For several days, politicians, writers, friends and colleagues of late literary icon, Dr. Gabriel Okara, one of Africa’s most revered poets, were in Yenagoa to celebrate and reflect on his eventful life, Emmanuel Addeh reports
“I hear your lapping call!
I hear it coming through; invoking the ghost of a child listening, where river birds hail your silver-surfaced flow.
“My river’s calling too!
Its ceaseless flow impels my found’ring canoe down its inevitable course.
And each dying year brings near the sea-bird call, the final call that stills the crested waves and breaks in two the curtain of silence of my upturned canoe” Dr Okara (Call of the River Nun).
So, on March 24, 2019, world renown poet, essayist, novelist and perhaps the greatest literary luminary yet from the Niger Delta, Dr. Gabriel Imomotimi Gbaingbain Okara, finally answered “The Call of the River Nun”, stilling the prodigious waves of a man so noble, yet so lowly.
The poem “Call of the River Nun”, written in 1950, was one of his most celebrated and rapidly gained world recognition and local accolades, literally becoming one of the verses in the literature bible, for students in Nigeria and West Africa, at some point.
Calm, gentle and forthright, for those who had the privilege of meeting him in person when he journeyed the earth for close to five scores, practically defying the popular biblical figure of three scores and ten, Okara was simply a good man. He lived a whopping 98 years, though some records say he was 101.
But for Okara, born in rustic and riverine Bumoundi, Yenagoa, his admirers would readily agree that his juice wasn’t necessarily in the number of years that he lived, but in the life he put in those years touching lives, mentoring many and showing that despite heights attained by man , he remains human and therefore must remain humble and effortlessly forgiving.
He had a stint in journalism, was an administrator for several years, but his calling as many are wont to admit, was first to write beautiful poems, then novels, then essays. The rest as his life turned out, were mere side attractions.
A father of four biological children; Timinipre Okara-Schiller, Ebi, Imomotimi and Seiyefa okara-Aruno and several others that he fathered through his writings, Okara in his lifetime, won several laurels, too numerous to count.
In his early days, he won silver at the Nigeria Festival of Arts for his “Call of the River Nun”. Again, he gained recognition by cupping the British Council Short Story Competition for (the Iconoclast) in 1952. With his “Fisherman’s Invocation”, he was adjudged joint winner and first African winner of the Commonwealth poetry prize in 1979.
At the age of 84, in 2005 for “The Dreamer, his Vision: Poems” Okara won the Nigeria Liquefied Natural Gas (NLNG) prize for poetry. Also, he was one of the only three persons (writers in residence) ever to be awarded an honorary doctorate degree at a special convocation by the University of Port Harcourt.
For his meritorious service in the arts, he was awarded an OON in 2001 and several other recognitions from Rivers as well as Bayelsa States. He was also a grand patron of the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA), a fellow of the Nigeria Academy of Letters and had several prizes instituted in his name to encourage young writers.
So, it was not surprising that his final passage rites started in Port Harcourt, where he cut his teeth as a young man in administrative positions at the Rivers State Television and the Tide , with a service of songs and later moved to the Gabriel Okara Cultural Centre in Yenagoa where his book “The Voice” which clocked 55 years was celebrated.
Then followed the exhibition of his works, launch of the Gabriel Okara Foundation, ceremony of poems, songs and tributes, cultural sporting activities, a service of songs, commendation and interment ceremonies and finally a thanksgiving service in his honour.
One of the earliest dignitaries to grace the events was former President, Goodluck Jonathan, an ardent reader of late Okara’s works.
He spoke glowingly of the late 98-year-old poet, novelist and administrator whose literary works spanned over six decades, describing his death as the loss of a rare treasure which will be hard to replace.
Leading the eulogies, Jonathan said Okara was a humble man and expressed joy that the literary icon was honoured during his lifetime, with the naming of the Gabriel Okara Cultural Centre and the state-owned library after writer.
He said Okara was a voice of justice and equality everywhere his works were read all over the world and urged Nigerians to emulate the kind of life he lived.
“ The state library was also named after him when he was still alive. I also agree that that is the best way to honour people – when they are still alive. Yes, we have been told by his son that Pa lived over 100 years. It is not easy to get there because even the scripture talks about three scores plus ten – that is seventy years.
“ So, to go significantly above seventy, we have to thank God, because all of us know that no matter the age of the person and circumstances of death, death is painful to those who love that person. And Pa Okara, we all know, is a treasure.
“And nobody would want to lose such a person. So his death, even though he has stayed on earth within a reasonable time, his death is painful to all of us. As a journalist, as a poet, a novelist, and all. You hardly go to a gathering where people speak ill of Pa Okara” Jonathan said.
