Yinka Olatunbosun writes on the life and times of Gabriel Okara, a pioneering poet and novelist who died on March 25 at his hometown in Bayelsa State.
My river’s calling too!,
“Its ceaseless flow impels my found’ring canoe down its inevitable course.
“And each dying year brings near the sea-bird call, the final call that stills the crested waves and breaks in two the curtain of silence of my upturned canoe.
“O incomprehensible God!
“Shall my pilot be my inborn stars to that final call to Thee.
O my river’s complex course?”
Thus, Gabriel Imomotimi Okara concluded his poem, “The Call of the River Nun”. The poem, published in 1957 in the influential University of Ibadan-based African Literature periodical, Black Orpheus, is one of his widely read poems.
The grand old man of the Nigerian, or indeed African, literary scene breathed his last in the late hours of Sunday, March 24 at the Federal Medical Centre in the Bayelsa State capital, Yenegoa. This was exactly four weeks to his 98th birthday. For, he was born on April 24, 1921 in Bomoundi, Bayelsa.
The poet and novelist, who is often described as the first Modernist poet of Anglophone Africa, had his secondary school education at the Government College, Umuahia. This was the school where such Nigeria’s literary greats as Chinua Achebe, Christopher Okigbo, Elechi Amadi, Chike Momah, Obi Nwakanma, Chukwuemeka Ike, Ken Saro-Wiwa and the virtuoso painter Ben Enwonwu passed through.
He would, subsequently, Afterwards, be enrolled at the Yaba Higher College. He made an attempt to enlist in the British Royal Air force during the World War II but he didn’t complete pilot training. Instead, he worked for the British Overseas Airways Corporation. In 1945, he got employed as a printer and book binder for colonial Nigeria’s government-owned public company. He was there for nine years. That was when he began to write.
At first, he translated poetry from Ijaw into English and wrote scripts for government radio. He would later study journalism at Northwestern University, USA (1949) and worked as Information officer for the Eastern Nigerian government service. Like Chinua Achebe, he was roving ambassador for Biafra’s cause in the late 60s. He was inspired to be a poet when he read the poem, “Lines Written in Early Spring” by the British Romantic writer, William Wordsworth. In his poem, “The Call of the River Nun”, he appropriated some imagery of some of elements of his hometown, the base of his muse, using symbols of rivers and boats to represent individual destiny and the passage of life and time.
From 1972 and 1980, he was Director of the Rivers State Publishing House in Port Harcourt. His first novel titled, “The Voice” was published in 1964 and had been a subject of literary criticisms amongst scholars of African literary studies. The theme of the intellectual’s estrangement from the world of power politics. The work earned international attention and the wind of success following it was cut short with the interruption of the Nigerian civil war. Many of his unpublished manuscripts were destroyed during the war. After the war’s end, Okara was at the helm of affairs at Nigeria’s and indeed Africa’s only FM station.
It is considered as a linguistic experiment as Okara translated directly from the Ijo (ijaw) language, imposing ijo (ijaw) syntax onto English to give literal expression to African ideas and imagery. The story’s tragic hero Okolo is both an individual and a universal figure and his search for moral values is centre to the work. A part of the African Writers Series, the book itself had been described as a struggle between the forces of darkness and light.
Asides the prose, his fame as a writer grew upon his poetry. Some of the popular ones are Piano and Drums, You Laughed and Laughed and Laughed, Once Upon a Time, As I See it, amongst others. Okara has published two collections of children’s poetry, Little Snake and Little Frog (1992) and An Adventure to Juju Island (1992).
Okara is one of Nigeria’s decorated writers. In 1953, he won the Best all-round entry in poetry at the Nigerian Festival of Arts for the poem, “The Call of the River Nun.” In 1979, he won the Commonwealth Poetry Prize for “The Fisherman’s Invocation”. Okara co-won the NLNG Prize in 2005 for “The Dreamer, His Vision”. In 2009, he was honoured with the Pan African Writers’
Association Honorary Membership Award and two years ago, a festival was instituted in his name called, “Gabriel Okara Literary Festival”. The University of Port Harcourt had designated him its first Doctor of Letters (honours causa) and writer-in-residence. Some critics have claimed that the philosophical depth and primary relevance as well as the topicality of his works embody much sensitivity to the principles of moral order in the society. Before his death, plans were underway in the literary community to celebrate the 55th anniversary of his first novel, The Voice.
Okara lived a quiet private life. Still, he was reportedly married and divorced thrice with children.