Adieu Nigeria’s Great Cultural Ambassador, Dr Gabriel Okara (1918-2019)

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By: Godknows Boladei Igali

After a glittering and lofty life’s journey straddling the twentieth and twenty-first centuries’ world of arts, creativity and public service, Dr. Gabriel Imomotimi Gbaingbain Okara, was on Saturday, June 22, 2019 returned to his place of nativity, Bumoundi in Ekpetiama Kingdom of the Ijaw ethnic nationality on Saturday, June 22, 2019 to take his final rest. Expectedly, there were endless renditions of poetry, lectures, speeches and performances of drama, drumming, cannon-fire shots and cultural dances. Global audiences gathered all week long in Port-Harcourt, the Niger Delta’s main metropolis and around Bayelsa State’s swampy towns of Yenagoa and Bumoundi, Okara’s hometown to honour him as he was interred in a State Funeral, proclaimed by Governor Seriake Dickson of this Nigeria’s southernmost, Bayelsa State.

He was unarguably one of this Nigeria’s leading cultural Ambassadors.
Although the year of his birth was unintentionally recorded as 1921and still is in most publications, we now know from family records that it was in 1918. Gabriel Okara became a literary icon and was named the first “modernist of Anglophone literature” in Africa. Actually, five times award winning writer, Prof Brenda Marie Osbey of Louisiana State University insists on remembering his literary heritage as “the inventor of Anglophone African Poetry in English”. In other words, he invented a genre of African poetry in English without the loss of its original linguistic allure and emotive ambience.
For many in the Niger Delta, he most profoundly pioneered the interpretation of the mystical bond between the ancient people of the region, especially his Ijaw ethnic nationality and the marine ecology around them. He brought to global view with luxuriant literary flavour and imageries, the worldview of the peoples of these wetlands who originated from the banks of the majestic River Niger, West Africa’s giant marine highway. Conveyed in original syntax and morphology, he narrated, often using himself as a living specie, the story of a people whose strength of yesteryears, today and in the foreseeable future can only find interpretation in the boundless Atlantic and the myriad of rivers, creeks and rivulets around them. This is a path which many other literary titans such as his age-mate an ace musicologist, Adam Fiberesima and writers, John Pepper Clark, Elechi Amadi, Ken Saro Wiwa, Ola Rotimi, et al espoused with great profundity and creative expression.

As far back as 1953, he called world attention to the allure of the mysterious world of the River Nun in whose banks he got his nativity in the town of Bumoundi. After traversing its 4,180 long kilo stretch through nine countries from the Futa Jallon Highlands, the River Niger beleagueredly, bifurcates into two after the town of Aboh in present day Delta State creating 198 kilometres long Forcados River in the west and 170 kilometres long stretch of the River Nun. Through these two principal rivers and their numerous creeks, it finds ultimate end points to connect to the Atlantic Ocean.

Just few generations before the birth of Okara on the shores of these waters, the mystery of the interconnection had plagued the curious appetites of Mungo Park, the Lander Brothers and many other European explorers. It was only after Richard Lander followed the River Nun steadily to the sea at the town of Akassa in 1830, that European explorers, missionaries and more prominently merchants became more at home with the River Nun. Although Richard Lander who was only 26 years old at the time lived for just three more years, the Nun River became one of the most used fairways to the hinterland. Gabriel Okara’s father, a great wrestler of his day and the paramount ruler of his home town was also a key player in the “legitimate trade” in palm produce which flourished in the area along a maze of islands of the delta.

Through his pioneer work, “The Call of the River Nun” in 1953, he started off his Award winning life by becoming Winner in Best All-Round Entry in Poetry at the Nigerian Festival of Arts. An avant-gardist of a type, he introduced to the largely European panel of judges at the time, a poignant and enthralling narrative of the union between him and his native environment. But more than that, Okara literally wrote in an African language and mentally presented in English. From then onwards he quickly gained reputation as a prolific writer.

By the time the German literary inspiratot/expositor established the once famous “Black Orpheus” Magazine in 1957 as a platform for budding Anglophone and Francophone writers, Okara became a regular contributor. However, his next main headline work was what he called an experimental novel, “The Voice”. One commentator described that work thus: remarkable linguistic experiment in which Okara translated directly from the Ijo (Ijaw) language, imposing Ijo syntax onto English in order to give literal expression to African ideas and imagery. The novel creates a symbolic landscape in which the forces of traditional African culture and Western materialism contend”.