He continued: “I can remember in my literature class when I was in secondary school that we read some of his poems in West African Verse. And of course in my university days I also witnessed when the university honoured Pa Okara with honorary doctor of letters degree in the first convocation of University of Port-Harcourt. I was a witness to that award.
“So Pa Okara was a voice – a voice of reason, voice of truth, voice of justice and equality. And we all should emulate him and carry on with his philosophy. Today, we are all here as part of his last journey. We thank God for that”.
In his remarks, the Governor of Bayelsa State, Seriake Dickson, said a mausoleum would be built in honour of the late poet, while working with his Alma mater-Government College, Umuahia, a project to be named after Okara would soon commence.
He added that Bayelsa would have preferred to bury the late writer at the Ijaw Heroes Park, but said he understood the family which chose to bury the man in his village in Bomoundi, Yenagoa Local Government.
“We are here to honour this great fisherman who gave to us and the world, “The Fisherman Invocation”. We are here to celebrate this great Ijaw man – quintessential Ijaw man from Bumoundi the River Nun.
“He gave to us and the world, “ The call of the River Nun”. We can go on-and-on: “Piano and Drums”, “The Voice”, etc. But all in all, we are here to celebrate the life of a good and a great man.
“People of my age started reading the works of Okara some 40 years ago. If Okara had not harkened to the final call of the River Nun he would have surely been here today with us celebrating another great Bayelsan.
“And you don’t have to be a political leader to have that kind of attention and that’s the lesson we are teaching today. Most times people tend to celebrate political leaders forgetting that there are also leaders in all spheres of human endeavour.
“For us in Bayelsa, once you live a life of service, once your life has brought glory and acclaim to our people, we showcase you and honour you as a beacon of hope for what is possible in the creeks of Niger Delta” Dickson said.
He added: “And today, as our own contribution, this aspect of honouring our deserved leaders, those who are alive as well as those who are dead, the government of Bayelsa State is now saying that Pa Gabriel Okara will have a mausoleum built in his honour at the Ijaw National Heroes Memorial Park.
Sounding rather poetic, Dickson continued: “ When you read “The Fisherman Invocation”, “Piano and Drum” as it compares with the rustic mystical drums in Bumoundi to the concerto, ending in crescendo; when you read “The call of the River Nun” and all his works, including this one we’ve just re-launched, “The Voice”, it’s an entire life of service, of simplicity; a life of honour – a quintessential Ijaw man”
Earlier , during the launching of the Gabriel Okara Foundation, daughter of the literary icon, Mrs. Timinipre Okara-Schiller, said a major objective of the foundation is to protect, preserve and promote Okara’s legacies.
She disclosed that the foundation would also give hope and succour to indigent children and youths in the society in dire need of the right motivation to excel beyond their immediate environment, as her father cherished and blessed the idea of the foundation.
Okara-Schiller said her father contributed immensely to the development of the Ijaw Nation and served the country meritoriously in various capacities.
And finally, the remains of the late literary icon, Dr Gabriel Okara, regarded as the first modernist poet of Anglophone Africa, was laid to rest in his Bomoundi, Yenagoa home, in Bayelsa, in a ceremony witnessed by the late writer’s friends, colleagues and government officials.
A renowned historian, Prof. Ebiegberi Alagoa described Okara as an elder brother from whom he learnt a great deal.
In his tributes on behalf of the bereaved family, the Secretary to the State Government, Kemela Okara described his uncle as calm, humorous, witty, artistic, musical, eclectic and very spiritual, a man whose life was like an epistle.
President of the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) Mr. Denja Abudullahi, in his comments, said rather than mourn the passage of Okara people should celebrate his eventful life of prodigious contributions to humanity through literature and public service.
So also was the Managing Director of the Niger Delta Development Commission (NNDDC), Prof Nelson Brambaifa, who wrote that “ for over five decades Gabriel Okara stood on the crest of African literature with the magical inventiveness of his prose, the utter brilliance and profundity of his poetry, acuity of his mind and immortality of his craft”.
Other prominent personalities that graced the event were the Deputy Governor, Rear Admiral John Jonah; Prof. John Pepper Clark, a poet of note; Prof. Ebiegberi Alagoa, a renowned historian; Prof. Kimse Okoko, former President, Ijaw National Congress; Prof. Lawrence Ekpebu and Prof. Godini Darah of the University of Africa, Toru Orua.
Also, former Minister of Police Affairs, Broderick Bozimo and his spouse, Mrs Elechi Amadi, writer, Odia Ofemu, former and serving national as well as state legislators, traditional rulers and well wishers paid their last respects to the departed literary giant.
And as he was laid to rest in his Bumoundi village, the eternal words of Henry Reeds Conant rang true: “ Why mourn we , then , for those who cross the river? Although to us a heavy loss, to them is joy forever”. In Okara’s death, the world lost a good man, in his death, the heavens gained an angel!