Tribute to Ghana’s poet laureate Atukwei Okai

31 Jul, 2018 - 00:07 0 Views

The Herald

David Mungoshi Shelling the Nuts
At every opportunity, Atukwei Okai would make this proud utterance: I come from Africa and I live in Ghana. I have always felt that we the people of Africa could use this wonderful epigram as a mantra for greater cohesion. We could also recite it as a declaration of faith in the manner of Deuteronomy 26:5 which boldly states:
“A wandering Aramean was my father. And he went down into Egypt and sojourned there, few in number, and there he became a nation, great, mighty, and populous.”

Africa recently woke up to the news that one of her most illustrious and industrious cultural workers, Professor Atukwei Okai, a native dweller of Accra where the Ga people reside, had passed on. This was some four months or so after he had been part of a successful Pan-African Writers Conference in Accra, the first of its kind run under the auspices of the African Union. I first met Atukwei Okai in Accra in November of 1995 and was readily impressed by the man’s vast arsenal of skills and his unfailing charm. Everything Atukwei did had the distinction of his personal touch. And his organisational skills were unparalleled even then.

Compared to Ghana, we in the southern region of the continent are miles behind. Largely through Atukwei’s efforts the people of Ghana in general, and the residents of Accra in particular, have taken to the literary arts and to poetry like a duck to water. I remember an occasion when we had a full house at the Conference Centre in Accra. The people paid to come and see the writers of Africa gathered in one room to read or recite poetry. I did an impromptu translation of a Chirikure Chirikure poem.

It was at this function that I first saw Bridgette Chinouriri, then a student at Accra’s Legon University. An 85-year-old professor emeritus of Ethnomusicology took me to a side after my performance and after hearing that I was Zimbabwean. He asked me if it would be alright with me if he mentioned me to a homesick student of his who was from Zimbabwe. Naturally I was delighted by the prospect of meeting a fellow Zimbabwean so far away from home. Bridgette Chinouriri is now the proud holder of a PhD degree in Ethnomusicology and is dispensing her skills at one of our universities.

It was nice to be a celeb in Accra. Accra is amazing that way. Bookshops do roaring business and ordinary people are the consumers of much of the literary productions. Accra is also a vibrant venue for theatre productions. Ghana’s Pan African Orchestra, an orchestra that plays African instruments only, including the kora, is a wonder and a joy to experience.

Atukwei Okai was a powerful brand. He, predictably, enjoyed a lot of goodwill throughout Ghana, and Accra in particular. For that reason he was able to host with distinction many distinguished guests, including Winnie Mandela, and could count on the support of business entities. Writers invited to the annual November International Conference of African Writers at home and in the Diaspora were invariably entertained by a top restaurant in town. Everything was on the house — food and drink inclusive. This is something that is unheard of in Zimbabwe. We should strive to grow such a culture. Wouldn’t it be nice during the Zimbabwe International Book Fair (ZIBF) and the Harare International Festival of the Arts (HIFA) to be able to have our guests spoiled at dinner by a local hotel at no cost to themselves or to the organisation hosting them?

Atukwei Okai, at some point, attended a school where Willian Conton was the principal. William Conton’s novel “The African” was the first in Heinemann’s African Writers Series (AWS). This is the series that gave us Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart” and many other classics subsequently.

On my second visit to Accra in November of 1997, Atukwei took me to Ghana’s National Stadium where I had the joy of watching the Black Stars play the Sierra Leone national squad. Frank Amankwa from Bayern Munich was there, as was Tony Yeboah and Abedi Pele. From my VIP seat on the stands I somehow could not make out who had scored Ghana’s goal. When I asked Atukwei whose goal it was, the enthusiastic reply was, “Abedi Pele, of course!”

