p'Bitek, Okot (Contemporary Literary Criticism)
Okot p'Bitek 1931–1982
Ugandan poet, essayist, novelist, translator, and editor.
The following entry provides an overview of p'Bitek's career.
One of East Africa's best-known poets, p'Bitek helped redefine African literature by emphasizing the oral tradition of the native Acholi people of Uganda. His lengthy prose poems, often categorized as poetic novels, reflect the form of traditional Acholi songs while expressing contemporary political themes. In the preface to his essay collection Africa's Cultural Revolution (1973), p'Bitek explained: "Africa must re-examine herself critically. She must discover her true self, and rid herself of all 'apemanship.' For only then she can begin to develop a culture of her own…. As she has broken the political bondage of colonialism, she must continue the economic and cultural revolution until she refuses to be led by the nose by foreigners."
p'Bitek's respect for ancestral art forms began during his childhood in Gulu, Uganda, where his father, a school teacher, was an expressive storyteller, and his mother was considered a great singer of Acholi songs. An outstanding student, p'Bitek composed and produced a full-length opera while still in high school. At the age of twenty-two he published his first literary work, a novel in Acholi entitled Lak tar miyo kinyero wi lobo? (1953; White Teeth). After studying at King's College in Budo, p'Bitek played on Uganda's national soccer team while maintaining a position as a high school teacher. In the summer of 1956 he participated in the Olympic Games in London and remained in England to study at several institutions, including the Institute of Social Anthropology in Oxford and University College, Wales. He was first recognized as a major new voice in African literature in 1966 when he published Song of Lawino. In the same year he was named director of the Uganda National Theater and Cultural Center. In this capacity he founded the highly successful Gulu Arts Festival, which celebrates the traditional oral history, dance, and other arts of the Acholi people. Political pressures, however, forced p'Bitek from his directorship after two years. He moved to Kenya, where, with the exception of frequent visits to universities in the United States, he remained throughout the reign of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. After founding the Kisumu Arts Festival in Kenya and later serving as a professor in Nigeria, p'Bitek eventually returned to Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda, where he was a professor of creative writing until his death in 1982.
Widely regarded as p'Bitek's most famous work, Song of Lawino is a plea for the preservation of Acholi cultural tradition from the encroachment of Western influences. The prose poem is narrated by Lawino, an illiterate Ugandan housewife, who complains bitterly that her university-educated husband, Ocol, has rejected her and his own Acholi heritage in favor of a more modern lifestyle. Perceiving his wife as an undesirable impediment to his progress, Ocol devotes his attention to Clementine (Tina), his Westernized mistress. Throughout the work, Lawino condemns her husband's disdain for African ways, describing her native civilization as beautiful, meaningful, and deeply satisfying: "Listen Ocol, my old friend, / The ways of your ancestors / Are good, / Their customs are solid / And not hollow…." She laments her husband's disrespect for his own culture and questions the logic of many Western customs: "At the height of the hot season / The progressive and civilized ones / Put on blanket suits / And woollen socks from Europe…." In an interview, p'Bitek remarked on the protagonist of Song of Lawino: "Lawino realizes that we are evolving too rapidly away from our historical and cultural roots. Her song is a challenge for African leaders and scientists: You learned from white books, but do you link this imported knowledge to Africa? Be aware of your own background." In contrast, Song of Ocol (1970) expresses Ocol's disgust for African ways and the destructive force of his self-hatred: "Smash all these mirrors / That I may not see / The blackness of the past / From which I came / Reflected in them." Rather than reflecting the superiority of Western civilization, Ocol's voice has been characterized as an enraged, violent outpouring against Africa and African culture. Bernth Lindfors observed: "His fanatical [Westernization] and rejection of himself have prevented him from developing into a creative human being. He has lost not just his ethnic identity but his humanity." p'Bitek's next major work, Two Songs (1971), won the Kenya Publishers Association's Jomo Kenyatta Prize in 1972. Widely praised for its political significance, Song of Prisoner describes the anguish of a convicted criminal as he suffers from depression, delusions, and claustrophobia. The specific nature of the prisoner's crime remains unclear: he first claims that he was arrested for loitering in the park but later asserts that he has assassinated a political leader whom he describes as "a murderer / A racist / A tribalist / A clanist / A brotherist." Although he frequently presents himself as a hero, the ambiguous narrator also reveals intense feelings of impotence and anxiety: "I am an insect / Trapped between the toes / Of a bull elephant." In contrast, Song of Malaya (which loosely means "Song of Whore") is narrated by a prostitute whose strength and stable personality prevails as she exposes the hypocrisy of those who condemn her. Several critics have interpreted the narrator's voice as symbolizing tolerance for human diversity. Bernth Lindfors described the work's narrator as "the great social equalizer, humanity's most effective democratizer because she mixes with high and low indiscriminately. All who come to her are reduced to the same level." In his later years p'Bitek focused on translating African literature, and in 1974 he published The Horn of My Love, a collection of Acholi folk songs about death, ancient Acholi chiefs, love, and courtship. Hare and Hornbill (1978) is a collection of folktales presenting both humans and animals as characters. Praising p'Bitek's translation of The Horn of My Love, Gerald Moore commented that anyone "familiar with [p'Bitek's] own poetry, especially Song of Lawino, will recognize here the indigenous poetic tradition in which that fine work is embedded."
