Remembering Kofi Awoonor

A week after the death of Professor K N Awoonor, I am posting here some personal thoughts and recollections of the man.

'The word you are looking for,' he said, striking a rather pensive pose behind the desk, 'is "conspiratorial".' And in fact the word I had been looking for was "conspiratorial". Professor Kofi Awoonor was giving me his impressions of my short story "Jjork" (now appearing in the collection "Mr Happy and the Hammer of God and Other Stories" (Ayebia, 2012)). It was among a number of stories I had asked him to review. This is one of the images I have in my mind of Kofi Awoonor -- the man is larger than his title, which I shall drop henceforth. There are a number of these images from the few times that we met. These are precious memories.

I met the man a number of times under very different circumstances. One of such meetings occurred on a Saturday morning, when I was answering a service call for a photo-voltaic unit in his house. This was not long after the elections of year 2000. At that time I was working in the solar electricity field, doing design, installations and servicing. I assessed the unit -- the problem, if I recall correctly, was a faulty breaker that had led to the batteries failing to receive charge. When I had finished with my work, I found that the professor had settled in a chair in his garden -- itself of a rather interesting layout -- and we spent a short time in conversation. He remembered my father, by that time deceased. And I left the house impressed by Awoonor's dignified, yet down-to-earth demeanour.

Many months later, he agreed to take a look at some of my writing, and there was a protocol that eventually developed for this. I would send a note, sometimes with work I needed reviewed, to his address at the English Department. Almost invariably, a day or two later, Kofi Awoonor would telephone, his cheerful voice warm in the earpiece: 'Ah, Martin...'

Once, following up on my scripts, I met him at the Department of English and we took a walk, navigating a poorly constructed step behind the Language Centre in Legon (where, incidentally, my father used to work). He made a quip about old age and old bones as he cautiously stepped down. We headed to the Department of Linguistics where he had his office (and where, incidentally, my mother used to work). He told me he worried that Ghanaians seemed disconnected from their environment in a very fundamental way -- we could not even identify by name the trees and shrubs we saw every day. Which is a sad truth.

Then there was the time he agreed to do a reading for radio. I was at that time host of the literature programme "Open Air Theatre" on Radio Univers. So I got a mini tape recorder from the office, loaded it with what I presumed were new batteries, and headed off to the Department of Linguistics. The interview and reading lasted all of an hour and then some. I recall a very pleasant conversation and excellent poetry readings. Later, to my horror and deep disappointment (it pains me even more today), I discovered that the recorder had failed us. Only the first few minutes of the interview were viable. The rest was progressively garbled as the batteries ran down.

Between 2003 and 2006, with the assistance of a small group of friends, I organised a series of poetry readings at the University of Ghana -- the "Just Imagine" series. At our invitation, Kofi Awoonor attended, and heartily participated in what was really just a gathering of students and would-be writers sharing their work. He was a real inspiration, and his reading was delightful. Many people at the event remember this with fondness.

I found it striking, and even more so today, that Kofi Awoonor found the time to read and to comment on my writing, found the time for our events, and took the trouble to telephone his regrets when he could not attend. Later on though, when his involvement on the national scene became more intense, he obviously could no longer spare the time. And yet, even then, he telephoned to congratulate me on the publication of my book. Hanging up, stunned, I turned to my wife. 'That,' I said, 'was the Chairman of the Council of State.' And so the professor continuously proved that a cynical perspective of the nature of man is unjustified. He showed a caring -- even avuncular -- interest, beyond anything I expected. When looking to do my PhD, he encouraged me to try his alma mater: "Stonybrook is a good place."

In conversation he would draw from his rich knowledge and experience. A discussion would throw up references to Sartre, African culture and the demonization of same even by indigenes, and snippets from his past. He once narrated an incident from his secondary school days while encouraging me to ditch a story, "The Bathroom", an allegorical tale which I rather liked but which he warned approached the scatological -- slippery grounds for any writer.

I remember these interactions with Kofi Awoonor, and appreciate his kind, warm-hearted person. That he died as a result of the sheer barbarism displayed in Nairobi on the 21st of September is one of the things that make life seem quite unfair. But the professor, I am sure, would appreciate the terrible irony of it all.