The remains of one of Africa’s most celebrated literary writers, Professor Atukwei Okai, were laid to rest yesterday after a burial service attended by President Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo.
Also in attendance at the service was the First Lady, Mrs Rebecca Akufo-Addo, 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 held at the Accra International Conference Centre (AICC).
He was accorded a state burial in recognition of his tremendous services to the nation and the excellence he exhibited in his chosen profession.
While most of the family members, friends and sympathisers were dressed in all white, others wore a combination of white and black apparel, to signify the bitter and sweet nature of the enviable life and transition of the literary icon.
Tributes from the wife, Beatrice, his five daughters, brothers and sisters and literary friends, described Prof. Okai as a hardworking, principled, honest and motivational personality.
They said he loved the Lord and was focused, which reflected in his works and interactions with them.
The wife and daughters dramatised their tributes with poetic renditions akin to Prof. Okai’s style.
Their deliveries attracted intermittent applause from the mourners who expressed admiration.
In some instances, the children mimicked the voice and gestures of their late father.
The service was conducted by the Accra Ridge Church, and occasionally, the Winneba Youth Choir was called upon to sing songs of praise.
Prof. Okai died on July 13, 2018 at age 77.
His remains were later interred at the Military Cemetery at Burma Camp.
A former Presiding Bishop of the Methodist Church, Ghana, Most Rev. Dr Robert Aboagye-Mensah, in a sermon, described Prof. Okai as a Christian whose faith was deeply rooted in Jesus Christ.
He said Prof. Okai manifested his Christian conviction in all his endeavours at home, in formal and informal interactions with others and even in his literary works which made him stand out.
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 the eulogies testified to the great life of Prof. Okai.
He added that it was worth noting that Prof. Okai learned other languages which helped him break many boundaries.
Rev. Dr Aboagye-Mensah stated that Prof. Okai fought ethnocentrism and used his works to unite people irrespective of race, colour or creed.
According to him, though the late academic 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.
Rev. Dr Aboagye-Mensah took a portion of the tribute by the widow and the children which narrated how on the verge of death, Prof. Okai urged those by his bed to sing praises to the Lord, a sign that he was ready to meet his Maker in excitement and praises.
He challenged Ghanaians of all classes and inclination to rise up to the occasion and live honest and faithful lives.
In her tribute, Mrs Okai described her late husband as, “A very intelligent, elegant, talented gentleman whose kindness, humility and affability knew no bounds.”
She further said Prof. Okai was, “A very responsible, caring husband, father, grandfather, bother, uncle and friend.”
Reading their tribute, four of Prof. Okai’s daughters proudly extolled the virtues, discipline, commitment, hard work, love for fellow humans.
“You were unique in the sense that you did not only work for the advancement of your own kids alone, but that of others you came into contact with. You championed the education of many and even used your own financial resources to ensure that they stayed in school,” they stated.
Born John David Atukwei Okai in Accra, Ghana, on March 15, 1941, Prof. Atukwei Okai was the third of eight children and the first male child of his parents, Mr Benjamin David Amma Okai, a teacher, and Madam Borkor Odoi, a trader.
The renowned poet, known for his literary flair, began his formal education at the Gambaga Native Authority School and continued to the Nalerigu Middle Boys’ School both in the Northern Region.
He enrolled at the Methodist Middle Boys’ School in Accra and later entered the Accra High School, where his budding writing flair began to blossom to the admiration of many, including Ghana’s first President, Dr Kwame Nkrumah, his headmaster, teachers and editors of magazines.
After his secondary education in 1960, young Atukwei won a scholarship in 1961 from the government of President Nkrumah to Moscow where he earned his MA (Litt) from the Gorky Literary Institute in 1967.
Returning home the same year, Prof. Okai taught in some schools such as Wesley Girls High School, Adisadel College and Achimota School where he left a memorable impact on young students with his work.
He subsequently earned a postgraduate scholarship from the University of Ghana (UG) to pursue further studies in the UK, earning his Master of Philosophy (MPhil) degree in 1971 from the School of Slovonic and East European Studies in London, which today is part of the University College of London.
In 1971, Prof. Okai served as a lecturer in Russian Literature in the Department of Modern Languages at the University of Ghana until 1984 when he joined the Institute of African Studies as a Research Fellow and was appointed Senior Research Fellow in 1985.
At age 16, he became the youngest member of the Ghana Society of Writers (GAW), a precursor to the current Ghana Association of Writers in 1957.
He became Secretary-General of the Pan-African Writers Organisation at age 16 in 1957 and the Secretary to GAW in June 1961. He left for further studies in the Soviet Union the same year until his return in 1971 to become the President of the association.
He took up the role of Secretary-General of the Pan-African Writers Organisation in 1989.
Publications, performances and awards
Under the pen name John Okai, Prof. Okai was generally recognised to be the first real performance poet to emerge from Africa. Performing globally on major international radio and television and poet platforms worldwide, his major publications were translated into several languages.
The publications included “The Oath of the Fontomfrom and Other poems”, “Freedom Symphony: selected and new leave poems”, “Mandela the Spear and other poems”, “The Ant Hill in the Sea”, “Slim Queen in a Palanquin” and “Pawpaw on a Mango Tree.”
His thirst for excellence in his endeavours won him 13 national and international awards, including “The President of the Republic of Ghana’s Special Prize of 1960” and the “Member of the Order of the Volta.”