Critical reaction to p'Bitek's work has centered on the musical qualities of his poetry and his concern with such social and political themes as freedom, justice, and morality. Song of Malaya, for instance, attacks society's accepted concepts of good and bad. Bahadur Tejani described the work's composition as "one of the most daring challenges to society from the malaya's own mouth, to see if we can stand up to her rigorous scrutiny of ourselves." Interpreting Song of a Prisoner as an allegory for the turbulent political climate in East Africa during the 1970s, Tanure Ojaide stated: "[p'Bitek's] viewpoint in Prisoner is pessimistic about Africa's political future, for there is no positive alternative to the bad leader. The poet sees the need to eradicate a repressive regime, but he fears that the successor could be equally bad or worse." Commentators have also remarked on p'Bitek's concern with the preservation of African culture. In his role as cultural director and author, p'Bitek sought to prevent native African culture, especially that of his native Acholi, from being swallowed up by the influences of Western ideas and arts. While serving as director for the Uganda National Theater and Cultural Center, he proclaimed in an interview: "The major challenge I think is to find what might be Uganda's contribution to world culture…. [W]e should, I think, look into the village and see what the Ugandans—the proper Ugandans—not the people who have been to school, have read—and see what they do in the village, and see if we cannot find some root there, and build on this." He further explained his feelings about the influence of Western culture on his own: "I am not against having plays from England, from other parts of the world, we should have this, but I'm very concerned that whatever we do should have a basic starting point, and this should be Uganda, and then, of course, Africa, and then we can expand afterwards."
Lak tar miyo kinyero wi lobo? [White Teeth] (novel) 1953
Song of Lawino: A Lament (prose poem) 1966
African Religions in Western Scholarship (nonfiction) 1970
Song of Ocol (prose poem) 1970
Religion of the Central Luo (nonfiction) 1971
Song of a Prisoner (prose poem) 1971
Two Songs: Song of Prisoner and Song of Malaya (prose poems) 1971
Africa's Cultural Revolution (essays) 1973
The Horn of My Love [translator] (folk songs) 1974
Hare and Hornbill [translator] (folktales) 1978
Acholi Proverbs [translator] (nonfiction) 1985
(The entire section is 71 words.)
SOURCE: An Introduction, in Song of a Prisoner by Okot p'Bitek, The Third Press, 1971, pp. 1-40.
[Blishen is an English autobiographer, fiction writer, and critic. In the following excerpt, he discusses p'Bitek's Song of Lawino, Song of Ocol, and Song of a Prisoner. He asserts that p'Bitek's poetry is musical and entertaining even as it expresses the agony of his people.]
Song of Lawino: A Lament is a poem in thirteen parts. It was translated into English from the Acholi by the author who states that he "has thus clipped a bit of the eagle's wings and rendered the sharp edges of the warrior's sword rusty and blunt, and has also murdered rhythm and...
(The entire section is 7246 words.)
SOURCE: A review of Two Songs: 'Song of a Prisoner' and 'Song of Malaya', in African Literature Today, No. 6, 1973, pp. 160-66.
[In the following review, Tejani asserts that p'Bitek's Song of Prisoner explores a search for justice, while Song of Malaya attacks society's concept of morality.]
Produced in a lovely white and red jacket, with the two faces of the prostitute and the prisoner evoking a harrowing harmony, Okot's latest compositions are a demonstration of the amount of matter a truly creative hand can pack into a very brief space. The publishers have altered their style of publicity as well, to suit the poet's originality. Instead of the...
(The entire section is 1935 words.)
SOURCE: "Songs from the Grasslands," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 3807, February 21, 1975, p. 204.
[In the following review, Moore praises p'Bitek's The Horn of My Love, asserting that p'Bitek's translation captures the evolving nature of Acoli culture and the expressiveness of Acoli song.]
In his preface to The Horn of My Love, a collection of Acoli traditional songs, Okot p'Bitek argues the case for African poetry as poetry, as an art to be enjoyed, rather than as ethnographic material to be eviscerated. The latter approach has too often predominated, even among those scholars who have actually troubled to make collections. This book, with Ulli...
(The entire section is 1419 words.)
SOURCE: A review of Hare and Hornbill, in World Literature Today, Vol. 53, No. 3, Summer, 1979, p. 550.
[In the following review of Hare and Hornbill, Berner states that p'Bitek is uniquely qualified to translate a collection of East African folktales and comments on the tales' themes and subjects.]
The ethnographers and missionaries who have produced collections of East African folktales have worked at a disadvantage because of their imperfect understanding of languages, narrative conventions and cultural contexts. Inevitably they have produced collections flawed by artificial texts and extraneous elements. As p'Bitek explains in his introductory note,...
(The entire section is 394 words.)
SOURCE: "Modes of Freedom: The Songs of Okot p'Bitek," in The Journal of Commonwealth Literature, Vol. XV, No. 1, August, 1980, pp. 65-83.
