Accra, Sept. 28, GNA - Not too old Atukwei is sleeping, and lying off in the new Necropolis; hmm, ah, the new Necropolis, off the Burma Camp; hmm, ah, off the Burma Camp.
He is lying quietly in a very small room, hmm, ah; in very small room, closed air tight. The room had been draped in a national cloth; hmm, ah, draped in a national cloth; in the colours of red, yellow and green, hmm, ah; red yellow and green.
As military pall bearers carried the occupant and his room shoulder high to exit the city hall of the Accra International Conference Centre on Friday, September 14, 2018 around mid-day, in a not too bright weather, a military band sounded the Last Post to signal the exit of a world acclaimed poet, who touched the lives of many people.
Prof Atukwei Okai, the former and late Secretary General of the Pan African Writers Association (PAWA) is now with the elders, but his tongue still speaks. I remember what he told me in a chat sometime ago, after a graduation ceremony at the Ghana Institute of Journalism that “a journalist who is not well trained, or does not apply the rules of the profession is like a timed bomb. He or she can explode anytime.”
I developed that statement into a news piece, and to my surprise, after publication, the late Professor took note and invited me through one of my former senior colleagues-a Queen-mother of the Ga State.
After doing the “timed bomb” story, it happened that I was captured on the screen of a television station during an assignment, and the late Prof informed my senior colleague that I should visit him at the PAWA House at Roman Ridge in Accra.
And to the PAWA House, I went. I introduced myself to a gentleman I met in a summer hut at the PAWA House, and soon here was Prof himself at the entrance of one of the rooms. He motioned me to come closer to the entrance, after which we climbed upstairs.
We had a long chat, of about more than three hours, discussing the practice of journalism; literature, poetry, politics, family life as well as his studies and stay in Russia among others. I really drank from the pot of wisdom and literary philosophy from the literary icon.
Throughout the conversation, Prof emphasized the need for professionalism in journalism, avoidance of inflammatory language; balanced reporting, essential gate keeping, cross-checking on facts, proper timing for publication and release of information among others. This, I believe, he did in his poetry, the highest form of language and literature.
The first time I met the late Professor was in 1996 at the British Council, during a literary event. I approached him, and we spoke in the native Ga language. He gave me his complimentary card, but little did I realize the gargantuan memory of the man who wrote the “serpentine” poem “Lorgorligi Logarithm.” He could make me out every time we met, and called me Ganyobi, meaning Son of a Ga.
Not only is the enchantment of the late Atukwei seen in his writing of poetry, but he would mesmerize his audiences with spirited performances as he recited and performed words in verse as if speaking from trance.
At least, I remember his performances at the state funeral of the late Professor Albert Adu-Boahen, the presidential candidate of the then and now governing New Patriotic Party (NPP), at the forecourt of the Chamber Block of Parliament House in July 2006; the state funeral of late former Finance and Economic Planning Minister Kwadwo Baah- Wiredu at the forecourt of the State House in November 2008, for which a signature tune of Nokia rung in the poem, that day still rings in my ears.
What about his poetry performance at the forecourt of the offices of Joy FM in Accra, in January 2014 in memory of the late broadcaster Komla Afeke Dumor?
Not only was he performing at state funerals, but he wrote and performed at various fora, both locally and internationally.
With his poems rooted in the oral tradition, he was generally acknowledged to have been the first real performance poet to emerge from Africa.
His performances on radio and television include an acclaimed 1975 appearance at poetry international at Queen Elizabeth Hall in London, where he shared the stage with US poets Stanley Kunitz and Robert Lowell, and Nicolas Guillen of Cuba.
Politically, the Greater Accra Region was created under his mandate. In record time, he consulted with Elders of the land and under his vision, leadership, and direction; the country recognised and accepted the airtight proposal of what came to be known as the Greater Accra Region
This time, Atukwei was not performing a poem; a poem was performed for him at a funeral service on September 14 2018, attended by President Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo and wife Rebecca, former President Jerry John Rawlings and his wife, Nana Konadu, former President John Dramani Mahama, and the wife of the late Vice-President Kwesi Amissah-Arthur, Mrs Matilda Amissah-Arthur.
Some of the creme de la creme of writers, poets, musicians, academicians, politicians and journalists from around the world were also present at the service.
Prof Okai served under Chairman Rawlings, who later was elected and became President, as Secretary of State; and who endorsed former President John Mahama as a member of the Ghana Association of Writers.
Much poetry had poured in since Prof Okai drew his last breath last July at Korle Bu. President Akufo Addo eulogized the late Atukwei as a “Big Ghanaian”, “who had a reach that was beyond Ghana.” He described the late Ataa Atukwei as an “exceptional man, famous poet, and great writer, one who possessed an excellent mastery of language, whether of Ga, Twi, or English.”
“Atuwei 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” the President wrote.
“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. His life’s work was a classic example of the metonymic adage: “The pen is mightier than the sword.”
Former President Mahama wrote: “He was a unique oral poet of our time; a wordsmith whose art was a unique combination of music and dramatization. ‘Lorgorligi Logarithms’, for which he was well known, tickled our cultural fantasies. I was honoured to have him accept me into the Writer’s Association after the publication of my book, ‘My First Coup D’Etat’.