Tragically for the writers of Africa, Nigeria’s Sani Abacha was President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria at the time of my second visit to Accra. Ken Saro Wiwa the Ogoni activist and a renowned writer was under sentence of death and PAWA petitioned Abacha to no avail. I was one of those tasked by Okai, in his capacity as Secretary-General, with writing the petition for the release of Saro Wiwa to Abacha. Ken Saro Wiwa was hanged at Port Harcourt. Reports at the time said although the hanging mechanism would not work, the hangman kept trying, only succeeding at the sixth attempt. It used to be that when such a thing happened the man was set free. Thus it was that when Abacha himself died in the arms of prostitutes reputedly flown in from Lebanon, no writer shed any tears for him. It was an obvious case of poetic justice!

On one of the many sight-seeing trips that Atukwei Okai organised I had the good fortune to be among those who went to the Cape Coast Slave Castle and saw first-hand the sort of conditions under which slaves were housed before being finally shipped. My tears flowed freely and my heart was sore.

Obviously aware how some first-time visitors to the slave castle atop a sheer precipice overlooking the Atlantic Ocean might react to the heart-rending experience, Atukwei arranged for refreshments at an open air restaurant on stilts. All around us was water with a few resident crocodiles. I had never before experienced anything this exotic.

Atukwei introduced me to many accomplished writers from Africa including the great Libyan poet, Omar Salem whose autographed volume of poetry on Ghana is one of my most prized possessions.

Whenever Atukwei Okai came to Zimbabwe he brought yams for my family. And my wife and my children in time learned to love yams. I was already hooked. Happily for us, my son Tadiwa, was in Accra with me in 2017 for my PAWA Award of Grand Patron of the Arts. He met Atukwei Okai, his wife and daughters in person on behalf of his mother and siblings.

The eighth Pan African Congress held in Accra in March 2015, coincided with the celebration of Ghana’s independence and delegates to the congress assembled at Black Square with the masses. And yes, you guessed it, Atukwei Okai performed a poem much to the joy of the masses.

Atukwei Okai successfully liaised with the Ethiopian Writers Association with the result that PAWA (Pan-African Writers Association) was in full force at the 50th anniversary celebrations of the Ethiopian Writers Association in Addis Ababa in 2012. Ethiopian hospitality was second to none.

I treasure my visit to Axium, where we walked the grounds of what once was the palace of the Queen of Sheba we read about in the Bible.

The Ark of the Covenant given by Solomon to his children with the Queen of Sheba was said to be housed in a chapel at the St Mary’s Cathedral of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in Axium. Unfortunately, the ark has reportedly been stolen from the chapel by unknown persons. Another attempt to doctor the history of Africa.

One of Atukwei Okai’s greatest achievements with PAWA was the International Colloquium in honour of Chinua Achebe held in Accra in November of 2015. Originally slated for 2013, the colloquium was postponed following the outbreak of Ebola in West Africa.

Dr Goodluck Jonathan, then President of Nigeria, agreed to fund the colloquium. Happily, when Goodluck Jonathan lost the elections to current President Buhari, Nigeria honoured her pledge.

Professor Femi Osafisan of Nigeria, appraised Atukwei the poet with the observation that “Okai was the first to try to take African poetry back to one of its primal origins, in percussion, by deliberately violating the syntax and lexicon of English, creating his own rhythms through startling phonetic innovations.” This is aptly illustrated in the poem “Logorligi Logarithms”, a masterpiece that juxtaposes words from Okai’s Ga language with English words.

Atukwei Okai is the author of the widely-acclaimed “The Oath of the Fontonfrom and Other Poems, published in 1971 by Simon & Schuster in New York. He also has three books of children’s verse to his name. PAWA and Africa are much the poorer without Atukwei Okai’s diligence and humour, his unparalleled diplomatic and negotiation skills, his innovative poetry and supreme organisational skills.

Great people do not die, my brother. They go away. I recall how you loved trying your Shona on me with “Makadini?” You taught me that special Ghanaian handshake where we snap our fingers. RIP my brother.

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