[In the following essay, Heywood argues that p'Bitek's songs form an "ongoing meditation on Freedom."]
Seen against the evolving context of historic change, the work of the leading African writers marks phases of ideological radicalization. The process stamps the oeuvre of Ngugi, Achebe, Armah, and Soyinka. In Okot's Songs it finds its most poignant voice.
The antinomy Lawino/Ocol utters the phase of hope and assertion: future roles and modes of self-perception are being defined in the positive, active mood...
(The entire section is 6294 words.)
SOURCE: "The Song of the Caged Bird: Contemporary African Prison Poetry," in Ariel: A Review of International English Literature, Vol. 13, No. 14, October, 1982, pp. 65-84.
[In the following excerpt, Ogunyemi discusses the physical and mental deterioration of the prisoner in p'Bitek's Song of a Prisoner.]
Okot p'Bitek had been writing in the 50's and his memorable works were written in the late 60's and early 70's, a turbulent period in East African politics. It marked the time when progressive Kenyans were disoriented, bitterly disappointed by a Kenyatta leadership that had no relationship with his Mau Mau radicalism. There was instability under Milton Obote's rule in...
(The entire section is 1727 words.)
SOURCE: "Okot p'Bitek," in Understanding African Poetry: A Study of Ten Poets, Heinemann, 1982, pp. 154-72.
[In the following excerpt, Goodwin describes p'Bitek's work as an effort toward "cultural analysis" and provides an overview of p'Bitek's major poetry, discussing his influences, sources, style, and themes.]
As a poet Okot p'Bitek has several claims to importance. He was the first major East African poet in English; he has influenced a number of other poets; and he is a maker of abiding satiric myths. Song of Lawino (1966) not only showed that East African poetry could achieve more than the nonchalantly slight lyrics or brief graphic situation poems that...
(The entire section is 8057 words.)
SOURCE: "The Traditional and Modern Influences in Okot p'Bitek's Poetry," in The African Studies Review, Vol. 28, No. 4, December, 1985, pp. 87-99.
[In the following essay, Ofuani examines the traditional and modern literary influences in p'Bitek's poetry and the difficulty in separating the specific sources of influence.]
This article discusses the traditional and modern literary influences in Okot p'Bitek's poetry. It must be borne in mind, however, that the question of influences is very complicated because it is difficult to pin down an influence to a particular source. If those sources have become assimilated into an integral whole, it is difficult to sort them...
(The entire section is 5794 words.)
SOURCE: "The Form of Okot p'Bitek's Poetry: Literary Borrowing from Acoli Oral Traditions," in Research in African Literature, Vol. 23, No. 3, Fall, 1992, pp. 53-66.
[In the following essay, Okumu asserts that p'Bitek uses the traditional Acoli song in Song of Lawino to comment on "the social, political, religious, and economic situation in post-independence Uganda and by extension, in the entire Third World."]
Acoli traditional culture is a living culture in which folklore contributes to the governing of society. Regularly performed before responsive audiences, Acoli folklore genres are as old as Acoli society itself, but they are also individual creations by...
(The entire section is 5530 words.)
Ofuani, Ogo A. "Okot p'Bitek: A Checklist of Works and Criticism." Research in African Literature 16, No. 3 (Fall 1985): 370-83.
Presents a brief bibliography of works on p'Bitek.
Gathungu, Maina. "Okot p'Bitek: Writer, Singer or Culturizer?" In Standpoints on African Literature: A Critical Anthology, edited by Chris L. Wanjala, pp. 52-61. Nairobi: East African Literature Bureau, 1973.
Discusses point of view in p'Bitek's poetry. Using biographical information, Gathungu attempts to determine if any of the characters or...
(The entire section is 416 words.)
p'Bitek, Okot (Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)
Lak Tar Miyo Kinyero Wi Lobo? [White Teeth] (novel) 1953
Song of Lawino: A Lament (prose poem) 1966
African Religion in Western Scholarship (nonfiction) 1970
Song of Ocol (prose poem) 1970
Religion of the Central Luo (nonfiction) 1971
Song of Prisoner (prose poem) 1971
Two Songs: Song of Prisoner and Song of Malaya (prose poems) 1971
Song of Lawino & Song of Ocol (prose poems) 1972
Africa's Cultural Revolution (essays) 1973
The Horn of My Love [translator] (folk songs) 1974
Hare and Hornbill [translator] (folktales) 1978
Acholi Proverbs [translator] (nonfiction) 1985
Artist, the Ruler: Essays on Art, Culture, and Values (essays) 1986
SOURCE: Heron, G. A. “Introduction.” In Song of Lawino and Song of Ocol, by Okot p'Bitek, pp. 1-33. London and Ibadan: Heinemann, 1984.
[In the following introduction to p'Bitek's Song of Lawino and Song of Ocol, Heron discusses the effects of translation on p'Bitek's poetry as well as details of the poems themselves.]
African writers who choose to use English or French set themselves certain problems. They wish to express African ideas, but they have chosen a non-African tool to express them. There is a grave danger that with the tool of language they will borrow other foreign things. Every language has its own stock of common images expressing a certain people's way of looking at things. Every language has its own set of literary forms which limit a writer's manner of expression. How many of these tools can a writer borrow before his African ideas are affected by the influence of foreign ideas implied in them?
