Gabriel Okara, the first Modernist poet in Anglophone Africa, has passed on at the age of 97. He died on 25 March 2019, after a brief illness, in his home at Okaka Estate, Yenagoa, Nigeria—three weeks to his 98th birthday. Known for both his poetry and fiction—particularly his experimental novel The Voice (1964) and the poetry collections The Fisherman’s Invocation (1978) and The Dreamer, His Vision (2005)—Okara, who has been described as “the Nigerian Negritudist,” explored traditional philosophy, religion, folklore, and imagery. As editor of his Collected Poems, Brenda Marie Osbey wrote: “It is with publication of Gabriel Okara’s first poem that Nigerian literature in English and modern African poetry in this language can be said truly to have begun.”
Born on 24 April 1921, in Bumoundi, Yenagoa, present-day Bayelsa State, Nigeria, Gabriel Imomotimi Okara, the son of an Ijaw chief, attended Government College, Umuahia, and Yaba Higher College, Lagos. In 1945, after working at the British Overseas Airway Corporation, Okara began work as a printer and bookbinder for a government-owned publishing company in Nigeria. It was there that he began to write, translating poetry from Ijaw into English, writing scripts for radio.
After studying journalism at Northwestern University in 1949, and working as Information Officer for the Eastern Nigerian Government Service, in 1967-70, during the Biafran War, he was a roving ambassador for the newly declared country alongside Chinua Achebe. During the War, many of his unpublished manuscripts were destroyed. After the War, from 1972 to 1980, he was director of the Rivers State Publishing House in Port Harcourt.
In 1953, Okara’s poem, “The Call of the River Nun,” won a prize at the Nigerian Festival of Arts. By 1960, with his poetry frequently appearing in the influential Black Orpheus and being translated into several languages, he had been recognized as the leading poet of his generation. In 1962, he was at the seminal African Writers Conference at Makerere University College, Kampala, Uganda.
Okara’s collection The Fisherman’s Invocation received the 1979 Commonwealth Poetry Prize, and another, The Dreamer, His Vision, won the 2005 NLNG Nigeria Prize for Literature. His other books include the children’s books Little Snake and Little Frog (1981) and An Adventure to Juju Island (1992) and the poetry collection As I See It (2006).
In April 2017, the Gabriel Okara Literary Festival was organized by the University of Port Harcourt’s Institute of Arts and Culture. In May 2017, a collection of essays, Gabriel Okara, edited by Chidi T. Maduka, was released; it “tries to examine Okara, his place in African literature and the fact that he has not been given his full due in African literature. . . has not been given sufficient critical attention as an author.”
May he rest in power.