p'Bitek, Okot (Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)
Okot p'Bitek 1931-1982
Ugandan poet, essayist, novelist, translator, and editor.
The following entry provides criticism on p'Bitek's works from 1984 through 2001. See also Okot p'Bitek Comtemporary Literary Criticism.
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 and social themes.
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 twenty-two he published his first literary work, a novel in the Acholi language entitled Lak tar miyo kinyero wi lobo? (White Teeth; 1953). 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 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 professor of creative writing until his death in 1982.
p'Bitek's most famous work, Song of Lawino, is a plea for the protection 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 Song of Ocol (1970) Lawino's husband responds to her worries, expressing his 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. 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.” Song of Malaya, on the other hand, is narrated by a prostitute (“malaya” translates loosely to “whore”) whose strength and stable personality prevail as she exposes the hypocrisy of those who condemn her. Several critics have interpreted the narrator's voice as a symbol of tolerance for human diversity. 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 folk tales 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.” In 1989 p'Bitek's first published work, a novel entitled Lak tar miyo kinyero wi lobo? (Are Your Teeth White? Then Laugh!), was published in English for the first time as White Teeth.
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 example, 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 Prisoner as an allegory for the turbulent political climate in East Africa during the 1970s, Tanure Ojaide wrote: “[p'Bitek's] viewpoint in Prisoner is pessimistic about Africa's political future, for there is no positive alternative to the bad leader. 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 by the influences of Western ideas and arts. While serving as director for the Ugandan 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 if we cannot find some root there, and build on this.” He further explained his feelings about the influence of Western culture: “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 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
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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...
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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 Prisoner (1971). His poems, “songs,” are apparently very close to traditional African poetry. The Ugandan poet makes use of personae to express his views on the modern African socio-political scene. His Song of Lawino, Song of Ocol, and Song of a Prisoner are some of the best known personae in African poetry today.
p'Bitek's use of personae, masks, has made his viewpoint difficult to establish. Little or no critical attention has been paid to the poet's viewpoint in these poems. Critics like G. A. Heron and Edward Blishen have so far tended to focus on each of the personae without a synthesis of the three personae so as to propose the poet's own attitude to these characters. Heron says that “Lawino,...
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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.
Repetitions abound in p'Bitek's pœms. This is one of the observations a careful reader makes on initial reading. Such repetitions are considered rhetorical devices in the texts because they are of significant stylistic importance to the monologuers as they try to persuade us to adopt their viewpoints, to inform us, to achieve imaginative consent, and to engage our interests and guide our emotional responses as they address us. They seem unavoidable in such monologues if they are viewed as a story-teller's strategy, akin to digressions, for creating different effects, at different levels: phonetic, morphological, syntactic and situational. As poetic texts, repetitions seem to have a structural function as well.
A discussion of...
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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 view of this character who adopts various rhetorical strategies (such as the apostrophe, digressions and repetitions) in the bid to persuade us to adopt her point of view, to inform us, to achieve imaginative consent, and to engage our interests and guide our emotional responses as she addresses us.2
The present paper examines the image of the prostitute in Song of Malaya. It is inspired by the different and rather negative responses which Okot p'Bitek's presentation of the prostitute has evoked in the minds of its critics. It attempts to show that Malaya is not only relegated to the background because she is overshadowed by Lawino's magnificence and presentation, but also because there has been the tendency...
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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 distribution of its adjacent utterances.” In short, a digression does not fit into the “mainstream of conversation.” It breaks the pattern which consists in each utterance adequately “responding” to the preceding one, a pattern which seems to characterize any nondigressive stretch of conversation (Dascal and Katriel). However, the presence of digressions in utterances often does not necessarily make them incoherent. Indeed, digressions are not rare conversational incidents; they permeate all conversations. Nor do they consist of marginal residual conversational material; they have definite roles to play in regulating and sustaining the conversation and in contributing substantially to it.
Digressions are a very common...
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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 ripples of passion down the nervous system of the average countrysider.
On the other hand, the ‘modern’ refers to those experiences which have come as a result of urbanisation, colonialism, Western technology and education. It also includes the decadence which follows these factors.
A consideration of p'Bitek in the light of the topic of this paper will be better rewarded by considering, as a point of departure, the background and training which have influenced his art. A great singer and dancer after the Acholi types, his loyalty to the Acholi culture, language and art had a harmonious development with his personality. Thus even while still in secondary school p'Bitek composed and directed a full...
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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 Ocol, Song of Prisoner and Song of Malaya. Perhaps the most successful of these are Song of Lawino1 and Song of Prisoner2. The former is not only the most well-known of his poems but also epitomizes two significant features of the Ugandan poet's work—a serious concern with African culture on the one hand, and, on the other, a lighthearted style. Song of Prisoner is more serious in tone and captures with greater power and beauty something of the tragic aspect of African independence, including what the poet sees as the loss of freedom for the majority of African citizens and the political fortunes of bloodthirsty tyrants on the continent. The anger of those who have lost their...
