Gabriel Okara in Conversation with Professor Azuonye
Gabriel Imomotimi Gbaingrain Okara, was born on April 21, 1921, in Bomandi in present day Bayelsa State. After his primary education in both his home state and in the Army School, Creek Road, Port Harcourt, he was admitted to the elite Government College, Umuahia, from where he went to the Yaba College, Lagos. Thereafter, he trained as a book binder at the Federal Government Printer, after what he calls “an adventure” in pig-trading. Armed with an exposure to art, at Umuahia, where he was a student of Ben Enwonwu, he set out for an career in fine art, in 1946, when, according to his account, he experienced a vision of the then recently deceased national political leader, Herbert Macaulay. As he sat down to paint, according to the dream, Macaulay suddenly appeared and plucked the brush from his hand and left three volumes of books marked, Down, Devil, Down. Thereafter, he was dramatically transformed from an artist into a poet.
One of his early poems won a prize in the Nigerian Festival of Arts and was later published in Black Orpheus.
By the mid-1950’s he was turning out a steady stream of fine lyrics which appeared in the leading African literary journals of the day (Black Orpheus, Presence Africaine, Transition, Nigeria Magazine, etc) and avant-garde anthologies such as Modern Poetry from Africa (edited by Gerald Moore and Ulli Beier). But it was not until 1978 that his first collection of poems, The Fisherman’s invocation, was published, both in Nigeria and in Britain, by Ethiope and Heinemann respectively.
Following his training as a bookbinder, Okara joined the Eastern Nigeria Ministry of Information at Enugu where he became the Chief Information Officer. During the Nigerian civil war, he remained in that position under the new Biafran regime, and went on a diplomatic mission on behalf of Biafra to Europe and North America, with Chinua Achebe and Cyprian Ekwensi. Towards the end of the war, he was appointed Director of the Biafran Cultural Affairs Department, located in the woods of Ogwa, where he coordinated the artistic life of leading Biafran writers and artists to the end of the war.
After the war in 1970, Okara served as Director of the Rivers State Arts Council, Chairman of the State Newspaper, The Tide, and as a Commissioner in the State Government before his retirement in the late 1970’s. Since then he has served as a member of the African Leadership Forum under Olusegun Obasanjo, and continues to take an active interest in public affairs as a public intellectual, environmentalist, and elder statesman. In quiet retirement in the outskirts of Port Harcourt, he has since published a satirical collection of poems, The Dreamer, His Vision, on contemporary Nigerian political decay. He has also completed another collection, As I See It, which is yet to be published.
Azuonye, Chukwuma and Okara, Gabriel, "Gabriel Okara in Conversation with Professor Azuonye" (2006). Africana Studies Faculty Publication Series. Paper 16.