“how can I / the epilogue of my own long torment / understand the prologue I dreamt you to be?” ~ Kori Awoonor, from “To Sika”

Kofi Awoonor AFP
Poet and Statesman, Kofi Awoonor (AFP)

Two for Tuesday: Kofi Awoonor, one of the Westgate Mall victims felled in the 9/22 attack in Nairobi, Kenya.

As I was reading stories about the attack on the Westgate Mall, I came across a name that seemed familiar, Awoonor. Turns out Kofi Awoonor, famed Ghanaian poet, was among the scores of people killed by Al-Shabab terrorists over the weekend; Awoonor was in town for a literary festival.

Al-Shabab (Arabic for “the youth”) is a Somalia-based terror group. The latest totals put the death toll at 68, with over 175 wounded.

I freely admit that my background in world literature is sorely lacking as I was schooled in literature at a time in which world literature seemed limited to a world inhabited mostly by Europeans, so in recent years I have tried to take in poets and writers of whom I knew very little.  Awoonor is one of those poets. I find it heartbreaking that in one of his last poems (below), Awoonor speaks of “bad men” who “interrupted our dance/with obscene songs and bad gestures.”

From The Wall Street Journal:

African poet Kofi Awoonor (1935-2013) was among those slain in a terrorist attack on a mall in Nairobi, Kenya. The African Poetry Book Fund is set to publish Awoonor’s latest collection, “Promises of Hope: New and Selected Poems” in 2014.

Across a New Dawn

Sometimes, we read the
lines in the green leaf
run our fingers over the
smooth of the precious wood
from our ancient trees;

Sometimes, even the sunset
puzzles, as we look
for the lines that propel the clouds,
the colour scheme
with the multiple designs
that the first artist put together

There is dancing in the streets again
the laughter of children rings
through the house
On the seaside, the ruins recent
from the latest storms
remind of ancestral wealth
pillaged purloined pawned
by an unthinking grandfather
who lived the life of a lord
and drove coming generations to
despair and ruin

*

But who says our time is up
that the box maker and the digger
are in conference
or that the preachers have aired their robes
and the choir and the drummers
are in rehearsal?

No; where the worm eats
a grain grows.
the consultant deities
have measured the time
with long winded
arguments of eternity

And death, when he comes
to the door with his own
inimitable calling card
shall find a homestead
resurrected with laughter and dance
and the festival of the meat
of the young lamb and the red porridge
of the new corn

*

We are the celebrants
whose fields were
overrun by rogues
and other bad men who
interrupted our dance
with obscene songs and bad gestures

Someone said an ailing fish
swam up our lagoon
seeking a place to lay its load
in consonance with the Original Plan

Master, if you can be the oarsman
for our boat
please do it, do it.
I asked you before
once upon a shore
at home, where the
seafront has narrowed
to the brief space of childhood

We welcome the travelers
come home on the new boat
fresh from the upright tree

From Promises of Hope: New and Selected Poems,” selected by Kofi Anyidoho, University of Nebraska Press and the African Poetry Book Fund, 2014

                   

We Have Found a New Land

The smart professionals in three piece
Sweating away their humanity in dribblets
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 hell-gate you 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
Those who want to be seen in the best company
Have abjured 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 then dead to the other side
Reaching for the Stars we stop at the house of the Moon
And pause to relearn the wisdom of our fathers.

Where Reality and Television Intersect at the Line of Pain and Heartbreak

Stumbling Upon Two Posts That Won’t Let Me Go

Watching Death in South Africa

One of the things that I really like about blogging communities is that when the blogs are flashing by on the screen, you can come across some real gems. In fact, that’s how I’ve met all of my regular correspondent with whom I check in daily. But there was one blog that stopped me in my tracks, literally. And I backtracked to the original post, which came from a blog called “Letting Go.” 

The female speaker on this site has many entries about her recovering battle with alcoholism and her so far successful sobriety, as well as her travels. But the one particular post that caught my attention was called called “The Plague Years” ( http://louisey.wordpress.com/2009/01/04/the-plague-years/).

mourning-in-zimbabwe
Mourning in Zimbabwe

This post is incredibly stark in its depiction of the reality of AIDS in Africa, while at the same time being very moving in how the author shares with readers her own experiences amid all of this devastation.

Woke up this morning and thought about having to go to two funerals later today, both of them for young people who died of AIDS. It is not a certainty that the funerals will take place because the municipality still has to organise workers to dig the graves. The graveyard has overflowed the old fenced area and extended down the hillside, hot rocky ground that is not easy to dig. Every day of the week there are burials and it is mostly children who die because their little bodies are too malnourished to fight the opportunistic illnesses.

