On Keta and the Atlantic Ocean: Poems #37 and #38

Kwesi Brew

I continue this week’s focus on Ghanaian Literature by looking at the poetry of two of the nation’s most celebrated poets, Kwesi Brew and Kofi Awoonor.    Kwesi Brew (1928 – 2007) is one of Ghana’s most influential poets.  He was  also a public servant, he worked for both the colonial and the independent governments of Ghana. I’m glad I decided to do this week because I’ve rediscovered what a magnificent poet he was and will be posting more of his poetry in the future.  Kofi Awoonor (born in 1935) is Ghana’s most famous poet.  He is also a university professor, former diplomat and an active politician.

Ghana lies by the Gulf of Guinea on the Atlantic Ocean.  Its coast bear witness to the country’s colonial past; there are former slave castles and forts along its length.   Like all seas, the Atlantic also gives us nourishment.  I grew up in the coastal town of Cape Coast.  I went to school and played with friends within hearing and seeing distance of the sea.  Very peaceful and calming.  But in the east, on the other side of the country, the sea had a very different effect on the people and the land.  In Keta, a city in the Volta Region, the Atlantic ocean had been steadily eating away at the land. Built by the Dutch in the 1780s, Keta was an important trading post and port.  The city was devastated by severe sea erosion between the 1960s and 1980s.  The two poems that I feature today deals with this devastation.

The Sea Eats Our Lands by Kwesi Brew

Here stood our ancestral home:
The crumbling wall marks the spot.
Here a sheep was led to slaughter
To appease the gods and atone
For faults which our destiny
Has blossomed into crimes.

There my cursed father once stood
And shouted to us, his children,
To come back from our play
To our evening meal and sleep.
The clouds were thickening in the red sky
And night had charmed
A black power into the pounding waves.

Here once lay Keta.
Now her golden girls
Erode into the arms
Of strange towns.

It is said that this poem prompted the construction of the Keta sea defense.  And I can see why, it’s a very powerful poem.  It is a morality tale of a people and a land gone wrong, of desertion by their gods, the disappearance of its men and the compromise of its women.  How ever one looks at or interprets the poem, one thing is clear; it does not end well for Keta and its people.  Brew uses the Ghanaian colors for death, red and black, to drive home the curse at the heart of the second stanza.

I cannot confirm this, but I think the second poem, The Sea Eats the Land at Home, was written some years after the first poem. Awoonor’s poem is a dirge, more personal and accusatory in tone.

The Sea Eats the Land at Home by Kofi Awoonor

At home the sea is in the town,
Running in and out of the cooking places,
Collecting the firewood from the hearths
And sending it back at night;
The sea eats the land at home.

It came one day at the dead of night,
Destroying the cement walls,
And carried away the fowls,
The cooking-pots and the ladles,
The sea eats the land at home;

It is a sad thing to hear the wails,
And the mourning shouts of the women,
Calling on all the gods they worship,
To protect them from the angry sea.

Aku stood outside where her cooking-pot stood,
With her two children shivering from the cold,
Her hands on her breasts,
Weeping mournfully.
Her ancestors have neglected her,
Her gods have deserted her,
It was a cold Sunday morning,
The storm was raging,
Goats and fowls were struggling in the water,
The angry water of the cruel sea;
The lap-lapping of the bark water at the shore,
And above the sobs and the deep and low moans,
Was the eternal hum of the living sea.
It has taken away their belongings
Adena has lost the trinkets which
Were her dowry and her joy,
In the sea that eats the land at home,
Eats the whole land at home.

Keta Erosion.jpg
Erosion of Keta
Keta Sea Defense
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9 comments

  1. i attended Keta Secondary and i once went to see the sea defence project and the guide gave me these Kofi Awoonor’s to read. I loved it.
    I later wrote one but not as good as his.
    Sad that he had to die in such a tragic way

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  2. I always saw Awoonor’s poem as sequel to Brew’s. But then, both poems can also be complementary to each other where Awoonor talks about the singular stories of people standing in the disaster either as it happens or just after while Brew tells us the tale just before and a commentary of the after. When a long time has passed. (here once lay Keta)

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  3. Wow, two really powerful and incredible poems Kinna, thank you for sharing. They are both very touching, and it was easy to see how much the poets cared about the city. Interesting to hear that a defense has been erected since. Shows the power of words to make people listen and care!

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  4. two beautiful poems from the masters. I have come across these pieces at different points in different anthologies, or so. I however, haven’t connected the two. I think I always confused the one for the other, else how do I explain this. When I saw the twitter message, Kwesi Brew flew into my thought, don’t know why though. Perhaps his is the one I remember the most. For I usually associate Awoonor with The Cathedral.

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