The first few African writers in colonial countries were not concerned with this problem. They simply imitated and praised their conquerors.1 But this group was small, short-lived and insignificant. Ever since the idea of ‘negritude’ emerged in the 1940s among French-speaking writers2 most African writers have been conscious of the dangers. They have tried in various ways to mould European languages and forms so that they could express African ideas. The ‘negritude’ writers based their poems on images taken from African traditions. Chinua Achebe, one of the earliest successful English speaking writers, uses the European novel form, but he is very careful to create an ‘Africanised’ English for the dialogue of his characters.3
Despite these efforts, many European influences are present in African writing and in the criticism of African writing. Sadly, the written literature of the African nations has been clearly separated in many people's minds from the oral literary heritage that is present in every African community. Comparisons have more often been made between African poems and European poems than between African poems and traditional songs. Fortunately this emphasis is now changing.
Okot p'Bitek compels us to make comparisons between his poems and traditional songs. The title ‘Song of …’ that he has given to all his poems suggests the comparison. He used many features borrowed from traditional songs in the writing of Song of Lawino. Partly because of the familiarity of these features to all Africans, Song of Lawino has become one of the most successful African literary works. Some African writers have been read mainly by a small well-educated elite. Okot succeeded in reaching many people who rarely show an interest in written literature, while still winning praise from the elite for his poems.
This success seems remarkable if we consider the fact that some publishers rejected this poem only a few years before this achievement. These rejections probably came mainly from the publishers' familiarity with European rather than African forms of literature. But the idea of a long poem is now a rather strange one in either tradition. Few poets use long poems now. Again Song of Lawino does not fit into any Western model for a long poem. It is not an epic poem, it is not a narrative poem, it is not the private meditations of the poet. This written ‘Song’ form was born in Uganda while Okot was writing Song of Lawino.
If there was now only one ‘Song’, we could perhaps discount this originality of form as an insignificant accident. Okot, however, continued to write even longer poems. Song of Ocol, Song of Prisoner and Song of Malaya are all in similar form to Song of Lawino. In addition, two other writers were sufficiently impressed by Song of Lawino to write their own ‘Songs’. Joseph Buruga in The Abandoned Hut is strongly influenced by Okot, and Okello Oculi in Orphan and Malak is experimenting in different ways to use long poems in English in an African way to express African emotions and problems. It is interesting to look further at these ‘Songs’ to see why they have made an impact.
An equally important reason for the success of these poems is the controversial issues that they raise. In some circles in East Africa, the words Lawino and Ocol have become common nouns. You will hear the ‘Ocols’ or the ‘Lawinos’ of Africa praised or condemned in many arguments. The two characters have become prototypes of two opposing approaches to the cultural future of Africa. You will have your own opinions in this debate and after you have enjoyed these poems you will be able to make up your own mind about the relevance of Okot's contribution to it. This introduction contains a short biography of the writer and a consideration of the influence of Acoli songs on Song of Lawino. Then I discuss some details of the form and imagery of the two poems. Finally I try to suggest some issues raised by the poems which may be discussed.
INFLUENCE OF SONGS AND EFFECT OF TRANSLATION
Okot wrote the Acoli version of Song of Lawino in a period in his life when he was daily concerned with Acoli traditional songs, both in his research and in his activities in connection with the Gulu Festival. In his work for the Festival, he co-operated very closely with a large group of friends. These are some of the people whose help he acknowledged on the title pages of Song of Lawino. Naturally when Okot was writing his poem he also worked together with these friends. He read new versions of each chapter of the poem to these people as soon as they were completed, and their comments were taken into account if the chapter needed rewriting. Thus even its method of composition is similar to that of traditional songs. A group of singers work together and continuously alter the songs as they perform them.
Other elements link the poem to traditional songs. In most parts of the poem, Lawino addresses herself to someone, for example: ‘Husband’ (p. 34), ‘my clansmen’ (p. 35), ‘Brother’ (p. 37). This form of address is a rhetorical device taken straight from Acoli oral literature. Another feature used a lot in Wer pa Lawino and sometimes also occurring in the translation is the use of a repeated phrase as a refrain, emphasising an important idea. There is a good example of this in Chapter 3:
Timme ducu lutimme Munu-Munu Ping'o lewic pe mako Munu, Lukwako dako atyer, calo Munu Luting'o pong' kor, calo Munu Wumato taa cigara, calo Munu, Wa mon, wa co calo Munu; Wunato lem-wu calo Munu, Wunato dog-wu calo Munu, Wunango laa dogwu calo Munu, Ma dog co nywak ki reng'ng'e pa Munu.(7)
In the English version this repetition is considerably reduced:
You kiss her on the cheek As white people do, You kiss her open-sore lips As white people do You suck the slimy saliva From each other's mouths As white people do.
This translates only three lines of the original. In the translation of the other lines the refrain is missed out. This repetition can be used over a few lines, as in this example, or to tie together a whole chapter. The repetition of this phrase strongly emphasises the idea of slavish imitation which Lawino finds so ridiculous in the dance.
