Why you should care
Among the victims of the Westgate mall attack was Kofi Awoonor, an elegiac poet who dreamed of a united Africa.
Two years ago in September, terrorists stormed a shopping mall in Kenya, leaving scores dead. Last year, Jacob Kushner wrote a remembrance of one of the victims.
A year ago this month, gunmen affiliated with the Somali terrorist group al-Shabab stormed the Westgate Shopping Mall in Nairobi, Kenya. The three-day standoff killed 67 people and wounded many more. The event riveted the world for days. Those who survived are still recovering.
Among the dead was the Ghanaian poet Kofi Awoonor. He’d come to Nairobi that weekend to speak at Storymoja, a Pan-African literary festival. Hundreds of Kenyans and visitors from around the world had gathered at the National Museum downtown to discuss literature, memory, politics and country, and to meet luminaries like Awoonor. The poet had led a workshop, presented a talk about his forthcoming book and taken part in a press conference.
But Awoonor was at the Westgate Mall, enjoying the company of his son, Afetsi, when the first gunshots rang out. He died. The next day of Storymoja was canceled. In Accra, Ghana, later that week, hundreds gathered at the airport for the arrival of the poet’s body. He was 78 years old.
Another Ghanaian poet, Kwame Dawes, explained to me Awoonor’s significance to Ghanaian culture and African history. Dawes had invited Awoonor to Storymoja. His parents were close friends with Awoonor, and it was through their relationship that Dawes came to know and understand Awoonor.
“They remember him as a great statesman, a great teacher. They call him ‘Prof.’ Children at school have had to learn his poems. They are on the exams,” says Dawes. “I think there will be a sense of a great loss of a great national figure.”
Awoonor came from a generation of African poets marked by the struggle for independence. Activism infused their writing. Born in 1935 in a land still under British colonial rule, Awoonor was 22 when Ghana gained its independence in 1957. He was just past 30 when he fled in exile after a coup deposed Ghana’s first president, Kwame Nkrumah.
“When I think of Awoonor, … (his) is the generation of the movement toward independence in Africa and the Caribbean and the rest of the world,” says Dawes. They called themselves old campaigners. “The term referred to men and women who were long involved in the struggle, the left-leaning struggle. In Jamaica we’d call them veterans,” Dawes says. “This is how they would end any anecdote — they would toast themselves and say, ‘Ah, we are old campaigners.’”
Later, Awoonor would become Ghana’s ambassador to Brazil, Cuba and the U.N.
He still talked about Africa as … a place where people must understand they are more connected than they are separated.
Kwame Dawes, fellow Ghanaian poet
“He was also a political thinker, a diplomat,” says Dawes. “He understood that there are separations and divisions, ethnic tribalism, colonial divisions. But they did not mitigate against the idea, the sense of African unity. … I don’t think he ever lost sight of that.
“It’s impossible to think of Kofi Awoonor without thinking of Pan-Africanism,” Dawes says. “Up to the time of his death, he still talked about Africa as a philosophical whole, as a place where people must understand they are more connected than they are separated.”
Kenyans hoped that narrative of unity would prevail after the attack. In the days after, I watched people of all backgrounds arrive by the thousands at a makeshift Red Cross center to donate blood. Twitter blew up with messages of sympathy and outrage, many carrying the hashtag #WeAreOne. Dawes told me a few days after the shooting that those evocations of unity were consistent with Awoonor’s ideas and beliefs.
But the very event that killed Awoonor — an attack by Africans on Africans — challenged that notion of unity. Kenya’s response to the attack has amplified its divisions: Today, police still sweep up innocent Somali Muslims from the streets, harassing them and charging them bribes for their freedom in what has become the country’s de facto counterterrorism policy.
Death and the Poet
For Awoonor, death was never distant. He was imprisoned and put on death row in 1975 for alleged involvement in an attempted coup against a military head of state. He survived, but several compatriots did not.
That experience made death “more palpable and immediate” for him and his poetry, said Dawes, supervising editor of Awoonor’s posthumous book of poems, Promises of Hope: New and Selected Poems. One of the poetic hallmarks of Awoonor’s ethnic group, the Ewe, is the elegy — “the middle ground between the living and the dead,” Dawes says. “He would write elegies for Africa, for Ghana, for friends who had passed — even for himself.”
In “To Feed Our People,” Awoonor, 78 and conscious that his own death was near, longed to die confident that he had fulfilled his duty to his country and to his people.
When the final night falls on us
as it fell upon our parents,
we shall retire to our modest home
that we have done our duty
by our people;
we met the challenge of history
and were not afraid.
Jacob Kushner covered the Westgate Shopping Mall attack and its aftermath for the Associated Press. He was at the Storymoja literary festival where Awoonor was to speak when the attack began.