Poet Gabriel Okara Passes Away – Poetry News March 28th

The renowned Bayelsa poet Gabriel Okara has passed away at the age of 97. He was just four weeks away from his next birthday, his 98th . He died at his home at Okaka Estate which is located in the Bayelsa State. He had been ill for a short time.

Okara was one of the significant pacesetters in the literary scene in Africa where he truly made his mark. He is believed to have been the first Black African poet in the English Language of some renown. He was also the first modernist African writer. His work has been published widely over the years in a variety of influential international and national journals.

Born Gabriel Imomotimi Gbaingbain Okara on 24th April 1921, the poet was raised in the town of Bomoundi which is situated in the Bayelsa State of Nigeria as it is now known. During the 1930s and 1940s, he attended the Umuahia Government College. It was here that he got his first taste for the works of William Shakespeare and many of the other great writers of all time. He then went to study at Higher College, Yaba before attending Northwestern University in the USA.

His collection of novels and poems included several hits back-to-back. He also wrote a number of plays and short stories that were recommended for use in schools both at the primary school level and for university studies. The central theme of much of his work was the overlying need to remind his fellow Africans of each of their real identity, through culture, folklore in the world that is dominated by western culture. 

He is perhaps best known for “The Voice” his early experimental novel that was published in 1964 and “The Fisherman’s Invocation” his award-winning poetry. He didn’t start out as a writer though, in 1945 he took on a job as a printer and bookbinder for a publishing company owned by the government. He remained in the job for nine years, and towards the end of this time, he began writing.

His first works were translations, working from Ijaw into English. He also penned a script for the government radio. While he was at Northwestern, he studied journalism, and he went on to work as an information officer for the Nigerian government before the outbreak of the civil war in the country which lasted from 1967 to 1970.

From 1972 to 1980 he worked as the director of the Rivers State Publishing House.

Over the course of his lengthy career, he won a number of awards. In 1953 he was awarded the Best All-Round Entry in poetry at the Nigeria Festival of Arts. He was awarded the Commonwealth Poetry Prize in 1979 and in 2005 he was the joint winner of the Nigeria Prize for Literature. His most recent award was in 2009, the Pan African Writers Association Honorary Membership Award.

His contributions to the literary world will be sadly missed.

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