Biography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 903

The childhood of Kofi Awoonor, born George Awoonor-Williams, was spent in the Volta region of Ghana near the seacoast town of Weta. Long a meeting place for the East and the West, both through agricultural commerce and the slave trade, the Weta area is also known for the strength of its traditional customs and the eloquence of its oral poets who speak the Ewe language. Such poems of Awoonor as “Night of My Blood” and “My Uncle, the Diviner Chieftain” show how deeply and personally the history and culture of his Anlo people influenced his formative years, despite the European surname Williams once appended to his African name (indeed, his first poems were published under the name George Awoonor-Williams). Though highly educated, Awoonor has never turned his back on the culture and beliefs that shaped his early years. In a 1975 interview, he said,As society progresses, this whole technological society in which we are living today, we tend to forget about those other mysterious areas of human experience. But hocus-pocus is part of our waking world. I believe strongly, very, very strongly, that I am never alone.

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In a way, then, Awoonor’s biography is that of a tribal man and cannot be separated from the history of his people. An understanding of his life should include an awareness of the traditions, for example, of the Ewe migration from the town of Notsie in present-day Togo, where the Ewe were held captive by an African tyrant, as well as some knowledge of how deeply the drumbeat penetrates every aspect of his life. While recognizing the holistic virtues of the “African way,” Awoonor grew up knowing that all the evils of African life could not be attributed to colonialism.

Awoonor received his secondary education at the famous Achimota Secondary School near the capital city of Accra. At the University of Ghana at Legon, he won his first major literary recognition, the university’s Gurrey Prize for the best original creative writing. After graduation, he lectured in English at the university from 1960 to 1963 before taking an appointment as a research fellow and lecturer in African literature at the university’s pioneering Institute of African Studies. During the years that followed, he was constantly active, traveling to China, Russia, and Indonesia, editing the literary review Okyeame, acting as the managing director of the Ghana Film Corporation, and founding the Ghana Playhouse, where he worked as both producer and actor.

The overthrow of Ghananian president Kwame Nkrumah in 1966 coincided with Awoonor’s decision to study abroad. In 1967, with the aid of a Longmans Fellowship, he went to the University of London, where he obtained a master’s degree in modern English, focusing on the linguistic features of English in West Africa. A Fairfield Fellowship brought him in 1968 to the University of California, Los Angeles. In 1969, he accepted a position at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, where he eventually obtained his doctorate and became chair of the comparative literature program. Aside from brief trips to Europe and Africa, Awoonor did not leave the United States until 1975, when he ended his eight years of exile at the invitation of the Ghanaian head of state, Colonel Ignatius Kutu Acheampong, to become the chair of the English Department at the University of Ghana at Cape Coast. Awoonor’s years in the United States were most productive: He published two volumes of poetry, a novel, a critical study of African literature, and an anthology of Ghanaian poets, which is also a seminal work on traditional oral poets.

Awoonor returned to Ghana with a number of ambitious projects in mind, including the launching of a publishing company, but political turmoil in Ghana interfered with his plans. The Ewe have a long history of nationalistic aspirations (because of arbitrary colonial boundaries, they are divided almost evenly between the present-day nations of Ghana and Togo), and Awoonor was linked to an Ewe military officer’s alleged plot to overthrow the government of Ghana. On December 31, 1975, Awoonor was arrested for “harboring a fugitive” and placed in detention in Ussher Fort. His imprisonment lasted more than a year. His poems written during that period (later published in The House by the Sea) were smuggled out of prison and sent in letters to the United States, to one of his publishers, signed with such pseudonyms as I. H. A. Birdcry. Following an international outcry and efforts by Amnesty International, Awoonor was released and, in 1977, was sent as Ghana’s representative to the International Festival of African Arts and Culture (FESTAC) in Nigeria. In 1978, however, his home was surrounded by troops, and he escaped in the night, slipping over the border to Togo.

From 1978 to 1982, political turmoil continued in Ghana, with elections, coups, and the execution for political corruption of no fewer than three of Ghana’s former heads of state, including Acheampong. During this period, Awoonor returned to Cape Coast as dean of the faculty of arts. In 1981, he was awarded a Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship to further a study of “the moral perspective in the folktale and the modern novel in Africa.”

A paucity of Awoonor’s imaginative writings in the 1980’s and 1990’s attested to his growing involvement in government and foreign diplomacy. In 1989, he was appointed Ghana’s Ambassador to Brazil, was reassigned to Cuba in 1988, and from 1990 to 1994 served as his country’s permanent representative and ambassador to the United Nations.

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