The late Pa Gabriel Okara would have turned 100 years on April 24 if he was alive. In this post-humours tribute, Mr. Humphery B. Ogu of University of Port Harcourt, writes on his many encounters with Okara, how his book An Adventure to Juju Island ignited his passion for creative writing and what he learnt from the renowned scholar who died in March 2019.
My first encounter with the literary icon, Dr Gabriel Okara, was in 1988. I was a primary five pupil then, with a voracious appetite for reading. That was when I first came across his children story book, Little Snake and Little Frog. Before then I had been reading the Ladybird series at home and the Macmillan English Readers Series at school. Little Snake and Little Frog was the very first complete literature book I read from an African author. Although, I never liked reptiles—frogs and snakes, I was, however, thrilled by the author’s power of imagination.
It was Okara’s An Adventure to Juju Island that actually ignited my passion for imaginative for literature. I was captivated beyond description by the author’s creation of the world of Otokolo and Worlu. I was so involved in the text that I had to ‘accompany’ the two friends, who were my age-mates at the time, all through their adventure on the fictional Island. I became a right activist of sorts, until I finished reading the book, that is. I was so worked up, agitating for the freedom of my new-found friends. If I had a gun, I would have shot—I mean killed Master, Leader, Doc and their accomplices, abductors of Otokolo and Worlu. Thanks to the creative imagination of Gabriel Okara the duo regained their freedom before the end of the book.
That was in1989. I was in primary six. The fire of passion for literature which was ignited then stills glows in me till this day. I can’t remember who borrowed or rather stole my copy of my favourite children book; I had to buy another copy at the Garden City Literary Festival in 2009. I still enjoy reading the story. I still cherish it, my first love.
Until 2001, I didn’t know that the author of my favourite children story lived in the Garden City of Nigeria, where I also live. It took a radio announcement of the celebration of Okara at 80 for to me to come to this awareness. Sadly, I heard the radio jingle while in a bus, on my way out of Port Harcourt, and was unable to cancel my journey at that point. I, however, resolved that I would meet Okara someday in the city of Port Harcourt.
I was excited when I learnt on radio that a ship loaded with books was at the Nigerian Ports Authorities (NPA) Wharf, Industry Road, few kilometres from Aggrey Road in the Old Port Harcourt Township. As a Bibliophile, I found my way to NPA Wharf and found myself in the ship—Dolous. Yes, there were books, so many books I would have loved to buy. But I didn’t have the money to fulfil that desire. So, I decided to move around the mobile bookstore/library and I saw him dressed in a simple shirt worn over a pair of trousers with a papa’s cap. Having seen his photographs in several publications, I recognised him with ease.
“Good afternoon, sir,” I greeted. Good afternoon. How’re you?” I manage to say: “fine, thank you, sir” in the absence of better words with which to express my joy. I hadn’t got a phone then. So, instead of asking for his phone number, I requested for his residential address. And he quickly obliged. He wrote it on the reverse side of my ticket to the bookstore. It didn’t take a long time before I visited him and became a regular guest at the home of the Poet Laureate. Okara has a huge dog named Marley. He was very fond of it. In one of my visits to his home, Marley had seen me as an intruder, and as such charged at me. “Marley, will you stop that?” He shouted, and the dog simply “welcomed me”, thus ended my phobia for the hitherto hostile Marley.
In 2006, I took a poetry manuscript; Rhythms of Love to him to read and write a foreword, the maestro quickly pointed out that readers would likely find a book of poem with a single theme of love boring. I withdrew it and worked on it again and returned to him with another manuscript. Sometime in 2007, I relocated to the University of Calabar for an MA in English and Literary Studies.
On completion of my coursework I returned to Port Harcourt and joined Gift Essence Magazine as a Subeditor. In one of my visits to the literary guru, I scheduled an interview with him. That was in 2009. Fascinated by his energy and capacity to carry on with literary activities in spite of his age, I asked: “You are one of the oldest writers on the continent and you are still very strong and involved in the literary enterprise, what is the secret of your strength?” His response was as fascinating as the man himself. “I am an image of God. Look at a mirror and you’ll see your own image. Since I am an image of God, I have the attributes of God. Does God get old? Does God fall ill?”
