Okot p'Bitek Critical Essays


(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."

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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 Reception

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."

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

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Edward Blishen (essay date 1971)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)

Bahadur Tejani (review date 1973)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)

Gerald Moore (review date 21 February 1975)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)

Robert L. Berner (review date Summer 1979)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)

Annemarie Heywood (essay date August 1980)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)

Chikwenye Okonjo Ogunyemi (essay date October 1982)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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K. L. Goodwin (essay date 1982)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Ogo A. Ofuani (essay date December 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)

Charles Okumu (essay date Fall 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


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.)