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Death of Kofi Awoonor in Nairobi Attack Is ‘Great Loss’ for Ghana and Poetry

September 25, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Kofi Awoonor, a Ghanaian poet, diplomat and academic, was among the victims murdered in a terrorist attack at a shopping mall in Nairobi. Awoonor's nephew Kwame Dawes, another renowned poet, was traveling with his uncle to attend a literary festival in Kenya when he was killed. Dawes joins Jeffrey Brown to honor his legacy.
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TRANSCRIPT

GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight, remembering some of the victims of the attacks in Kenya.

The assault claimed a number of people known far and wide and also some of the country’s elite. They included Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta nephew, also a popular radio and television journalist in Kenya. A Clinton Foundation staffer who was eight-and-a-half months pregnant and her fiance, an architect, were killed as well.

And there was renowned Ghanaian poet Kofi Awoonor, whose body was returned home today.

Jeffrey Brown gets a personal recollection.

JEFFREY BROWN: Kofi Awoonor was a poet and novelist, author of numerous volumes influenced by both his native traditions and Western literature. He was a scholar teaching in Ghana and the U.S. and a politically-engaged statesman, serving as his country’s ambassador to the U.N. and serving time in prison for his political beliefs.

He was in Nairobi to attend a literary festival.

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With him and with us now was his nephew and fellow poet Kwame Dawes, professor at the University of Nebraska and editor of the journal “Prairie Schooner.”

And, Kwame, welcome back to our program.

And, first, let me offer our condolences for the death of your uncle.

KWAME DAWES, “Prairie Schooner”: It’s good to be back, Jeff.

 And thank you so much. Appreciate it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Tell us who he was and why he was such an important figure in Ghana and throughout Africa.

KWAME DAWES: Kofi Awoonor belonged to that generation of African poets and African writers that emerged in the late ’50s and early ’60s who saw a vista of possibility in independence and in a new vision of Africa, Pan-Africanist view of Africa.

And his first book of poems came out in 1964. He was about 26 years old at the time. And he would continue to write poetry and write novels, and he had this wonderful sort of role as a great statesman, a fantastic professor and teacher — people in Ghana know him as “Prof” — and became an international figure as an ambassador and a diplomat.

So there’s a great loss in Ghana, because this is — this is a major figure.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what did he write about? How did he combine his interest in literature and in the politics that you’re talking about?

KWAME DAWES: He had a — you know, he came of a generation, and this is the generation that connected him with my father. He was a best friend of my father for many years, and he regarded my father, Neville Dawes, as a kind of mentor.

But I remember once talking about my father. And Awoonor fell into that category of men who were artists and writers, but who felt themselves deeply engaged in the political realities of the world. These were left-wing individuals. They call themselves old campaigners.

And they believed that literature should speak to the experience of people, should be involved in the process of liberation, and yet at the same time they believed in the highest quality of literary expression that engaged both the African traditions, the voices of Africa, the languages of Africa, and yet — and what essentially was a modernist sensibility.

And I don’t think there’s any poet that managed to do that as effectively as Kofi Awoonor. He would be in the category of somebody like Christopher Okigbo or Dennis Brutus from South Africa. This is the caliber of writer we’re talking about.

JEFFREY BROWN: Tell us about a little bit about the man, the man that you knew, your own personal recollections.

KWAME DAWES: You know, I grew up with him as uncle Kofi.

He was my father’s very good friend. And he was the uncle that we liked to come to the house, this tremendous laughter, a great deal of energy. But we also knew that he was seriously committed to the struggle. He faced tremendous obstacles. He spent time in jail for his beliefs and for his work.

He lived in exile and spent time with us in Jamaica for that work. But we also grew up with him as a cousin to my mother, somebody he loved dearly and so on, but a great, fun, but brilliant man. And later on in life, he became somebody who encouraged my writing and encouraged me as an artist in ways that I just can’t explain.

So, to lose him is a great — it’s a tremendous loss. But I had a chance to see him while I was in Nairobi and to enjoy our fellowship with each other, so that was one good thing.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, in fact, you were there and he was there for the literary festival. And I gather he’s been — he’s remained hard at work. You told me earlier you are putting together a new volume of his selected poems?

KWAME DAWES: Yes.

The African poetry book series which I started, which is committed to publishing African writers, African poets primarily, we asked him if he would be willing to be our first of a series of new and selected books by major African poets. And he agreed right away.

And so, in early 2014, we will be publishing a book called “Promises of Hope: New and Selected Works,” which is edited, with a selection done by Kofi Anyidoho, another great Ghanaian poet. And that book will be out. And, in fact, it was the book that took us to Nairobi to be at the Storymoja Hay Festival to celebrate the work and to really start to get interest in African poetry.

And, you know, that was the celebration. But, at the same time, the incredible tragedy that took place just makes it bittersweet.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Kwame, we’re going to end with you reading from part of one of his more recent poems, I think, right? It’s called “To Feed Our People”?

KWAME DAWES: Yes, it’s a very new poem.

“Do not dress me yet. Lift me not onto that mound before the mourners. I have still to meet the morning dew, a poem to write, a field to hoe, a lover to touch, and some consoling to do before you lay me out.”

 JEFFREY BROWN: All right, the poetry and life of Kofi Awoonor, as told to us by Kwame Dawes.

Thank you so much.

KWAME DAWES: Thank you, Jeff.