pause to relearn the wisdom of our fathers

We have found a new land - Kofi Awoonor

The smart professionals in three piece
Sweating away their humanity in driblets
And wiping the blood from their brow
We have found a new land
This side of eternity
Where our blackness does not matter
And our songs are dying on our lips.
Standing at hellgate you watch those who seek admission
Still the familiar faces that watched and gave you up
As the one who had let the side down
'Come on, old boy, you cannot dress like that'
And tears well in my eyes for them
These who want to be seen in the best company
Have adjured the magic of being themselves
And in the new land we have found
The water is drying from the towel.
Our songs are dead and we sell the dead to the other side
Reaching for the Stars we stop at the house of Moon
And pause to relearn the wisdom of our fathers.

Robert Serumaga: This is one of your poems. Does it sum up your opinions about the Africa before, the present Africa, and the Africa to come?

Kofi Awoonor: Yes it does, to a very large extent. You can see I was talking and what I was saying in this poem is really that the problem of adjustment for the new African, if there is anything like that, the new African who is caught up in the world of Europe, in the world of the white man, with a ballot-box, with a new outfit, clothes, and with a parliament, with a national anthem, and a song, what is he going to do about the wisdom of his fathers? And this is what I was trying to mirror in this particular part.

Serumaga: And what do you think he is going to do about the wisdom of his fathers in the new circumstances?

Awoonor: This is a very difficult question. I have a strong feeling that on whatever level you are going to discuss a subject like this, the political, or the social, or the economic level, one invariably returns to a certain basic aspect, which is the technological advancement of Africa, and all the things that are added on to it: what are we going to do with some of the basic traditions of African life, African communal life, the general spirit that did motivate African societies long before the white man came? And I see in this a simple answer which is not going to be described in political terms, that one has to adjust one's self to the thinking, the way of life which has almost died, to marry it to this new technology; I am thinking particularly about the traditions and customs and observances, and also positively about relationships to one another.

Serumaga: How much are you yourself, first as a person in your society, and secondly as a writer, influenced by the old traditions of the society in which you live?

Awoonor: Tremendously. I have always felt, perhaps involuntarily, I should take my poetic sensibility if you like the word, from the tradition that sort of feeds my language, because in my language there is a lot of poetry, there is a lot of music and there is a lot of the literary art, even though not written, and so I take my cue from this old tradition, and begin to break it into English, to give it a new dimension as it were.


Serumaga: Now here... you have the writing within which certain people are trying to forge a new kind of African writing in English or in French. Do you think they are succeeding very much? Can you point to particular examples which in your view have succeeded in doing this?...

Awoonor: Well, I would say yes; there are a lot of African writers who have really succeeded. I think readily of somebody like Wole Soyinka. I read Wole Soyinka and have a feeling that he's not exactly writing English - he's got a hybrid of Yoruba strength which is married to English which he uses very well; and I think about Chinua Achebe, and I think of J.P. Clark; I will not mention others, but I feel that African writing is moving; it's moving about say four or five generations into a new field which is going to mean that African writers are going to go back and find materials and inspiration in their own societies to write about. They move from the period of Osadebay and Michael Dei-Anang and so on, the political writing, to personal writing which is going to be defined as writing committed to a certain positive aspect of African life.

- Kofi Awoonor, sagely predicting the future of African writing, a future in which he and his writing would become towering influences, in a 1967 interview with Robert Serumaga. The interview was originally published in African Writers Talking (Heinemann, 1972).

Kofi Awoonor died on September 21st, 2013 in the Westgate Mall shooting in Nairobi, Kenya. He was seventy-eight. Over at One Ghana, One Voice we are preparing to run a series of memorial poems for Awoonor. You can read more about that project here.

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