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SOURCE: Okumu, Charles. “The Form of Okot p'Bitek's Poetry: Literary Borrowing from Acoli Oral Traditions.” Research in African Literatures 23, no. 3 (fall 1992): 53-66.
[In the following essay, Okumu discusses p'Bitek's use of literary devices that reflect his Acoli background.]
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 means of which people fulfill their psychological needs. Over a period of time, these genres become imprinted on the society's collective consciousness, but each performance is unique in the sense that it takes place at a specific time and place. Highly specialized genres like oral songs are performed by adult professional singers who often accompany themselves on a musical instrument. The proverb is another specialized genre, and it is used by Acoli elders to give weight and authority to arguments, teachings or other forms of discourse.
The Acoli word for proverb is carolok, meaning that which alludes to the real thing or to a fact. The allusive character of proverbs is of course not uniquely Acoli. Ruth Finnegan records similar findings and notes that “the figurative quality of proverbs is especially striking: one of their most noticeable...
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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 conundrum.
Students and scholars of oral literature have often been confronted with the question Can literature be oral? They themselves have posed such questions as what is the relationship between the oral and written modes? Can oral literature be written? While some discussion of the written/oral dichotomy will be entered into and some features of the later mode further illuminated, it is the consideration of the third question that forms the focus of this paper.
In this regard, the paper views oral literature as constituting by itself, a distinct, rounded phenomenon and, African oral literature, in particular, an organismic, full-blooded and vibrant literary means of expression, even in...
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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.
In English literature, Samuel Richardson revised his Pamela, or Virtue Revisited (1740); William Wordsworth, W. H. Auden, and William Butler Yeats have also revised their poems. E. A. Levenston, for instance, discusses the stylistic implications of Auden's drastic pruning of “September 1, 1939” between 1940 and 1945, while Thomas Parkinson distinguishes four categories of Yeats's revisions. In American Literature, Henry James revised The Bostonians while William Faulkner revised his Sartoris. T. S. Eliot also revised some of his poems.
J. J. Healy draws attention to the creative processes in the novels of the Caribbean novelist Wilson Harris through examining the scratch sheets for five of his...
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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 Literature Bureau in 1953, when Okot was 22 years old. As his last published work, it appeared posthumously in its English version in 1989. The problem of translating source text to target text that had been experienced in translating Song of Lawino from Wer pa Lawino surfaced once again. Could White Teeth then be old wine in new skins?
Okot p'Bitek's translation of Lak Tar was completed before his death in 1982. In an interview given in April 1979 in Ile-Ife, Okot had complained to his friend and Budo classmate David Rubadiri about the difficulties in translating it into English:
I have been trying to do it ever since, but it doesn't come through. … Well, I don't...
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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 devoted little time to linguistic/stylistic analyzes of his language (see Ofuani 1985). The issue that tends to dominate all others has been the controversial one of the number of prisoners contained in this Song (see Ogunyemi 1982: Wanambisi 1984). The linguistic clues that should resolve this issue are often neglected, and critical analyzes have suffered from a deplorable vagueness and lack of depth (Ofuani 1988).
By looking at the lexical cohesive properties of a specific text, instead of all of p'Bitek's Songs, this essay will help establish some of the special properties of Song of Prisoner.1 It ought to be possible to state some of the grounds upon which readers or critics of a literary work...
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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 theories first propounded by Irving Howe and Northrop Frye. New Criticism and structuralism have not been popular with African critics. In the criticism of Okot's poetry, the dominant critical theories applied have been cultural-formalism and Marxism-Fanonism. Our hypothesis is that Okot's poetry is best understood through emphasis on the folklore and culture of the Acholi society which informs the written poetry. Our contention is that Okot's “Songs” owe their form to the Acholi orature and cultural tradition.
In the study of literary criticism of African literature, a helpful start is with Irving Howe's definition of criticism in Modern Literary Criticism (1957). Howe emphasises the need for a clearly measured...
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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 critics, postcolonial literatures are saturated with ethnographic information, conveying for a foreign readership the customs and beliefs of native cultures. Reviewing Achebe's Things Fall Apart and other African novels, Charles Larson finds “anthropological passages,” “anthropological overview,” and “ethnological background” woven into their narrative fabric: “The anthropological is indeed important. Without it there would be no story.”1 More recently, Christopher Miller has argued that “francophone African literature has always practiced some form of anthropological rhetoric,” using “devices such as footnotes, parentheses, and character-to-character explanations in order to provide the reader with the...
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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 in its English publication.
O'Brien, Sara Talis. “Okot p'Bitek and Song of Lawino and Song of Ocol.” In A Teacher's Guide to African Narratives, pp. 45-61. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann, 1998.
Provides background on the Acholi people of Uganda, explanation of literary techniques and plot outlines of Song of Lawino and Song of Ocol, and information on p'Bitek's life and works to inspire classroom discussion of African literature.
Wanambisi, Monica Nalyaka. Thought and Technique in the Poetry of Okot p'Bitek. New York: Vantage Press, 1984, 139 p.
Book-length analysis of p'Bitek's literary techniques and...
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