Iconic Nigerian writer, Dr. Gabriel Imomotimi Okara, who died on April 24, 2019, will be laid to rest tomorrow in his home town, Bumoundi-Ekpetiama, Yenagoa, Bayelsa, tomorrow.
Last Sunday, a Service of Songs kick started the weeklong activities in his honour at the Atlantic Hall, Hotel Presidential, Port Harcourt. On Monday, June 17, 2019, activities shifted to the University of Port Harcourt where a colloquium was held on his writing. The keynote speech was given by Professor Chimalum Nwankwo, former Chair, Department of English and Speech, North Carolina A & T University, Greensboro, USA, on “Playing Hierophant for Gabriel Okara”.
Yesterday, the fiftieth anniversary of Okara’s experimental novel, The Voice, was celebrated at the Gabriel Okara Cultural Centre, Yenagoa. The burial activities continue today, Friday, June 21, 2019, 10 am, with, “Ceremony of Poems, Songs and Tributes” at the same venue.
Later in the day, at 4 pm, the Service of Songs and Traditional Wake will hold at Bamoundi-Ekpetiama, Yenagoa, in the lead up to a Commendation Service and Internment of the deceased poet at the family compound at 10 am on Saturday. The next day, Sunday, there will be a thanksgiving outing at St. Peter’s Church, Bumoundi, to bring to an end the weeklong activities.
Late Gabriel Okara was born in Bomoundi in 1921. He was educated at Government College Umuahia, and later at Yaba Higher College. In 1945, Okara started working as a printer and bookbinder for colonial Nigeria’s government-owned publishing company. He remained in that post for nine years, during which he began to write. At first, he translated poetry from Ijaw into English and wrote scripts for government radio.
In 1953, his poem “The Call of the River Nun” won an award at the Nigerian Festival of Arts. Some of his early poems were published in the literary magazine Black Orpheus.
Okara, who studied journalism at Northwestern University in 1949, worked as Information Officer for the Eastern Nigerian Government Service before the civil war broke out in 1967. He, together with Chinua Achebe, served as roving ambassadors for Biafra in 1969.
A media manager, from 1972 to 1980, he was director of the Rivers State Publishing House in Port Harcourt. He attended the landmark African Writers Conference held on 1 June 1962 at Makerere University College in Kampala, Uganda, along with such writers as Chinua Achebe, Okot p’Bitek, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, Grace Ogot, Rebecca Njau, Wole Soyinka, John Pepper Clark, Ezekiel Mphahlele, among others.
In his first novel, The Voice, published in 1964, Okara experimented linguistically with transliteration, imposing Ijaw syntax syntax onto English in order to give literal expression to African ideas and imagery, aside creating a symbolic landscape in which the forces of traditional African culture and Western materialism collide.
He admitted in an interview with this reporter in 2013 when he turned 92, “I depicted the encounter with the two cultures, and the owner of the voice is trying to show the light, sort of, to the people to change. Despite all threats and difficulties, he insisted on change and the truth. That is not the case today when we seem to be in a coma of survival.”
Above all, one thing was dear to his heart: “I would like to be remembered for one of my poems, ‘The Call of the River Nun’. Then, I poured out my thoughts, the journey through life and the coming deterrence. It depicts life itself.” Adieu, Gabriel Okara.