Pa Gabriel Imomotimi Gbaingbain Okara was born born on April 21, 1921, in Bumodi, Bayelsa State, Nigeria, poetically by the River Nun. He attended the prestigious Government College Umuahia in the 1930s and 40s when, according to Okara himself; “secondary schools were really secondary schools and students were exposed to all branches of study, from the Sciences to the Arts. We were also exposed to various European writers and we were inspired by them. I began to think about my experiences in the environment in which I grew up.
“I grew up in the village of Bomoudi on the riverbanks where water was everything for us. We used it for cooking, washing, transportation; travelling from place to place. My father was a trader so we travelled a lot selling our wares. All that experience of rivers coupled with the indirect experience I had in the writings of writers like Charlotte Brontë and William Shakespeare inspired me into writing and the great Nigerian sculptor and artist, Ben Enwonwu taught me Fine Arts at Umuahia in 1937”.
This is an important and hardly known aspect of Gabriel Okara’s life – that he is, before he was a poet, a talented painter. His work was mostly in water colors. Most are lost. He, in fact, had a famous exhibition of his water colors in Lagos in the 1940s. Okara is a consummate artist; a man of the imagination. Among the quartet of Nigeria’s greatest poets of the 20th century his works speak to a passing time; a landscape on which is preserved, much like his lost paintings, a rich and magical world.
A largely self-educated man, Okara became a bookbinder after leaving school and soon began writing plays and features for radio. In 1953 his poem “The Call of the River Nun” won an award at the Nigerian Festival of Arts. Some of his poems were published in the influential periodical Black Orpheus, and by 1960 he was recognized as an accomplished literary craftsman.
Okara’s poetry, which had already been translated into several languages by the early 1960s, is based on a series of contrasts in which symbols are neatly balanced against each other. The need to reconcile the extremes of experience (life and death are common themes) preoccupies his verse, and a typical poem has a circular movement from everyday reality to a moment of joy and back to reality again.
Okara incorporated African thought, religion, folklore, and imagery into both his verse and prose. His first novel, The Voice (1964), is a 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. Its tragic hero, Okolo, is both an individual and a universal figure, and the ephemeral “it” that he is searching for could represent any number of transcendent moral values. Okara’s skilled portrayal of the inner tensions of his hero distinguished him from many other Nigerian novelists.
During much of the 1960s Okara worked in civil service. From 1972 to 1980 he was director of the Rivers State Publishing House in Port Harcourt. His later work includes a collection of poems, The Fisherman’s Invocation (1978), and two books for children, Little Snake and Little Frog (1981) and An Adventure to Juju Island (1992).
I met Pa. Okara formally in the mid 90’s, but had of course first encountered and known him all through my adolescent life through his poems for the simple reason that some of us grew up on them as Literature students in recommended books like ‘West African Verse’ and ‘Selection of African Poetry’. How could one ever forget: ‘The Call of the River Nun’ or ‘Piano and Drums’?
Okara was also that looming and fabled figure of letters, one of those eternal presences, always constant and intact, whose sheer aura triggered imagistic resonances and possibilities of an exotic season where the rivers flowed in trauquil serenity, the breeze flirted with leaves in sensous tease, birds built straw castles on antils as hawks in far away sky plumed in an estuary of flamboyant patterns and your heart, rich and full with love and the contents of nature’s gifts transported your mind into the limbo of fading echoes where the golden orb of setting sun cast long shadows of the footprints of fishermen steeped in shoresands in the wake of departing surfs. That was how Pa. Okara affected us.
I and my good friend Dr. Leonard Emuren (Medical Doctor and Poet) had the exceptional privilege of interacting closely with Pa. Okara in the mid 90’s (then he was still in his 70’s). I cannot quite remember now how i became so involved with the legendary sage, but i guess Nengi Ilagha, the award winning poet, had formally introduced me to him. I was working on a Niger Delta Writers Hall of Fame project, under the aegis of my NGO at that time, the Niger Delta Writers Network and Okara was on my list. Nengi was the ANA Bayelsa Chairman and equally working on the Association’s Literary Magazine ‘The ………… and he wanted me to do an interview with Pa Okara for him. I was also the Literary Editor of the Tide Newspapers and Pa. Okara was of course a celebrated story vault any day.
