Kofi Awoonor killed in Kenya mall attack, was Stony Brook professor

Undated handout photo of Ghanaian poet, Kofi Awoonor,

Undated handout photo of Ghanaian poet, Kofi Awoonor, killed in a terrorist attack on a mall in Nairobi, Kenya on Sept. 21, 2013. (Credit: AFP)

Former Stony Brook University writing instructor and internationally acclaimed poet Kofi Awoonor was among 68 people confirmed dead in the militants' attack on a shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya.

Awoonor was in the capital city to participate in an arts and literature conference. The office of Ghana's president, John Dramani Mahama, confirmed his death Sunday.

Awoonor, 78, was shopping with his son in Westgate Mall in Nairobi when Somali Islamist militants started throwing grenades and shooting shoppers, according to news reports.

He taught creative writing and African literature at Stony Brook for six years in the early to mid-1970s before taking a sabbatical to Cape Coast in Ghana in 1975, according to Newsday reports.

Ghana's government at the time arrested him, saying he was harboring a childhood friend turned political fugitive one month after he returned to his native country. He was sentenced to one year in jail.

His Long Island colleagues learned of his incarceration two months later through smuggled letters and poems, according to Newsday reports at the time.

Awoonor was jailed because he was outspoken and critical of the Ghanaian government at the time, said Arthur Dobrin, co-founder of Amnesty International's Long Island chapter, which worked toward Awoonor's release for 10 months until the government freed him.

"We were trying to secure his release from prison," Dobrin said. "We adopted the case, generating as much publicity as we could."

At one point, more than 50 Stony Brook students protested outside the Ghanaian Embassy in Washington, D.C., Newsday reported. The Stony Brook education department and Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Louis Simpson, who also taught at the university, sent petitions calling for his release.

Stony Brook officials who knew Awoonor were not available for comment Sunday.

Dobrin said Awoonor was in Nairobi for the Storymoja Hay Festival of Literature and the Arts, an annual gathering of poets, musicians, filmmakers, writers and other artists. This year's theme was "Change the World," Dobrin said.

Festival organizers lamented Awoonor's death, saying in a statement on their website: "We were honoured to be graced by his appearance at Storymoja Hay Festival, and deeply humbled by his desire to impart knowledge to the young festival audience. Professor Awoonor was one of Africa's greatest voices and poets and will forever remain a beacon of knowledge and strength and hope."

Awoonor was Ghana's representative to the United Nations under the presidency of Jerry Rawlings from 1990 to 1994, and was also president of the Council of State -- an advisory body to the president -- under former president John Atta Mills, but stepped down earlier this year, Agence France-Presse reported.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misspelled Arthur Dobrin's name.

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