Gabriel Okara’s hometown, Bumoundi, nestles on a sandbank overlooking the River Nun, running through Epetiama clan, near Yenagoa, the Bayelsa State capital, to Nembe and beyond. It is this same river that the legendary poet glamourised in the enchanting classic, “The Call of the River Nun”. Last Saturday, Pa Okara bid farewell to River Nun after answering the call for the last time, as his body was finally laid to rest, amid pianos, drums, trumpets, and eulogies echoing across the tepid waterway.
Two days earlier, at 10 am, on Thursday, June 20, 2019, activities celebrating the writer’s life on earth had revved up in Yenagoa, as writers, friends, fans, the Ijaw nation and the literary world converged on the Gabriel Okara Cultural Centre, Yenagoa, as the second edition of his novel, The Voice, written in the 1960s, was unveiled by the Deputy Governor of Bayelsa State, Gboribiogha Jonah.
The ante of the celebration of Okara’s life upped on Friday, June 21, with two major events. The first was a Ceremony of Poems, Songs and Tributes, which kicked off at 10 am at the Gabriel Okara Cultural Centre; and, the second, Service of Songs and Traditional Wake, which held later in the evening at Okara’s hometown, Bumoundi-Ekpetiama, in Yenagoa LGA.
The Bayelsa State Governor, Seriake Dickson, led the former Nigerian president, Goodluck Jonathan, to the venue to get the event kicking by midday. The government delegation also included the Deputy Governor, Gboribiogha Jonah; the SSG, Mr. Kamela Okara; legislators and members of the State Executive Council.
The literary community was well represented, too. The Iconic playwright and poet, J.P. Clark, was a sight for sore eyes. So was the veteran literary scholar and Editor of African Literature Today, Prof Ernest Emenyonu; the America scholar and editor of Okara’s collected works, Brenda Osbey, who came all the way from New Orleans. The national body of the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) was led by its president, Denja Abdullahi, and the Vice President, Camillus Ukah.
Former ANA President, Odia Ofeimun, and Hon. Wale Okediran, were among the high profile writers present at the event. Prof. G.G. Darah of Delta State University, Abraka, and the famous Bayelsa poet, Dr. Ebi Yeibo, graced the occasion, as well. Uzo Nwamara, Chairman of ANA-Rivers, led the Rivers State contingent to the event.
The attention of the crowd was riveted by a special documentary by Dr. Seifa Koroye, who headed the Documentary Committee set up by the state government for the burial. The documentary traced Pa Okara’s journey from birth, adulthood, literary journey to demise.
Prominent writers from the state, including Lindsay Barrett, Nengi Josef Ilagha (aka Pope Pen) and Sophia Obi, performed excerpts from some of Okara’s popular poems. Ilagha, in particular, sent the audience on their feet with a masterly rendition of Okara’s “Piano and Drums”. Prof Emeritus Joe Alagoa, sitting opposite, on the stands, was caught nodding his head in awe, his face wreathed in smiles.
Contrary to available record that Okara was born in 1921, Okara’s first son, Ebi Okara, said his father was born in 1918, and, therefore, lived 100 years plus on earth. It sent the crowd clapping at the remarkable longevity.
A cameo appearance on stage by the Government College, Umuahia, Old Boys Association, the late writer’s alma mater, was riveting. Dressed in their traditional red and black attire, they were accompanied by a number of current students of the school. The delegation echoed Okara’s fame and the grandeur of his alma mater for producing notable literary icons in Nigeria, including late Chinua Achebe, Elechi Amadi, Ken Saro-Wiwa, Gabriel Okara, to mention a few.
The Old Boys Association encouraged young, Nigerian students to mix up with others by travelling out to other states for their education, while urging Governor Dickson to recreate a Gabriel Okara edifice in the famous school. Together with the current students of the school who made the journey to Yenagoa, they performed the school’s anthem, “May We Shine Together”.
The visiting American scholar, Brenda Osbey, who said she had been associated with the late writer’s work as a teenager, lauded him for inventing Anglophone African poetry, nay, inspired a group of legendary poets that included J.P. Clark. “In Gabriel Okara,” she said in an emotion-laden voice, “death walked a long way to meet him.”
In between the eulogies, the King of Glory Chapel, among other groups, entertained the crowd with choral renditions and operatic performances. The first daughter of the late writer, Mrs Timi Okara, affirmed that his father was not late but “lives in us and in his works.” She added to the operatic performance with a stunner.
ANA President, Denja Abdullahi, read a tribute entitled “The Grand Man of Letters”, in which he stated that “Gabriel Okara was one old writer who related without prejudice with young writers”. Besides, “He was very encouraging to young writers without being judgmental like most of our older writers. He was extremely patient with the foibles of young writers and you see him relaxing with like a grand avuncular uncle.”
Abdullahi, who said writers would miss his quiet mien and grand old air about him of an unobtrusive pioneer African poet, was humbled that Okara was dedicated to his art even in old age, showing that creativity could be a life-long enterprise.
Wearing a newsboy beret, reminiscent of Gabriel Okara’s, former Nigerian president, Goodluck Jonathan, took to the stage, thanking the Government of Bayelsa State, the Okara family and friends who had converged to recognise the late icon. He was full of praises, too, for the Bayelsa State Governement for appreciating and recognising Bayelsan leaders who had contributed to the development of the nation by immotilising them through naming some infrastructure after them, like was done to Okara while alive.
