By ‘Timi Alaibe
Death—the mysterious intruder with cold hands—has struck again. Without any courtesy, it has taken away our literary father—our poet, our novelist and our writer extraordinaire, a man of inspiration and fertile mind, a storehouse of inexhaustible vocabulary, Pa Gabriel Imomotimi Okara, OON. He died four weeks to his 98th birthday. That on its own is poetic!
Pa Okara was a father-figure friend. He was one of our best in the literary world. A forerunner and a pioneer in many aspects, he wrote what could be described indigenous literature—a genre of poetry and other literary works that Africans, Nigerians and indeed the proud Niger Delta people can easily identify with and appreciate. This stood him out of the crowd of intellectual giants.
Described by some writers as “the first modernist poet of Anglophone Africa” our beloved Pa Okara belonged to the very top in his class with poetic ideas gushing from his inner recesses effortlessly. He was among the first to launch Nigeria into the international literary arena with brands of poetry and stories that were unmistakably indigenous but very outstanding.
A man of humble beginning, Okara epitomised the often neglected belief that the morning does not necessarily tell the day. He started his career as a printer and books binder—a job he did for almost ten years. He moved on to become a journalism graduate at Northwestern University and ended up as a poet celebrity. What a life! Though he started small, he refused to remain small. As an iroko tree, he dominated the skies of his career; attracting awards and recognition.
An undoubtedly wordsmith, Okara’s literary journey began in 1953 when he surfaced with the award-winning poem entitled The Call of the Nun River. He gave us The Voice in 1964 and went ahead to carry out theFisherman’s Invocation in 1978. In 1981, Okara assembled our children for a tale about the Little Snake and Little Frog before making hisAdventure to Juju Island in 1992. A thrilling masterpiece on the tales ofThe Dreamer, His Vision came out in 2005. These are just a few of his award-wining writings.
My encounters with Okara were always humbling. His simple lifestyle contrasted with his broad world view and global recognition. In many ways, he was an inspiration. His rise from the dust of his career to the top where he rubbed shoulders with the best across the world can hardly be captured in words. At his death, we have lost a pacesetter and a visionary. I will personally miss a father-friend with undying smiles and a broad shoulder to rest my head.
It was in recognition of Pa Okara’s towering stature in the art and literary world that the Board of the Niger Delta Development Commission during my time as Executive Director, Finance/Administration created the Association of Nigerian Authors/NDDC Gabriel Okara Prize for Poetry.
As we reflect on his life and times, there is no doubt that it would be difficult to have another writer in his class. Niger Delta has lost a gem. Nigeria has lost one of its best. As a country, we have lost a legend—a literary statesman of towering frame; a historical figure worthy of emulation and deep study by future generations.
However, we must move from mourning to celebration because Pa Okara lived a fulfilled life. Though his exit marks an end to a fruitful era, that era must be reinvented and sustained—it must not die. Forever in our minds, as I observed in 2005, Pa Okara will remain a worthy ambassador of Ijaw and the Niger Delta people—someone who captured the collective vision of the people in beautifully painted metaphors.
May his soul rest in perfect peace.
▪ Alaibe was a former Managing Director of the Niger Delta Development Company (NDDC)