There are times when I feel this plague will never end. I have been going to funerals here and in Zimbabwe, in Kenya and Botswana and Mozambique since 1985, more than 20 years, and sometimes I feel I will keep watching these premature and unnecessary deaths until I myself am ready for the grave.

The society in which we live shapes us for better or for worse. The material conditions of our lives shape our values and sense of community and altruism, and limit or enlarge the possibilities open to us. Unrelieved poverty opens the door to plagues such as cholera, typhoid, tuberculosis and AIDS. If we have no africsaidspicretrovirals because the government does not want to believe AIDS really exists, thousands are condemned to death. If we have no AA or Alanon because nobody will admit he or she is alcoholic or battling to live with an alcoholic spouse, the struggle to stay sober is that much harder. If it is taboo to speak about AIDS or alcoholism so that there is no education in schools or on the television or radio, the lethal ignorance continues unabated. The discourses around shame and secrecy are the hardest to tackle.

All around me on this bright lovely morning there are birds singing, church bells tolling, childrens’ voices on the playing fields across the road — and all I can hear is the deafening silence of a conspiracy to prevent anyone from speaking the truth. It is forbidden to speak about sexuality in Xhosa, especially if you are a woman. The churches outlaw the use of condoms. And the death rate keeps soaring.

Here are some facts just about one of the countries involved in this epidemic: Zimbabwe is the third largest HIV/AIDS burden in Sub-Saharan Africa, according to an AIDS fact sheet distributed in 2005 by the Kaiser Foundation. That means that almost 2 million people are living with HIV/AIDS, and at least 120,000 of them are children. Young women between the ages of 15 to 25 make up about 77 percent of the infected population, and the projected life expectancy for females ranges from 30 to 34.

In a January 2008 article The Boston Globe cited the following statistics:

  • An April report by WHO and two other UN agencies said only 6 percent of children in need of treatment were getting it.
  • The government reports that more than 2,200 Zimbabweans die every week of AIDS complications.
  • According to the World Health Organization, 321,000 people need antiretroviral medicines, or ARVs, and only 91,000 have access to them.

As If That Wasn’t Enough To Hurt Your Heart

Thanks to another blogger with whom I have recently begun to correspond, I am now obsessed with watching “West Wing”  YouTube videos of memorable scenes. For example, from one of the earlier seasons, there is the episode called “Excelsis Deo” in which Toby is moved by the plight of a decorated homeless veteran who died wearing a coat that Toby had donated to charity. The coat still had Toby’s business card in it, so he was informed of the man’s death. The episode ends with the Dire Straits’ song “Brothers in Arms” playing in the background, the White House staff being serenaded to Christmas Carols by a children’s choir, and Toby in Arlington Cemetery with a full honor guard.

Okay. They could have stopped with just the full honor guard. That by itself is enough to give me goosebumps at anytime. Thank god they didn’t put me through the bugler’s “Taps.” I did have to make it through the folding of the flag and presentation on bended knee to the family member. Yes, I am crying openly by now. The link to this particular scene is http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SfOfUtkbiHQ.

west-wing-20-hours-in-america
From "The West Wing," Episode: 20 Hours in America

But wait, I’m not finished. There’s Leo’s funeral. Enough said on that one. Or, there is the famous mood episode called “The Two Cathedrals Press Conference,” in which President Bartlett is asked if he is going to run again; that’s a classic for the staging alone. All of Bartlett’s team fall into line behind their President, and the scene is a shot of just the men from the thighs down.

But the single best scene from any episode of “West Wing,” the scene that embodies the best of Aaron Sorkin’s writing for his tenure on the show, the scene that I dare you to watch and not be moved by, comes from the epiode  “20 Hours in America.” In it, President Bartlett delivers one of the best speeches to be heard ever—not just television speeches, not just pretend president speeches, but best speeches ever. The rhetoric in it burns.

Just a taste (but without the video, it’s like reading Obama’s speeches rather than hearing them):

“The streets of heaven are too crowded with angels tonight. They’re our students and our teachers and our parents and our friends. The streets of heaven are too crowded with angels, but every time we think we have measured our capacity to meet a challenge, we look up and we’re reminded that that capacity may well be limitless.”

(I don’t even want to think of how badly W. would have mangled this. How do you type visually shuddering?)

And I so want to put the link in here, but I don’t know if that would be stealing from Willpen’s World (http://willpen.wordpress.com/) since she just ran the YouTube link on her site. So go to her site and watch the video there, and be sure to let her know that I sent you. It’s worth the hop and skip to see this. Trust me.

So, now that I have completely ruined your day and evening with truth and near truth, and the power of words to hold the human heart, let me close. There will be more later. Peace.