I heard about Kofi Awoonor in 1976 when I was covering Long Island for the Times. His friends at the State University at Stony Brook were publicizing his arrest in his homeland of Ghana. He said he had driven a friend in political trouble across the border because that’s what friends do. He had been at Stony Brook before going home, and had many admirers in the States, including two Pulitzer Prize winners, Louis Simpson and Bernard Malamud.
Of everything I did on that story, I most remember calling the Ghanaian embassy in Washington, D.C., browbeating some telephone-answerer, saying, “Doesn’t your country know it has imprisoned an important artist, a man the world knows?” Reporters know how to make ourselves obnoxious in cases like this, and I’d like to think I did.
Ghana came to its senses in 10 months and released him for time served and assured him that he remained a citizen in good standing. He had dropped from 165 pounds to 135 pounds but said he caught up with his reading in prison. He also got a collection of poems out of his little sabbatical, called The House by the Sea, after the prison where he lived.
In January of 1978 he returned to Stony Brook to see his friends, and drink wine, and recite poetry. One he read was dedicated to his daughter Amewsika, whose name means, The Human Being Is More Precious Than Gold.
Tomorrow my love
You will turn eleven
I had promised a party;
But worry not, I won’t be there.
Your mother will give you a party;
Tell me if she doesn’t.
Where am I? Well, very near you.
But there are iron bars on my door.
A man stands there with a gun.
He brings me food and water
Now and then
And I dream that soon
You and I and all of us
Will be free!
Kofi Awoonor lived and wrote and taught from Ghana, and served as a diplomat, for the rest of his life, which ended this week while traveling to Kenya for a literary festival, as a prominent voice of Africa, of humanity. Other men with guns appeared at the mall and slaughtered innocents.
I went to a bookshelf – I knew just where it was – and found his book, The Breast of the Earth: A Survey of the History, Culture and Literature of Africa South of the Sahara, which I had read as I prepared to write the two stories while he was imprisoned. At the reception in Stony Brook, he had inscribed the book for me, the only time we met.
I want to add that I am grateful to Ghana for giving him back his life, his voice. I have since come to meet Ghanaian soccer fans in Germany and Brooklyn and South Africa, the nicest people. They mingled with Americans at the World Cup in 2010, some carrying flags of both nations. I think of Ghana as Kofi Awoonor’s homeland, and grieve along with the nation.
The article from the Sahara Reporters: