In 2009, I was on my way to a bank for the insurance company I worked for when I stopped somewhere to buy some water. I had a chat with the store owner and he picked interest in me and he made sure that our conversation extended. He learned about my plan to have a launch for a book of poems I had put together – a debut. He was impressed and asked if I had read from Okara. I told him about the Call of River Nun, Piano and Drums – texts we had read in secondary school. He asked if I would love to invite the man to the public presentation of the work. Well, I was young and daring and I agreed. He gave me the address to his church.

It was a small church that fused science and faith in its name. I sat in the church that day and worshipped with him. For someone who had a brief background in conservative Pentecostal churches, it was almost a surprise observing the worship at the scientific church. My silly mind of a teenager could have thought of the gathering as a sect of some sort. There was the singing of special hymns and some minutes dedicated to wordless prayers. The small congregation knelt and prayed in silence. The service lasted for an hour and I exchanged pleasantries with older members. I was invited again. Sadly, I couldn’t make it. But I met Pa Okara in worship mode. We spoke after the service and I handed him an invitation. He was the organist of the small church.
I was on a 15k monthly salary or so but I must have been a dreamer. I chose a serene and beautifulI and costly hotel on Benjamin Opara Street called Nicon Luxury and made deposit. Things were arranged. Pa Gabriel Okara was driven in and on the staircase he asked if I was related to Professor Theo Vincent. I had introduced myself as Nwilo Vincent and he had probably assumed I was a Vincent. He told me he had not seen or heard from the literary critic and scholar in a long while. He had somehow thought I was related to the Ogoni man and had hoped I would give him more information about Prof. Vincent.
I had only met Prof. Theo Vincent in a book. The first book was an anthology of poems he co-edited with K. Senanu of Ghana. I had also seen a couple of introductory notes he wrote for Ken Saro-Wiwa’s books. I knew I needed to ask more questions about Prof. Vincent and I did but nothing came off it.
Pa Okara lit up the small room at Nicon Luxury. I could not afford a video recorder and I missed most of his wise words that day. He launched with a N5k and promised another N5k as contribution and gave me his phone number. I called and he directed me to his residence in Ozubokor in Abuloma, in Port Harcourt. A quiet house located at the extreme of a place that was a developing estate of some sort or so. I sat there with him and chatted and he handed me the money and I was stunned that a man as old as him kept his promise while the politicians and workers barely kept theirs.

Gabriel Okara and J.P Clark

Gabriel Okara attended another presentation of mine in 2012, this time older, in the company of Timi Nipre and her sister. He also lit up the room. On his 90th birthday, I interviewed him for 234 Next newspaper and it was the first thing I did for him that made me fulfilled, somehow.
I met Gabriel Okara and his amusing side in Yenagoa during an AMAA event. His calm and playfulness with the ladies made me wonder if age does anything to a man’s exploit when it was about beautiful women. Pa Okara, in that room, forgot my name but recalled the names of the ladies and I kept laughing.
I remember him as a dedicated old man, poet and peace lover. His calm, his eagerness to assist when he could, to share a piece of advice and so on. Once, I was applying for a scholarship and attached my book to the letter to the Rivers State Scholarship Board and borrowed the word ‘masterpiece’ to describe my book and I almost killed the old man that day. He asked how I arrived at that term and which critic described my work as such. He advised I stayed humble. I was just very silly.
I remember Pa Okara as someone who stood by his words. I could guess he had an amazing youthful age because I truly found his company rich and necessary. You can’t rush anything when with Pa Okara. And his prize winning book, The Dreamer and His Vision, with an introduction by Charles Nnolim was one of my detailed lectures on the man and his works.
I truly don’t know how he lived that long and healthy but I would have loved to learn a thing or two. I wish I had him in a video interview. I wish I did more but I’m also consoled by the moments he did not hold back a piece of advice.
Today I remember a Nigerian giant and lover of calm, Gabriel Imomotimi Gbaingbain Okara.

Funeral Arrangements by Pa Okara’s family

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Bura-Bari Nwilo’s fiction, non-fiction and poetry have appeared in the Association of Nigerian Authors’ Review, Kalahari Review, Saraba literary magazine, Sentinel Nigeria, Ake Review, Brittle Paper, Bookslive.co.za, GuerillaBasement, Muwado, Guardian Nigeria, 234Next, Muse Journal of the Department of English and Literary Studies, University of Nigeria, Nsukka, and a lot more. He is on the Badilisha Poetry X-Change. Bura-Bari’s story ‘Like Eyes Liquid with Hope’ was long-listed for the annual Writivism literary festival in Kampala, Uganda, and included in an anthology. His first book of short stories, A Tiny Place Called Happiness was shortlisted for the ANA/Abubakar Gimba Prize for short stories in 2017. Bura-Bari, a native of Ogoniland in Rivers State, lives in Port Harcourt. He studied English and Literature at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka.

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