Stony Brook alumnus and former creative writing and African literature professor Dr. Kofi Awoonor, 78, was killed during the Westgate Mall shooting in Nairobi, Kenya by members of the Somali terrorist group Al Shabaab, which left at least 70 people dead.
According to Director of Alumni Relations Matthew Colson, Dr. Awoonor graduated from Stony Brook University in 1972 with a Ph.D. in English. From 1968 to 1975, he was a professor in the Department of English.
After leaving Stony Brook in 1975 to return to his home in Ghana, Dr. Awoonor was arrested by the Ghanaian government and charged with aiding a believed dissident.
Stony Brook students and Long Island’s Amnesty International Organization joined together to protest for his release in Washington, D.C. in 1976. Students also submitted articles to the New York Times and Stony Brook’s magazine “The Fortnight.” These efforts brought SBU to national prominence for one of the first times.
“The Brook,” Stony Brook’s alumni newsletter, published an article in 2005 that looks back at those protests: “Concerned students and faculty tried to obtain whereabouts from the Ghanian Embassy…they organized a letter-writing campaign, protest and telephone-calling marathon on behalf of Awoonor.”
Awoonor was eventually freed from the Ghanaian prison and was able to continue his literary works as well as begin a political career.
His political career led him to become the Ghanaian ambassador to Brazil and Cuba. He was later appointed to the office of United Nations ambassador for Ghana. There, he had a reputation as a peace advocate, which reached its height when he was appointed as the head of the committee to end the apartheid in South Africa.
After becoming a statesman in Ghana, Awoonor rose in prominence as a writer and literary legend for Ghana.
One of the few professors who knew Awoonor well during his time at Stony Brook is Professor Narayan Hegde, currently a professor at SUNY Old Westbury. Professor Hegde stated that “having studied English literature under what used to be still the British influenced education system, we were drawn towards each other.”
Hegde said he remembered that during an exam “when one of my examiners, an American professor, found my characterization of Rudyard Kipling as an apologist for imperialism somewhat rash, Awonoor came to my defense.”
Hegde also recalled Awoonor’s influence in Africa at the time. “Although I lost touch with him after his return to Ghana in 1975, I was aware of his rising prominence as an African writer and a diplomat,” Hegde said.
Awoonor’s nephew Kwame Dawes stated in a PBS interview, “People in Ghana know him as prof.”
Stony Brook alumni expressed the impact Awoonor had on their lives, especially on the Alumni Association Facebook page.
“I have followed his life course intermittently over the ensuing decades with pride and admiration,” alumnus Mark Mehler said.
As Mark Mehler states, “I have had many inspiring teachers in all disciplines since that time long, long ago (when we were both young, I was 16 and he was 34) but none will compare to Professor Awoonor”.
Several Stony Brook faculty members who knew Dr. Awoonor recalled their memories of him.
“I did not know him well, but he was well respected,” European studies professor Aaron Godfrey said. He added that Awoonor “was disappointed that at that time we had so few African American students. As I recall, he was the only faculty member of African ethnicity.”
Correction on Oct. 10, 2013: Dr. Kofi Awoonor was of Ghanaian nationality.