Renowned Nigerian poet, Gabriel Okara dies at 97

Gabriel Okara (Photo: Chidi Okpara)

Renowned Nigerian poet and novelist, Gabriel Okara, has died.

He was aged 97.

The literary icon passed on on Sunday at the Federal Medical Centre (FMC) in Yenagoa, Bayelsa State capital, exactly a month to his 98th birthday.

Born on 24th April, 1921 in Boumandi in present day Bayelsa State, Mr Okara was part of the golden set of pioneer African writers.

He was educated at the prestigious Government College, Umuahia, in the 1930’s and 1940’s.

He was the first renowned English language black poet and also the first modernist writer on the African continent.

The Nigerian negritudist, as he was fondly called, began his writing career in Government College Umuahia.

By 1960, he became the first African to be published in the prestigious literary journal, Black Orpheus. That same year he also became part of its editorial board.

His 1950 poem, Call of the River Nun won the best prize in literature at the Nigeria Festival of Arts in 1953.

Four years later, he became the first Nigerian writer to publish in Ulli Beier’s interventionst journal, Black Orpheus (1957), which he later joined its editorial board.

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In 1979, his collection Fisherman’s invocation won the Commonwealth Poetry Prize.

In 2009, he received an Honorary Membership Award from the Pan African Writers’ Association.

Among his notable prose works include The Voice (1964), as well as Little Snake and Little Frog (1992) and An Adventure to Juju Island (1991), which are children’s literature.

His literary collection titled The Dreamer, His Vision published in 2005 became a joint winner, that same year, of Nigeria’s highest literary honour, The NLNG-endowed Nigeria Prize for Literature.

In addition to his poetry and fiction, he also wrote plays and features for broadcasting.

Many of his unpublished manuscripts were destroyed during the Nigerian Civil War.

Bayelsa State Governor, Honourable Seriake Dickson, declared 3-day mourning for the late Okara, beginning from Monday to Wednesday this week with all flags to fly at half mast.

The governor also described the death of the famous poet and novelist as a great loss to Bayelsa and Nigeria.

Also, President Muhammadu Buhari condoled with the government and people of Bayelsa, the literary community and all “who drank from the writer’s fountain of knowledge.”

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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.

The president 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.’’

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