Kofi Awoonor, Al Shabab, Boko Haram and the struggle for the New Dawn

(courtesy of the Story Moja Hay Festival site http://storymojahayfestival.com/)

When I heard on Sunday morning, 22 September 2013 that the great Ghanaian poet Kofi Awoonor had been killed in the Westgate Mall attacks, I began to obsessively follow google news and twitter with updates about the attacks. As I later related in my column for the next Saturday, I guiltily remembered after sitting online all day that even more people had been killed in Benisheik, Borno, than had been killed in the more widely covered siege on the Nairobi mall. It was a gut-wrenching week all round, with terrorist attacks that killed over 70 mourners at two funerals in Baghdad, Iraq; around 160 travellers on the road in Benisheik, Nigeria; at least 72 people at the mall in Nairobi, Kenya; and around 85 worshippers at All Saints church in Peshawar, Pakistan.

As I obsessively followed the news in preparation for my column published the following Saturday, I came across a New York Daily News article (yes, I know it’s a tabloid) that had a screen capture of the HMS Press Office twitter account, ostensibly run by Al Shabab. This was one of the several accounts Twitter shut down during the siege on the Westgate Mall. I had followed the chilling live tweeting from one of the HMS accounts during the massacre. Unlike Boko Haram’s Youtube videos released in Hausa, the tweeting was all in English of a sort that makes believable the speculations that there were Americans and Britons involved. As I read down the list, I gasped at the tweet at the bottom of the image, right before the screen capture cut off. It read “A new era is on the horizon. A new dawn, illuminating towards #Khifaafa. It’s a paradigm shift #Westgate”

Al Shabab tweet--a new dawn--cropped

The use of the metaphor “a new dawn” shook me because I had just spent days reading through the tributes to Kofi Awoonor, his poetry, and the poem widely used as his self-written elegy, from his new collection Promises of Hope: New and Selected Poems to be published in 2014.  

It is named “Across the New Dawn.”

It is easy to read the poem as prophetic now.

 We are the celebrants

whose fields were

overrun by rogues

and other bad men who

interrupted our dance

with obscene songs and bad gestures

There are warring notions here of what this “new dawn” is. Al Shabab presents it as a new era when its brand of extremism will take over the world–a paradigm shift. And if the four attacks across Africa and Asia are any indication, it does seem as though violent terrorists are pushing through a new order based on hate and sadism. It is, as it is meant to be, terrifying. This past week following the horrific attack that killed what the Vanguard claims killed up to 78 students in a hostel in at the Gujba College of Agriculture in Yobe State, I wanted to vomit when I heard of it. My mind couldn’t focus. As I wrote this week, I sat physically at my computer all day long unable to write anything.

What kind of person kills students in their beds? What kind of person joins a death cult? What kind of person slaughters the children of the poor?  In the dark? While they are sleeping?

Why?

I fear triteness.

What trite words of comfort can one offer when 78 students have been killed in their beds? When terrorists have murdered sleep in the northwest for over three years?

Yet, the convergence of these two warring notions of what the “new dawn” entails must mean something. I think (I hope, I pray) that Awoonor’s dawn will light the sky after the sun has set on Al Shabab and Boko Haram and Al Qaeda, and other terrorists who would attack innocent people to prove their ideology. Awoonor spent his life writing dirges, recognizing the evil that there is, yet he also he recognizes like Martin Luther King that the “arc of the universe bends towards justice.” There is a wisdom in his poetry built on generations of Ewe oral song that all the hatred of terror cannot twist. He writes of death, as a kind of balance,

No; where the worm eats

a grain grows.

the consultant deities

have measured the time

with long winded

arguments of eternity

And death, when he comes

to the door with his own

inimitable calling card

shall find a homestead

resurrected with laughter and dance

and the festival of the meat

of the young lamb and the red porridge

of the new corn.

It’s the archtypal life cycle of mourning and joy, death and birth, night and morning that runs throughout the Bible, which itself builds on and collects an oral tradition. As the King James version translates David’s song in Psalm 30:5

weeping may endure for a night,

but joy comes in the morning.

It makes me remember how I grappled with with writing about Easter in the dark days earlier this year. In my column the day before Palm Sunday, I wrote: 

But this week, it seems only appropriate to mourn, once again, so many senseless deaths, so much needless violence, to cry out as the Biblical character Job did, “Where then is my hope? […]I cry out to you, O God, but you do not answer,” (17:15, 30:20) to cry out like Jesus did on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46).
There has been so much tragedy over the past year that I think most of us have become numb. We step over the bodies and keep going. But every once in a while something touches you, the death of someone you know, the news of children targeted and attacked. In these times, the evil of this world envelops you in its horror, and you just want to lie down and let the tears empty you.

It is in this time that I look for scriptures that remind me how humans survive. The beauty of the Bible for me is that it is a document that spans a history of thousands of years, and encompasses dozens of genres. The books within record the sufferings of humans throughout time. The fall into despair in the darkness of night and the release into joy in the light of the morning is an archetype found over and over again in the Bible. It’s ok to cry, it’s ok to groan, we have been doing it for millennia.
The biblical book of Job is written in the form much like a play that tells the story of a good man who loses his wealth, his ten children, even his own health. Finally, he is plagued by “comforters” who insist all of his suffering must be his own fault. As he questions God, he begins to see human life in the context of eternity.

