– By Angus Obinna Chukwuka
The city of Port Harcourt was treated to a feast of literary exchange on Friday, May 31, 2019, when the late poetry icon, Gabriel Okara was celebrated posthumously, with an evening of literary tributes.
The programme tagged: “The Life and Times of Dr. Gabriel Okara (Evening of Literary Tributes), which held at Captain Elechi Amadi Polytechnic (CEAPOLY), located at the heart of the city, witnessed the attendance of the masters of Art; Professors, Writers and Literary enthusiasts.
The dignitaries included: Professor E. J. Alagoa, Professor Chidi Maduka (Professor of comparative literature), Professor Y.O Beredugo (Okara’s school mate at Government College Umuahia), His Excellency Sir Sterling, Professor Kontein Trinya of the University of Education, Port Harcourt, Dr. Hephizibah, Obari Gomba, Sam Eke and a host of others.
The occasion was greatly boosted with the arrival of Timi Okara Schiller the daughter of the departed poetry icon, who doubles as the chief mourner. Earlier Mrs. Lyna Okara, and a
host of the members of the Okara family had arrived to grace the occasion.
Red carpets for the event started at 3pm with the opening of the condolence register at the venue of the programme and displaying of books.
The high table was constituted at 3:45pm with Professor E.J. Alagoa as chairman of the occasion. Professor Chidi Maduka, who was the keynote speaker and his wife, Dr. Anette Weje, Chief Mourner Mrs. Timi Okara Schiller (daughter of Gabriel Okara) and His Excellency, Sir Sterling, were also on the High Table.
The tributes commenced at this juncture with the endorsement of the condolence register at the entrance of the venue.
Professor Y. O Beredugo described Okara as an icon while Prof. Alagoa confessed he greatly misses the legend. Angus Chukwuka, president of the Literary Appreciation Organization which organized the event, remarked: “Rest in Peace, Great mind, Poetry Icon. Dr. Hephizibah of Association of Nigeria Author, Bayelsa, commented that Okara still lives on. His Excellency (Sir) Sterling wrote: “A fulfilled life lived. We are proud of you.”
Chief Keeper De of The movement for survival of Ogoni people (MOSOP) wrote: “A hero
answered the call of the River Nun”. Tekena Amiefori, Ace broadcaster wrote: “The end of an era’. Mr. Alex Anene wrote: “He was a good man.”
In his welcome address, the
President of Literary Appreciation Organization, Barr. Angus Chukwuka stated that the programme was put together to celebrate the cerebral poet and writer Dr. Gabriel Okara, noting that Pa. Okara was a legend; a man of great character, who ought to be celebrated.
He further stated that there is currently an undue emphasis on wealth, without an interrogation of the source of the wealth.
“We worship money and wealthy people in Nigeria without minding the source of the money. This is why Nigeria’s fortune is nose-diving. Corruption is growing and indiscipline is everywhere”, he noted emphatically.
Barr. Chukwuka said it had become necessary to celebrate Okara so that the youth will know that one can become important and be able to earn a living all by simply writing and improving on his/her writing.
He depreciated the action of youths who take to kidnapping, armed robbery, and other nefarious acts, as a way of survival, when they could embark on writing and improving on their writing skills.
“Okara today is a world celebrated writer all because of writing. But beyond this he is a man of great character, worthy of emulation,” Barr. Angus said of the departed Bard.
He then concluded by imploring youths to emulate Okara, stressing that though the great Poet might not have had great mansions and wealth, he was a great man, who brought good name and reputation to Nigeria, Africa and the black man.
The chairman of the occasion, Prof. E. J. Alagoa, said Okara was like an Elder brethren and was
indeed a good man who had ventured into writing in service to the society.
He however noted humorously
that since he studied history and not Literary Arts, he would be unable to properly discuss Gabriel Okara in the
literary sense. He thus introduced Professor Chidi Maduka, as the proper authority on Okara, who will do so in the key note address of the occasion.
Professor Chidi T. Maduka delivered a paper titled: Gabriel Okara: A meteor in African Literature. He said the news of Gabriel Okara’s departure to the world of our ancestors, has
brought sorrow to many hearts and the event elicits individual reactions on the significance of our existence as mortals on earth in terms of our inevitable encounter with the mystical
phenomenon of death.
Why should death make us to lose touch with Gabriel Okara, a gem of a person and a meteor in African Literature? he asked rhetorically. What a puzzle for us mortals. We are forced, according to the keynote speaker, to cling tenaciously to the musing of the poet critic, Ihechukwu Madubuike, in the seminal collection, Die Oh Death: Or, The Musings of a Split Conscience & Other Poems, where he wrote:
“To cross the veil unknown
And become nothing
I was no better than dust
Since I must to dust return
In sullen metamorphosis
Why the mortal mortification”.