The whole of the poem is tied together by a similar refrain. It is taken from an Acoli proverb. In Wer pa Lawino it reads:
Te Okono obur bong' luputu.(8)
Okot's translation is:
The pumpkin in the old homestead Must not be uprooted!
Pumpkins are a luxury food. They grow wild throughout Acoliland. To uproot pumpkins, even when you are moving to a new homestead, is simple wanton destruction. In this proverb, then, Lawino is not asking Ocol to cling to everything in his past, but rather not to destroy things for the sake of destroying them. Again, the refrain is used to emphasise an important idea the writer is putting across in the whole poem.
The most important influence Acoli songs have had on Song of Lawino is in the imagery Okot uses. Okot has completely avoided the stock of common images of English literature through his familiarity with the stock of common images of Acoli literature. In the English version, this gives his poem a feeling of freshness for every reader, and a sense of Africanness for African readers. One place where these images are found in the poem are in the quotations for songs that are set out as quotations in the text. There are examples of these on pages 60; 62; 66-7; 76-8; 98; 101; 115; 120. These songs often convey Lawino's feelings more fully than her own words. The song on page 83, for example, expresses the sorrow in the names of sadness very clearly:
Fate has brought troubles Son of my mother Fate has thrown me a basket, It all began as a joke Suffering is painful It began before I was born.
More important than these are the innumerable places where Lawino's own words echo the words of a traditional song. If we look at a few lines of Song of Lawino next to a few lines from an Acoli song, we can see this clearly:
Beg forgiveness from them And ask them to give you A new spear A new spear with a sharp and hard point A spear that will crack the rock Ask for a spear that you will trust
The spear with the hard point Slits the granite rock The spear that I trust Penetrates the granite rock The hunter has slept in the wilderness I die oh,(9)
Through his thorough knowledge of an African literary tradition Okot has succeeded in using English as a tool to reach a wider audience without borrowing foreign elements that distort his message.
All but a very few lines of Song of Lawino were written in Acoli originally and later translated into English. For most parts of the poem, the translation was an afterthought. When Okot was trying to publish the Acoli version, he translated a small extract for a writer's conference in Nairobi. The enthusiastic reception of this persuaded him to translate the whole poem. Song of Ocol was also an afterthought. Lawino was an unsuitable spokesman for one or two of Okot's comments on the East African scene. Song of Ocol was needed to add this extra dimension. Song of Ocol was written in English throughout; there is no Acoli version.
Okot's ‘Songs’ are not songs in any literal sense. You cannot sing them. They are not simply a written version of Acoli songs. Acoli songs do not grow to book length. They are one or two verses repeated with musical accompaniment. They are not written down under one person's authorship. They are sung and adapted by singer after singer, and each singer is free to create in his own way and change the song to fit current events or refer to his own girl-friend. They do not use rhyme or the regular rhythm used in Wer pa Lawino.
So it is possible to exaggerate the influence of Acoli tradition on Okot's poems. From western tradition he takes the idea of individual authorship, of spoken verse, of rhyme, of division into chapters, of the printed word. But many of the aspects that give them their impact are those aspects which are a direct continuation of his people's own tradition. Okot has adapted a traditional form to new conditions of performance, rather than created a new form.
The writer chose to make a very literal translation of Song of Lawino. The main differences between the two versions are the rearrangement of the order of certain sections within the chapters, the filling out of some descriptions of things unfamiliar to readers of the English version, and the dropping from the English version of some details which are in the Acoli original. There is no doubt that, as Taban lo Liyong has said:
the meaning of deep Acoli proverbs are made very light by their rendition into English word for word, rather than sense for sense, or proverb for proverb.10
Certain areas of meaning are lost through this kind of translation. If we take the lines:
The pumpkin in the old homestead Must not be uprooted …
it is obvious that, even after an explanation, non-Acoli readers will not feel the force of the proverb as Acoli readers would. And the poem is full of such references to songs, carrying meanings that have been built up over years of familiarity with the words. It is possible that with a longer, less literal, translation some of this meaning could have been retained, but the result would have been very cumbersome.
But the advantages of Okot's method outweigh these disadvantages. As I have pointed out, many African writers using English or French have attempted to ‘Africanise’ these languages. Okot p'Bitek has succeeded in this more than any other previous writer. A less literal translation would have involved the intrusion of foreign elements into his poem. It is true that Okot's ‘Acoli-English’11 carries deeper meaning to Acoli readers than to others, but it is rarely obscure for Africans.
There are occasions when Okot deliberately adds strangeness in the translation which is not there in the original. The most obvious example of this is in Chapter 8. Instead of using the biblical terms, ‘gospel’, ‘Holy Ghost’, ‘God’, Okot gives us a literal retranslation of the Acoli translation of these words. So we have: ‘good word’ (p. 73), ‘clean ghost’ (p. 74) and strangest of all ‘the Hunchback’ (p. 75). Here the English version carries the strangeness of these words to Lawino when she first heard them more strongly than the Acoli version. Most Acoli readers will be familiar with the Christian meaning of these terms and will not find them strange at all.
