opinionBy Prof. Atukwei Okai
Accra — The leaves on the branches of the avocado trees are wondering whence the wandering winds blew; the skies are asking of the whereabouts of the birds that in a formation flew past during the millennium eclipse of the sun; the concrete floor disbelieves that through her ribs the infant plant broke through and grew into the embrace of the rays of sunlight
It was a Wednesday. I was on the highway, going towards Cape Coast, but not really headed there, when a call came on my mobile phone, and with it a sudden mournful sadness. The message was, "Mr. Kwesi Brew has passed away, that was on Monday." Alas! What was I to say? I could only utter the question: Monday?! I was overwhelmed with sadness and loneliness. It suddenly seemed as if there was no longer any meaning to life; there did not seem to be any use for living. It was as if the uncle for whom I took pride in struggling to achieve greatness was no longer there to witness my successes and show his appreciation and gratification.
This was the man I would just pick up my phone and simply say "hello, how are you doing?" Which I now understand to have been an urge and effort to make sure that he was still around, and would be there, for us and for me. This was the man I admired for his regal sense of style. He always dressed simply. His suits were highly tailored and cleanly cut. He enjoyed long-sleeved cream or white shirt over long trousers. Or a carefully chosen piece of a Joromi top. I recall a hint of a bracelet at a point. His closely cropped hair boasted of diplomatic serenity and audacious serendipity; choose one. His goatee beard was tastefully trimmed. You could only admire it.
In the context of all these, there was always only one thing that kept gushing out of him: cool crackling Wli waterfalls of joy, irresistible Congo-Ougadougou jokes, Bantama chuckles and Aayalolo-Otublohun laughter!
He was in love with life, all his life. And this deep up-welling outreach to embrace all of life he graciously shared with all mankind, starting with all those who came his way. This urge he would have felt completely unable to suppress, had he ever been so directed even by Parliament, due to the generosity of his spirit. He seemed, like one who had signed a leap-year protocol of understanding (P.O.U.) with the forces and chamberlains of his inner being to enjoin and excite all he met to join him to celebrate vivaciously the very fact of one's being, of just being alive! This was the world-view of his psyche.
This world-view of his psyche informed the nature of his interactions with people. This world-view of his psyche he distilled into his poems, which were uniquely and privelegedly positioned to exhibit the other aspect of his being: the reflective, introspective summation of life as dreamed of and life as lived; of life as observed and life as critiqued. And here it need be spelt out that the meticulous care that proclaimed itself as being behind the carefully selected patterns and surfaces of his wardrobes was clearly echoed in the phenomenon of the sanguine selectivity that took up arms in his crusade to marshall the fullest resources at the disposal of the verbal potentates chosen to deliver his poetic dispensations to mankind.
I first came into contact with Kwesi Brew's poetic dispensations to mankind through the Henry Swanzy anthology to celebrate Ghana's attainment of independence, The Voices of Ghana, (1957) and the Okyeame Magazine whose maiden edition I had the honour of distributing to shops in 1960 from the office of Miss Cecile McHardy, the Secretary of the Ghana Society of Authors (now the Ghana Association of Writers, GAW). She was the Secretary to Commander Jackson, then in charge of the Volta River Project. Then in 1963, Langston Hughes brought out his volume, Poems from Black Africa which was a real international platform for the presentation of a selection of Kwesi Brew's poems: "A Plea for Mercy," "The Search," "The lonely Traveller," and "Ancestral Faces." This platform also exhibited submissions from Kojo Gyinaye Kyei, Francis Ernest Kobina Parkers, F.K. Fiawoo, Ellis Ayitey Komey and Andrew Amankwa Opoku. In the same 1963, some more of his works were anthologized in the volume, Modern Poetry From Africa, which was edited by Ulli Beir and Gerald Moore.
It was therefore a special occasion worthy of celebration when the first collection of his poems was published in London in 1968 by Longmans, Green and Co Ltd, under the title The Shadows of Laughter. This was later to be followed by African Panorama and Other Poems (1981), and Return of No Return in 1995. His last collection was The Clan of The Leopard and Other Poems, which was published by Anansesem Publications.
The trajectory of his literary career holds a particular significance for me because Kwesi Brew and his colleagues were the elders already in the field at the time that I began my own literary career in earnest. Their example of the practice of their craft was what I had as a local point of reference for my own bearings, experimentation and search. Interestingly, the appearance of the Okyeame Magazine coincided with the completion of my secondary school education in 1960. (At the age of 16, in 1957, I was already reading my poems on radio; they were also being published in local newspapers and Journals.)
