Notes from a Masterclass – Tribute to Prof. Kofi Awoonor

There are few people that can make a first impression so lasting that it makes you see your craft in a whole new light.

A Tribute to Professor Kofi Awoonor

I first became aware of Prof. Kofi Awoonor when I heard that he was to speak and have a masterclass at the Storymoja Hay Festival. I became interested in his work after reading a study of his work, ‘This Earth, My Brother’.

His masterclass on ‘The Responsibility of the African Writer’ was especially revealing. Here was a man who had written longer than my country had been independent. He represented a link with the past, with the age-old traditions of singing and performing poetry that are now classified dryly as ‘Oral Literature’. The fact that these poems and songs of Africa have influenced genres as varied as spoken word, hip hop and rap show that African literature has a profound contribution to make to the rest of the world.

He was a man who found humour in everything, even in the fact that his name had been misspelt in the event programme.

He was also a man who loved language. He spoke 5 Ghanaian languages fluently, along with French, German and Dutch. Remarkably, at his age, he was also learning Portuguese to translate and promote his work in Portugal. He confessed that he counted himself incredibly lucky to have never been rejected by an editor. His dedication to his work, and the lengths that he was willing to go to were legendary.
One thing that he loved though was to read. In his opinion, the best way for a writer to build up his work was through reading the works of others. He started with the classics, with Jane Austen’s love affairs and James Joyce’s Ulysses. In the course of his reading, he encountered interesting, sometimes subtle themes. He pointed out that Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’, for example, contains an interesting narrative about colonization and language, where Caliban’s freedom and rule over the island is broken by Prospero’s sorcery. When Prospero lands on his island, Caliban treats him well, and Prospero in return teaches him a language with which he could express himself. The way the English language was imposed on Africa, however, led to an interesting side effect: we were able to talk to each other directly, providing a convenient point of exchange.

However, even when we talked to each other in English, we still remained in touch with the creativity that our languages possessed. Where direct translation failed, we often resort to imagery.

Prof. Awoonor’s provocation to write was from a sense of obligation. One of his grandmothers was a priestess who performed incantations, while the other was a dirge singer. He felt that he needed to contribute to the culture of his people by promoting their poetry, both in the original language and translated to English. Another provocation to write that he shares with Chinua Achebe was the need to go against the prevailing opinion that Africa had no culture. Achebe had written ‘Things Fall Apart’ in response to ‘Mister Johnson’, a story of a bumbling African clerk that made so many mistakes that his life became a farcical representation of how the colonialists viewed Africa.
Ultimately, the heart of the masterclass was the fact that we all have an obligation to write as Africans. In order to do this, we need to answer four questions.

1. Who are you? Not just your name, but the sum total of your identity. If you don’t know who you are, then you are lost. You need to have confidence in yourself first before you write, and this arises from your understanding of what you are made of. One of the ways to answer this is to look at where you come from, the people who have gone before you. Everyone has ancestors with whom we share an inescapable link, and identifying these connections makes it easier to identify who we truly are.
2. Where do you call home? We all carry our homes around with us, like a snail with its shell. Home is where your art, your being and your true purpose lie. Home is part of identity. This is why the most eloquent stories that we can tell are those around us, those that contain in them the things that we are most familiar with.
Even for people who would consider themselves rootless, the people who live in cities like Nairobi who feel rootless also have a home that they can find and connect with.

3. What makes you think you can write? Until you can answer this question, anything you say will lack conviction. We all have stories that we can tell, but that alone is not reason enough to write. We should write because we have things that need to be said. He summed this up with a saying, ‘I have something to say, and I will say it before death comes. Let no one say it for me.’
4. What would you want to write about? He noted that there are many things that can be written about, ‘as many as the range of human emotions’. Every emotion is legitimate, and so it comes with its own story. Stories are a testament to the human condition, where conflict is engrained, and that is why we are happy when they are resolved. Good stories can also leave the situation hanging for the reader to resolve on their own. Every writer contends with his historical background and uses it as a source for his writing. We need to write more of our own stories, to share our perspectives as African writers with the world.
Stories are after all about meetings and partings, where we are introduced to the characters in the beginning, go through the story with them and say farewell at the end. How we feel towards them, how we feel towards the situations they are in, that is something that is brought out by how it is written.
His love for poetry showed in his lament for how it is taught. Taking the art of the poem and making it a dry, complicated matter was especially painful to him, starting with nursery rhymes. Poems are made to be performed, to be sung out loud and given the dignity they deserve. Poems, he said, are religious experiences that deserve to be treated with respect.

When writing, he suggested that first drafts should be used as a guide. He was always editing his work until right before he needed to send it to the publisher, and even after it had been published, he still found edits that he made and incorporated in various edits. He also dedicated himself to popularizing poetry, even though he knew, and acknowledged with a laugh, that there was no money in it. Poetry, according to him, was art for its own sake.
Professor Awoonor was a champion of African literature, and he will be sorely missed. To honour him, I suggest you read some of his work. And every time you write, be true to yourself.
This Earth, My Brother’ and more of his work are available on Amazon.
Farewell, gentle soul.

mea maxima culpa

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I have been calling myself a writer for far too log without actually putting anything in my blog. And for that, I am sorry.

