“When a people are proud of themselves and depend on themselves; the food, the architecture, their dress, everything from their wealth, they don't wait to import things from outside, that is one thing that has given me great faith in grounding as a Ghanaian, as an African, the self-reliance of the people of Northern Ghana. So, I even always declare myself as a happy and proud northerner,” – Atukwei Okai (Personality Profile on Drive Time on Joy 99.7 FM, 2011)
Just three days ago, Dr. Sulley Gariba called me to discuss a project he was about to undertake and needed my input. At the said meeting, I recall mentioning the name Atukwei Okai. I mentioned that name because he is one of the bridges if Ghana ever needed to wholly have all of its citizens call themselves Ghanaian before Ga or Ewe or Akan or Dagomba or Mamprusi or whatever tribe or ethnic group one belonged to.
You see, Atukwei Okai lived his formative years in Gambaga where he received his primary education at the Gambaga Native Authority School and later at the Nalerigu Middle Boys School. I remember sitting in the living room of my Auntie Ruth Lamisi in Sabongari Bawku and watching TV. Atukwei Okai burts onto the screen and starts singing:
Salma n’dia yuri, (Gold has gained popularity)
Anzulfa veili n’gaari salma, (But silver is more beautiful than gold)
Salma n’dia yuri, (Gold has gained popularity)
Anzulfa veili n ’gaari salma, (But silver is more beautiful than gold)
I must confess that this is one of the incidents that raised my interest in poetry and literature. Atukwei Okai was to do a poetry recitation and decided to open the event with this song. Now here is a proud Ga Man who decides to open a major event of his life with a Mampruli song.
In 1997, I participated in a script writing competition organized by the then Valco Trust Fund. My manuscript titled “The Miasma” won me a literary award and my name was published in the Daily Graphic and a date set for me to pick a plaque and a cash prize at the Golden Tulip Hotel in Accra. When I arrived in Accra No. 31 Lower Hill, University of Ghana, my Uncle, Naa Prof. John Sebiyam Nabila, obviously taking a keen interest in my love for literature mentioned to me that Atukwei Okai lived a few blocks away. I became anxious and restless wondering how I could meet this god of mine. Little did I know that Prof. Nabila had already placed a call to him. I was in Prof. Nabila’s porch with my other cousins chatting away when prof called me and said Atukwei was waiting to see me. “Wait what? This cannot be happening. This man lives only in books. He could not be real” In Tamale Senior High School I had read his poems and actually memorized a few of them.
Rosimaya and Lorgoligi Logarithms fascinated me. The walk down towards his house was surreal. When I knocked at his door, he asked me to come in. I walked in and found myself in the presence of my god Atukwei Okai. Straight away he started talking about his formative years in Gambaga, the then capital of the Northern Territories (Northern Region, Upper East and Upper West Region). Then he started to tell me his love for Mamprusi culture and tradition, the landscape, the fruits, storytelling around the old folk at night, simpa (our version of high life) etc. He gets up, picks two of his poetry collections and autographs them with the inscription, “To my friend Hameed from Bawku” Wow! Unbelievable.!
He then asked at what stage of education I was and when I mentioned that I had abandoned Teacher Training College against the advice of my father, to come to film school, he chastised me saying I should have listened to my dad, completed Teacher Training College before going to film school. His reason was that I would have been the richer intellectually for it. But he said all was not lost. “While in film school, read any and everything you can lay your hands on” I took this advise religiously. I must confess I don’t read as much these days.
When I got back to my uncle’s residence and was asked how the experience was, I proudly showed my uncle the autographed poetry collections. But I asked my uncle “Why would Atukwei Okai share a meal with a cat? Because that is what I witnessed when he welcomed me into his hall. He would fetch a spoonful into his mouth and push same on the side of the plate for his cat. That image messed me up a bit but of course a northern boy like me did not have the luxury to own pets let alone take care of one. You missed an opportunity to find out why he would share a meal with a cat. That was my uncles reply.
After my first encounter with Atukwei Okai, I got to meet his lovely wife and daughters, they were such an amazing family. I became a regular visitor to his house and when I eventually completed film school, my address became permanent in his address book as I received invitations to every PAWA event. Atukwei Okai was Secretary General of the Pan African Writers Association (PAWA). I remember after a while, his invitations to me were written out to Mr. and Mrs. Ibrahim Abdul Hameed even though I wasn’t married by then. I would later learn that it was his subtle way of telling to start looking for a partner.
Atukwei Okai and I would meet at various events and on each occasion, he would want to know how I was doing and give very invaluable advise.
So this project Dr. Sulley Gariba wanted to discuss with me, and I hope I have his permission to say this, involves broadly (not specific/exactly) what strategies we can put in place to begin to make Ghanaians see themselves as such before any tribal or sectarian identity. I mentioned Atukwei Okai because that is the image he carved for himself in my mind’s eye. The ultimate Ghanaian who is proud to be Ga but sees himself as a total and complete northerner. An embodiment of the cultural identity of literary Ghana and Africa. Having him make a presentation and share his experiences in northern Ghana will inspire and do a lot of young Ghanaians a lot of good. Little did I know that he was just days away from departing this earth. The spirit of patriotism of his father to accept a teaching position in Gambaga and to bring along the young Atukwei Okai whose literary prowess will be prickled and awoken by the gods of Nalerigu and catapulted over and above the Gambaga escarpment to the world gives meaning to what true national service is.
Rest Well Professor
Rest well my god
Rest well Atukwei Okai
Naawun ni maali tinga ki dooni!
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