In the early 1970's the Arts Council of Ghana set up a committee to work out the modalities for a national association of writers. I served on this committee, chaired by Mr. Kwesi Brew. After some time, it was absorbed into GAW, the Ghana Association of Writers.
During my tenure as President of the Ghana Association of Writers, we received kind sponsorship from the Takoradi Flour Mills of which Mr. Brew was the Chairman and Managing Director. On one occasion, I even went to Cape Coast to consult him on some literary project, and like Stanley and David Livingstone, after calling at his house, I was led to his farm where I saw him in Wellington boots. After we had engaged in a lively chat, he showed me round the farm, before we repaired to the house. This incident also brings to mind another touching visit I made to his home around Abeka Lapaz, at the time that he was based in Accra. Mr. Brew showed me round the house, and I was full of admiration for the different areas of the home: a green room, a blue room etc, tastefully appointed.
Another moment I treasure with nostalgic and memorable affection was when he acted as chairman for one of GAW programmes, "An Evening with Mukhtarr Mustapha," the distinguished Sierra Leonean poet, novelist and publisher, in August, 1973, at the Accra Arts Centre. Mr. Mustapha read from a memorably long scroll a moving poem entitled"Gbassey". Another was "Dalabani". According to the TAKRA (GAW's newsletter of 1974), after Mr. Mustapha's "brilliant renditions, the stage was set for "a poetry fair" featuring a cross-section of the GAW and the chairman for the occasion; Kwesi Brew, A.A. Opoku, A.W Kayper-Mensah, J.B. Blay (the grand quartet of Ghanaian poetry), Willie Amarfio, Jawa Apronti, Vicky Yeboah-Afari, A.A. Amartey, Paa "C" Oshipi-Quaye III, Kojo Yankah, Setheli Ashong-Katai and L. Therson-Cofie." We all had a wonderful night!
With the home-going of Mr. Kwesi Brew, The Pan African Writers' Association has not only lost one of its distinguished members, it has been suddenly asked to let go the committed energies of an African writer who was ever ready to help and advise and a strong pillar of steady support for the Association.
During a visit to Egypt, in the early 1990's, it was arranged for me to call on the Minister of Culture, Mr. Farouk Hosni, and the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This was Mr. Boutros Boutros-Ghally before his appointment as the United Nations Secretary General. After the meeting with the Egypt Writers' Association, it also was arranged for me to meet Mr. Naguib Mahfouz, the Nobel Literature Laureate. I went with the then President of the Egypt Writers' Association, Dr. Mohammed Salmawy, a distinguished African writer and Special Assistant to the Egyptian Minister of Culture.
The meeting was not only unique and one of honour, but very inspiring. After talking about his Nobel Literature Prize among other things, Mr. Naguib Mahfouz gave his full and vigorous support for the creation of the association, and as a concrete proof of the manifestation of the support he pledged to PAWA, he requested to be dispatched to PAWA, through the Egyptian Embassy in Accra, a selection of some of his novels. The presentation of the gift of books took place during a ceremony to mark the official dedication of the Naguib Mahfouz Courtyard in PAWA House. The Guest Speaker for the occasion was Ghana's Deputy Secretary for Foreign Affairs, Dr. Mohammed Ibn Chambas, now the ECOWAS Commissioner. It was a moment of joy and pride to us that at the presidium at the Michael Dei Annang Rotunda, which in the middle corner of PAWA House, embraces both the Wole Soyinka and the Naguib Mahfouz Courtyards of PAWA House, sat no less a literary giant than Mr. Kwesi Brew regally gracing the occasion. Such indeed has been the quality of support given by Mr. Brew to PAWA.
During the 1970's to the 1990's our interactions offered me the opportunity to hear from Mr. Brew his fond retelling of his interesting meetings with President Leopold Senghor of Senegal during the time when he was posted there as Ghana's Ambassador in 1966. Indeed, imagine the poet Ambassador meeting with the poet President!
If providence was kind to him by bringing the two poets together, then what am I, in my own case, to say about providence, when I reveal to you that when I had just freshly arrived in Moscow, in the Soviet Union, for studies, who, in 1962, was destined to turn out as the Counsellor at the Ghana Embassy in Moscow, if not Mr. Kwesi Brew! The poet student meets the poet diplomat!
Dear Uncle, Ataa Kwesi, thank you for everything, for the example and the inspiration, for the support, and the standards. For everything! May God continue to shower his blessing on you.
Farewell from us all!