, Richard Priebe, and Reinhard Sander, eds., Palaver: Interviews with Five African Writers in Texas (Austin: African and Afro-American Research Institute, University of Texas, 1972), pp. 47-64.
    • Karen Morell, ed., In Person: Achebe, Awoonor, and Soyinka at the University of Washington (Seattle: African Studies Program, Institute for Comparative and Foreign Area Studies, University of Washington, 1975).
    • "Kofi Awoonor on Poetry and Prison," West Africa (17 April 1978): 750-751.
    • Ian H. Munro and Wayne Kamin, "Kofi Awoonor: Interview," Kunapipi, 1, no. 2 (1979): 76-83.
    • Ben Ephson, "Historical Forces," West Africa (4 November 1985): 2304-2306.
    • Kwaku Amoabeng and Carrol Lasker, "Kofi Awoonor: An Annotated Bibliography," Africana Journal, 13 (1982): 173-214.
    • Chinua Achebe, Introduction to Awoonor's This Earth, My Brother (Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor/Doubleday, 1972), pp. vii-xii.
    • Kofi Anyidoho, "Kofi Awoonor and the Ewe Tradition of Songs of Abuse (Halo)," in Toward Defining the African Aesthetic, edited by Lemuel A. Johnson, Bernadette Cailler, Russell Hamilton, and Mildred Hill-Lubin (Washington, D.C.: Three Continents, 1982), pp. 17-29.
    • Rosemary Colmer, "Kofi Awoonor: Critical Prescriptions and Creative Practice," ACLALS Bulletin, 5, no. 1 (1978): 22-31.
    • Colmer, "The Restorative Cycle: Kofi Awoonor's Theory of African Literature," New Literature Review, 3 (1977): 23-28.
    • Jocelyn-Robert Duclos, "'The Butterfly and the Pile of Manure': A Study of Kofi Awoonor's Novel, This Earth, My Brother," Canadian Journal of African Studies, 9 (1975): 511-521.
    • L. R. Early, "Kofi Awoonor's Poetry," Ariel, 6 (January 1975): 51-67.
    • R. N. Egudu, Four Modern West African Poets (New York: Nok, 1977).
    • Egudu, Modern African Poetry and the African Predicament (London & Basingstoke, U.K.: Macmillan, 1978; New York: Barnes & Noble, 1978).
    • Robert Fraser, West African Poetry: A Critical History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986).
    • Ken Goodwin, Understanding African Poetry: A Study of Ten Poets (London: Heinemann, 1982).
    • John Haynes, "Song and Copy: The Relation between Oral and Printed in Kofi Awoonor's 'Dirge,'" Journal of Commonwealth Literature, 20, no. 1 (1985): 118-129.
    • G. D. Killam, "Kofi Awoonor: The Breast of the Earth," Dalhousie Review, 56 (1976): 143-156.
    • Thomas R. Knipp, "Myth, History and the Poetry of Kofi Awoonor," African Literature Today, 11 (1980): 39-61.
    • Ayo Mamudu, "Kofi Awoonor as Poet," Lagos Review of English Studies, 3-5 (1981-1983): 112-125.
    • Gerald Moore, The Chosen Tongue: English Writing in the Tropical World (London: Longmans, 1969).
    • Moore, Twelve African Writers (London: Hutchinson, 1980; Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980).
    • Felix Morrisseau-Leroy, "The Ghana Theatre Movement," Ghana Cultural Review, 1 (July-September 1965): 10, 14.
    • Ezekiel Mphahlele, Introduction to Awoonor's Night of My Blood (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1971).
    • Olatubosun Ogunsanwo, "Awoonor's This Earth, My Brother ...: A Personal Memoir," Kunapipi, 9, no. 1 (1987): 74-87.
    • Femi Ojo-Ade, "Madness in the African Novel: Awoonor's This Earth, My Brother ...," African Literature Today, 10 (1979): 134-152.
    • Richard Priebe, "Kofi Awoonor's This Earth, My Brother as an African Dirge," Benin Review, 1 (1974): 95-106.
    • Priebe, Myth, Realism and the West African Writer (Trenton, N.J.: Africa World, 1988).
    • Martin Tucker, "Kofi Awoonor: Restraint and Release," English in Africa, 6 (March 1979): 46-51.
    • Elaine Saint-AndrĂ© Utudjian, "Aspects of Myth in Two Ghanaian Novels," Commonwealth Essays and Studies, 10, no. 1 (1987): 22-25.
    • Utudjian, "Rites of Passage in the Poetry of Kofi Awoonor," Commonwealth Essays and Studies, 8, no. 2 (1986): 67-74.
    • Derek Wright, "Ritual and Reality in the Novels of Wole Soyinka, Gabriel Okara and Kofi Awoonor," Kunapipi, 9, no. 1 (1987): 65-74.
    • Wright, "Scatology and Eschatology in Kofi Awoonor's This Earth, My Brother ...," International Fiction Review, 15, no. 1 (1988): 23-26.