Gabriel Okara – The Poet


Gabriel Okara was born in 1921 in Nigeria. At this time Nigeria was still a British colony and, indeed, it would be nearly forty years before his country was to gain independence in October 1960.  During his life, Okara has held a number of jobs, initially working as a book binder, journalist, radio broadcaster and newspaper editor. He has also traveled to the USA where he helped raise money for Nigeria by giving poetry recitals.


Okara’s poems tend reflect the problems that African nations face as they are torn between the culture of their European colonisers and their traditional African heritage. He also looks at the traumatic effect that colonisation and de-colonisation can have on the self and on one’s sense of personal identity. As such, Okara often depicts characters suffering from ‘culture shock’ as they are torn between these two irreconcilable cultures. On the one hand there is Christianity and the definite material benefits such as classroom education and well-paid jobs that the European way of life offers, while on the other hand, there is the unspoken expectation that the ‘true’ African owes allegiance to his original tribal culture and should embrace these ‘roots’. This contrast is summed up nicely by another African poet called Mabel Segun in the following lines:


Here we stand

            Infants overblown

            Poised between two civilizations

            Finding the balance irksome


As a result of this divide, Okara seems to suggest, many modern Africans do not know ‘who they are’ or ‘what they should be.’ His poem Once Upon a Time clearly describes the problems that can arise when the cultures of ancient Africa and modern Europe clash leaving people without a clear sense of how to behave and where to look for guidance.


Okara also examines the contrast between the honest simplicities of the past and the superficial unreliability of the modern world and he seems to believe at points that only by looking at and learning from their past can the African people hope to have a positive future.


As with many other African poets, the theme of Negritude, or the glorification of Africa, is present in much of Okara’s work. In addition to recurrent anger at the atrocities of slavery and colonisation Negritude writers worship anything African and use scintillating rhymes or vibrant descriptions to personifying, or indeed deifying (making into a god), their homeland.