Kofi Awoonor, Ghanian poet and diplomat, was killed in the Westgate attack Photo: Storymoja
More than 150 people attended an evening tribute to the life and work of Kofi Awoonor, a poet who died in the Westgate Mall attack, as the siege continued in Nairobi.
The Storymoja Hay Festival in Nairobi was shut down early on Saturday in the wake of the Westgate Mall attack. However, organisers and members of Nairobi’s literary community, as well as Occupy Nairobi poets, came together on the festival’s site on Monday to pay tribute to Professor Kofi Awoonor, the Ghanaian poet and diplomat who was among the 68 killed in the attack.
Storymoja founder Muthoni Garland announced the event on Sunday evening, saying “we are devastated by the loss of Professor Awoonor, but hope must prevail." She added that Storymoja “is committed to find ways to honor the work and spirit of this great African author and intellectual.” Members of the public were encouraged to share their thoughts and tributes under a blog post on the Storymoja website.
Awoonor, who was 78, was due to perform at the literary festival on Saturday and Sunday alongside poets from Ghana and other African countries. His death, caused by injuries sustained during the terrorist attack, was confirmed by the Ghanaian government early Sunday morning.
While the hostage situation developed at the Westgate Mall two miles away writers, 150 fans and friends of Awoonor gathered at the National Museums of Kenya's Louis Leakey Hall. Remembrances and readings of his work were read out for more than two hours. "A climate of fear permeates the air, but [...] love and respect were palpable in the room", the festival posted on its Facebook page.
Awoonor's poetry, both well-known and unpublished works, were read by people including American PEN President Peter Godwin, Nairobian poet Michael Onsando and Kenyan writer and actor John Sibi-Okumu, who passed on condolences from English-Kenyan author Marjorie Mcgoye-Oludhe, who was not well enough to attend in person. Sibi-Okumu said, “I never met Kofi Awoonor personally, but he was my friend nonetheless because he lived in my house with every book I read".
Ghanian poets Kwame Dawes and Nii Parkes, who were meant to be joined by Awoonor for a reading on Saturday, shared tributes at the memorial. Parkes stressed that the event was not an end, but an opportunity to "begin to engage with and experience the entire range of his life's work so that his example will live on in the work of contemporary and emerging writers."
Dawes, who was related to Awoonor, shared family anecdotes as well as the professor's last words to him: "I was always a rogue." He added that the tragedy would not deter Dawes from returning to the festival.
Garland and festival producer Aleya Kassam also read Awoonor’s poetry, before the evening closed with candlelit prayers. People signed a book of sympathy, and Storymoja have said that they will give this, along with printed tributes posted by people online, to Awoonor's family.