Cowardly gunmen attacked the West Gate Mall, a high end shopping mall in Kenya. At the moment, the dead are about 60 while the injured are getting to 200. One can only hope that no more people lose their lives due to the actions of these wicked souls. One also hopes that the perpetrators are found and made to suffer many times over the undue hardship they have brought to the victims and people who are connected to the victims.
Unfortunately, one of those who lost their lives in the attack was Kofi Awoonor. The poet, scholar, professor, statesman, ambassador – he wore many distinguished hats – was attending a conference in Nairobi, and apparently passed by the West Gate Mall to read poetry. While doing what he loved, perpetrators did what he hated. He detested violence more than anything. In this instance however, hate overcame love albeit temporarily.
People like Awoonor are the reason why we celebrate modern African literature. The fact that we can take African literature for granted demonstrates the extent to which he and others achieved excellence for our continent. His poetry was resplendent with traditional African vibes and he was proud of his roots. He wasn’t afraid to take creative risks and at a time when some of his contemporaries were happily (and lazily) aping Western models of creative writing, he would draw from what he knew – his work was therefore original.
He always spoke his mind regardless of audience or subject; this trait gained him admirers and also made enemies for him. Nevertheless, he received critical acclaim for his poetry, fiction and non-fiction.
I knew the man personally, so this death is more jarring than Achebe’s. He taught me Oral Literature and Introduction to African Literature at the University of Ghana. Since he knew the authors he was teaching (he was personal friends with most, if not all of them), his classes were insightful on a different level. His personal anecdotes for instance made some of the literature we studied under him come to life in a unique way. He was witty, intelligent and had a great sense of humor.
In one of our class sessions he was talking about literature and power when he recalled the murder of the Nigerian activist Ken Saro-Wiwa. Saro-Wiwa was a personal friend to Awoonor, and he detested the fact that Abacha had abused his power to kill someone who was simply passionate about his people receiving their fair share of resources from their own land. He went on a short tirade, calling Abacha a “devilish demon” before talking about the power of literature to overcome brute force.
Saro-Wiwa himself was a literary artist, and in one of his short stories entitled “Africa Kills Her Sun”, a prisoner writes a letter, agonizing over the problems that occur with using force over democratic processes. The story was prophetic, as the author himself was murdered in similar circumstances. It is ironic that Awoonor would also be killed in such a dastardly manner. Using force to make a point renders the point valueless, especially when innocent people are involved. As I write this, news just in has it that Al-Shabab has claimed responsibility for the attack, and they have done more harm than good to whatever cause they think they believe in.
May the good Prof rest in peace, and may his values live on. Condolences to family, friends, and loved ones of other victims of this incident. Evil never wins. The sun always rises.