Saturday 10th November 2018, writers and poets from The Gambia and Senegal
assembled at Keur Birago Diop, the seat of the l’Association des Ecrivains du
Senegal (AES), to pay homage to Atukwei Okai, an African literary icon, who
passed away in September 2018. Seydi SOW, the executive secretary of the AES
spoke eloquently for writers across Africa and beyond in eulogy to the literary
giant.Published here on behalf of the Writers Association of The Gambia (WAG)
by Mrs. Ramatoulie Othman, WAG treasurer and chief delegate.)
The mark of greatness in men be they eminent philosophers, prophets or wise men lies in their nature to leave generations yearning for more of them the moment they pass away. They die at times midstream in their mission, but their sacrifice had already allowed them to accomplish miracles for posterity.Thus it was with Atukwei OKAI.
Professor Atukwei Okai, under that deserving title, sowed bright ideas throughout the African continent by his word and energy. Like the great intellectual he was, he dedicated his life to the mother of all battles to reconquer the dignity of the black man thatcenturies of slavery and colonisation had blunted.
Atukwei Okai was born on 15thMarch 1941 in Accra, the son of Benjamin David Amma Okai and Madam Bokor Odoi. His family originated from the north of Ghana where he spent his youth before embarking on an academic career that would lead him to the most prestigious universities in Ghana, the former Soviet Union, the UK, and the United States of America. While pursuing a brilliant academic career and achieving a doctorate in philosophy in the process, Atukwei Okai was making himself knownquite early as a promising writer. At 16 he published his first poetic masterpiece “Water of a River” published in the Ghanaian Times newspaper. That was a stepping stone to inclusion on the list of prominent writers of Ghana. George Padmore was tremendously impressed with him, whereas Eric Hayman accused him of plagiarism. Atukwei took the criticism in stride and manfully took upon the challenge of proving Hayman wrong and winning him over.He became prolific in his poetry.
With this intellectual acumen he forgedon with a quest to promote African literature. In 1957 he became the youngest member of the then-Ghana Society of Writers which would later become the Ghana Association of Writers (GAW). He was secretary of the GAW when he left for higher studies in the former Soviet Union in December 1957. GAW, in his absence disintegrated and was supplanted by the Pen and Paper Circle. He re-established WAG, but had to be away again, this time in London to pursue further higher studies. He soon returned to Ghana to be elected vice-president of the GAW. He became president of WAG in 1971.
He encountered immense difficulties in his bid to keep GAW going. He went away to attend many conferences abroad to forge the idea of creating an organization solely dedicated to defending and promoting the ideas and concerns of African writers. It was an intellectual and cultural struggle for the strengthening of ideas among the African intelligentsia experimenting with the creation of a Pan-African body of writers, able to demonstrate a distinctive showing of black writers on a continent which was violated, wounded, and abused.
Out of that quest the Pan-African Writers Association (PAWA) was born. Atukwei set himself the task of making his convictions known that PAWA was the necessary umbrella for all national writers’ association on the continent. A national organisation, no matter how influential or well-provided for, would not be comparable in its effectiveness to a continental organisation, empowered and committed to the battle to affirm our black humanity. This faith was resoundingly accepted by African associations around the continent and who came together to hold the First PAWA Congress in Accra in 1989 on the home soil of Pan-Africa himself, Kwame Nkrumah.
PAWA was on a majestic rise. Atukwei never relented from action. He was at the forefront of a massive contingent of African writers in Brazzaville in 1987 at the Literary Symposium of African Writers against Apartheid. In 2015 PAWA hosted the international conference on the theme: “Celebrating the life of and woks of Chinua Achebe: The Coming of Age of African Literature.”
Until his passing away, Atukwei Okai never ceased being an immovable force devoted to fighting for the rights of African writers. He was always a special guest at the International Day of Writers celebrated by the Senegal association of writers, sharing with the AES President Alioune Badara Beyea common passion for the daily struggle to illuminate black African culture.
We sadly mourn the passing away of a true son of Africa. He now sleeps in peace bathed in the colours of gold and purple. His rich and sufficient ideas, his strong convictions for the highest place for Africa in the concert of nations, his enthusiasm and enlightened spirit, will remain an everlasting flame and, assuch, the true light of Truth will continue to guide African writers on this long road to affirm our sensitivity and ouremotion.
Rest in peace dear Professor Atukwei OKAI and let light perpetual shine on you.