Although he continued publishing and garnering various recognitions, it was again in 1979 that he won the Commonwealth Poetry Prize for his work, “The Fisherman’s Invocation”, a euphemistic demonstration of the bond which his Ijaw forebears have for their aquatic scenery. Since then, literary heirs and dramatists have taken this work to mainstream theatre and traversed the entire world with it. Still in 2005, already old and fully greyed, Pa Okara won the most vaunted “NLNG Prize”, for his seminal work: The Dreamer, His Vision.

By 2009, Pan African Writers’ Association accorded him a lifetime achievement Honorary Membership Award. For many years after cutting his teeth in broadcasting, he was appointed a Writer-in-Residence at the University of Port Harcourt (UNIPORT) and by 2017 became Emeritus Professor of the same university.

When he left UNIPORT, he established the Gabriel Okara Literary Festival, among other worthy literary ventures. He received countless Honorary Doctoral Degrees, including from the University of Port-Harcourt. The Government of Bayelsa State and different Ijaw and Niger Delta Groups have also honoured him at various times.

Unknown to many, Gabriel Okara was also a most outstanding public servant. He had at different times worked as a book binder at the Colonial Government Press after leaving secondary school. It is recounted that his writing career took its nascence from that moment. But at the outbreak of the Second World War, he tried abortively to contribute his quota in fighting German belligerence by enrolling in the Royal Air Force. Undeterred, he went on to take a job at the British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC), the precursor of today’s British Airways.

Pa Okara’s stint in broadcast journalism began when he returned from studies at North Western University in Illinois in faraway United States of America. It was a passion that never left him till his passing. He was a Radio Broadcaster at Radio Nigeria and Information Officer in the service of Eastern Regional Government. During the Nigerian Civil War, he parted ways with most of his fellow Ijaw kinsmen to pitch his tent with the Biafran side. This was a demonstration of his strength of character in pursuit of conviction as a social crusader who was ready to swim against the tide when necessary. As the war ended, he returned to his Ijaw people in the newly created Rivers State, to take up appointment. He was close to notable Ijaw patriarchs such as Harrold Dappa Biriye, Senator Zuofa, PG Okoya and Chief N.A. Frank-Opigo, with whom he shared Biafra days. He served for some years as Principal Secretary to the then young Governor of River State, Commander Alfred Diette-Spiff. He left a legacy in journalism when he became the founding General Manager of Rivers State Newspaper Corporation, the publisher of ”Nigerian Tide Newspaper”. Furthermore, he went on to pioneer the establishment of the Rivers State Television Corporation.

Gabriel Okara was an old boy of the famous Government College, Umuahia. Wikipedia describes his alma mater thus: “Twenty years after the establishment of Kings College, the first government-owned high school, by the British colonial government, three similar public schools were founded in 1929. These three institutions, Government College Umuahia (GCU), Government College, Ibadan and Government College Zaria (now Barewa College), were designed to follow the traditions of British public schools such as Eton, Harrow and Winchester. The GCU was known as the ‘Eton of the East,’ at that time because it was located in Nigeria’s orient and was known for its elite standards and selectivity”. No wonder, this school produced most of the prominent persons who came to dominate public life in the former Eastern Region as well as younger literary icons such as Christopher Okigbo, Chinua Achebe, Laz Ekwueme, Ekechi Amadi, Chukwuemeka Ike, Ken Saro Wiwa, Col. INC Aniebo, etc.

Dr. Okara was among an elite class of Nigerians who made outstanding contributions to the continuing evolution of human civilization in most incandescent form. Along with the likes of Leopold Senghor of Senegal, he gave prototypical identity and worth to African folklore and literary expression. One contemporary strategist and communicator par excellence is Mark Paine. He once restated, perhaps with Okara’s type in mind that, “the first step toward success is taken when you refuse to be a captive of the environment in which you first find yourself. Meticulous planning will enable everything a man does to appear spontaneous”. In the 1930s when the young Okara went to school, educational opportunities were virtually nonexistent in his Ekpetiama area. At a point in his educational pursuit, he taught himself at home as he ascended the ladder of western scholarship. He was therefore virtually a self-made man. Okara’s trajectory in life remains a diadem, a treasured memorabilia from the deepest recesses of the waters of the delta.

Pa Okara was one month short of 101 years.

Amb. Boladei Igali, PhD is a Fellow Historical Society of Nigeria and an award winning Author.

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