By Obi Nwakanma
Early in 1994, I had gone to visit the poet Gabriel Okara in Port Harcourt. He lived then in the Rumuibekwe Estate, and was under the loving care of his daughter. I spent a long day chatting and drinking tea. What struck me was the poet’s mental acuity. His memory was sharp as razor. His surroundings were Spartan, almost depressingly so, but it had one, very well preserved Piano, and Okara did tell me quite a bit about his love of the Piano as a musical instrument which he played when he was much younger. I regret that I did not get him to play a snatch for me. But the utter simplicity of the man was charming. He was an elegant bohemian, and this was one aspect that was always missing in the descriptions of him in writings about him. Nonetheless, that rude angle of his famous “newsboy’s cap” which he’d made famous wearing over a great tuft of white hair, did speak in a fashion about his predilection.
The libertine side. Gabriel Okara, for as long as we have known him, always seemed to be the grand old man of Nigerian letters, and was easily composed. He was fixed and iconic. Among school kids in the United States, when they want to quote the canonical poem of the American tradition which every school child seemed to have read, it was always most likely to be Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken”: “Two roads divide/in a yellow wood/ …And I took the one less traveled…” For us in Nigeria, in my generation of school kids, it was always Gabriel Okara’s “Piano & Drums” or his “The Call of River Nun” which we read from the collected anthology of African poets by Donatus Nwoga, or the study by Senanu and Vincents, from which we also learned by heart, the Akan dirge, about “Valiant Owusu,” the “Father…whose footprints are on all parts,” first translated by the great Ghanaian musicologist, J.H. Nketia, who also passed on two weeks ago in Accra.
The charm of Okara’s poem, “Piano and Drums” was in its great sentiments about cultural or racial unity and affirmation, and its rhythm staged in the powerful world that Echeruo clearly situates within the airs of Rachmaninov’s First concerto. I first met Okara in those works, and certainly later in real life, during one of those “Homecomings” in the 1980s, always in the Harmattan term, when the “old boys” came to Umuahia for a weekend of activities. It might have been earlier too, when those old “Umuahians” arrived during the Golden Jubilee and caused a ruckus in town, parading a long line of “super stars” – Ministers of Government, Ambassadors, famous politicians, high-flying academics, Justices of the High and Supreme Courts, powerful Permanent Secretaries, world renowned writers, with the novelist Chinua Achebe arriving in his rather long and impressive Mercury Monarch of those years – and there was certainly the poet, Okara, sprightly and legendary. It must have been in one of these “returns”, and there is something that happens powerfully in in the mind of a child who sits at lunch in the dining hall with all these famous men. Okara was a thorough Umuahian, who loved his great alma mater, and was constantly involved in its affairs. One of his last acts of generosity to the school was not long ago, to donate his life-savings to the Fisher Trust for the on-going restoration initiative of the Government College Umuahia. He was among the first to do so.
Gabriel Okara was part of the mythologies in an era in Nigeria where the poet, the intellectual and artist, carried the weight and promise of cultural retrieval and renaissance. We learned much by reading and invoking them. And Okara taught me the word, “ack-ack” from one of his poems about plane’s flying low and scattering and killing people during the bloody war in Biafra. That poem was written I later understood after the bombing of the hospital in Aba that killed his friend Dr. Onyejiaka in November 1967.
Among the wreckage of that war were Okara’s lost poems – completed before and during the war – which he could not recover from his moving in the fluid events leading to the end of the civil war. He was born in Bomadi, Nembe, by the River Nun in 1921. That’s the date recorded officially for him, but it may have been earlier. He lived to a great age, and was the oldest living modern African poet until his death last week.
Gabriel Okara was admitted to the Government College Umuahia in 1935. He was one of the boys whom the famous artist and modernist, then Arts master at Umuahia, Ben Enwonwu taught in his arts class. Enwonwu taught Okara drawing at Umuahia, and Okara’s first artistic career was as a painter. After graduating from the Yaba Higher College, Okara was employed by the Nigerian Publishing Company, then a government owned publishing company as a book binder.