“There are those who rebel against the light, who do not know its ways or stay in its paths. When daylight is gone, the murderer rises up and kills the poor and needy; in the night he steals forth like a thief. […] For all of them, deep darkness is their morning; they make friends with the terrors of darkness.”
Yet such evil men “are foam on the surface of the water; […]The womb forgets them, the worm feasts on them; evil men are no longer remembered but are broken like a tree. They prey on the barren and childless woman, and to the widow show no kindness. But God drags away the mighty by his power; though they become established, they have no assurance of life. He may let them rest in a feeling of security, but his eyes are on their ways. For a little while they are exalted, and then they are gone; they are brought low and gathered up like all the others; they are cut off like heads of grain” (24:13-24)

Job comes to trust that, in time, God will “redeem” his suffering, even when he does not understand: “I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God. I myself will see him with my own eyes—I, and not another.” (19:25-27). While he cannot control what happens to him, he acknowledges that “The fear of the Lord—that is wisdom, and to shun evil is understanding.’” (28: 12-28)

The lessons Job learns are repeated throughout the Bible. King Solomon writes “Since no man knows the future, who can tell him what is to come? No man has power over the wind to contain it; so no one has power over the day of his death” (Ecclesiastes 8:7-8) He laments “Meaningless, meaningless, everything is meaningless,” yet like Job he concludes “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil” (11:8, 13-14).

[…]

The prophet Jeremiah writes “I remember my affliction and my wandering, the bitterness and the gall. I well remember them, and my soul is downcast within me. Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. I say to myself, ‘The Lord is my portion; therefore I will wait for him” (Lamentations 3:19-24)  King David writes: “weeping may remain for a night, but rejoicing comes in the morning” (Psalm 30:5).

Christians believe that the cycle of death and resurrection found throughout the Bible was embodied in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. In that moment nearly two thousand years ago, the entire universe was “surprised by joy” as C.S. Lewis puts it: overcoming death with life, conquering night with day. It is this hope then that I remember when the days are their darkest. The morning will come. We do not know when, but we wait, pray, hope.

This is not the false dawn of evil men, but a dawn of truth, mercy, justice. And above all love. For

There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear… (I John 4:18)

And

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. – Martin Luther King, Jr, from “Loving Your Enemies,” in Strength to Love

To read the complete version of my three columns I refer to, see

“Weeping at Night, Waiting for Light” March 23 2013

“Where the worm eats, a grain grows: Kofi Awoonor, Benisheik, Baghdad, Nairobi, and Peshawar” 28 September 2013

“Murdered Sleep” 5 October 2013

Let me end with Kofi Awoonor’s poems, one from early in his career “The Journey Beyond” and the other one of his final poems “Across a New Dawn,”  both of which refer to the boatman Kutsiami of Ewe myth, who paddles the dead to the other side of the river. As I wrote after I heard of Awoonor’s death:

Terrorists thought they killed him. They didn’t know they were just bringing the boatman to ferry him home.

The Poetry Foundation Ghana makes his early poem “The Journey Beyond” available.

The Journey Beyond

The bowling cry through door posts
carrying boiling pots
ready for the feasters.

Kutsiami the benevolent boatman;
When I come to the river shore
please ferry me across
I do not have on my cloth-end
the price of your stewardship.

The Wall Street Journal published one of his final poems “Across a New Dawn” as a tribute after he was killed: 

ACROSS A NEW DAWN

Sometimes, we read the

lines in the green leaf

run our fingers over the

smooth of the precious wood

from our ancient trees;

Sometimes, even the sunset

puzzles, as we look

for the lines that propel the clouds,

the colour scheme

with the multiple designs

that the first artist put together

There is dancing in the streets again

the laughter of children rings

through the house

On the seaside, the ruins recent

from the latest storms

remind of ancestral wealth

pillaged purloined pawned

by an unthinking grandfather

who lived the life of a lord

and drove coming generations to

despair and ruin

*

But who says our time is up

that the box maker and the digger

are in conference

or that the preachers have aired their robes

and the choir and the drummers

are in rehearsal?

No; where the worm eats

a grain grows.

the consultant deities

have measured the time

with long winded

arguments of eternity

And death, when he comes

to the door with his own

inimitable calling card

shall find a homestead

resurrected with laughter and dance

and the festival of the meat

of the young lamb and the red porridge

of the new corn

*

We are the celebrants

whose fields were

overrun by rogues

and other bad men who

interrupted our dance

with obscene songs and bad gestures

Someone said an ailing fish

swam up our lagoon

seeking a place to lay its load

in consonance with the Original Plan

Master, if you can be the oarsman

for our boat

please do it, do it.

I asked you before

once upon a shore

at home, where the

seafront has narrowed

to the brief space of childhood

We welcome the travelers

come home on the new boat

fresh from the upright tree

From “Promises of Hope: New and Selected Poems,” selected by Kofi Anyidoho, University of Nebraska Press and the African Poetry Book Fund, 2014

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One response to “Kofi Awoonor, Al Shabab, Boko Haram and the struggle for the New Dawn

  1. It’s difficult to describe the sadness of all these. And very painful indeed.

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