Interview with Gabriel Okara, an Ijaw Writer
I want to devout a large portion of my blog to sharing my knowledge of Nigerian History, Literature and Culture with my readers.
Nigerian Literature is probably more well known internationally than the literature of other African countries but it is still not read a much as it should be.
This article is a great interview with a famous Ijaw writer, Gabriel Okara, which originally appeared in the Nigerian Sun News Online.
It’s also a great survey of some pivotal events in Nigerian History, such as the Biafran War.
My father met Okara’s daughter and through her I was able to have a short exchange through e-mail with Gabriel Okara himself. I intend to write a review of his novel, The Voice, soon for my blog.
Unfortunately, this article also highlights the lack of financial support given to Nigeria’s great artists.
Writer saw me pushing my old car and Gov gave me a new one -Gabriel Okara
By NWAGBO NNENYELIKE
Tuesday, March 16, 2004
Although he has just 17 years left to become a centenarian, Gabriel Okara, the great African poet, is still very active and agile. The octogenarian writer, whose poem, The Call of the River Nun, won the best literature award 51 years ago in the Nigerian Festival of Arts, developed his writing career through self-education and reading. This took him to several libraries, including that of Oxford University, England. The outcome of this reading habit made him one of the main literary figures not only in his country and Africa, but also around the globe.
The Ijaw-born poet, who is reputed for projecting African world-view, has also argued in favour of indigenous languages. He has reasoned that English language can be well manipulated to express African cultural values. This is what he experiments in his popular novel, The Voice.
Many of his poems are embedded with Ijaw imageries and symbols. And because he abhors injustice in whatever form, the poet told Daily Sun that he stood on the side of Biafra during the civil war as a propaganda officer and later, as the poet who was able to write so many war poems.
I was born in 1921 at Boumandi in Bayelsa State. I attended the village school and also primary school in Kaiama from where I was awarded government scholarship to Government College, Umuahia. I left the college in 1940. That was during the Second World War. I had wanted to join the Air Force but because I failed the medical test, I joined the British Airways. I was transferred to the Gambia from where I came back to Nigeria. I have been a widower for many years. My wife died in 1983. Remarry? Oh! I do not want to talk about that but I have four children.
All the while I was in the Airways, I was reading and writing. Then when I came to Nigeria from the Gambia, I joined the media. It was in Enugu when my poem, The Call of the River Nun, won the best award for literature in Nigeria Festival of Arts in 1953. From then, I continued writing. I later became the information officer in the Eastern Regional Government. I ran a number of courses in British Information Services Centre, London. Also, I was in Northwestern University, USA where I studied Comparative Journalism and Public Relations. That was a special programme for foreign journalists.
My role in the civil war
I was the head of the information service when the civil war broke out. I was on the side of Biafra, tagged the rebels. I wrote many war poems some of which were included in my first poetry book, The Fisherman’s Invocation, which won the Commonwealth prize in 1979. I did not go to the warfront as a soldier. I was the director of the cultural division of the Propaganda Directorate. I worked with Comrade Uche Chukwumerije and Dr. Eke. I have not heard much of Eke now, but they were the top directors.
Biafran intellectuals/Emeka Ojukwu
They were those attuned intellectually to the course of Biafra, because they were convinced that it was a right and just course. People like Chinua Achebe, Cyprian Ekwensi and myself who is not an Igbo and many others. The Biafran leader, Emeka Ojukwu, sent three of us to the US during the war to tell the world about the fate of Biafra. This was to let the world know that it was not just soldiers but that intellectuals joined in the fight, too. We read our literary works during the tour.
After the war
I was absorbed back into the civil service which had by then been created. I set up the Rivers State newspaper, The Tide, from scratch. Again, I set up Rivers State Television. I became commissioner for Information and Broadcasting in 1975.
How I started
I was propelled by the interest in writing, reading and the curiosity to know. Early in life, I knew I was going to write even as I was at the Government College, Umuahia. In fact I thought I was going to be a Fine Artists. I painted so well in water colour. But later I came to realise that I’m more talented in writing poetry. So I started and continued with it. I cannot remember the first poem I ever wrote but I wrote, a lot and even short stories till the time I wrote the poem that won the literature award in 1953.
The Call of the River Nun
In this poem, I was trying to remember my life as a child born at the bank of River Nun; how peaceful, joyous and beautiful life was at that time. Then coming into life as an adult in a strange place like Enugu, I found that things were not what I thought they would be. As a child, everything was rosy and beautiful. But as an adult, I came face to face with the realities of life and the various challenges people contend with. People follow unscrupulous ways to get along, shoving other people aside in a crowd to move on. It became a matter of survival of the fittest.
Ijaw/riverine world view
Ijaw man does everything of his in the water. He derives his livelihood in the river and other water related things. His way of life is the water. That is his culture.
There are about three schools of thought as to what African literature is. One said you do not have to write in a special way that your Africaness would emerge with respect to what you write in any foreign language. The other group went to the extreme to argue that the only authentic African Literature must be written in the indigenous language of the writer. Mine is the mid-way. We can adapt the metropolitan language, but use it in such a way that it will suit our own way and the idea we want to express in our own language. That is the result you find in my novel, The Voice.