“I am yet to know anyone who was not delighted after listening to one of those beautiful poetic renditions by Prof., which we are going to miss forever. Prof., like the eponymous 'Rosimaya', you have finished our Friday and wrecked the rest of our week,” Former President Mahama added.
Former President Jerry Rawlings wrote, saying Prof Okai was “synonymous with everything literary in our part of the world.
“His ubiquitous and effervescent presence over several decades at myriad national, local and even smaller events left a memorable mark on many, especially the youth, most of whom have now grown into their 40s, 50s and 60s.”
He added: “Atukwei Okai was a man whose life was dedicated to the literary enrichment of not only Ghanaians but Africans. A man in whose dictionary, mediocrity didn’t exist. He was a man whose writings were as dynamic and animated as his oral presentations.”
The wife and daughters dramatised their tributes with poetic renditions with the daughter mimicking the voice and gestures of their late father, attracting intermittent applause from the mourners.
The service was conducted by the Accra Ridge Church, with choral performances by the Winneba Youth Choir.
Mrs Beatrice Okai, the wife, extolled her husband for supporting her throughout their marriage especially through the hard times.
“You faithfully stood by me during my major surgery, never missing any of my physiotherapy appointments after my surgery. You were visibly happy for me when you realized I could walk again without difficulty. My one consolidation is that you went peacefully. You sang praises and worshipped with us in the eve of your departure.”
“You were so many things to so many people but to me and the girls, you will forever live in our hearts as the kind hearted, humane, peaceful and gentle soul that ever trod this earth.”
It was a very difficult time for the daughters reading their father’s tribute. "It’s truly difficult to accept that you've moved on to the other side; that you're no longer here with us in the physical. You were full of life that we felt we’d have you with us forever, “they read, amidst tears.
Award winning poet, Oswald Okaitei, eulogized Kordeitse Ataa Akukwei in a poem he titled “777 Tears”, which reflects the years and the months the literary colossus died as well as his works and contributions to the development of the Ghanaian literary arts industry. Okaitei wrote” Just as you are...Ode to Prof. Atukwei Okai “in imitation of the late Atukwei’s poem “Rosimaya.”
So poetry keeps pouring in for the late Prof Atukwei Okai, a man I can say farmed poetry, harvested poetry, cooked poetry, ate and drank poetry.
And not only poetry, but also his keen interest in Ga Dangme language and culture was superlative. I once met Prof at the Methodist Book Depot in Accra one Saturday morning. On seeing me, he exclaimed: “Ganyobi, meni obafeemo ye bie?”
I responded: “I have come to look for some books. Prof took a collection of books in Ga, and when I asked him what the books were for, he informed me he was the head of the GaDangme Department of the University of Education, Winneba. Bravo!
Not only GaDagme, he could speak, but a real polyglot he was.
Rev Dr Robert Abogye-Mensah, a former Presiding Bishop of the Methodist Church, Ghana, drawing examples from the tributes from the widow and the daughters, and quoting some literary works, including “Things Fall Apart” by Chinua Achebe, which said in part, “Turning and turning in the widening gyre The falcon cannot hear the falconer; Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold,” Rev. Dr Aboagye-Mensah said.
He added that Prof. Okai’s knowledge of several languages helped him break many boundaries, as he fought ethnocentrism and used his works to unite people, irrespective of race, colour or creed.
The cleric noted that, though the late don was an international scholar and icon, he was very accessible and down to earth to all persons and exhibited a true trait of a Christian with honest and humble disposition.
He challenged Ghanaians of all classes and inclination to rise up to the occasion and live honest and faithful lives.
Prof Akilagpa Sawyer, former Vice Chancellor of the University of Ghana, who was also the Family Spokesperson, in a vote of thanks asked that the pronunciation of the late Prof Okai’s name should be mentioned the Ga way, rather than being anglicised
In separate interviews by this writer at the funeral, Professor of Literature Kofi Anyidoho praised the late Atukwei for being resilient in the face of life’s and professional challenges.
Mr Akunu Dake, Chief Executive Officer of Heritage Development, Co-convener of the Ghana Culture Forum, urged Ghanaians to emulate thoroughness, practical and down to earth approach of the late professor.
Security Analyst and International Relations Expert Vladimir Antwi Danso agreed with the late Prof Atukwei Okai that “a journalist who is not well trained, or does not apply the rules of the profession is like a timed bomb. He or she can explode anytime.”
Prof Antwi Danso recalled the sordid results of irresponsible journalism on human life in recent history, noting how the news media played a crucial role in the 1994 Rwanda genocide: local media fuelled the killings, while the international media either ignored or seriously misconstrued what was happening.
The media’s roles in the troubles of Kosovo and elsewhere are also to be noted.
Yes, the late Atukwei is dead and gone to his grave, but his saying never dies, that “a journalist who is not well trained, or does not apply the rules of the profession is like a timed bomb. He or she can explode anytime.”
So, let’s avoid the time bombs.