Speak Magazine

Field Notes

Awoonor’s cultural legacy

Awoonor_womeninaislesBy Carolyn Thompson

ACCRA – Dozens of women in red and black dresses stream through the aisles, with small candles atop their heads flickering a morose light. As the women walk, they pound the ground with wooden sticks, singing a mournful song.

They crowd the stage at Ghana’s National Theatre, chanting as they walk past President John Mahama and other political and cultural leaders.

It’s a procession of wailing Akpalu singers from Wheta, Professor Kofi Awoonor’s hometown.


Awoonor, a famous Ghanaian poet, politician and pundit, was killed in the attack on the Westgate Shopping Centre in Nairobi on Sept. 21. He was 78.

On Oct. 11, three weeks after the attack, Awoonor was celebrated and mourned in his home country at an elaborate state funeral, part of a weeks-long funeral process.

In a statement released by the country’s president, Mahama said Awoonor will leave a legacy of literature that will persist through future generations.

“Far too often, democracy in Africa is defined simply by the absence of dictatorship rather than by the presence of the vision that fuels it, and the willingness of individuals to take a stand in defence of that vision, regardless of the consequences,” he said.

Throughout the funeral Friday evening, Awoonor was remembered as such a man – one who defended his and his fellow citizens’ right to promote the arts and their cultural heritage.

“They say he was a tribalist,” said Koku Anyidoho, Awoonor’s nephew and the MC for the event. “He was not a tribalist. He was a true Ghanaian.”

Anyidoho said Awoonor believed in the power of the arts – of his poetry – as a means to shed light on the suffering and joys of his people, the Ghanaians.

“He was a man of words,” he said, and those words were to him the power of change.

Awoonor_funeralbrochureAwoonor himself said in his book Until the Morning After, “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, presence, affirmation.

“This is the source of my poetry, the origin of my commitment – the magic of the word in the true poetic sense. Its vitality, its energy, means living and life giving,” he said.

“And that is what the tradition of poetry among my people has always meant. It had as its fundamental thrust the celebration of living itself against a background of suffering, children dying at birth, mothers dying at childbirth, children not reaching the age of ten, and old men and women, survivors all, left to tend the homesteads. Survival in this situation was more than a matter of hope.

“It was anchored in faith, belief, and certainty that life is a cyclical process; we fulfill our turn with drums, laughter, and tears, and pass on inevitable to our ancestorhood, to sustain those we leave behind on this wayside farm we call life.”

…Go and tell them I paid the price

I stood by the truth

I fought anger and hatred

on behalf of the people

I ate their meagre meals in the barracks

shared their footsteps and tears

in freedom’s name

I promised once in a slave house in Ussher

to postpone dying until

the morning after freedom.

I promise.

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