Gabriel Okara, a Nigerian poet and novelist, has often been described as the first Modernist Poet of Anglophone Africa.
Okara, who incorporated African thought, religion, folklore and imagery into both his verse and prose, had had his works translated into several languages.
The literati and those who appreciate literature, especially poetry, believe that “Call of the River Nun’’ was Gabriel Okara’s, most memorable poem.
“……My river’s calling too!
Its ceaseless flow impels
my found’ring canoe down
its inevitable course.
And each dying year
brings near the sea-bird call,
the final call that stills the crested waves
and breaks in two the curtain
of silence of my upturned canoe.
O incomprehensible God!
Shall my pilot be
my inborn stars to that
final call to Thee.
O my river’s complex course?”
(Culled from “Call of the River Nun’’)
So, were nostalgic memories and sadness that followed the news of his demise in the early hours of Sunday, March 24, 2019, at his home in Yenagoa, Bayelsa State.
He was confirmed dead at the Federal Medical Centre in Yenagoa; Okara had breathed his last exactly four weeks to his 98th birthday.
Okara, whose remains would be laid to rest on June 22, 2019 was born Gabriel Imomotimi Okara on April 24, 1921 in Bumoundi, Bayelsa.
The poet and novelist had his secondary school education at the renowned Government College, Umuahia; the same school that groomed other renowned Nigerian literary icons, including Chinua Achebe, Christopher Okigbo, Elechi Amadi, Chike Momah, Obi Nwakanma, Chukwuemeka Ike and Ken Saro-Wiwa.
Okara, who had also worked as a civil servant, authored “The Call of the River Nun,” as his first poem and it won an award at the Nigerian Festival of Arts in 1953.
His other works included The Fisherman’s Invocation (1978), published two collections of children’s poetry, Little Snake and Little Frog (1992) and An Adventure to Juju Island (1992) and, several other poems featured in the Nigerian literary journal Black Orpheus.
In his poetry, Okara draws from Nigerian folklore and religion while exploring extremes within daily life through secular patterns.
The Britannica, commends his first novel, The Voice (1964), as “a remarkable linguistic experiment in which Okara translated directly from the `Ijo’ (Ijaw) language, imposing Ijo syntax onto English in order to give literal expression to African ideas and imagery.’’
Dr Eugene Ibe, representing Government College Umuahia Old Boys Association, spoke to the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) and also wrote as his tribute on Okara’s life at the Government College and how the experience shaped his later life.
“Every time I met Okara, he never got tired of telling me stories of his life at Umuahia, a school where all students were treated equally no matter whether your father was a fisherman, or a farmer or a politician like Zik.
“Okara took the entrance exams into Govt. College in the year 1934 from Kaiama and went to Umuahia for interviews.
“ In 1934, there were no speed boats but dugout canoes; roads rarely existed but the Port Harcourt to Umuahia to Enugu rail line was operating mainly for carrying coal from Enugu to Port Harcourt.
“The poor boy had to travel in a paddled dugout canoe to Onitsha and then go by road from Onitsha to Umuahia, a three-day journey.’’
According to Ibe, Okara said he was interviewed by Rev. Robert Fisher, the Founder and Principal of Government College, Umuahia in 1934.
“He must have done extremely well to be awarded a full scholarship (for the best five entrants) to study at the college which he entered in January 1935.
“As a `fresher’, he was immediately pounced upon by the Class II boys who tried to `show him pepper’.
“When he ran to a teacher from Nembe, Mr W. E. Alagoa, he refused to protect him, especially as he spoke in Ijaw vernacular, a punishable offence in Umuahia.
He was so miserable that he felt like returning to his parents, Samson and Martha Okara, but when he remembered the three-day journey he opted to endure and eventually adjusted.
However, he was liked by his juniors like late Dr Melford Douglas, late Dr J.O.J. Okezie, a one-time Federal Minister of Agriculture, late Justice Charles Daddy Onyeama of the International Court at The Hague.
“Okara was good in sports being lanky and tall; he specialised in long distances.’’
On Okara’s experiences in class, he said: “He was taught mainly by Europeans, including Fisher, A.J. Carpenter, the author of West African Nature Study and a few Nigerians like Mr W.E. Alagoa and Mr Jumbo.
“His classmates at Umuahia included late Dr Ernest Green, late Barrister Young Harry, late Police Commissioner Franklyn Okujagu and late Dr G.C. Mbanugo, ex-parliamentary secretary to Nnamdi Azikiwe.
“His interest in Arts and Humanities was encouraged by the English teachers.
On the private life of this great literary icon, his nephew, Emmanuel Okara told NAN that the poet was jovial in his own way, an “English gentleman’’ and a lover of tradition as well as Christian Science.