If we look at the first few pages of Chapter 4 (p. 47), we can see a more normal example of Okot's translation working well. The first 74 lines of this chapter (up to: “Should they open it / So that the pus may flow out?’) correspond more or less exactly in ideas to the first 49 lines of the Acoli version. One or two details in the description of the house and the abuse of Ocol that are in the original are missing in the translation. The arrangement of the passage has also been slightly changed. The Acoli version uses ‘diro me Acoli’ or ‘ryeko me Acoli’ (the skill or wisdom of the Acoli)12 as a refrain in a very tight description of the home. This repetition is missing from the English version, and the description is filled out with a little explanation, as the scene is unfamiliar to non-Acoli readers.
Okot leaves two words untranslated: ‘Lyonno and nyadyang’. These give the passage a feeling of strangeness without making it difficult to understand. The passage contains a quotation from a song:
Father prepare the kraal etc.
and also an image borrowed from another song:
And my name blew Like a horn Among the Payira.
Okot does not explain the reference to the expected bride-price of cattle but this will present no difficulty to Africans. In this section, Okot gets the advantages of a literal translation with very little loss of meaning.
In Song of Lawino Okot replaces the regular rhythm and rhyme of the Acoli version with irregular free verse in the English version. His lines in Song of Lawino usually end with a strong emphasis. He builds his lines around the words he wants to emphasise, crowding weaker words into the beginning of the line:
They mould the tips of the cotton nests So that they are sharp And with these they prick The chests of their men
This gives a staccato effect to his verse. This can be clumsy, but it sometimes successfully underlines Lawino's contemptuous moods:
He just shouts Like house-flies Settling on top of excrement When disturbed.
The arrangement of the verse suits Lawino's feelings.
Sometimes Okot successfully softens these lines to convey Lawino's wistful moods. The section from the beginning of Chapter 4 illustrates this. While she remembers Ocol's wooing of her and the beauty of her home, Lawino's voice takes on a note of nostalgia (p. 47). The staccato effect of the lines is reduced in sympathy. There are soft sounds ending many of the lines, for example: ‘briskly’, ‘lily’, ‘cattle’, ‘silently’. The lines flow smoothly to express Lawino's gentler mood.
In Song of Ocol the emphatic stresses at the end of Okot's lines are replaced by much more varied patterns of stress. The lines are shorter and Okot often misses out structural words which sometimes crowd out the lines in Song of Lawino. Okot also makes very effective use of one or two syllable lines to provide shock changes of pace. This changes the staccato effect into a lively bouncing rhythm:
You sister From Pokot Who grew in the open air You are fresh … Ah! Come, Walk with me …
Song of Ocol is very easy to read aloud. In this poem Okot shows himself to be a master of English free verse.
The language and imagery of Song of Ocol lack the references to oral tradition which give Song of Lawino some of its richness, but Okot shows himself well able to create his own imagery. One source of pleasure in the poem is the poet's evident delight in the use of words. The images crowd on top of one another so that the reader's imagination is feasted on a succession of vivid pictures:
Mad creature Her hair A burnt out forest Her eyes Shooting out from the head A pair of rockets Serpent tongues Spitting poison Lashing crocodile tail …
THE CHARACTER OF LAWINO
The character of Lawino dominates Song of Lawino and it is important for you to consider how successful Okot's portrait of her is. The poem is based on a real social problem, very common in rural areas in East Africa. Many wives have seen their husbands move out of the range of their education and experience through travel. Many ‘Ocols’ return home with nothing but contempt for the ways of their parents and their wives. What we need to consider is whether Lawino's response to this situation is ‘real’. Does she react in the way we would expect women in such a situation to react?
To consider her character, we can divide the poem fairly easily into three sections. In the first five chapters Lawino is a perfect portrait of a woman scorned. She lashes out at Ocol, who used to admire her, and Clementine, who has usurped her place, indiscriminately. Then Tina disappears. In Chapters 6 to 11, Lawino seems much less concerned with her personal plight. She defends the customs of her ancestors with more and more profound comparisons between Western and Acoli ways. The last two chapters tie the concerns of the other two sections together. Lawino's desire to win back Ocol's admiration is combined with a commentary on the whole Acoli community and an appeal for the renewal of traditional ways.
I find the Lawino of the first five chapters extremely credible. She is not jealous of Clementine in the narrow sense of desiring to have sole possession of Ocol. She is familiar with polygamy, she knows no other form of marriage. She is simply mystified and annoyed that Ocol prefers a woman who is no younger than her and can match her in none of her womanly accomplishments. Her mystification finds expression in wistful descriptions of her own beauty, and her annoyance in abuse of everything she has seen or heard of Ocol's new way of life.
I think the sudden disappearance of Tina weakens the portrait of Lawino a little. I think it is this slight change in emphasis which has led some critics to make a distinction between Lawino as the woman scorned and Lawino as the defender of Acoli customs. In his review of Wer pa Lawino Okumu pa Lukobo says:
In choosing as his text Ter okon bong' luputu (Don't uproot the pumpkin) I think Bitek has made a mistake. What Lawino has to say would have been better expressed by another Acoli proverb which says Dako abila ni eye meni (Your first wife is your mother). For what Lawino is really concerned with is a personal matter—her rivalry with her husband's mistress Kelementina.13
This seems to me to be a misunderstanding of a very common feature of literature. Both oral and written literatures often operate at the same time on different levels of meaning. A domestic situation may be used by a singer or a writer to make a political comment. I see no contradiction between Lawino as an offended first wife and Lawino as the defender of Acoli values.