Well, I still get inspiration, with random lines that pop into my head that i can totally turn into a story, like ‘In her eyes flashed a deep darkness that many tried to look away from but often wound up softly sobbing’, but I have done nothing with those.

I’m going to write more. There’s a way words just build up, like a volcano, and the sweet release that is a long post is very often therapeutic. Twitter and its short bursts of whatever just don’t cut it.

So here’s the deal. I will write once a week. And it may be anecdotal. I know, there’s far too many storytelling blogs as it is, but you will have to bear with me. Indulge me, even.

But

I have returned.

to every wheel, turn

I find myself putting out the fires that ideas start in my head, with the extinguisher of reason and the excuse of inability…
boring, boring questions
I’m caught somewhere between accepting the fact that I have an identity to actively maintain, and the desire to craft out a name for myself from the bricks and mortar that I regularly use as weapons when provoked. Rather than douse the ideas in petrol and watch them burn, I want to water them, watch as they grow into trees that flower and fruit in abundance, on which I can build a house of truth and substance, from where I can see the horizon, the line that marks the end, beyond which is a world of dreams and lights and colours so bright…
I want to think again, to put these thoughts down, to inspire…

“Freedom Ain’t Free” – On The Integrity Bill and Online Freedom

Originally posted on Diasporadical:

Before I start, R.I.P. to the many souls departed in the past few days. It’s been a difficult time for the country without having to lose so many in such a short time.
And now to the matter at hand…

Let’s talk about the impunity of our government in regards to the above issues and how we can tackle it.

Sigh.

We’ve been here before.

The best of us are sitting in our comfort zones pointing at blatant rights violations with full mouths screaming.

The rest of us don’t even know why people are screaming. Trying to figure out what’s going on, or just ignoring it all together.

For those that don’t know what the hoopla is about the Integrity Bill being “watered down” is

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#EK – ALL IS NOT WELL AT TEAM KENYA CAMP…

Mugendi:

Hopefully sanity will return,and the culprits behind this will be punished… But that is highly unlikely.

Originally posted on EDDY KIMANI:

By Elias Makori.

Kenya came into the London Olympics with high hopes, everyone confident that we would surpass the performance of Beijing four years ago where Team Kenya scooped six gold, four silver and four bronze medals.

But the pre-Games tension between the National Olympic Committee of Kenya and Athletics Kenya has thrown Kenya’s campaign to the dogs.

It is sad watching our sports officials, with their bloated egos, fighting turf wars at the expense of the country’s respected name and image.

Many will wonder just how Vivian Cheruiyot, the double world champion (5,000 and 10,000 metres) faded away badly in the opening day’s 10,000m final and indeed why London Marathon champion Mary Keitany failed to get a medal in the marathon last Sunday.

Questions arise from the women’s steeplechase debacle and the fact that we have just Hellen Obiri in Wednesday’s 1,500m semi-finals or how we failed to break…

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All the Epigraphs from ‘The Wire’

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“…when it’s not your turn.”
“You cannot lose if you do not play.”
“The king stay the king.”
“It’s a thin line ‘tween heaven and here”
“…a little slow, a little late.”
“…and all the pieces matter.”
“A man must have a code.”
“Come at the king, you best not miss.”
“Maybe we won.”
“And then he dropped the bracelets…”
“Dope on the damn table.”
“This is me, yo, right here.”
“All in the game…”
“Ain’t never gonna be what it was.”
“They can chew you up, but they gotta spit you out.”
“What they need is a union.”
“If I hear music, I’m gonna dance.”
“They used to make steel there, no?”
“It don’t matter that some fool say he different…”
“Don’t worry kid. You’re still on the clock.”
“How come they don’t fly away?”
“The world is a smaller place now.”
“It pays to go with the union card every time.”
“I need to get clean.”
“Business. Always business.”
“Don’t matter how many times you get burnt, you just keep doin’ the same.”
“There’s never been a paper bag.”
“The Gods will not save you.”
“Why you gotta go and fuck with the program?”
“I had such fucking hopes for us.”
“Just a gangster, I suppose.”
“Conscience do cost.”
“Crawl, walk, and then run.”
“…while you’re waiting for moments that never come.”
“Call it a crisis of leadership.”
“We ain’t gotta dream no more, man.”
“We fight on that lie.”
“Lambs to the slaughter here.”
“I still wake up white in a city that ain’t.”
“I love the first day, man. Everybody all friendly an’ shit.”
“No one wins. One side just loses more slowly.”
“If you with us, you with us.”
“Don’t try this shit at home.”
“Aw yeah. That golden rule.”
“We got our thing, but it’s just part of the big thing.”
“Might as well dump ‘em, get another.”
“World goin’ one way, people another.”
“You play in dirt, you get dirty.”
“That all there is to it?”
“If animal trapped call 410-844-6286″
“The bigger the lie, the more they believe.”
“This ain’t Aruba, bitch.”
“They’re dead where it doesn’t count.
“Buyer’s market out there.
“Just ’cause they’re in the street doesn’t mean that they lack opinions.”
“If you have a problem with this, I understand completely.”
“They don’t teach it in law school.”
“A lie ain’t a side of the story, it’s just a lie.”
“Deserve got nuthin’ to do with it.”
“…the life of kings”

Shamelessly copied from http://post.ly/7z2gw via @mkaigwa

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