Wowed by his response, I decided to pry a bit into my host’s religious life. “I am a member of First Church of Christ, scientist.”
I couldn’t understand the relationship between Christianity and Science. “Pardon,” I exclaimed, not sure I heard him correctly and to ensure that my recorder picks that bit of information. Seeing that I was astounded by the name of the church, he offered more information. “It is a church for intellectuals,” he added. That was how he got me into the church. Trust my curiosity. The next Sunday morning I was at my mentor’s residence, ready to join him to church.
His driver, then, a man in his early sixties, drove us to the church at Rumuogba. I was later to learn that the church with headquarters in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S.A., was founded by Mary Baker Eddy, who lived in the 19th Century.
The church was for intellectual and services lasted exactly an hour. Apart from the culture of timeliness and orderliness, I saw an array of books and magazines on sale. What’s more, the church has a Reading Room. I wasn’t prepared to buy any book then. Pa Okara noticed my keen interests in the materials on display and paid for a copy of Science and Health with Key to Scriptures, which he gave to me. Authored by the founder of the church, it is a very important book used in the church.
I was better prepared for acquisition of books the following Sunday. I bought copies of The Christian Science Journal, Christian Science Sentinel and The Christian Science Monitor.
For several Sundays, my itinerary was to go the residence of the renowned poet, and accompany him to Church, read Sunday Newspapers, and hold conversations after the Church service, before leaving. On a particular Sunday, the organist was not available; Pa Okara just walked to the organ and started playing. I realised that in spite of his old age, Octogenarian writer still create time to worship his maker. His involvement in the Church wasn’t a Sunday-Sunday ritual; he also participated in weekdays activities. Pa Okara had been in the Church for several decades. “I used to smoke cigarettes until 1976. By then I was already a member of the Church,” he told me as we rode home in his car after service one Sunday.
When I got an unconditional offer for an MA in Creative and Professional Writing at Brunel University, London, in 2009, Okara made frantic efforts to take me to the literature-loving Governor of Rivers State, Chubuike Rotimi Amaechi with a view to soliciting state government’s sponsorship.
His efforts were frustrated by the former Governor’s overzealous aides.
What was his view on writing and pecuniary benefits? That was a question I asked him a fortnight after his 90th Birthday. Okara revealed that his writings were never motivated by monetary gains. “I was pleasantly surprised when I earned some money from the then Nigeria Broadcasting Corporation for my short story.” In his magisterial opinion “Those who write to make money are not likely to go far in their writing career.”
In December 2011, the arts-loving 7th Vice Chancellor of the University of Port Harcourt, Professor Joseph Ajienka appointed Dr Okara alongside two other famous writers, Elechi Amadi and INC Aniebo, as Writers-in-Residence. When they officially given their offices, Okara said: “I am grateful to be among the pioneer Writers-in-Residence, being the very first in the country. I am happy to be one of the pioneer occupants of the office and that my colleagues and I will not disappoint the University that has found us worthy of this important and historic appointment.” True to his promise, Okara was always at his Office.
“In our days, we didn’t get to meet any writer. We only see them in their books as they were all foreign authors and most of them were dead by the time I started writing. Your generation of writers is very fortunate to have established writers like us to look up to,” Okara told me in an interview. He was a bridge between scores of past generations and younger generations of writer. And he never relented in providing the necessary mentorship to the aspiring writers, in addition to offering invaluable pieces of advice, he wrote blurbs and forewords to books by emerging authors.
He wrote the foreword to my second collection of poems, Echoes of Neglect, and was at the public presentation of the book, which was later nominated for the NLNG-sponsored Nigeria Prize for Literature in 2017. Imbued with love for humanity, infectious humility and good sense of humour, Pa Okara influenced my life positively. He trusted me to the extent I had access to his bedroom. I learnt a lot from him and I still learn from him. For a poet never really dies.