What struck me with particular interest was that even at that age, Pa Okara was as fit as a fiddle. He loved his Tea with the passion of a connoiseur and we would discuss the different exotic brands and merits of Tea and he would regale us with tales of his time in England, if we met him during breakfast, which usually comprised sliced brown bread and the delicacies of jam, margerine and a sunny side up omlette laced with sausage or bacon. And when we met at other times, we would discuss literature and the quality of present day poetry. Not only was his mind intact, he was agile, in peach health, and exhibited a mastery and dexterity of the elements of gravity by driving himself even at that age.
He is also an accomplished painist and he often thrilled us with his mastery of the compositions of some great masters like Beethoven and Mozart, his favorite being the very popular ‘fur Elise’ by Beethoven, which he would strum effortlessly of the grand Piano in his sitting room.
We also had the singular honour and pleasure to assist with the arrangements for his 80th birthday celebrations, which held in the lush greenery of his compound in Abulome and also enjoyed the grace of his presence as our special guest of honour, when Ken Saro-Wiwa junior hosted an evening of poetry and music in his house in Port Harcourt. The crowning moment of our relationship was when ANA Bayelsa gave him the Outstanding life time Award of Excellence, and we subsequently drove to the mouth of the famous River Nun in company of Professor Allagoa, amongst others, where we had a picknic of poetic verses and Pa Okara read his famous Poem ‘The Call of the River Num’. This was the very first time he had ever read the poem at the source of its inspiration; he wrote it when he was in Enugu- and as the import of the moment overwhelmed him, he thanked us, for giving him the opportunity to realise and cherish this everlasting experience.
Pa Okara also had a great sense of humour as he often thrilled us with anecdotes gently retrieved by our eager but subtle proddings from the fragments of a remarkable life; a rich and textured life, which has now clocked 90 years and counting.
Men like Gabriel Okara are the “living laboratories” of their age, to quote another remarkable member of his generation, Adegoke Adelabu and the curiosities of that life have remained a real goldmine for a feast of literary documentations.
Pa Okara has very defined opinions about Nigerain writers and Nigeria. Says he; Writers express their own ideal society, the kind they would like to live in. And sometimes they forecast what the society in which they live will become in future. But everything depends on the leadership. While writers try to show the way, it is left for the leaders to bring about the physical development. It is the leaders, the governors, the president and others who are in government that can change the society through initiating policies for development and executing such policies. They are supposed to effect the physical changes like good roads etc. that affect the lives of the people. The kind of change that writers bring about is that of attitude. And attitudinal change takes a long time. Sometimes it takes generations before some changes could be noticed. Certainly, things will change for the better. 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. Things normally get worse before they get better. The present situation is an indication of the changes to come. A professor friend of mine once described what is currently taking place in Nigeria as military materialism. Everyone wants to get rich by all means. The means doesn’t matter; the end justifies the means. With time all these will change”.
Speaking on the seeming poor quality of literary books in the market today Okara says; “Many factors are responsible. In our days you won’t find local publishers. Our works were published abroad and brought back to the country. But today there are many publishers. And these could not be called real publishers because you have to pay before they publish your book. They call themselves publishers when they are mere printers.The problem is the style of publishing which is more like printing job. In real publishing you don’t pay publishers, they pay you in royalties. They sign agreement with you and you wait and get your royalties depending on the percentage agreed upon”.
Pa Okara advises young writers thus: ‘Young writers should be patient. Practice makes perfect. They can’t just write anything and feel it is good enough for publishing. Publishers are businessmen like any other businessmen in other trades. They are not philanthropists; they are out to make money. So young writers should be patient and polish their works. When they are good, publishers will be running after them, they won’t have to go canvassing for publishers, they will run after them. They should be patient and be writing, if they have that desire and innate talent in them, it doesn’t matter how long it takes, it will come out.
Pa Gabriel Okara clocked 90 years in April 2011. Happy Birthday our dear Daddy.