According to him, he also played the piano very well.
“Uncle Gabriel was such a delight to be with and he would usually regale you with anecdotes and rib cracking jokes, some of which I am chuckling at as I am writing this tribute.
“ Uncle loved his tea; not just any tea; quality tea like `Earl Grey’ or `PG Tips’, I remember how once when he was a guest in my house in Lagos en route the United States of America, he asked for tea and I brought a mug alongside the stuffs for him to have his tea.
“Uncle pointedly told me that tea was usually taken in a proper tea cup and a saucer which, because of the size, retained the same temperature to the end, unlike the mug where the tea got cold before you are through with it.
“And the next time he asked for tea; I duly complied with the full paraphernalia that goes with tea drinking.’’
So notable was Okara that President Muhammadu Buhari, in his condolence message ,extolled the “great story-teller whose powerful use of imagery and symbolism in his literary writings helped the world to appreciate and understand the richness, complexities and uniqueness of the African heritage and culture.’’
The president believed that Okara, who was deservedly known as the “founder of Modern African literature’’ would be fondly remembered for his immense contributions to the development of African literature, drawing on experience from his native Ijaw language.
Similarly, the Bayelsa State Governor, Hon. Seriake Dickson, described Okara’s demise as a great loss to the state and Nigeria; he commended the late Okara’s contribution to the educational policies of Bayelsa, especially his administration.
He said that the late Okara would be greatly missed by all lovers of literature and intellectualism, especially the young and up and coming writers.
A former Governor of Bayelsa, Chief Timipre Sylva, said that as a keen fan, admirer and friend of Gabriel Okara, he studied the poems of the Nigerian Negritudist (As termed by literary scholars) in his undergraduate years and beyond.
“Okara’s passing is not one to mourn, it is for celebration and for pride and for the marking of a platinum point in cultural mileage,’’ he said.
Jumoke Verrissimo, a poet and author of “I am Memory’’, said Okara’s works greatly influenced many writers, especially those who were interested in evoking the folklores, music and religion in their poetry.
The Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA), Bayelsa State Chapter, through its Chairman, Mrs Bina Ilagha, said the association was saddened by the news of his passing on.
“The Association is ruffled by the news because it came at a time when preparations are in top gear to celebrate his masterpiece, `The Voice’ at 55.
“We are saddened by the news but are consoled that he left behind lofty legacies; Pa Okara, through his literary exploits put Bayelsa in the map of literary excellence.’’
The Acting Managing Director of the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC), Prof. Nelson Brambaifa, described late Dr Gabriel Okara as a deity of African literature whose voice could not be stilled.
According to Brambaifa, Okara’s accomplishments have ensured that his name will never be forgotten.
For James Tar Tsaaior, a professor of Media and Cultural Communications, and Alexander von Humboldt, experienced research fellow at the University of Potsdam, Germany, Okara is a patriarch of Nigerian/African literature.
“I met Pa Gabriel Okara only once, in Port Harcourt, in 2004, during the birthday celebration of another writer.
“During our Port Harcourt meeting, I found him a decent, personable and collected man whose presence was contagious and reassuring.
“Indeed, he infected me with his artful smiles and noble carriage.
“One thing peaked significantly for me; this accomplished and celebrated writer was truly easy-going and constructed a horizontal relationship, not a vertical one, with others around him.
“It was for that reason that I took a picture with him. That picture has today survived him and a memorabilia which I will continue to cherish.’’
On his works, Tsaaior said: “Later on, I was to read his powerfully encoded novel, The Voice; I found it a supremely resonant literary offering, rich in vernacular traditions.
“The peculiarity of the idiom Okara mobilised in moulding the integral universe of the novel foregrounded his rearing and rootedness in Ijaw cultural traditions and cosmologies.
“He remains a gadfly, a beacon and touch-bearer whose towering achievements will continue to announce him to the whole world.
“ He will continue to live in our hearts as the noble and illustrious citizen of the republic of letters.
“When the mother mushroom yields to the elements and dies, an heir in a new mushroom germinates in its place to continue its progeny.
“ Okara still lives on. His voice is still alive and accented and will travel and reverberate beyond the Delta creeks, mangroves and estuaries to the boulevards of the world,’’ Tsaaior concluded.
Ihechu writes for the News Agency of Nigeria.
Sanwo-Olu Signs Anti-Open Grazing Bill Into Law
Lagos State Governor, Babajide Sanwo-Olu, on Monday, signed the bill to prohibit open cattle grazing and trespass of cattle on land in the state into laws.
With the law, Lagos has joined some states in southern Nigeria that have anti-open grazing laws in place.
The law is coming more than two weeks after the September 1 deadline set by the Southern Governors Forum for states.
