Leading Ghanaian poet, novelist and political activist whose work was firmly rooted in the traditions of the Ewe people
The African poet and novelist Kofi Awoonor has died aged 78 in the terrorist attack by al-Shabaab militants at the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi. Awoonor was the most eminent of several African authors invited to participate in the Storymoja Hay festival, a celebration of writing and storytelling, in the Kenyan capital last week. His work was deeply rooted in the poetic and mythic traditions of the Ewe people in Ghana. He was also a diplomat and political activist who spent some time in prison when the party he supported was in opposition.
Born of mixed Togolese and Sierra Leonean ancestry in Wheta, south-eastern Ghana (then called the Gold Coast), he was originally named George Awoonor Williams and published his first collection, Rediscovery and Other Poems, under that name in 1964 while still a student at the University of Ghana. Those poems drew on the Ewe oral traditions he knew as a youth, and some of them have been frequently anthologised, such as the first of his Songs of Sorrow, an invocation of a traditional Ewe dirge, which includes these lines:
My people, I have been somewhere
If I turn here, the rain beats me
If I turn there, the sun burns me
The firewood of this world
Is for only those who can take heart
That is why not all can gather it.
After graduating, Awoonor worked for the Ghana Film Corporation, where he soon became director. He also founded the Ghana Playhouse. In the 1960s he edited the literary magazine Okyeame and was an associate editor of the pan-African journal Transition. After the 1966 military coup which removed Ghana's president Kwame Nkrumah from power, he spent several years in Britain studying for an MA in literature at the University of London and wrote radio plays for the BBC including Lament, a short, poetic and poignant drama. He then studied at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, where he subsequently became visiting professor in African literature and chairman of the comparative literature programme.
In America, Awoonor published a second volume of poetry, Night of My Blood, and a novel, This Earth, My Brother… (both 1971). These works drew on Ewe oral traditions but also allude to Dante, Pablo Neruda, TS Eliot and European writers. The novel intersperses intensely lyrical passages with a realist narrative contrasting the corruption and disillusion of contemporary Ghana with the idealism that characterised the early years of independence. A slightly ambivalent preface by Chinua Achebe comments on its "rather unusual and highly personal form" and the novel's success in presenting an allegory of betrayal of trust and responsibility in Africa's newly independent states.
Awoonor's third volume of poetry, Ride Me, Memory (1973), featured what he called "American Profiles" and "African Memories". The former includes ripe invective in the tradition of African oral verse, sharply satirising superficial and self-serving "revolutionaries":
You showed your dirty face first in Detroit
Slandered me, in your ugly missionary voice.
If the season were right
I would have broken your bones across my knees.
I heard you have taken to playing an accordion
in the Washington night, scaring foreign diplomats
with your horror show.
You joined the revolutionaries of Azania
only to betray them for multicoloured blankets
and a battered copy of The Pilgrim's Progress.
The title of another poem in the collection, On Having Been an Experimental Sacred Cow for Four Years, and a Token African on Faculty, indicates Awoonor's reason for leaving the US and returning to Ghana in 1975. As he demonstrated in his influential history of African literary traditions, The Breast of the Earth (1975), his research interests were focused on the links between African vernacular traditions and the written literature emerging from the continent.
Awoonor returned to become head of the English department at the University of Cape Coast. Shortly afterwards he was arrested on a charge of aiding someone accused of involvement in an attempt to overthrow the military government. Awoonor was imprisoned without trial for nearly a year. From this experience came a fine volume of prison poems, The House by the Sea (1978).
During the next decade his energies were mainly focused on politics. He published Ghana: A Political History from Pre-European to Modern Times (1990), served as ambassador to Cuba and then Brazil, and was appointed by President Jerry Rawlings to be Ghana's ambassador to the United Nations (1990-94). He was an active member of the party founded by Rawlings, the National Democratic Congress. During this period he also published two more volumes of poetry and a satirical novel, Comes the Voyager at Last (1992), mocking among others his fellow Ghanaian novelist Ayi Kwei Armah.
One of the foremost literary critics of African and European poetry, Robert Fraser, has commented on Awoonor's "superbly flexible muse". Ghana's president, John Mahama, called him "a writer, politician and traditionalist with great wit".
Awoonor had six children; one of his sons was injured in the attack.
• Kofi Awoonor, writer, poet and diplomat, born 13 March 1935; died 21 September 2013