But by the 1940s, he was among a pioneer group of young Nigerian modernist artists who began to produce and exhibit their works in the colonial city of Lagos. Okara’s first exhibition of his Water colours was at the Gallery of the Glover Hall. He was also writing for radio. By the 1950s he began publishing his poems, and he was one the earliest of the Nigerian/African modernists that were first published by Ulli Bier in the Black Orpheus magazine, then leaning in clearly Negritudist camps, when it began publishing in 1957.
Okara won the Nigerian Festival of Art poetry prize in 1953 with his now famous poem, “The Call of the River Nun.” By the 1960s, Gabriel Okara was clearly established as one of Africa’s, and certainly the black world’s most important poets of the 20th century. His novel, The Voice, was path-breaking for its bold stylistic experiments, and even as a surrealist novel, was enormously gripping and innovative. It earned Gabriel Okara a place in the pantheon of the great novelists of the 20th century and in the canon of African literary modernity. As the critic Michael J.C. Echeruo declared, “Even when it did not seem responsible to read him within the European artistic and intellectual traditions that gave importance to the work of the poet Tchicaya U’Tamsi, still we could not think of rhythm, language and expression – in short, of surrealism – without thinking of both Okara’s prose and poetry.” He was present at the foundational moment of modern African literature, at that First Conference of African Writers in Makerere in 1962, and in that second conference in Freetown on African Writing and the University Curriculum. In each event he was active and involved. In 1956, Okara was on a Journalism Fellowship at Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois.
Among those who met him in the same program/fellowship at Northwestern was Harold Evans, the famous editor of the Sunday Times of London, who gained fame with his handling of the tragic thalidomide story in the UK, and the publication of the uncensored portion of the diaries of Richard Crossman, the raw material from which the British comedy, Yes, Minister was created. But this was years down the line. At Evanston, they hit it off. Okara’s journalism was however not for the newsroom. He was a poet and Bureaucrat; a gentleman in the pure English sense of that word. He was the Chief Information officer of Eastern Nigeria, and when the hostilities started, was one of Biafra’s key propagandists. He travelled extensively to the United States and Europe with Achebe, Ekwensi, and others as Biafara’s “Ambassadors,” speaking, and seeking support for the Biafran cause. He helped organize the Biafran Information Bureau with the likes of the scholar and poet, MJC Echeruo, and young artists and scholars like Obiora Udechukwu and Chukwuma Azuonye. They were at Ogwa, Ikeduru, when the war ended, and Echeruo has written poignantly about that moment and its significance for the poet, Okara: “Okara, at that point, was a doubly defeated man,” wrote Echeruo. He had fought and lost the war against a formidable army. He was about to lose a war against metaphysical injustice. After our surrender, we were all asked to report to our former stations.
For Okara, that should have been Enugu, the capital of Eastern Region. No, Okara was told. He had to report to Port-Harcourt, where he had been declared a saboteur and traitor to the cause of Rivers state, and where he did go, exhausted, clutching a few scraps of innocuous papers, including one poem that would have served as the Biafran National anthem had Dr. Azikiwe’s offer of Claude McKay’s “If We Must Die,” set to the tune of Jean Sibelius not been imposed at midnight.” And so it goes: Gabriel Okara won the Commonwealth Poetry Prize in 1979, served as General Manager of the Tide Newspapers in Port-Harcourt, and was conferred the honorary Doctor of Letters by the University of Port-Harcourt.
But though he deserved it, he was never offered the Nigerian National Order of Merit, even when those who could not untie the laces of his sandals had been so honored. And this speaks volumes of the “merit” in the award itself. However one sees it: Gabriel Okara, poet of the “mystic inside,” was an iconic figure of his century. What a long, tenured, and magnificent life!