Prof Atukwei Okai lying in state
The usual mourning that often characterises burial services was virtually absent during the funeral of the late Professor Atukwei Okai in Accra yesterday.
Family, friends and colleagues, who had the opportunity to pay their last respects to the celebrated poet displayed rich poetry skills.
The widow, Aakor Okai, paid glowing tribute to the man she described as son of Africa.
She held everyone spellbound when she laced the tribute with the recital of poems which earned her applause from the gathering at the auditorium of the Accra International Conference Centre (AICC).
The four daughters of the late ‘Lorgoligi Lorgarithm’ took turns to share fond memories with their late father which almost moved people to tears.
In a tribute, President Akufo-Addo eulogized the late Professor Atukwei Okai, who died on 13th July, 2018, in Accra after a short illness. He described him as “a big Ghanaian who had a reach that was beyond Ghana.”
He went on to describe him as “an exceptional man, famous poet, great writer, one who possessed an excellent mastery of language, whether Ga, Twi or English.”
He said “Atukwei Okai’s commitment to the Pan-African project, which allowed him to become the long-time founding Secretary-General of the Pan African Writers Association (PAWA), was legendary. He used it as a platform to talk positively about the limitless possibilities of an independent Africa for Africans.”
According to the president, even though he (Atukwei) never took up a gun in Africa’s struggle for independence, his pen and voice did the fighting in helping to ensure the liberation of the political and social consciousness of the African, saying “his life work was a classic example of the metonymic adage, the pen is mightier than the sword.”
The body of the late Prof Atukwei Okai was interred at the new military cemetery on the outskirts of Burma Camp in Accra yesterday.
Prof. Atukwei Okai was born John David Atukwei Okai in Accra, Ghana, on 15th March, 1941, and had his elementary education in Northern Ghana where his father worked as a school headmaster in Gambaga.
He also attended Methodist Middle Boys’ School and Accra High School.
In 1961, he got a scholarship from President Kwame Nkrumah’s government to study in Moscow, Russia, where he obtained Master of Arts in Literature from the Gorky Literary Institute in 1967.
When Prof. Okai returned home the same year, he and other Ghanaian students who had studied in the Soviet Union were not welcomed by the new regime, as Dr Nkrumah had been overthrown the previous year. They had difficulties in securing jobs.
The late poet once recalled: “It was the most despondent time of my life…I was already a writer and broadcaster of some note before I went to the Soviet Union. It galled greatly that those of us that went to study in the former Eastern Bloc were tarred by the general suspicion attached to socialism in those days. We were not politicians and we did not get our scholarship on our political affiliations. We were young Ghanaians with passion to help build the country.”
He was, however, invited by Wesley Girls’ High School, Adisadel College and Achimota School to give performances, which had memorable impact on the young students.
Prof. Okai subsequently took up a post-graduate scholarship from the University of Ghana to pursue studies in the UK, earning a Master of Philosophy (M.Phil) Degree in 1971 from the School of Slavonic and East European Studies in London which is now part of University College, London.
In 1971, he became a lecturer in Russian Literature at the Department of Modern Languages in the University of Ghana, Legon, and in 1984 he served as Senior Research Fellow in African Literature at the Institute of African Studies.
He also was the head of the Ga Dangbe Department at the University of Education, Winneba.
In 1989, he was elected the first Secretary-General of the Pan African Writers’ Association (PAWA), a position he held till his death.
His pioneering role at PAWA was recognized by the Entertainment Critics and Reviewers Association of Ghana (ECRAG), which in 1991 presented him with their highest award-the Flagstar-making him the first writer to receive the award.
When the Ghana Society of Writers (currently the Ghana Association of Writers) was formed in 1957, Prof. Okai became its youngest member at age 16, while he was still at Accra High School.
“It was quite an exciting time in my life. Imagine as a young boy being surrounded with so many books, and to be in the company of literary giants like Michael Dei-Anang, J. H. Kwabena Nketia, Efua Sutherland, the late Kofi Awoonor, Crakye Denteh, Kwesi Brew, Geombeeyi Adali-Mortty, Cameron Duodu and many others…A special mentor was the principal of my Accra High school, William Conton, author of the novel, ‘The African.’ He introduced me to Mr Moses Danquah, the editor of a new magazine that was yet to appear-The Ghanaian Magazine. My poems thus began to appear on its pages…Another kind mentor was Madam Dorothy Padmore, the wife of Mr. George Padmore, whom I visited in their home. On some evenings, I would sit by her under the skies as she critiqued some of my published poems while her husband, Dr Kwame Nkrumah’s famous friend and colleague, sat by reading foreign newspapers,” he recounted.
After years of publication of his poems in newspapers and magazines, which were also read on Henry Swanzy’s Ghana Radio programme, ‘The Singing Net,’ Prof Okai’s first major collection, The Oath of the Fontonfrom’ and other poems, were published in 1971 by Simon & Schuster in New York.
It was followed in 1974 by ‘Logorligi Logarithms,’ which juxtaposes the Ga and English words for the same mathematical concept, indicating Prof. Okai’s parallel traditional and modern consciousness as a poet. His poems have been translated into several languages, including Russian, Spanish, German, Arabic, French and Italian.
They have appeared widely in anthologies, including ‘The Penguin Book of Modern African Poetry’ and prominent international journals such as ‘The Atlantic Monthly’, ‘New African’, ‘Black World’, ‘Literary Cavalcade’ and ‘New American Review’.
By Charles Takyi-Boadu, Presidential Correspondent