Profile of the late Prof Atukwei Okai
Prof. Atukwei Okai was born John Atukwei Okai in Accra, Ghana, on 15th March 1941 and had his elementary education in Northern Ghana where his father worked as a school headmaster in Gambaga.
He also attended Methodist Middle Boys’ School and Accra High School both in Accra.
In 1961, he got a scholarship from President Kwame Nkrumah’s government to Moscow, where he earned his Master of Arts in Literature from the Gorky Literary Institute in 1967.
When Prof Okai returned home the same year, he and other Ghanaian students who had studied in the Soviet Union were not welcomed by the new regime, as Nkrumah had been overthrown the previous year.
They had difficulty finding employment the late poet once recalled: "It was a most despondent time of my life... I was already a writer and broadcaster of some note before I went to the Soviet Union. It galled greatly that those of us that went to study in the former Eastern Bloc were tarred by the general suspicion attached to socialism in those days. We were not politicians and we did not get our scholarships on our political affiliations. We were young Ghanaians with passion to help build the country".
He, however, received invitations from schools and colleges, such as Wesley Girls' High School, Adisadel College and Achimota School, to give performances of his work, which had a memorable impact on the young students.
Prof Okai subsequently took up a post-graduate scholarship from the University of Ghana to pursue studies in the UK, earning a Master of Philosophy (M.Phil) degree in 1971 from the School of Slavonic and East European Studies in London, which is now part of University College London.
He began teaching at the University of Ghana, Legon, in 1971 as a lecturer in Russian literature at the Department of Modern Languages, and in 1984 became Senior Research Fellow in African Literature at the Institute of African Studies. He also was the head of the Ga Dangbe department of Education at the University of Education, Winneba, Ghana.
In 1989 he was elected the first Secretary-General of the Pan African Writers' Association (PAWA), a position he held till his death.
His pioneering role at PAWA was recognized by the Entertainment Critics and Reviewers Association of Ghana (ECRAG), who in 1991 presented him with their highest award, the Flagstar, making him the first writer to receive the award.
When the Ghana Society of Writers (currently the Ghana Association of Writers) was formed in 1957, Prof Okai became its youngest member, at just 16-years of age, while he was still at Accra High School.
"It was quite an exciting time in my life. Imagine as a young boy being surrounded with so many books, and to be in the company of literary giants like Michael Dei-Anang, J. H. Kwabena Nketia, Efua Sutherland, the late Kofi Awoonor, Crakye Denteh, Kwesi Brew, Geombeeyi Adali-Mortty, Cameron Duodu and many others.... A special mentor was the principal of my Accra High school, William Conton, author of the novel, The African. He introduced me to Mr. Moses Danquah, the Editor of a new magazine that was yet to appear, The Ghanaian Magazine. My poems thus began to appear on its pages.... Another kind mentor was Madam Dorothy Padmore, the wife of Mr. George Padmore, whom I visited in their home. On some evenings, I would sit by her under the skies as she critiqued some of my published poems while her husband, Dr Kwame Nkrumah’s famous friend and colleague, sat by reading foreign newspapers," he once recounted.
After for some years of his poetry being published in newspapers and magazines, as well as read on Henry Swanzy's Ghana Radio programme ‘The Singing Net’, Prof Okai's first major collection, The Oath of the Fontonfrom and Other Poems, was published in 1971 by Simon & Schuster in New York.
It was followed in 1974 by ‘Logorligi Logarithms’, which "juxtaposes the Ga and English words for the same mathematical concept, thus indicating Okai's parallel traditional and modern consciousness as a poet.".
His poems have been translated into several languages (including Russian, Spanish, German, Arabic, French, Italian) and have appeared widely in anthologies including The Penguin Book of Modern African Poetry and prominent international journals such as The Atlantic Monthly, New African, Black World, Literary Cavalcade and New American Review.
Professor Femi Osofisan of Nigeria has stated that "Okai was the first to try to take African poetry back to one of its primal origins, in percussion, by deliberately violating the syntax and lexicon of English, creating his own rhythms through startling phonetic innovations."
He also wrote three books of "verses and chants" for children.
Prof Atukwei Okai died at the Korle-Bu Teaching Hospital on Friday, 13th July 2018 after a short illness at the age of 77.
He is survived by his wife Beatrice and their five daughters.