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Dr Roi Ankhkara Kwabena
By David Burke
Former Birmingham Poet Laureate, storyteller, poet, musician, historian and cultural anthropologist Dr Roi Ankhkara Kwabena, has died aged 51.
Former Birmingham Poet Laureate Dr Roi Ankhkara Kwabena’s death at the age of 51 has robbed black Britons of an eloquent and erudite figurehead.
Roi, who served as the second city’s sixth Poet Laureate between 2001 and 2002, was a cultural anthropologist, poet, musician, storyteller, historian, publisher and politician. But mostly he was a friend to everyone he encountered.
Dr Roi Kwabena
Impressive mind and deep spirituality
I interviewed him last year while working on my book, Crisis in the Community: The African Caribbean Experience of Mental Health. His easy demeanour, irresistible sense of fun and irrepressible buoyancy, together with a hugely impressive mind and deep spirituality, was to make an enduring impression on me. We kept in regular contact long after his contribution to the project was committed to print, and when he read the finished draft Roi, always encouraging, applauded its "fearless and forthright" tone.
"You’ve done it, brother," he told me.
We were due to meet up again before Christmas in a kind of role reversal – this time Roi would interview me about the book for Dialogue, his bi-annual journal of cultural literacy. Unfortunately, he couldn’t make it. "I’ve been a bit unwell lately," he wrote in an email. "Under strict orders from doctor to rest."
There was no indication that his poor health was anything other than a seasonal bout of flu. It emerged, while talking to his partner Martha this week that doctors were actually treating Roi for pneumonia. He was only diagnosed with lung cancer the day before he died in a London hospital on 9 January 2008.
A native of Port of Spain in Trinidad, Roi was educated in the former British colony from prep school through to university. Encouraged by his parents, he was an inveterate reader from the age of three, mainly comic books in the Golden Key series, which featured issues dedicated to classics such as The Prince and the Pauper, Macbeth and Joan of Arc.
Lament of the Soul
At secondary school the seeds of his political activism were sown as Trinidad became gripped by social malaise. At the age of 14, he published his first poem, Why Black Power? His first collection, Lament of the Soul, appeared three years later, and marked the beginning of a prolific body of work over the following three decades, including several other poetry collections, journals, essays, children’s stories and the thesis Marijuana (1981).
While still living in Trinidad, Roi founded the publishing co-operative, AFROETS PRESS, and Bembe Productions, a cultural collective whose objective was the propagation of creative expression from the Caribbean and its Diaspora.
He relocated to Britain in 1985, establishing a base in Birmingham while continuing to travel extensively throughout Europe, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, returning to Trinidad in the mid-nineties to serve as a Senator in the country’s parliament.
As Birmingham Poet Laureate he wrote a poem to commemorate National Holocaust Day in 2002, and another to coincide with the city’s bid to win the nomination as European Capital of Culture in 2008. Roi was also influential in ensuring that Birmingham commemorated Black History Month on an annual basis.
Raising black consciousness
Last year, at the opening of the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool, his enormous contribution to raising black consciousness was recognised when he featured on a wall celebrating the world’s black achievers, past and present.
The words Roi wrote and spoke were inspiring. His philosophy, what he termed cultural literacy, was based on mutual understanding of and respect for cultural difference as well as self respect.
"It’s about empowering people to understand that they mean something, that they are important, they are valid, that they have made a contribution," he said.
"We need to make a level playing field. If we recognise our sameness, if we recognise that we have a responsibility to the ones to come and the ones that are here, the younger ones, then we could start the ball rolling. It begins with me. And I am seeing ripples. It’s a way to begin to heal the wound."
Roi is survived by his partner, Martha, and baby daughter Celina here in the UK, and by his mother, father and sister in Trinidad. His funeral takes place in London on 26 January 2008. Donations either towards the cost of the funeral, or to Amnesty International, can be made by sending a cheque to Co-operative Funeralcare, 100 Darkes Lane, Potters Bar, EN6 1AE. Roi’s remains will be cremated on 28 January and his ashes taken home to Trinidad.
last updated: 06/08/2008 at 18:49