It is all about being very sensitive to what happens around me. I see things in the way that others would not see them. For instance, in my ideal country, I think of a corruption-free country because it is corruption that pervades all sectors of the society. The reality of corruption in the society conflicts with my own corruption-free society. It is like singing. What makes the singer sing may be the feeling of joy or sorrow. This feeling can equally be expressed in poetry or in prose. So I have, in most cases, expressed my feeling using poems.
Symbols and images
I use them a lot in my poems. The Fisherman’s Invocation, for example, is full of symbolism. I am talking about the gaining of our desire, the independence. That is the fight for victory. After the victory dance and the palm wine in the head, we have to face governance. In the poem, I have used the reverie Ijaw symbols and images as well as tradition to present the experience. In most cases, I use universal imageries. For instance, in the same The Fisherman’s Invocation, I used Midwife which is known everywhere. That is to say that when you write, your culture is bound to reflect and also universal culture.
At times people want to write, but it will not flow. In my own case, it does not happen very often Whenever it happens I leave that particular piece to sleep for days, weeks, months and even for years before I start it again. But I will be writing other things. My best writing time is in the night.
He was a very good friend of mine. We used to gather, form a poetry group, read and criticise our poems. That was when we were all young. Apart from poems, we used to talk about the state of the nation. Wole Soyinka used to be in the group.
Writing for children
I write for children just like Chinua Achebe does. We all learnt a lot in Government College, Umuahia. But Achebe and the rest of them were my juniors. Most of the teachers that taught us were young graduates from Oxford and Cambridge who were very sound. The library was filled with books. So I feel that it is to nurture the reading as well as writing habit of children which I equally acquired in the college by writing for them. It will also help to implant the idea of honesty, bravery, hard work and good behaviour while they are young because most of us imbibed same as children. Apart from school, my father taught me early in life that it is better to tell the truth and die than to live in falsehood. And that if I must be anything in life, I must work hard for it. These have been my guiding principles.
State of Nigerian writers
Many people work, retire and live on pension. But the case of writers is quite different because they are independent. Writers are self-employed and live by our writing. That is the only thing we have. We gain very little in terms of cash reward. This is because many people stop reading immediately they leave school. In fact, generally, poets do not have money. Only textbook writers make money these days because their works are used in school. But then the money they make is still small. Ours is if the Ministry of Education recommends our creative work, you make money during that period. When the book is no longer required, nothing again. Worst still, there is the case of piracy. Of course, the copyright law is not effective because nobody is really enforcing it.
State of poetry in Nigeria
There are some young writers whose poems are good. But many also have wrong ideas about poetry. They feel they will not make money by writing poems. So when they are in school, they ask what are they going to do with poetry when they leave school. They conclude that with something like Engineering or Law, they can make money. As such, they do not develop interest in poetry. Indeed, the state of poetry is that people do not read poems for the sake of reading them but for examinations. Many people do not read at all. Some think that poetry is a foreign thing. I ran a class in Imo State University and I told the students that poetry exists with us, that we have it in our villages. The traditional songs we sing and ballads are all poetry. And that is how poetry started in Europe before it was written down. I told them to write down in the native language some of their traditional songs like dirges, the songs at marriages and other events. They did and I asked them to read and sing them. Later I asked them to translate them to English. After the exercise, they were all happy. They accompanied these songs with dances. Of course, in African tradition, songs go with dance. You cannot stand still when you sing as the Europeans do. It was a great revelation to them.
Literature in Nigeria
There is a wrong idea about literature in this country, especially among the youths. They think that anything written is publishable. I am saying this out of experience. Many bring what they have written for me to help them get a publisher. But publishing companies are commercial enterprises. They want to make money out of what a writer has written and give him a certain percentage. So it is not easy for some works to be published. But those who have the urge to write should continue. Opportunity would surely come for the publishers or the general public to discover them.
Car gift to me
The Executive Governor of Bayelsa State, Chief Diepriye Alamieyeseigha, presented a brand new 406 Peugeot to me on my birthday. I was told that the Secretary-General of Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA), Bayelsa State branch, told the governor that he saw me pushing my old car trying to get it started along the street. The governor was touched as to why a great man like me push a car when I should ride comfortably in my car. I am grateful to the governor for that kind gesture.
My coming volume
My next volume of poems is with the publishers in the US. The title is, The Dreams, His Vision. I chose that title because most of the poems are about debacle and suffering under the military dictatorship. The dreamer is a man who dreamt about the future of his country and joined the mass movement of the people, became a leader of the masses and was overthrown by the dictators. The dreamer is somebody who would come and deliver this nation from the grip of military dictatorship. What made me use the title is Moshood Abiola. When he was campaigning for the presidency, he said, “You the people of this country have made me what I am today. And I am going to give you back when I become the president.’’ I respected him for that statement which is a great dream, but he never lived to realise it. So he is the dreamer in that poem.
The books I have written are, The Fisherman’s Invocation (poetry), The Voice (prose), and a lot of books on children, like Little Snakes and Little Frog.
The Voice, a novel by Gabriel Okara