In fact, I think that a great deal of the appeal of Song of Lawino comes from Okot's exploitation of the dramatic possibilities of Lawino's rivalry with Clementine. Other writers have satirised aspects of life together or appealed to such a wide audience. Part of this success is due to the credibility of his portrait of Lawino.
Nevertheless, by allowing Tina to disappear completely from the poem, Okot gives some slight justification to these critics. But it should be pointed out that Lawino is concerned mainly to attack Ocol, and that Ocol is very clearly present in every part of the poem. Unlike Ocol in Son of Ocol, she doesn't shift from attacks on one group of people to attacks on another. Throughout the poem she is mocking Ocol. The domestic situation and the character of Lawino in themselves provide a fairly consistent level of meaning in the poem. This level of meaning contributes to the success of Okot's more serious aims in the poem.
LAWINO AS SPOKESMAN
If Song of Lawino were no more than a good picture of a woman from an Acoli village it would not have attracted all the attention that has been devoted to it in the few years since its publication. Lawino is the writer's tool for making his own comments on the way people behave in East Africa. At first sight it may seem that he has chosen a very bad tool. Certainly Taban lo Liyong, when he wrote The Last Word, thought so. He wrote:
Africans have been mad at expatriates for taking the African houseboy as the representative African. Okot hasn't done better by letting a mere catechist criticise the West and Westernisation. … The trouble with his method is that his discussion is conducted in a low key; it is the simple that he deals with … things...
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SOURCE: Ojaide, Tanure. “Poetic Viewpoint: Okot p'Bitek and his Personae.” Callaloo, no. 27 (spring 1986): 371-83.
[In the following essay, Ojaide examines the personae of Song of Lawino, Song of Ocol, and Song of a Prisoner and the way they function thematically and stylistically; and from this examination, he proposes p'Bitek's viewpoint.]
Okot p'Bitek, who died in 1983, is one of the best known African poets. After the long domination of the African literary scene by West Africans, p'Bitek stormed the “literary desert of East Africa” with Song of Lawino in 1966. This was followed by Song of Ocol (1970) and Song of a...
(The entire section is 4965 words.)
SOURCE: Ofuani, Ogo A. “The Form and Function of Repetition in Okot p'Bitek's Poetry.”1META 31, no. 3 (September 1986): 300-13.
[In the following essay, Ofuani discusses the emotional effects of repetition in p'Bitek's poetic monologues.]
Okot p'Bitek needs no introduction on the African literary scene. His songs under consideration here are Song of Lawino, Song of Ocol and Two Songs (Song of Prisoner, Song of Malaya)2. They are all dramatic monologues—one-speaker poems in which the conflicts, confrontations, etc., are presented consistently from the point of view of the speaker.
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SOURCE: Ofuani, Ogo A. “The Image of the Prostitute: A Reconsideration of Okot p'Bitek's Malaya.” Kunapipi 8, no. 3 (1986): 100-14.
[In the following essay, Ofuani rejects critical interpretations based on morality of the prostitute figure in p'Bitek's Malaya monologue, focusing instead on a more balanced assessment of the character.]
Malaya is the female character, a prostitute, in Okot p'Bitek's lesser known and admired Song of Malaya (in Two Songs).1 It is a dramatic monologue, written in movements, in the pattern of his earlier songs (Song of Lawino and Song of Ocol), and in free verse. The narration is from the point of...
(The entire section is 5698 words.)
SOURCE: Ofuani, Ogo A. “Digression as Discourse Strategy in Okot p'Bitek's Dramatic Monologue Texts.” Research in African Literatures 19, no. 3 (fall 1988): 312-40.
[In the following essay, Ofuani examines the effects of digression in p'Bitek's poetic monologues.]
This paper discusses the use of digression as discourse strategy in Okot p'Bitek's dramatic monologue texts: Song of Lawino, Song of Ocol, Two Songs (Song of Prisoner, Song of Malaya).
What marks a digression is precisely the fact that “it is not directly related, syntactically, semantically, and even pragmatically, to the main conversational...
(The entire section is 10804 words.)
SOURCE: Osuagwu, Ndubuisi C. “A Traditional Poet in Modern Garb: Okot p'Bitek.” Literary Criterion 23, nos. 1-2 (1988): 13-29.
[In the following essay, Osuagwu discusses the influence of traditional African literary forms on p'Bitek's poetry.]
A discussion of Okot p'Bitek as a traditional poet in modern garb calls for a definition of concepts. The concepts involved are the ‘traditional’ and the ‘modern’. For the purpose of this paper, traditional poetry refers to the poetry of the people in the African countryside. It could be written; it could be performed. When written, the form, theme, appeal, style, including language must be able to send spontaneous...
(The entire section is 5283 words.)
