Gabriel Imomotimi Gbaingbain Okara, (born in April 21, 1921 at Bumondi, Nigeria and died in March 25, 2019 at Yenagoa, Nigeria) is a Nigerian poet, playwright and novelist. He is one of the pioneers of modern African literature, the first renowned English language black African poet and the modernist writer. Most of his works are translated into several languages in late 1960s.
Gabriel belonged to a noble family of Ijaw ethnic group, was son of a businessman. He followed Christian Scientist religion yet we cannot find religious references in his works. He was educated at Government College Umnatru in Nigeria, Yaba Higher College and Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. He was greatly inspired by William Shakespeare’s ” Lines Written in Early Spring” and other classical writers during his college days in the 1930s and 40s.
Okara had worked as a bookbinder and printer for Federal Government Press at Lagos and began his writing career in 1940s by writing plays and features for radio broadcasting. Initially he translated poetry from Ijaw to English language. Also worked for Nigerian Ministry of Information in the late 1950s. He had also been part of civil service in much of 1960s. Many of his unpublished manuscripts were destroyed during civil war when Okara visited U.S in 1969 for requesting the Biafran cause.
From 1972 to 1980s, he was director of Rivers State Publishing House in Port Harcourt. During World War II, wanted to work in British Royal Air Force, but couldn’t complete pilot training and instead worked for British Overseas Airway Cooperation. After the war, he served as Nigeria’s Commissioner of information and broadcasting in 1975 and then retired.
Okara as a poet
Gabriel Okara’s poetry is based on a series of contrasts in which symbols are equally balanced to each other. His works are germinated out of real life experience and he writes about the memories he has about his past. With relation to Ijaw tribal community Okara focuses on culture and traditions of his tribe. He upheld African thought, religion, folklore and imagery into his prose and verse.
Okara is skilled in experimenting in linguistics and inner intentions in his works. A cycle of emotion is always felt by a reader in his poems. The most common themes in his works are life and death. A tone of celebration and words like magic, mystic, drum and rhythm are recurring in his poems. He believed that his people needed to enjoy and embrace the warmth of their native culture. Okara once said that “In the fight for independence our politicians denounced certain measures and attitude of the colonial government, only to perpetrate the same and when they took over”
Notable works of Okara
His first novel was The Voice (1964), gained attention globally with the theme of the intellectual estranged from the world of power . Once he said ” I wrote The Voice because of the inconsistencies of our rulers after the British had left Nigeria” His well-known collection of poems is The Fisherman’s Invocation (1978) which received Commonwealth Poetry Prize in 1979 and two books for children, Little Snake and Little Frog (1981) and An Adventure to Juju Island (1992).
The Call of the River Nun has won All-Round Entry in Poetry at Nigerian Festival of Arts in 1953. His other popular works are The Dreamer – His Vision, Piano and Drums, You Laughed and Laughed. Okara was also one of those honored during the UNESCO World Book Capital 2014 project in Port Harcourt. Some of his poems are published in Black Orpheus.