Gabriel Okara(1921 – 2019): The passage of a great literary voice- ANA’s Tribute
Writers long to write all the time as they also seek avenues to get across what is written to the public. Every writer wants to be read and admired for his writing. But when writing becomes a regular ritual of tributes and condolences then the pen becomes weary and the writer experiences a block. This is like the summary of the state of things in the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) that is coming into a space docked by too many tributes in honour of departed colleagues within a short space of time. From Ikeogu Oke to Pius Adesanmi, the Nigerian writers house is inundated with many deaths while the tears are yet to dry, another writer, this time, a sage and father figure of creative writing joined the cue. This is yet another tribute coming out of the ANA house though it is a tribute with a difference because this one is a celebration of life in full cycle. It is a flute salute rather than a tearful lamentation in honour of a great literary voice joining the hallowed chambers of the ancestors of the pen and paper. This is ANA’s tribute to Pa Gabriel Imomotimi Okara, the voice and the undisputed priest of The River Nun.
Born in Bumoundi in Yenogoa, Bayelsa State, Nigeria on 24 April, 1921, Gabriel Okara, foremost poet, novelist, children literature writer, essayist, culture impresario and one of the key custodians of the rich literary legacy of the Niger Delta brought boundless and unlimited grace to the art of writing and story telling. Uniquely ebullient, environmentally conscious and fervent in the protection and projection of the limitless richness of literature provoked by nature. Okara brought unusual finesse to creative writing especially in the genre of poetry and prose. With a massive outlay of published and unpublished works, Okara’s literary barn is heavy with a momentous harvest of works that have been read and studied widely at home and abroad. Author of such titles as The Voice (1964), The Fisherman’s Invocation (1978), Little Snake and Little Frog (1981), An Adventure to Juju Island (1991), The Dreamer, His Vision (2005), As I See It (2006), and many other publications, Gabriel Okara exerted a lot of energy into canonizing literature from the terrain of its emergence. He brought to full view the beauty of his riverine environment to the interpretation of literary thought and laced his words with generous doses of native wisdom. A writer given to the promotion of African thought, ideas and religion, Okara created literature that seeks to establish the voice of its locale and create a balance between Western influence and local realities.
Trained at the Government College, Umuahia, a post-primary institution notably famous for producing many Nigerian literary stars, Yaba Higher College, Lagos and later Northwestern University, in the United States of America, where he studied journalism, Mr. Okara, dedicated a greater chunk of his professional life to writing and careers related to writing though he ventured into earlier training as a pilot for the Airforce but later worked as a staff of British Oversea Airways. He also worked as a printer and book binder for the colonial government and was majorly inspired into writing while putting in nine years of his work life in the government owned publishing organization. His writing career started with the translation of Ijaw poetry into English and as well as writing several scripts for the government radio stations. He later worked as an information officer in the Eastern Nigeria Government Service, joining effort with Chinua Achebe to serve as a Biafran Ambassador during the Nigerian Civil War. His official career time ended after he served as the Managing Director of the Rivers State Publishing Company in Port Harcourt.
Gabriel Okara’s writing career spans many years of active engagement in different genres of literature. He wrote radio plays, poems and feature scripts for media houses. His award winning poem “The Call of the River Nun” took the first prize in the National Festival of Arts. He contributed to major journals of creative writing of that era including The Black Orpheus, and his poems were translated into many languages. He participated in mayor literary conferences and summits and was in the forefront of the development of literature and its study in tertiary education in the continent. Okara wrote many books though unfortunately, he lost many of his manuscripts during the civil war.
Until his passage on 25th March, 2019, Gabriel Okara remained very active in the literary circles within Nigeria. His sartorial personage became a prominent feature of most of the ANA annual National Conventions sometime braving very long distances to make it to the conferences notwithstanding his age. A collection of his poems titled Collected Poems, edited with an introduction by Brenda Marie Osbey, and published by the University of Nebraska Press, was released in his honour in 2016. In addition to this, a literary festival and conference the Gabriel Okara International Literary Festival was instituted in his honour at the University of Port Harcourt, in 2017, and a book titled Gabriel Okara, edited by Professor Chidi Maduka was also published in his honour that same year.
Gabriel Okara has received several awards, prizes and recognition for his writing including the NLNG Literature Prize which he won in 2005, for his book, The Dreamer, His Vision. He has been specially recognized by the Pan African Writers Association with an Honorary Membership Award in 2009, and the Commonwealth Poetry Prize for The Fisherman Invocation.
His life and time as a writer, culture advocate, statesman and mentor to many generations of writers leaves a worthy testament to a man blessed with the gift of writing and the good nature of sharing his vast wisdom with others without reservation,
Adieu, Pa Gabriel Okara!
Denja Abdullahi Ofonime Inyang, PhD
President General Secretary