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Renowned Ghanaian poet killed in Kenya mall attack

22 September 2013, 17:17

Accra -Renowned Ghanaian poet and statesman Kofi Awoonor was among the 59 people confirmed dead so far in an attack by Somali militants on the Westgate mall, Ghana's president said Sunday.

John Dramani Mahama said in a statement: "I am shocked to hear the death of Prof. Kofi Awoonor in the Nairobi mall terrorist attack. Such a sad twist of fate..."

Awoonor, 78, was killed and his son was wounded at the Westgate mall, Ghana's Deputy Information Minister Felix Kwakye Ofosu said.

His son has been discharged from the hospital, Ofosu said. Awoonor had been due to appear at the Storymoja Hay literary festival in Nairobi on Saturday.

Kwame Dawes, a cousin of Awoonor as well as a poet who was in Nairobi at the time of the attack, said Awoonor and his son were separated when the shooting started.

"I think the son went to pick up something at the mall. Professor Awoonor was in the parking garage waiting for him," Dawes, a professor in the United States who was editing Awoonor's new poetry collection, told AFP by phone.

"The son was shot while he was inside the mall. We don't know at what point the professor was shot."

Awoonor was Ghana's representative to the United Nations under the presidency of Jerry Rawlings from 1990 to 1994, and was also president of the Council of State, an advisory body to the president. He stepped down from that role earlier this year.

He was a renowned writer, most notably for his poetry inspired by the oral tradition of the Ewe people, to which he belonged.

Much of his best work was published in Ghana's immediate post-independence period, part of which he spent in exile after the first president Kwame Nkrumah, whom Awoonor was close to, was overthrown in a coup.

His books included "Rediscovery and Other Poems," published in 1964.

Awoonor returned to Ghana in 1975 and was later arrested and tried over his suspected involvement in a coup, according to a biography from the US-based Poetry Foundation.

He was released after 10 months, and the foundation said his imprisonment influenced his book "The House by the Sea".

During his time in the United States in the early 1970s, Awoonor was chairman of the Department of Comparative Literature at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.

He was also Ghana's ambassador to Brazil and Cuba in the 1980s, the foundation said.

Awoonor was planning to continue writing essays and poetry, including on his experience in government, Dawes said.

"Kofi Awoonor is easily one of the great poets of Africa and has been for many years," Dawes said.

"There's a great deal of respect for him and admiration of his work. This has been a big blow and a major loss."

Awoonor wrote in both English and Ewe, a language predominant in Ghana's east and other parts of west Africa. He used the syntax and structure of that language in his English poetry, Dawes said, a move that distinguished him from other writers.

"His preference is for the cleaner, less flowery language, the language that reacts at the heart of the issue," Dawes said.

"He's written some of the most beautiful, elegant and unsentimental love poems that we have in our body of work."

Dawes said he plans to release the new book next year.

Kenyan troops were locked in a fierce firefight with Somali militants inside the Westlands shopping mall Sunday in a final push to end the siege.

Somalia's Al Qaeda-inspired Al-Shebaab rebels said the carnage at the part Israeli-owned complex was in retaliation for Kenya's military intervention in Somalia, where African Union troops are battling the group.

The Westgate mall is popular with wealthy Kenyans and expatriates, and was packed with around 1,000 shoppers when the gunmen marched in at midday Saturday, tossed grenades and sprayed automatic gunfire on terrified people.



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