Atukwei liberated poetry for the masses

BY: Nana Kwasi Gyan-Apenteng
Prof. Atukwei Okai
Prof. Atukwei Okai

It is difficult to imagine Professor Atukwei Okai forever lying motionless and unable to speak a word but it is that otherwise improbable situation that brings it home that indeed the great poet and humanist has left this earth.

It is as shocking today as it was on that fateful Friday, July 13, when the sad news broke. 

It has been difficult coming to terms with this reality.

Prof. Okai was by every reckoning the most important literary figure of our time.

 If our country had a tradition of appointing a national poet or poet laureate, Atukwei would have held the position for the past half-century.
He has been the source of inspiration for countless number of poets and writers, with many of them even imitating his unique style of performance of his poetry and public speaking.

One subject I brought up often in our numerous conversations was the first day I ever set eyes on him and the dramatic effect this had on me and a fair number of students that evening.

I think it was a rather cold evening in February, 1967 at the old Drama Studio, which was dismantled in the late 1980s and shipped to Legon to make way for the National Theatre.

The Writers Club at Okuapemman School had been invited by Mrs Efua Sutherland, one of Ghana’s pioneering literary superstars, to attend a poetry performance as her guest.

What on earth was a poetry performance? We knew poetry mostly by its rather more common name as recitation but by whatever name it was called, it was something in books and usually written by a dead person such as Wordsworth or Keats.

To be honest, we did not know what to expect but didn’t care; a night out in Accra was good in itself whether it was for wrestling or classical music.

There were other schools there as well, so the small but iconic theatre had the air of a mini jamboree that night.

 The excited students continued the chatter even after someone important gave a short speech introducing the event.

Suddenly, all the lights in the sitting area and the stage went out and under the piercing glow of a single light stood a very tall, bearded young man in a white gown. To be honest, he looked a bit like a younger version of a prophet as presented in junior Bible pictures.

Cue: soft music. It was in the popular Christmas carol, In the Bleak Mid-Winter waxing softly from the loudspeakers around the auditorium. At that time, he had not dropped his “Christian name”, John.

So there he stood, in a pose we would later know to be his nonverbal signature.
Arms raised, firm head-forward gaze, right arm makes a circular motion, the head is tilted backwards, then forward.

 What followed was the most wonderful rendition of his love poem ROSIMAYA.

It was rapturous.

His voice rose and fell, he clenched and unclenched his raised right arm above his head; he struck his jaws forward as if to reject the rejection of unrequited love, which is the subject of that wonderful poem.

For most of us in the audience that night that was the first time poetry jumped out of textbooks and became flesh.

 It was transcendental experience which is difficult to describe; exhilarating and sublime are two words that come to mind.

 What I know is that we went away convinced that poetry was more than something written with rhyme words at the end.

That night set a pattern I would later see many times in Atukwei. After the show, he stood outside the drama studio and interacted with the overawed students; he teased us, he shook our hands and kept saying you are all poets you know.

He promised to come to our school to talk to the writers club. He encouraged us there and then. That night, many students stayed up writing poetry.

Encourager and catalyst

I got to know Atukwei better at Legon where he was a lecturer and I was a student. He was the indefatigable President of the Ghana Association of Writers. Nothing ever stood still with a hundred metres radius of Atukwei. He made things happen. He turned the association into a movement and showed that the cause of writers was and will always be more important than the act of writing itself.

Atukwei created national awareness with a series of events such as the “Evening With…” series which involved celebrating many people from many walks of life who had Ghanaian and African connections or who visited Ghana.

We had evenings with a son of Kwegyir Aggrey who, if my memory serves me right, was the US Ambassador to Senegal.

GAW also hosted a son of Dr. J. B. Danquah who was a famous actor in the 1970s. Most important of all, Atukwei performed his poetry to audiences across the country and frequently on television.

Poetry became part of our national life as Atukwei was invited to perform at important state functions. He took full advantage of such invitations and turned those events into unforgettable experiences with pure drama and entertainment. He banished fear from poetry and turned it into a major national asset.

But what marks out Atukwei the most is his role as encourager and catalyst for other people’s achievements.

Atukwei often sought me out to encourage me whenever he read something he liked in my newspaper columns.

He encouraged people not only to write but to aspire to the top of whatever they were doing.

Creative source

Status meant nothing to Atukwei.
I was part of a contingent from Ghana at the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Ethiopian Association of Writers.

 The foreign delegations were taken to visit the President of Ethiopia who was a founding member of the Association. Atukwei’s speech that day was so inspirational and entertaining at the same time that he transformed the previously sombre stately occasion into one of fun and jollity.

One day, a group of SHS students from various Cape Coast schools who had formed some kind of pan-African group visited PAWA House, which houses both the Pan-African Writers Association and the Ghana Association of Writers. Atukwei regaled the youngsters with stories and inspirational insights that had them eating out of his hands. I have never seen a group of teenagers so focused!

Even after he left the Presidency of the Ghana Association of Writers, Atukwei continued to be the creative source of the Association; his time in office continues to be the benchmark of achievement and he was personally available to provide advice and insights which helped guide the modern phase of the organisation’s development.

Atukwei will be missed not only as a national voice and inspirational mentor for thousands of people but as a real genuine human being who was interested in the welfare of others. Atukwei remembered details of one’s personal moments with amazing clarity and empathy.

About three years ago, he surprised me by coming early to my sister’s funeral because I knew that he had an important family event of his own on that day so I deliberately failed to remind him as he had requested. That was pure Atukwei.

In the period since his passing, hundreds of such personal recollections have been recounted almost by everyone who came into contact with him. He was a genius not only with words but in setting people up for success within themselves. As many of us have concluded, he made one feel so special. He was a special person.

Damirifa due; Yaa wor odzogbang

The writer is the President of the Ghana Association of Writers and Chairman of the National Media Commission