The rain has beaten meAnd the sharp stumps cut as keen as knivesI shall go beyond and rest,I have no kin and no brother,Death has made war upon our house
DAKAR, Senegal -- Ghanaian schoolchildren memorized those lines from the 1960s by one of their country's most famous poets, Kofi Awoonor; their sorrow over the newly liberated continent's travails foreshadowed, in a terrible way, the violence that took Mr. Awoonor's life on Saturday.
Mr. Awoonor -- poet, diplomat, statesman, scholar and cultural icon in his native Ghana -- was killed in the terrorist attack by Somali militants on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi. His death at 78 has shocked citizens in Ghana, the West African nation whose difficult beginnings and subsequent steadying he accompanied and chronicled.
Mr. Awoonor published novels and books of verse, including poems like "Songs of Sorrow" that were required reading for several generations of Ghanaian schoolchildren. He was his country's ambassador to the United Nations in the early 1990s, taught at universities in the United States and Ghana, knew W. E. B. DuBois, and was president of Ghana's Council of State, a governmental advisory body. News reports in Ghana said he had been invited to a conference in Nairobi and had gone to the mall to have breakfast with his son, who was wounded in the attack.
"He had a huge influence on Ghanaian poetry and Ghanaian academia," said Akwasi Aidoo, a Ghanaian who is executive director of TrustAfrica, a pan-African good-governance foundation, who knew Mr. Awoonor for nearly 40 years. "He was one of the first poets after Ghanaian independence."
Because Mr. Awoonor was imprisoned for his activism during a time of repression in the mid-1970s, "we saw him more as an organic intellectual, as somebody who was not just confined to academia, somebody interested in the broader economic and social struggle," Mr. Aidoo said.
His poetry was heavily influenced by the funeral dirges of his native Ewe people, one of Ghana's smaller ethnic minorities; his grandmother was an Ewe dirge singer, according to the Poetry Foundation. The early poetry that gained him his reputation in the 1960s in Ghana "reflected the challenges that Ghana and Africa were going through during the postcolonial period," Mr. Aidoo said. "He was constantly emphasizing the pain, the pain and suffering of our people."
"Songs of Sorrow," perhaps his best-known poem, is an extended lament for a world of African difficulty and hardship, replete with foreboding of latent chronic violence of the sort that erupted on Saturday in Nairobi. A pan-Africanist and admirer of Kwame Nkrumah, the president who led Ghana to independence and was overthrown in a coup, Mr. Awoonor was pained by the continent's early travails.
"Funeral dirges -- he used that form to lament the state of Africa, the oppression," said Esi Sutherland-Addy, an associate professor at the University of Ghana. "It was a convenient form to talk about oppression."
Public figures in Ghana, including President John Dramani Mahama, expressed their sorrow at Mr. Awoonor's death. "I think we're all in shock," Ms. Sutherland-Addy said.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.