My child wants to know if the mountains really cowered.
“How do you know when a sea or a river is afraid?
How do you know when the sky is thinking yes or no?
And why did he say yes—Did he know that
all the other creatures refused? Was he arrogant
or just ignorant? Was he God’s last choice?”
“Did you really have a party the day the dictator died?
And you had a cake decorated with all the flags?
Did you think his death will fix everything?
Why did we spend all that time there?
Why couldn’t we just stay here?
Isn’t this our country too?
And all these people fleeing and drowning,
what are they hoping for? Whose fault is it?
How long must we wait for things to improve?”
She speaks to me in our language
in front of her friends, to share a secret,
or—cool and beaming—to show off.
I wonder how long it will last, this pride,
this intimacy. Sometimes she puts her arm
next to mine and tells me I have the lighter skin.
“Why are you doing this,” I ask.
But she doesn’t point to the flag
or say, “It’s the way of the world.”
Instead she tells me not to worry, that she is “the most
kid kid in my class, the least mature one, Baba!”
Not all kinds of wisdom console, I tell her.
Then I begin to think of words she’ll soon hear
that can make her wish she wasn’t who she is.
Lead me to virtue, O love, through the smoke of despair.
“Let’s walk through the woods,” she tells me.
“Let’s walk by the rocky shore at sunrise.”
“Let’s walk through the clover fields at noon.”
In the rainforest she is silent, mesmerized.
She’d never prayed—we never taught her—
but she seemed to then, eyes alert with joy.
She points to a chameleon the size of a beetle,
teaches me the names of flowers and trees,
insects we can eat if we’re ever lost here.
“I’m teaching you how to entrust the world
to me,” she says. “You don’t have to live
forever to shield me from it.”
At Westgate Mall, Nairobi
           In Memoriam Kofi Awoonor
Maestro, we went there,
sought the same Indian
restaurant, ordered food
we imagined you’d want to eat.
We bought local tea
for friends, and my wife
bought me a blue
paisley shirt for our
anniversary. All the while
we looked for places to hide,
places where you may
have tried to hide. Two nights
ago my daughter asked
what shahada meant,
then what shahid meant.
And because she loves to sing
she recited the fatiha and
surat al-a’sr.
I do not know when
I’ll tell her that that
would not have saved us,
that we, I pray and hope,
would not have wanted to be
saved without you.
Forgive me for keeping her
innocent a little longer. Soon
enough she’ll need your words.
I promise to read her
your “Grains and Tears”
when her time of courage comes.

Editor’s Note: Kofi Awoonor (1935–2013) was a Ghanaian poet, literary critic, and professor of comparative literature. He was killed in the Westgate shopping mall attack in Kenya in September 2013. The poem “Grains and Tears” can be found in his last book, The Promise of Hope: New and Selected Poems, 1964–2013.