By April 24, 2019, Gabriel Imomotimi Okara, an iconic, first generation, Nigerian poet and novelist, would have turned 98 years. But, on Monday, March 25, 2019, he died in Port Harcourt of old age.
Born in Bumoundi in Yenagoa, Bayelsa State, he was educated at Government College Umuahia, and later at Yaba Higher College. In 1945, he found work as a printer and bookbinder for colonial Nigeria’s government-owned publishing company, where he remained for nine years, during which he began to write.
At first, he translated poetry from Ijaw into English and wrote scripts for government radio. He studied journalism at Northwestern University in 1949, and before the outbreak of the Nigerian Civil War (1967–70), worked as Information Officer for the Eastern Nigerian Government Service.
Together with late Chinua Achebe, Okara was roving ambassador for Biafra’s cause in 1969. From 1972 to 1980, he was director of the Rivers State Publishing House in Port Harcourt.
His literary talent was spotted in 1953 when his poem, “The Call of the River Nun”, won an award at the Nigerian Festival of Arts. Some of his poetry was published in the literary magazine Black Orpheus. By 1960, he had won renown as an accomplished literary bard, with his poetry being translated into several languages. “Piano and Drums” is another popular poem of his featured in several anthologies.
His first novel, The Voice, was published in 1964. Besides his poetry and fiction, Okara has also written plays and features for broadcasting. Sadly, many of his unpublished manuscripts were destroyed during the Nigerian Civil War.
In 2005, his poetry volume, The Redeemer, His Vision, was joint winner of the highest literary prize in Nigeria, NLNG-sponsored the Nigeria Prize for Literature, with Ezenwa Ohaeto. Other awards he won in his lifetime included Commonwealth Poetry Prize, for The Fisherman’s Invocation (1979), and, in 2009, the Pan African Writers’ Association Honorary Membership Award.
Reacting to his death, Mr Uzoh Nwamara, the Chairman, Association of Nigerian Author (ANA), Rivers State, told Daily Sun: “It is with great shock that the ANA Rivers family received the news of the passage of our literary icon, Pa Gabriel Imomotimi Okara, today. He was with us at our last Literary Excellence Day held on October 14, 2017, in Port Harcourt as a recipient of our highest literary award that day.
“He was his usual calm and dignified self. I still remember when Chinua Achebe died in 2013, and I interviewed him jointly with our dear father and patron, Dr Elechi Amadi, on Garden City Radio, 89.9 FM. He lived a larger than life image through his works. Meeting him in person was like meeting Elechi Amadi in person. Their unassuming humility and palpable dignity will shock and humble you.
“He was a first class member of the first generation of modern African writers with numerous awards to show for it. This month of March has not been a good one for the Nigerian and African literary community. We have lost too many of our cherished own this month. We pray that the boatman ferries him across the river gently to the pantheon of literary gods for he was a complete literary gentleman.”
For the revolutionary critic, Doc Udenta O. Udenta, “Gabriel Okara’s The voice is an iconic representation of postcolonial disillusionment. They were disappointed with the post colony, so they took to writing to protest. The novel is unique for its linguistic experimental, almost a direct transliteration of his native Ijaw language. I, also, remember, with nostalgia, of his poem, ‘Fisherman’s Invocation’ as a student.
“His death is a passage of literary, cultural icon. I am glad that his state government has tried to immortalise him while alive by naming a cultural centre in the state capital, Yenagoa. I hope others will do the same. He will be missed by all.”
Also, Soji Cole, the winner of the 2018 Nigeria Prize for Literature, was saddened by his demise. He said, “Okara’s The Voice remains one of my best early Nigerian novels. I cherish it. May your soul find peaceful repose, great one.”