Gabriel Imomotimi Okara was better known as a poet, though he was a novelist too. “The Call of the River Nun” was the most quoted of his poems.
On March 25, he answered the call, not of River Nun in his home village (Bomoundi) in today’s Bayelsa State but the call of Nature or God. He was one of the titans of African literature whose texts were studied in schools before and after Nigeria’s independence.
The secondary school that produced Okara and other great writers east of the Niger was Government College, Umuahia. Later, he attended Yaba Higher College. Wikipedia records that, during World War II, he wanted to enlist in the British Royal Air Force but did not complete pilot training and had to, instead, work for the forerunner of the present British Airways.
At the end of the war in 1945, he worked for the colonial government’s printing and publishing company. And that was the period he started writing – translating his native Ijaw poems into English and writing for the radio.
He studied Journalism at Northwestern University, United States, in 1949. On his return, he worked as information officer for the Eastern Nigerian Government Service, a position he held until the outbreak of the Nigerian civil war in 1967. Okara was one of Biafra’s ambassadors in 1969. At the end of the civil war, he was named director of Rivers State Publishing House. He was there between 1972 and 1980.
Okara had become a popular artiste even before Nigeria’s independence in 1960. “The Call of the River Nun” won an award at the Nigerian Festival of Arts in 1953. But other poems such as “Piano and Drums” and “You Laughed and Laughed and Laughed” were to follow. It was no surprise, therefore, that he was one of the great African writers that attended the milestone African Writers Conference in 1962 at Makerere University College in Kampala, Uganda. Among other attendees were Chinua Achebe, John Pepper Clark, Christopher Okigbo, Wole Soyinka, Ngugu Wa Thiong’o, Rebecca Njau, and Ezekiel Mphalele.
Like other writers of his era, Okara did not fail to explore themes around the clash of cultures between European colonisers and colonised Africans. The Voice, a novel published in 1964, was his answer. Many of his works got lost or were destroyed during the civil war.
The literary giant will for long be remembered around the globe. His latest recognition was the Gabriel Okara Literary Festival held at the University of Port Harcourt in 2017. Apart from the 1953 award of “The Call of the River Nun”, there was the 1979 Commonwealth Poetry Prize for “The Fisherman’s Invocation” and the 2005 NLNG Prize for “The Dreamer, His Vision”. He received the Honorary Membership Award of the Pan African Writers’ Association in 2009.
In an interview with African Writing Online, about 11 years ago, Okara advised young writers to be patient and keep writing. On whether the works of writers would lead to change, he said: “No society is static. As the old writers pass away the young ones will take over the fight for change; it is a continuous fight. And change will come eventually.”
Dying just a month to his 98th birthday, Gabriel Imomotimi Okara lived life to the full. Only a few people enjoy the privilege of living to old age. We wish him well in the great beyond.
With: The Oracle Today