By Kazeem Ugbodaga
Ghana’s popular Poet and Secretary-General of the Pan African Writers Association, PAWA of Ghana, Prof Atukwei Okai has died at the age of 77.
Okai died at the Korle Bu Teaching hospital, on Friday after a brief illness.
A statement issued on behalf of the Odoi and Okai families and signed by Prof. Akilagpa Sawyerr, said his death was regrettable.
According to the statement: “The Odoi and Okai families of Asere, Ga Mashie in the Greater Accra Region and the Pan African Writers Association, PAWA, announce with regret the passing of Prof. Atukwei Okai, which sad event occurred at the Korle Bu Teaching hospital in Accra after a short illness.”
The statement described Okai as a national icon, a former government Minister and the current Secretary General of PAWA.
He was survived by his wife, Beatrice Okai and five daughters.
Okai was born on 15 March, 1941 in Accra, Ghana, and from the age of three to eight years lived in the country’s Northern Region, where his father (Ga by birth) was a school headmaster in Gambaga. Okai was educated at the Gambaga Native Authority School, Nalerigu Middle Boys’ School, and then at Methodist Middle Boys’ School in Accra and Accra High School.
In 1961, he went on a scholarship from the government of President Kwame Nkrumah to Moscow, where he earned his M.A. (Litt.) from the Gorky Literary Institute in 1967. Nkrumah had meanwhile been overthrown in a coup in 1966, and when Okai returned home the following year, he and other Ghanaian students who had studied in the Soviet Union were not welcomed by the new regime and had difficulty finding employment.
Okai subsequently took up a post-graduate scholarship from the University of Ghana to pursue studies in the UK, earning his Master of Philosophy (M.Phil) degree in 1971 from the School of Slavonic and East European Studies in London, which is today part of University College London.
He began teaching at the University of Ghana, Legon, in 1971 as lecturer in Russian literature at the Department of Modern Languages, and in 1984 became Senior Research Fellow in African Literature at the Institute of African Studies. He also was a head of the GaDangbe department of Education at the University of Education, Winneba, Ghana.
In 1989 he was elected the first Secretary-General of the Pan African Writers’ Association (PAWA), which position he held till his death; his pioneering role at PAWA was recognized by the Entertainment Critics and Reviewers Association of Ghana (ECRAG), who in 1991 presented him with their highest award, the Flagstar, the first time that this award has gone to a writer.
When the Ghana Society of Writers (precursor to the current Ghana Association of Writers) was founded in 1957, Okai became its youngest member, aged 16, while he was still at Accra High School.
After for some years of his poetry being published in newspapers and magazines, as well as read on Henry Swanzy’s Ghana Radio programme ‘The Singing Net,” Okai’s first major collection, The Oath of the Fontonfrom and Other Poems, was 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, thus indicating Okai’s parallel traditional and modern consciousness as a poet.”
His poems have been translated into several languages (including Russian, Spanish, German, Arabic, French, Italian) and 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.
The musicality of his poetry has been attributed to influences dating back to his early years in the ambience of North Ghana, which is rich in music-dominated idioms, and he had performed his work widely on radio, television and to live audiences.
Professor Femi Osofisan of Nigeria has stated 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.”
Source: PM News