Prof. Maduka described the late Okara as hardworking and persevering, adding that he was one of the privileged young stars who profited from the unique education provided at the well equipped, well organized and well staffed Government College, Umuahia unveiling in the old Eastern Nigeria, when the federation needed in Nigeria was in the early stage of evolution.
The keynote speaker further eulogized the departed literary icon, stressing that, Okara’s humility, gentility, civility and self effacing personality, endeared him to friends and well wishers, even as he added that of significance was Okara’s interest which marked his performance as a selfless public servant in the old Rivers and Bayelsa States.
He said Okara’s originality, innovation and intriguing subtlety in handling diction, tone, imagery and vision have won him prestigious awards.
“The volume, ‘The Fisherman’s Invocation’, made Okara a co-winner of the Commonwealth poetry prize (1979) and his other
volume, ‘The Dreamer, His Vision,’ fetched him the Nigeria prize for literature which was equally jointly won.”
In conclusion Prof. Maduka stated that Gabriel Okara was a meteor in Africa Literature, pointing out that he ingeniously developed a new form for de-Europeanizing the genres of fiction and poetry in
African literature. “He is thus a leading precursor in sustaining the growth of the neglected sub
genre of prose poetry, rooted in traditional African aesthetics,” he concluded.
Professor Chidi Maduka’s paper unsurprisingly drew much reaction from the audience and many hailed his presentation and observed that they were greatly fascinated by Okara’s: “A
Little Snake And A Little Frog”, which was apparently a satire on the Nigeria situation.
Some contributors also stated that, “An Adventure To Juju Island”, was one of Okara’s major contributions to the genre of Children literature texts in the country.
It was generally agreed by the audience that Okara was a very simple, unassuming man who has used the art of poetry to contribute to the development of literature in Nigeria and Africa.
The climax of the event was the conferment of awards by the Literary Appreciation
Organization. First on the roll of honour were Anthony Ndubuisi Abagha and Anthony Udemefuna Chukwuka who are both poets, and novelists with published works.
While Abagha is credited with the publication of, “Mr. Ogbonge Politician” (Poetry) amongst others works, Chukwuka is best known for authoring the work,
“The Harrowing Path To Peace” (novel). Both writers were conferred with, the Literary Commitment Award for the outstanding use of their literary works to effect literary development and for their commitment in so doing.
Professor Beredugo joined the president of the Literary Appreciation Organization to present the Award to Anthony Udemefuna Chukwuka, while the Award to Abagha was presented to him by Professor Kontein Trinya on behalf of the organization of the University of Education, Port Harcourt.
The event venue was however stirred up with excitement with the presentation of a post-humous Award to late (Dr.) Gabriel Okara. Professor Chidi Maduka, and Professor E. J.
Alagoa made the presentation of the plaque on behalf of the Literary Appreciation
Organization and the award tagged, “Gold Mind Award” was presented amidst gyrations and robust applause.
Mrs. Timi Okara Schiller, who is the Chief Mourner of the Okara family, in the company of Mrs. Lyna Okara and other members of the Okara family, all joined to receive the Award plaque on behalf of the departed poetry legend.
In her response, Mrs. Timi Okara Schiller was full of praise for the efforts of the Literary Appreciation Organization
to recognize and celebrate her father. She particularly thanked Angus Obinna Chukwuka the president of the organization, for the initiative and said she was proud of her father and what her father has come to represent.
She noted that poetry was indeed a viable instrument of national development and concluded by emphasizing that it cuts across all skins, cultures and barriers.
A scintillating poetry reading session then followed the awards presentation ceremony.
Anthony Abagha read a piece titled “Okara is too Baard” in which he eulogized the virtues of
Okara as exemplified by his simplicity and humanitarian gestures.
Angus Obinna Chukwuka read: “Adieu Gabriel Okara”. Uzor Nwanne read: “Return to River Nun”, while Humphrey Ogu read: “Okara Mas”.
Others who read poems in tribute to Okara included; Dr. Hephizibah Suobo, Dr. Ekechi Amadi, Joy Esuku Dr. Psalms Chineka, Albert Offo and Jonah Okpabi.
Joy Esuka also read a piece from Gabriel Okara’s last publication titled: “Lion’s Dilenma”, published in New York in 2010, while another piece was read from Okara’s, “The Dreamer, His Vision”.
In their poems, the readers all extolled the many virtues of Pa. Okara, and generally came to the
conclusion that Okara lives on through the strong qualities and avalanche of his works.
In his piece “Adieu Gabriel Okara”, Angus Chukwuka read:
“Your flame that glittered
From the dark regions
Of oil coated swamps
Of abandoned enclaves
Of fishes floating lifeless
Bowed prostrate to prodigality
Blown by tantrums fragile
I was afraid
You will quench
Your flickers which blow
On amidst the odds of fears
And fierce some darkness
I have learnt
That framing of the heart
With the framing of words
Its sensation abide in my lips like a blessed
Of your prodigy I ponder
Were you born with much muse
In your cerebrum
Or through a tinge of preserving interests
Did create passion and potency…