SOURCE: Ngara, Emmanuel. “Cultural Nationalism and Form in Okot p'Bitek.” In Ideology and Form in African Poetry: Implications for Communication, pp. 60-76. London: James Currey, 1990.
[In the following essay, Ngara examines the literary devices p'Bitek uses to express his sense of African nationalism.]
OKOT P'BITEK'S TWO VOICES
Okot p'Bitek is one of the most widely acclaimed African poets. He has been lauded for his successful use of oral forms in his English-language poems. Okot published several major pieces before he died, and, except for Horn of My Love, all of them are called ‘songs’—Song of Lawino, Song of...
(The entire section is 5549 words.)
SOURCE: Okoh, Nkem. “Writing African Oral Literature: A Reading of Okot p'Bitek's Song of Lawino.” Bridges: An African Journal of English Studies, no. 5 (1993): 35-53.
[In the following essay, Okoh regards Song of Lawino as an experimental oral piece.]
Literature is both a multifaceted phenomenon and a potentially powerful mode of communication. It is thus significant that our title echoes three (writing, speaking, reading) of the four basic communication skills. It is of even greater significance that two of our terms, namely “oral” and “writing”, apparently present a problem, indeed a commonly discussed...
(The entire section is 6077 words.)
SOURCE: Ofuani, Ogo. “The Poet as Self-Critic: The Stylistic Repercussions of Textual Revisions in Okot p'Bitek's Song of Ocol.1” Research in African Literatures 25, no. 4 (winter 1994): 159-76.
[In the following essay, Ofuani explores p'Bitek's revisions of his poetry to discover the overall direction of his poetry.]
Creative writers have often assumed the mantle of literary critics and, as self-critics, revised their own published texts in a bid to produce the ULTIMATE TEXT. This urge has fascinated other literary critics who have shown that the trend is neither genre-specific nor restricted to regional and linguistic provenance.
(The entire section is 7377 words.)
SOURCE: Ofuani, Ogo A. “Old Wine in New Skins? An Exploratory Review of Okot p'Bitek's White Teeth: A Novel.” Research in African Literatures 27, no. 2 (summer 1996): 185-93.
[In the following essay, Ofuani discusses the difficulties in translating p'Bitek's works, focusing particularly on White Teeth.]
White Teeth: A Novel is Okot p'Bitek's first—and last—published work. This apparent contradiction can be explained: it was his first published work because it appeared as Lak Tar Miyo Kinyero Wilobo (“White Teeth Make People to Laugh a Lot on Earth”), a story in the Acoli language published by the Eagle Press of the East African...
(The entire section is 4371 words.)
SOURCE: Ofuani, Ogo A. “Lexical Cohesion in Okot p'Bitek's A Song of Prisoner.” In The Language of African Literature, edited by Edmund L. Epstein, pp. 205-28. Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press, Inc., 1998.
[In the following essay, Ofuani explores elements that add to the thematic unity of Song of Prisoner]
Despite numerous studies by critics and literary scholars, the effectiveness and aesthetic use of language in Okot p'Bitek's Song of Prisoner (1971) have remained largely unexplored. Scholars have made contributions to our understanding of p'Bitek's themes, images, historical and biographical background, and traditional poetic devices, but have...
(The entire section is 7794 words.)
SOURCE: Okumu, Charles. “Towards an Appraisal of Criticism on Okot p'Bitek's Poetry.” In Uganda: The Cultural Landscape, edited by Eckhard Breitinger, pp. 149-75. Kampala, Uganda: Fountain Publishers Ltd., 1999.
[In the following essay, Okumu presents an overview of criticism on p'Bitek's poetry.]
Since about 1966 there has been an on-going debate as to which of the following critical traditions is best suited for the literary criticism of African literature: formalism, socio-culturalism, Marxism or historical, psychological, anthropological or folkloristic criticism. Except for folkloristic criticism, most of the critical approaches owe their perception to the...
(The entire section is 11174 words.)
SOURCE: Ramazani, Jahan. “The Poet as ‘Native Anthropologist’: Ethnography and Antiethnography in Okot p'Bitek's Songs.” In The Hybrid Muse: Postcolonial Poetry in English, pp. 141-78. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2001.
[In the following essay, Ramazani examines the complex relationship between anthropology and postcolonial literatures using p'Bitek's Songs.]
The vexed relation between postcolonial literatures and anthropology has sometimes been condensed in one of two conflicting propositions: that postcolonial literatures are ethnographic or that they are nonethnographic. According to the first formulation, advanced primarily by Western...
(The entire section is 15030 words.)
Fike, Matthew A. “Jean Toomer and Okot p'Bitek in Alice Walker's In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens.” MELUS 25, no. 3-4 (fall-winter 2000): 141-60.
Examines how Walker's treatment of material from Toomer and p'Bitek further illuminates her essay's handling of black women writers.
Liyong, Taban lo. “On Translating the Untranslated: Chapter 14 of Wer pa Lawino by Okot p'Bitek.” Research in African Literatures 24, no. 3 (fall 1993): 87-92.
Discusses the translation of chapter 14 from We pa Lawino, the Acholi-language version of Song of Lawino, which does not have a chapter 14...
(The entire section is 256 words.)