Renowned and respected Ghanaian poet Prof. Atukwei Okai has passed on in Accra, aged 77.
He died at the Korle Bu Teaching hospital on Friday.
“The Odoi and Okai families of Asere, Ga Mashie in Greater Accra Region and the Pan African Writers Association (PAWA) announce with regret the passing of Prof Atukwei Okai, which sad event occurred today July 13, 2018 after a short illness,” family spokesperson Prof Akilagpa Sawyerr said in a statement.
“Prof Okai was a national icon, a former Government Minister and Secretary General of the Pan African Writers Association (PAWA). He died at age 77 and was survived by his wife Mrs Beatrice Okai and five daughters. Funeral arrangements will be announced later. May his soul rest in peace,” the statement added.
The scholar, cultural activist and author has won several local and international awards including the national award of Member of the Order of the Volta in 2007.
Below is his biography
Atukwei (John) Okai (15 March 1941 – 13 July 2018) was a Ghanaian poet, cultural activist and academic. He was Secretary-General of the Pan African Writers’ Association, and former president of the Ghana Association of Writers. His early work was published under the name John Okai. With his poems rooted in the oral tradition, he is generally acknowledged to have been the first real performance poets to emerge from Africa, and his work has been called “also politically radical and socially conscious, one of his great concerns being Pan-Africanism”. His performances on radio and television worldwide include an acclaimed 1975 appearance at Poetry International at Queen Elizabeth Hall in London, where he shared the stage with US poets Stanley Kunitz and Robert Lowell, and Nicolas Guillen of Cuba.
Atukwei Okai was born on 15 March 1941 in Accra, Ghana, and from the age of three for eight years lived in the country’s Northern Region, where his father (Ga by birth) was a school headmaster in Gambaga. Okai was educated at the Gambaga Native Authority School, Nalerigu Middle Boys’ School, and then at Methodist Middle Boys’ School in Accra and Accra High School.
In 1961, he went on a scholarship from the government of President Kwame Nkrumah to Moscow, where he earned his M.A. (Litt.) from the Gorky Literary Institute in 1967. Nkrumah had meanwhile been overthrown in a coup in 1966, and when Okai returned home the following year, he and other Ghanaian students who had studied in the Soviet Union were not welcomed by the new regime and had difficulty finding employment. He recalls: “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 nevertheless honoured invitations from schools and colleges, such as Wesley Girls’ High School, and Adisadel College in Cape Coast, and Achimota School, to give performances of his work, which had a memorable impact on the young students.
Okai subsequently took up a post-graduate scholarship from the University of Ghana to pursue studies in the UK, earning his Master of Philosophy (M.Phil) degree in 1971 from the School of Slavonic and East European Studies in London, which is today part of University College London.
He began teaching at the University of Ghana, Legon, in 1971 as 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 a head of the GaDangbe 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), which position he held till his demise; 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, the first time that this award has gone to a writer.