The governor also signed the Lagos State Domestic And Sexual Violence Agency Bill, into Law.
Meanwhile, the state government has said it is committed to tackling the menace of drug abuse frontally to reduce the ravage among youths in the state.
Sanwo-Olu stated this on Monday at the Lagos House, Ikeja, during a courtesy visit by the delegates of Anglican Communion Church of Nigeria, led by the Archbishop Metropolitan and Primate, Most Reverend Henry Ndukuba.
Sanwo-Olu said his government was building a massive rehabilitation hospital at Ketu-Ejirin to tackle drug abuse, adding that his administration would partner with the Church to ensure that the people lived a better life.
He said governance started from the leadership of spiritual homes, noting that government and church can jointly build a community that would outlive all, while restating the commitment to improve the movement of people on road, water as well as building rail infrastructure to make Lagos a livable city.
Speaking earlier, Ndukuba thanked the governor for partnering with the church in the welfare of the people and commended him for his outstanding performance in tackling Covid-19.
Also present at the courtesy visit were the Deputy Governor, Obafemi Hamzat, Chief of Staff to the Governor, Tayo Ayinde, Secretary to the State Government, Folashade Jaji, Commissioner for Information, Gbenga Omotoso, among other dignitaries.
Okowa Tasks NASS On True Federalism
Delta State Governor, Senator Ifeanyi Okowa, has called on the National Assembly to embody in the 1999 Constitution being amended, true federalism and independence of Revenue Mobilisation Allocation and Fiscal Commission (RMAFC).
The governor made the call on Monday at a nationwide sensitisation on the review of the existing revenue allocation formula held at Unity Hall, Government House, Asaba.
He explained that an independent RMAFC would carry out its functions independently, including laying its proposals directly before the National Assembly for approval.
According to the governor, the current practice where recommendations of the commission are presented to the President has led to the non-review of the revenue allocation formula since 1992 as no President demonstrated the political will to forward the amendments to the parliament.
He commended RMAFC for ongoing sensitisation of the states before a zonal exercise where recommendations from the states would be received.
“For quite some time a lot of talks have gone on in the revenue allocation and it’s very unfortunate that in this country we are still operating a revenue allocation formula that was actually reviewed in 1992.
“As we look forward to a new revenue allocation formula, we hope that you come out with something that is fair, justifiable and equitable.
“But, the challenge is that when you have done all this work, you are going to eventually, by the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, lay this before the President and the President ought to lay it before the National Assembly.
“There is a challenge there and there has always been a challenge there, because what is there in our laws that will ensure that the President lays the recommendations of RMAFC before the National Assembly?
“We hope that the National Assembly takes a look at this amendment because RMAFC is supposed to be an independent commission, a commission on behalf of all federating units and component parts of the federation.
“They cannot tie your hands; the constitution ought to be amended to enable chairman of RMAFC to directly lay before the national assembly whatever review it has come up with so that nobody stands it down,’’ he said.
Okowa stated that the National Assembly must do what was right because “a nation is a nation.
Reps Query Presidential Committee Over Assets Seized From Past Leaders
The House of Representatives on Monday ordered the Presidential Implementation Committee (PIC) on Landed Property to produce reports of all assets seized from former Nigerian leaders.
Members were more particular about the late Head of State, Sani Abacha, whose property and money were recovered by the Federal Government.
The chairman, ad-hoc Committee on Abandoned Property, Ademora Kuye, said the House wanted a report on all assets seized from Nigerian leaders in and out of Nigeria, particularly Abacha.
He said this when the Executive Secretary of PIC appeared before the committee in Abuja.
“We need to know the state of those property and to also know if the property have titles of deed,’’ Mr Kuye said.
The committee also queried the sale of federal government’s assets held in trust by the PIC.
Mr Kuye said the committee discovered that some of the property the PIC claimed to have sold were either not sold or were not paid for, contrary to claims made by the PIC.
He added that some of the seized houses which the PIC claimed were vacant were still being occupied.
He directed the PIC to furnish the House of Representatives committee with up-to-date reports of federal government’s assets sold, amount realised from the sales, those yet to be sold and those under litigation.
Mr Kuye also asked that the PIC must state the amount of money remitted to the federal government from the sales with evidence of remittance, adding that all assets pointed out to the committee but not included in its first report should be forwarded to the House of Representatives committee.
Responding to Mr Kuye’s submissions, the Executive Secretary, PIC, Bala Samid, stated that some of the people occupying government quarters had refused to vacate them.
He added that as soon as the occupants were approached for payment or to vacate the houses they went to court to obtain injunctions restraining the PIC.
“We approached the federal government to report them and the federal government said that we should give them time”.
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