This theatre, he echoed, was named after Pa Okara. “The State Library is 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,” he added.
He noted Okara was a man of the people. “People know him and describe him in different ways – he is a good administrator who had worked in several places. As a journalist, as a poet, a novelist, and all. You hardly go to a gathering where people speak ill of Pa Okara.”
The ex-preisident recalled reading some of his poems in his secondary school literature class, published in West African Verse. In his university days, he also witnessed when the University of Port Harcourt honoured Pa Okara with honorary doctor of letters degree in the first convocation of University of Port-Harcourt.
He continued, “So Pa Okara was a voice – a voice of reason, a voice of truth, voice of justice and equality, and we all should emulate him and carry on with his philosophy. Even in Bayelsa State, he played some key roles. I remember that in the formative days of the state, Gabriel Okara headed the committee that did the reclassification and recognition of traditional rulers. So most of our first class kings today were the people which his committtee recommended.
“When I was the Deputy Governor to DSP Alamiaiegha and later became the governor, Okara was quite good to us; of course, you know how humble he is. So he had kept on like that, contributing to the growth of the state and growth of the Ijaw race and the nation. Today, we are all here as part of his last journey. We thank God for that.”
In an impassioned speech presented earlier by Governor Seriake Dickson, he extolled the greatness of the iconic writer, “We are gathered here today to pay our last respect, and also to celebrate a life well-lived – very simple life, and also very profound life. We are here to honour this great fisherman who gave to us and the world ’The Fisherman Invocation’. We are here to celeberate this great Ijaw man – a quintessential Ijaw man from Bumoundi.
“He gave to us and the world ‘The Call of the River Nun’. Ge also gave us ‘Piano and Drums’, andThe Voice. We can go on and on. But, in all, we are here to celebrate the life of a good and a great man.”
The governor said the deceased sage was a prominent figure who participated in state functions and was supportive to the state government. “I am certain, if Pa Okara had not answered the call of the River Nun, he would have been here with us,” he said. Such was his commitment to nationbuilding that he attended the last state function as a 100-year old man, he recalled.
“Our government believes, and I think, rightly also, in recognising, appreciating and honouring all our leaders who have excelled, whose minds, works and contributions have brought credit, glory and acclaim to this state, Ijaw nation and the Niger Delta, this country, Africa and the world,” he remarked.
Since 2011, he noted, the state government had been honouring outstanding leaders from the state in different fields. Each time the state loses a great leader, he said, his adminstration would organise a state funeral, as it did with Pa Okara.
That stemmed from the realisation, as he said, “You don’t have to be a political leader to have that kind of attention. That’s one the lessons we are preaching today. For us in Bayelsa, once you live a life of service; once your life has brought glory, credit and acclaim, we showcase and honour you as a beacon of hope for what is possible from this great state of Niger Delta.”
The governor didn’t regret, looking in restrospect, that the state government redomedelled the Glory Land Cultural Centre in 2013 and renamed it the Gabriel Okara Cultural Centre. He futher annnounced that the state governmnt would build a mauoleum in honour of the late writer at the Ijaw National Heroes Memorial Park, where the like of the late activist, Adaka Boro; former National Security Adviser, General Owoye Azazi, among others, were venerated with mausoleums.
In response to the request made by the Old Boys Association of Government College, Umuahia, the governor said, considering the school’s contributions in producing great individuals and great leaders from Bayelsa, who had continued to be a source of pride and inspiration to all, the state government would collaborate with the school authorities to undertake a project to be named after Pa Gabriel Okara at GC, Umuahia.
The governor reiterated the literary and cultural contributions of Pa Okara to the literary world. Hence, ”I want to thank him by telling so well the Ijaw story. I want to thank him for exporting the Ijaw culture, language and history to the rest of Nigeria and the world through his works. When you read ‘The Fisherman’s Invocations’; when you read ‘Piano and Drums’, and it compells the rustic, mystic drums in Bumoundi to the concerto ending on a crescendo; when you read ‘The Call of the River Nun’ and all his works, including this one we have just launched, The Voice, it an entire life of service, a life of simplicity honour, a life of service, a quentesiantial Ijaw man, who lived and showed the right values of our people.”
The governor challenged the young people present and students from the state who were beneficiaries of the state government’s huge investment in education to strive to become future Okaras and J.P. Clarks.
It was a rare opportunity for, especially, vistors, from far and wide, to see the River Nun live, as they crossed the river on their way to Bumoundi, the next day. On Saturday, June 22, the world answered the call of the River Nun, in a way. On the sand bank of Bumoundi, where late Okara was raised, pianos, drums, trumpets, and eulogies resonated for hours as the final rites of the deceased writer began at St Peter’s Day School, Bumoundi, where the state governor announced a donation of 25 million naira to the Gabriel Okara Foundation.
The SSG, Kamela Okara, who spoke on behalf of the Okara family, declared, “We have seen the passage of an icon, a man who exemplified humility and greatness in the same breath without losing sight of one or the other. He lived a life worthy of emulation.”
Crossing the River Nun, moments later, to begin the journey home, this reporter, midway, realised why Okara’s penned those solemn lines in “The Call of the River Nun”:
…Its ceaseless flow impels
my flound’ring canoe down
its inevitable course.