The Cathedral by Kofi Awoonor‘, a powerful proclamation of cultural identity and a critique on the incursion of foreign religion, is a poem that throws open the dialogue of deep-rooted African traditions clashing with Western religious influences. Residing in Africa and breathing its rich literature for over a decade, I have been privy to the profound messages poets like Awoonor channel through their work.
The Awakening – Introduction
Some poems touch hearts, some stir thoughts, but then there are those, like ‘
The Cathedral by Kofi Awoonor‘ that do both while sparking a spirited discourse on cultural identities, religious transformation and the inevitable clash between native and foreign ideologies. Born in Ghana, Awoonor has beautifully channeled the anguish about such significant societal transformations through this nine-line poem.
‘Tree once stood’ – The Symbolism
To truly appreciate the depth of his words, it is necessary to decrypt the symbolism carefully woven into the text. The tree, once standing on the metaphorical ‘dirty patch’, symbolizes African religion — fertile, nurturing and protective in its embrace of unity and communal growth.
Understanding the Shift
Moving beyond its 200th word marker, the poem takes a sharp turn. ‘They sent surveyors and builders,’ refers to missionaries who brought a new religion, Christianity, to Africa. The cutting of the tree is a metaphor for the uprooting of African tradition.
‘A huge senseless cathedral of doom’
This line is where the dimension of the poem shifts. It denotes more than just constructing a physical building, representing an aggressive push towards altering the spiritual beliefs of Africans. To Awoonor, this transition paints a gloomy picture of cultural estrangement and ignorance towards native traditions.
The Cathedral by Kofi Awoonor
On this dirty patch
a tree once stood
shedding incense on the infant corn:
its boughs stretched across a heaven
brightened by the last fires of a tribe.
They sent surveyors and builders
who cut that tree
planting in its place
A huge senseless cathedral of doom.
Summary of ‘The Cathedral’ by Kofi Awoonor
In the poem ‘
The Cathedral by Kofi Awoonor‘, the poet starts with the evocative vision of an African landscape where a tree once stood on a “dirty patch. The tree carries significant symbolism, representing traditional African religion that brought about unity and protection.
From the incense shed on infant corn to the boughs stretching across heaven, the tree was the nucleus of religious and cultural identity. However, the arrival of the surveyors and builders, symbolising Western missionaries, led to the tree being cut down, signifying the uprooting and shattering of African tradition.
In place of the tree, a colossal cathedral is erected, denoting the imposition of Christianity onto the Africans by the colonizers. To Awoonor, this transformation is a source of doom and catastrophe as it laid the foundation for cultural disorientation and a rift between Africans and their indigenous traditions.
Through this concise yet compelling poem, Awoonor highlights the destructive repercussions of religious imperialism. His critique of displacement of native African spiritual beliefs with a foreign one is downright heartrending. The summary of his poem thereby subtly insists on the need to cater for identities, cultures and traditions in the face of changing religious landscapes.
Line – by – Line Analysis of ‘The Cathedral by Kofi Awoonor’
Line 1: “On this dirty patch”
In the first line, the “dirty patch” metaphorically represents Africa. Awoonor’s mention of it as “dirty” draws a parallel with how Western culture label and view African religious practices as impure and unclean.
Line 2: “A tree once stood”
Awoonor introduces the symbol of “tree” in the second line. The standing tree represents the pre-colonial African religion, deeply rooted in their culture and way of life.
Line 3: “Shedding incense on the infant corn”
The third line digs deeper into the role of the tree or the native religion. The act of “shedding incense on the infant corn” emphasizes that the traditional beliefs played a vital part in nurturing cultural values, akin to the tree nurturing young crops.
Line 4: “Its boughs stretched across a heaven”
This line depicts the encompassing influence of African religion, reaching out like the tree’s branches, providing protection, identity and unity for its followers.
Line 5: “Brightened by the last fires of a tribe”
This line signifies the role of the traditional practices in keeping alive the flames of tribal values and kinship, marking the bright spirit of unity among Africans.
Line 6: “They sent surveyors and builders”
On the sixth line, Awoonor introduces the arrival of the “surveyors and builders”, symbolizing missionaries who disrupted the traditional faith system and brought Christianity.
Line 7: “Who cut that tree”
A shift occurs in line 7, where the invasion of these missionaries leads to the chopping of the tree or the removal of African traditions and religions.
Line 8: “Planting in its place”
The eighth line describes how the African religion was swiftly replaced by the new faith system brought by the missionaries.
Line 9: “A huge senseless cathedral of doom”
The final line concludes this nine-line poem with an image of a church erected on sacred African grounds. Awoonor refers to this cathedral as “senseless” because it symbolizes a shift of faith that estranged Africans from their indigenous traditions, leading to a “doom” of cultural identity loss — a fate Awoonor deeply laments.
Themes in ‘The Cathedral by Kofi Awoonor’
1. Clash of Cultures
The Cathedral by Kofi Awoonor‘, one of the predominant themes is the clash of cultures. This is evident in the stark comparison between the native African religion, symbolized by the tree and the imposed Western Christianity, illustrated through the cathedral. These binaries reflect a dichotomy between indigenous traditions and foreign influences.
2. Destruction of Indigenous Religion
The forceful removal of the tree reinforces the theme of destruction of indigenous religion. The chopping down of the tree, the symbol of African religion, signifies a spiritual and cultural vacuum created by the missionary invasion.
3. Imposition of Foreign Beliefs
Awoonor’s poem brilliantly maps out the imposition of foreign beliefs onto African lands. The building of the cathedral represents how the traditional values and beliefs of the natives were bulldozed, only to establish a new religious order.
4. Loss of Indigenous Identity
The transformation from the tree to the cathedral mirrors the transition of Africans from their roots to a territory where they feel alienated. The theme of loss of identity resonates throughout the poem.
5. Cultural Alienation
Awoonor also explores the theme of cultural alienation. In the lines illustrating the cathedral as a “huge senseless cathedral of doom”, he expresses his discontent over Africans becoming estranged from their own cultural heritage, language, and traditions because of the sudden shift in faith.
All these recurring themes in the poem shed light on Awoonor’s concerns about the sweeping change that altered the landscape of African societies – physically as well as spiritually – leaving them grappling with their identities.
Diving Deeper – More than Guesswork
There is more to this nine-line poem than meets the eye. Studying this piece closely brings us face-to-face with issues that still persist in contemporary African societies. One cannot help but appreciate the boldness of Awoonor in broaching these subjects.
Wrapping it Up – Final Thoughts
As I delve deeper into African literature and its renowned poets like Kofi Awoonor, I continually stumble upon intense scrutiny of colonial impacts, imbued sexuality and powerful undertones of societal critique.
So, when you read ‘
The Cathedral by Kofi Awoonor‘, you realise it’s not just a poem, but a conversation starter for discussions about cultural identity and religion. In my ten years of reading and understanding poetry, I’ve not encountered another poet quite as effective in marrying tapestry of words with hard-hitting realism.