Remembering Gabriel Imomotimi Okara, 1929–2019
by Niyi Osundare
…my river’s calling too
And each dying year
brings near the sea-bird call
the final call that stills the crested waves…
As is almost invariably the case with every visionary poet/artist, Gabriel Okara has his epitaph secreted somewhere in the inner temple of his own verse, liminal, perturbingly suggestive. That “sea-bird call” that “stills” the waves came on Sunday, March 24, 2019, and the Poet of the River Nun was just too human to resist the summons.
And so the world lost a hauntingly lyrical poet and boldly experimental story-teller; one whose works were fusslessly indigenous and yet so liberally cosmopolitan. With the rocking lyricism of his of his poetry often achieved through a fearless, even mischievous domestication of the English language; with his preoccupation with the interrogation and reconciliation of the conflict zones between African templates and colonial impositions, the author of Piano and Drum sought out ways of making lemonade out of the lemon on offer from the colonial fare. And thus emerged a modernist poet free of the modishness that is often associated with modernism, and a judiciously balanced métier uncomplicated by modernist attitudinizing.
There is a rich and rooted indigeneity in Okara’s poetry that connects so usefully with the native wit and wisdom of compatriots such as J.P. Clark,Tanure Ojaide, Ogaga Ifowodo and other bards whose flair and fecundity have made Nigeria’s Delta region the inexhaustible fountain of Nigerian poetry.
But Okara was not just a singer of our songs; he was also a fervent shaper of our values. Here was a man whose many years in the public service were untouched by corruption; a man who, like that intriguing protagonist in The Voice, his uproariously unorthodox novel, was always looking for “it”, searching, tirelessly searching for the right thing to do.
It is this aspect of Okara as a moral force that I tried to capture in the piece below, published almost three decades ago, roused here into undying relevance from a long archival slumber. The original title of the article in my Newswatch column is ”Okara’s Error”. I reproduce it here in memory of this consequential poet and remarkable human being.
The Weekend Concord of June 13 (1990) made a touching front-page story of the plight of Gabriel Okara: “ex-commissioner in Rivers State, ex-general manager of the Rivers State Newspaper Corporation, ex-general manager of NT A, Channel 10, Port Harcourt,” and above all, one of the most excitingly original of Africa’s poets, who on the threshold of 70 years of age, does not have a car simply because he cannot afford one. Now, like the enigmatic idealist in The Voice, Okara’s inimitable novel, they call the poet a fool, they say he has no “chest,” that he has no “shadow”,: and “everything in the world that spoils a man’s name, they say of him.” All this because he would not join in looting the nation and mortgaging our collective patrimony as is the practice of “wiser”’ Nigerians. All this because he would rather press on with his search for “it”.Hence his grand error in contemporary Nigeria.
That error started a long time ago. I think it is as indigenous to him as his riverine idioms and tide-empowered parlance. I detected that error in him as far back as 1984 when I met the famous poet physically for the first time at the Ife Book Fair. Gabriel Okara was so warm, so effervescent. He traded jokes with us the young, struggling writers. And when we teased him with some of his famous lines (“and still they pray, the aladuras pray…”), what we got back was a rounded youthful laughter, the trade mark of this doyen of quiet banter.
Okara hopped around with us from one part of the campus to another. And at meal time we all trooped into a lowly cafetaria and, like us, he too despatched wraps of eba with soup served in plastic plates. So simple, so humble, so unself-conscious about his prodigious talents, at no time did this man provoke us into even the faintest realisation that he was, indeed, the author of several poems on which many of us cut our poetic teeth. He never oppressed us with an image of someone who once sat behind a powerful desk.
All this, dear reader, is a grand error. For how could anyone have been so forthright, so humane, knowing pretty well that it is criminally un-Nigerian to be so good? And what’s more, Okara ignored all other options and elected to be a writer—in Nigeria of all places! Did he think it was all a joke when people say that in this great country you know a poet by his/her rags?
For goodness sake, why did Okara choose to be a writer when he could have been a contractor, collected fat mobilisation fees for unexecuted projects, vamoosed into one of his European villas while a grateful government re-awards new contracts for those same projects? Hasn’t Okara heard those castles in the Nigerian air, those expensive bridges in the bank accounts of smart millionaires? Does Okara think that those millions ever come to someone like him always in search of life’s essence, someone who cherishes probity like a motto, someone who does not merely mouth but minds every word in the national pledge?
How will Nigerians not call Okara a “stupid man”, a man Who sat on millions of naira while assiduously setting up permanent structures for a nation’s progress, and yet failed—no, refused—to lay by a handsome bounty for the “rainy day?” Has Okara never heard the saga of Abuja, about those wise ones who got millions to build a city, but ended up building their own pockets? Aren’t these the flag-waving millionaires today, so resplendent in their patriotic V-boot Benzes, and their exotically designed mansions?
Or why didn’t Okara decide to be a politician, lie his way to power, eat three full-throated chickens a day (like those brave legislators of the Second Republic), engage blackmail as a money- spinning device, join others in looting the national treasury, spot a democratic paunch and put out NEPA’s torch with his patriotic belches? Just where was Okara during those gubernatorial days when every pot in the state house became a money-vault, and a cool six million naira surfaced quietly from under a governor’s bed? Where was he when millionaire politicians exchanged private jets at night parties, and when “spraying” gallants ran out of cash with the banks duly opened to replenish their stock?
Or why didn’t the poet decide to be a footballer, have national holidays declared for him during important matches, then return home a millionaire for being able to kick a round object from one pole to another? Or hasn’t Okara heard about those lucky Eaglets (their birth certificates notwithstanding!) who were inundated with so much naira that they wept openly over their sudden fortunes? If the poet needs further convincing let us ask him whether the nation declared a public holiday the day Wole Soyinka hauled in the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Every nation has its own priority; certainly a just and egalitarian country like Nigeria does not need its citizens’ brains to develop. Why should we waste our time encouraging indigenous writers when we can easily and speedily ship in the master (and mistress) pieces of Hadley Chase, Denise Robins, Agatha Christie, Sidney Sheldon, etc.? After all, if we cannot provide the funds for these patriotic importations, the IMF is there to help. Or what are friends for?
Surely, if Okara had thought it out well, he would have chosen to be a soldier. Just imagine the fact that every soldier in this lucky country today is a potential president, head of state, and commander-in-chief of the armed forces. All it takes is a gun (it may even be a toy gun): shoot your way to a radio station, sack parliament, shoot your way to the treasury, build coercion into a fine art of governance, flood the country with decrees which place you, your family and your friends above the law. When in power, lock up another citizen for the simple reason that you dislike his face, then promulgate another decree making it impossible for your prisoner to sue for his freedom. Then retire at 25, a full general, a millionaire and controller of uncountable companies.
Okara had all these options open before him, but decided to be a poet who refused to lie. For being so honest, so humane, sostrangely incorruptible, I hereby propose that Gabriel Okara be charged with engaging in un-Nigerian activities.