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Atukwei Okai: Tribute to a literary generalissimo

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Wale Okediran, the late Profs Catherine Acholonu (m) and Atukwei Okai

The recent passage of the celebrated Ghanaian poet, Literary Activist and Academic, Professor Atukwei Okai on July 13, 2018 at the age of 77 has robbed the African continent of a passionate and formidable Cultural and Literary ‘generalissimo’.

Okai who for several years placed his mental and physical energy at the services of the continental writers body, Pan African Writers Association (PAWA) died at the Korle Bu Teaching Hospital, Accra in his native Ghana after a brief illness.

My paths and that of the consummate literary icon crossed way back in 1997, when I was the General Secretary of the Association of Nigerian Authors. On my first meeting with the gangling and energetic Secretary General of PAWA during one of his many forays into Nigeria, I was immediately captivated by his formidable intellect, wit and charm.

For Okai, there was no dull moment as he was always full of life and enthusiasm. With ‘Lord Atukwei’ (as I normally called him), I traversed the length and breadth of the African continent on several missions for PAWA learning from the great man the rudiments of international diplomacy, perseverance and the ideals of loyalty, family ties and everlasting friendship. Liberia, Niger, Cote D’ivoire, Libya, Ghana, South Africa, Mali and of course Nigeria where some of our numerous stops in our endless search for the propagation of African Literature. In the course of our numerous trans- continental engagements, we had our fair share of successes, frustrations and occasional failures.

Through them all, Okai remained stoic and positive often lacing very difficult and seemingly hopeless situations with regular doses of rib crackling jokes and powerful optimism. On one occasion when the late Professor Festus Iyayi and I were briefly detained in our Accra Hotel by the Ghanaian police on the suspicion of being some long wanted Nigerian criminals, Okai who had been summoned by the terrified Hotel Manager by telephone rather than rush to our rescue broke into a fit of laughter at the other end of the telephone line for quite some time before taking his time to secure our release almost an hour later. When asked why he took that long in coming, Okai broke into another round of laughter and said that he wanted us to have enough experience at the hands of the Ghanaian police for our next novel!

On another occasion, Okai and I had arrived too late in the day for dinner in Niamey, Niger Republic. As we were very hungry, he arranged for a taxi cab to take us in search of food. After a long drive in the night, we finally found a canteen that was still open for business. Okai promptly placed our orders. Unfortunately for us, when the food arrived almost an hour later, we could not eat it. Unknown to us, Okai in his halting French had mistakenly ordered for a ‘rare’ grilled plate of steak which was full of blood. Rather than lose his cool at the development, Okai turned the whole incident into a big joke as we finally clawed our way back to the hotel in hunger.

The only time I saw the tall man lose his cool was sometime in 2014, when he led a PAWA team for a visit for the conferment of the award of PAWA Patron on former President Goodluck Jonathan. In addition to the medal of honour, Okai had come from Ghana with a traditional wooden Ghanaian stool, which he said was for President Jonathan to sit on as a sign of honour.

He waved off my warning that the State House Security men would not allow the Nigerian President to sit on any strange seat for security reasons. Using all his charismatic and suave diplomatic style, Okai managed to convince the security men at the Presidential Villa’s gate to allow him take the traditional stool into the Council Chamber’s venue of the meeting.

After his powerful speech to President Jonathan, Okai gestured towards Professor Chukwuemeka Ike who was also on our entourage to assist him in lowering President Jonathan to sit on the carved ceremonial stool. Suddenly, Jonathan’s ADC moved swiftly and quickly prevented Okai from accomplishing his aim. Okai resisted and for a few seconds, he and the security man struggled for the stool until Professor Ike had to convince Okai to release the stool for the security man. A highly bemused President Jonathan later apologised to a visibly angry Okai for the incident promising that he would seat on the stool once he got home.

Despite his heavy work schedule, Atukwei Okai did not neglect his literary endeavours producing several volumes of poetry, which was his favourite literary genre. A powerful performance poet, Okai was always a delight to watch during his poetry renditions where his strong strident voice and scintillating dramatic gestures are brought to play. Even at that, the Literary and Cultural Ambassador still had time for his family and could be seen regularly in the company of his devoted wife, Beatrice and his five lovely daughters at PAWA events especially those that took place in Ghana.

The love he had for his children, grandchildren, wife, relatives and friends knew no bounds.

Okai, a former President of the Ghana Writers Association, earned his M.A (Litt) from the Gorky Literary Institute, Russia in 1967. In 1971, he took up a post-graduate scholarship from the University of Ghana to earn his Master of Philosophy (M.Phil) in 1971 from the School of Slavonic and East European Studies in London.

He started lecturing at the University of Ghana in 1971, and became Senior Research Fellow in African Literature at the Institute of African Studies. In his young days, he published his work under the name John Okai.

His work has been described as “politically radical and socially conscious, one of his greatest concerns being Pan-Africanism.“ He was elected as the first Secretary General of the Pan-African Writers’ Association (PAWA) and held that position till he died.

As I prepare to join his family, friends and other literary enthusiasts in Ghana on September 14 to give him a befitting burial, I briefly pause for a minute’s silence in honour of a great writer, an unflinching advocate for African Literature and a fine human being who shared his spirit and talent with the world. His legacy will live forever in his donation and adulation for the literary and intellectual world. Rest in eternal peace, my friend, teacher and brother.

• Okediran, award winning author, is a past National President of the Association of Nigerian Author and former Member of the House of Representatives


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