Dr. Gabriel Imomotimi Gbaingbain Okara was born on April 24, 1921 (though oral family history places his birth as occurring in 1918) to the family of the late Chief Samson Gbaingbain Okara and the late Mrs. Martha Okara in Bumoundi community of the Ekpetiama clan of Bayelsa State. He was the eldest of 5 siblings one of whom was my father, the late Justice (Chief) Robert Pappah Gbaingbain Okara. He passed away peacefully in his eldest daughter’s home in Azikoro, Yenagoa, Bayelsa State on March 24, 2019.
On March 2, 2019, I posted a picture of him on Facebook taken a few days before by his eldest daughter Timinepre, on perhaps, what was his last outing, looking out at Oxbow lake; and I recall the picture, poignant and pregnant with meaning, brought to mind his poem – ‘The Call of the River Nun’.
Who would have known that the Lord would call him home on Sunday 24th March, exactly a month before his 98th or 101st birthday. Still so much to talk about with him, especially about our family history, so much wisdom still to glean from him, but alas, he is no more.
With his longevity, perhaps it never occurred to us that he would obey the call to be further clothed with immortality, having been such a fixture in our lives for as far back as our memories can recall. I recall how in 1979, when I gained admission to the University of Nigeria, Nsukka to study English, at the time believing that my destiny was nearer his as a man of Letters, he personally took me to the university and introduced me to world-acclaimed members of the department. Consequently, I came to personally meet the likes of the late Chinua Achebe and Donatus Nwoga. In fact, I became a minor celebrity in the department of English, as naturally, the mention of my surname Okara elicited questions about a possible connection to him. However, when I soon discovered that my destiny was elsewhere and that Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth, and nearer home Soyinka, JP Clark, Ayi Kwei Armah and others were to be admired from a distance, he did not begrudge my switch to Law and the pursuit of a legal career like my late father and late elder brother. He was gracious and understanding.
Uncle Gabriel as he was to many of us, was calm, humorous, artistic, musical, eclectic, very spiritual and of course our poet laureate. He became the family icon. A picture of selflessness, contentment, service, intellect and greatness. He carried it all with such self-effacing humility that in so doing he taught us to recognise that greatness is exemplified in knowing who you are, yet humble enough to know whose you are.
His life was like an epistle to be read and emulated. He embodied such wisdom that the words of Solomon ring out in wondrous acclaim of him “wisdom is better than rubies, and all the things one may desire cannot be compared with her”. The legacy of service, honour and integrity which he embodied have become for the Okara family our identity and watchword. We will continue to uphold these values in all our endeavours, such that we leave behind a society eminently better than what we met.
We join our brethren in Bumoundi, the Ekpetiama kingdom, Bayelsa State, the Izon nation, Nigeria and the literary world globally to celebrate his contribution to literature, culture, education and service to mankind.
On a final note, we want to again thank His Excellency, Governor Henry Seriake Dickson for according our father a state burial.
This singular honour signposted for all that the new Bayelsa State led by His Excellency, Governor Dickson would uphold and celebrate our icons that have excelled in various fields of human endeavour, thereby showcasing a state whose heritage is not just oil, but of culture, literature, science and academia recognised on the world stage.
Adieu my dearest uncle. You were and still are the best.
Kemela Okara Esq, Secretary to the Bayelsa State Government, Bayelsa State