English professor Kwame Dawes, a Ghanaian-born poet who edits UNL’s Prairie Schooner literary magazine, was attending a literary festival in Nairobi, Kenya, Sept. 21 when terrorists struck the Westgate Mall.
His friend and fellow poet, Kofi Awoonor, 78, was among those killed in the attack.
Awoonor, also Ghanaian, traveled to Nairobi and the Storymoja Hay literary festival at Dawes’ request.
The University of Nebraska Press is set to publish a collection of Awoonor’s poems next year. “Promises of Hope: New and Selected Poems” would be Awoonor’s first collection published since 1992. It will be part of an African Poetry Book Series that Dawes helped establish.
Dawes said he had asked Awoonor to come to Nairobi to celebrate his work. It was the first time either man attended the Storymoja Hay literary festival.
“This was a good chance to meet him again,” Dawes said. “I showed him the cover of the new book which he loved. That was good. For so many reasons, it was a great time and a great meeting.”
Awoonor and his son apparently drove to the mall to get breakfast, coffee or perhaps to shop, Dawes said. They had just arrived when the shooting started. The two became separated in the confusion. The son was shot in the shoulder and Awoonor’s body later was identified in the hospital morgue. He had been shot in the abdomen.
Dawes had known Awoonor for many years — the older man was his mother’s cousin.
“He was my uncle, my father’s best friend, I grew up knowing him,” Dawes said. “This is exceedingly difficult. He’s my Uncle Kofi.”
Scholars and critics recognized Awoonor as one of a handful of great African modernist poets. He combined the elegiac tradition of his native Ewe tribe with a western modernist sensibility to create work that was “distinctly” African, Dawes said.
His first book was published in 1964, when he was about 29 years old. He continued to publish steadily over the years. He held a master’s degree in literature from the University College in London.
Awoonor was a diplomat as well as a poet. He served as Ghana’s ambassador to the United Nations from 1990 to 1994, where he was the head of the committee against Apartheid. Awoonor had been imprisoned without trial for several months in 1975, and was later brought to court on charges that he had aided a ‘political criminal’, ex-Brigadier Katah, fell the country. His imprisonment was protested by International PEN, Amnesty International and writers including beat poet Allen Ginsburg.
The Somali militant group Al-Shabab has claimed responsibility for the mall attack. Dawes said that as far as he knows, no other festival attendees were caught in the terrorist attack. He also said he doubted that the attackers knew Awoonor’s identity.