Gabriel Okara is the oldest surviving Nigerian writer living from that golden generation of writers that placed African literature on world map. Next week, he will be marking his 90th birthday. Still lusty for his age, walking without any aid and speaking without impairment, he spoke to HENRY AKUBUIRO in his house in Port Harcourt on the highs and lows of his life, his role during the Nigeria civil war, the pranks he played as a kid, and his writings.
You will be 90 years next week. What has life taught you?
If I am to speak about what life has taught me all these years, there will be volumes of books. But only one thing has always guided me: truth; never tell lies. Truth is like a ball. It has been difficult, but it pays in the end. It is just like a ball; you can press it for a while, but, immediately you lift your hand, it pops up. That’s how truth is. If you are going to suppress it, you will be tired of it. So, that has been my experience, and I think it has been a worthwhile experience.
Your late father, Samson Okara, was a prominent businessman when you were growing up. How was life in the early part of the 20th century?
He was also a Christian, as well as my mother. It was pleasant. I was brought up in a Christian home. Children in those days had their favourite areas. My village is over the River Nun, and kids were always jumping into the river and playing games. Another spectacular thing about those days was that a young man was never considered to be a man until he climbed a tall palm tree and collected palm fruits. When I told my father I wanted to do that, he said no way, because it wasn’t going to be my way of life. But, one day, when he embarked on one of his business trips, I took a rope and climbed a palm tree.
So, what was your father’s reaction when he came back to discover that sudden rebellious streak in you?
When he came back, we had already made palm oil with it. My grandfather was so happy about it, and told him about it. But, what would he do? I was also happy about that, because I would now stand proud among my peers for doing what they had done (laughs).
Government College, Umuahia, was about the most prestigious school in those days. How did you make it from your countryside in Bayelsa?
My family thought it was impossible, saying, “How can a young, lanky boy like me go that far, in the midst of mostly Igbo people there?” But I did it. My father tried to put fear in me that I would get lost or hurt, in order to stop me from attending the college. So he went to our priest and asked why he was sending me to Umuahia. He responded that I was not the only one going, and that I should go. So, we paddled from my village with a small canoe to Kayama; from there to Degema and, eventually, to Port Harcourt with my father. There were about six of us who made the journey. My father took me right to the gate of the school before he went back home.
What were the challenges you encountered there?
The first was getting new friends. We all came from different places and backgrounds, so it took us some time to make friends. Everybody was happy being out of our environments for the first time. It was fun.
What kind of student were you: a rascal, a coward or a bookworm?
I don’t know (laughs). But what I can say is that I was a bit shy. I wasn’t rascally. Many people saw me as a weakling, because I was very lanky then. So, there was this young man who was always disturbing me, thinking that he would beat me up, and I was begging him. One day, some friends advised me to wrestle with him (our people are known to be good wrestlers). But the fellow thought he would defeat me. I wrestled with him and brought him down. He stood up, dusted himself, collected his things and left (laughter).
Did your colleagues start dreading you thereafter?
Not dreading me. They no longer saw me as a weakling. In that fight, I distinguished myself. I was waiting for him to thrust his head forward and, once he did that, I gave him a head butt (laughs). Of course, he walked away and, from that day, bullying stopped.
How did your schooling at Umuahia shape your life?
First, Reverend Fisher of the Church of England, Anglican Province, taught us how to be decent. At school, there was campaign against bribery, which led to the formation of the Bribery Scorners’ Club. I was a member. Then, anybody taking bribe was seen as a mad person, whose brain wasn’t correct. We were taught that the strength of your hard work would bring you honour. So it was a good influence on me. Reading books at Umuahia was also something to remember. We were made to read books voraciously. We read classics. That created in me, of course, a variety of poetry, and the seed of writing was implanted in me.
Specifically, what was your ambition as a kid?
I wanted to be a writer. As a matter of fact, I wanted to be a poet. After college, I started writing short stories and poems. I was writing then, not because I wanted to be famous but the urge that there was something to write. Nowadays, I discover that there are many young people who want to be authors so that they can be praised. Some of them come to me with their works to read and recommend them to publishers, and I said, “No. Publishers are businessmen, and they don’t publish books now in gratis.” In those days, it was easier to get published once you had a good manuscript, unlike now.
You are an Ijaw, but you worked for the Biafran Information Ministry during the civil war, with Achebe, Okigbo, Ekwensi, among other great writers, during the Nigeria civil war. What was the motivation?
At that time, I was at Enugu as an information officer. When I saw the bodies of people killed in the North, some of them headless, which were being sent back with a train to the East, I felt very bad. To me, it didn’t matter what they did, but to slaughter people in your own country intentionally like that, and the government wasn’t doing anything about it, dampened my spirit. I had a brother in Jos, who escaped being killed. That also gave me an idea that they were not just hunting down Igbo people alone; anybody from the Eastern Region was regarded as an Igbo, and could be a victim. When I saw those things, I said to myself, I can’t be part of a country where these massacres were taking place. That was why I identified myself with Biafra.
How challenging was it selling Biafra to the world as an information officer with the intellectual constellation?
We had pictures and leaflets, which we used to make a case for the Biafran cause. But it was not an easy task. The only country that recognised Biafra as a country was Haiti, and that was because Haiti had Igbo roots. The native language they speak in Haiti has similarities with Igbo language. I didn’t go there to verify, but that’s what I heard. We continued our job until Colonel Ojukwu left the country.
Losing many of your manuscripts must have been a big blow for you during the civil war. How can you quantify those losses?
They were mostly poetry, but there were stories, too, among them.
In what circumstances did you lose them?
I had them in a bookshelf. When the federal troops started advancing, you had to grab anything you could lay your hands on. So I left others behind, and, unfortunately, that was the end of them.
Could you say those were some of the best pieces you ever wrote?
I can’t tell exactly, and I don’t know how many works I lost during that time. But it was painful.
Have you made any attempt to recall or rewrite some of them?
It is not an easy thing to do.
Perhaps, that must have accounted for why you don’t have many published works, despite starting out early…
Maybe, yes. But I am still writing. I have a book that came out last year. It was published in the US, but I think the publisher is not doing enough to promote it. It is a prose work, The Lion’s Dilemma. Some people look at it and think it is children’s book, but it is not. It was lunched in New York, and I came back with only 20 copies, which I sold for N500 each. That book should have been all over the country by now.
As you celebrate your 90th birthday, is there any shot across the bows?
This is an election year ; truth will always prevail. Nobody, no matter the circumstances, can trample on truth. Truth is always a victor; so it is in politics. Politicians should not see election as a do-or-die thing. When you take it as a do-or-die thing, you are not going there for the good of the people. If you are preventing others from campaigning and you are throwing bombs here and there, it means that you are aspiring for the position you want just to serve your own interest. If they are genuine in their aspirations, killing and preventing others from having their own say is wrong. It is the people who will select their leaders; leaders don’t select themselves. I pray that there should not be violence in these elections.
Okara died on Sunday March 2019, in Yenagoa, Bayelsa State, aged 97