Okot p'Bitek

Start Free Trial

Edward Blishen (essay date 1971)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 rhyme." As to this, I can only say that the eagle's wings must originally have been of quite terrifying span, and the warrior's sword dazzlingly sharp and shining. As to rhyme, the loss of it has led, in English, to a curiously exciting pace which, as we have the poem, might cause any reader to fell that rhyme would act as an unwelcome brake. The rhythm, in English, is most subtle and flowing.

Taban lo Liyong is convinced that Lawino is the final form of a poem Okot was working on in 1954, when it had some such title as Te Okono pe Luputu—" positively translatable," says lo Liyong, "as: Respect the Ways of Your People, or Stick to Acholi Customs, or Blackman, Be Proud of African Traditions—and Don't Abandon Them for the Whiteman's." Any of these titles certainly sums up the apparent statement the poem makes. The argument is put into the bitter mouth of the wife of Ocol, a chief's son, who has thrown her aside in favour of "a modern girl." The dominant tone of Lawino's comment on her rival can be illustrated from her first discussion of "the beautiful one," whose name is Clementine.

      Brother, when you see Clementine!
      The beautiful one aspires
      To look like a white woman;

      Her lips are red-hot
      Like glowing charcoal,
      She resembles the wild cat
      That has dipped its mouth in blood,
      Her mouth is like raw yaws,
      It looks like an open ulcer,
      Like the mouth of a fiend!
      Tina dusts powder on her face
      And it looks so pale …

This is the manner, widely throughout the poem. The tone is, on the surface, one of naive astonishment. Lawino is almost tenderly bemused by Tina's makeup, as she is by Ocol's preference for English over his mother tongue, for books over dancing; and, when it comes to dancing, for Western forms rather than Ugandan ones. But there's no tenderness here, of course. In his reading, to Richard Hughes and me, Okot's tone in such a passage had the quality of a kind of surprised purring, but it was not the purring of a domestic cat. Intense savagery lies under this surface, and never more so than when Lawino is pretending to be reasonable. To me, part of the comic force of the poem lies in the frequent conflict between the tone and the actual words that Lawino speaks: and one of Okot's great skills in writing it, certainly in this translation, lies in his having so laid out the poem that, inevitably, one registers this clash of manner and content.

Setting out her case in the opening section of the poem, Lawino inveighs against her husband's distaste for her, her relatives and his own clansmen. She is, according to Ocol, unlettered, unbaptised (and so no better than a dog), primitive. She is at fault because she cannot play the...

(This entire section contains 7246 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

guitar or count coins. She is silly. Her mother is a witch: her clansmen are fools "because they eat rats." All of them are sorcerers. Indeed, all black people are primitive, and "their ways are utterly harmful."

     Ocol says he is a modern man,
     A progressive and civilised man,
     He says he has read extensively and widely
     And he can no longer live with a thing like me
     Who cannot distinguish between good and bad.

Alongside this report of Ocol's opinions, Lawino chides him, in terms that are to grow stronger as the poem continues. He is not a man any longer—he is a dead fruit! He is behaving like a child! His people, she hints, make up songs of ridicule about him—he who, as son of a Chief, should be the subject of songs of praise.

Then follows the attack on Clementine. This has, at times, a feline hilarity: the claws scratch deep.

      And when she walks
      You hear her bones rattling.
      Her waist resembles that of the hornet.

But suddenly the note changes. There are passages in this poem, when Lawino celebrates the customs of her own people, that have a quality of elation—limpid, lyrical—and also of great gravity that are most deeply moving. So here, at the end of her tooth-and-nail attack on her rival, Lawino is made to speak of the Acholi woman's traditional attitude to her husband's need of other women.

     I am not unfair to my husband.
     I do not complain
     Because he wants another woman,
     Whether she is young or aged!
     Who has ever prevented men
     From wanting women?

Jealousy is a weakness—it can only mean that a woman is aware of her own defects. The competition for a man's love is a fair one, conducted according to perfectly reasonable rules.

       You win him with a hot bath
       And sour porridge.
       The wife who brings her meal first,
       Whose food is good to eat…
       Such is the woman who becomes
       The head-dress keeper.

She has no fear of competing with Clementine, Lawino claims. What she asks is that her husband should cease insulting her, and should recognise that the ways of his ancestors are good:

     Their customs are solid,
     And not hollow,
     They are not thin, not easily breakable,
     They cannot be blown away
     By the winds
     Because their roots reach deep into the soil.

And Lawino goes on to make an important statement—important, that is, because it has so often been said, carelessly, that Song of Lawino is simply an attack on the Western way of life.

      I do not understand
      The ways of foreigners,
      But I do not despise their customs.
      Why should you despise yours?

It is still possible, taking this passage into account, to claim (as lo Liyong does) that the poem is a hopeless plea for the cessation of all cultural borrowing: that the Acholi customs themselves have no particular purity in this respect: and that indeed many of the customs celebrated by Lawino had fallen into disuse by the time the poem was written. But I believe it is essential to note that Lawino is not crying out against imported practices because those practices are in themselves detestable. She is rather trying to preserve a dream of, as it were, coherent cultural habit. The argument, as an argument, is so vulnerable (thus Okumu pa'Lukubo can point out that Acholi women are themselves great users of cosmetics, and that the great Acholi dances have become museum-pieces) that, given so plainly intelligent a poet, we have to look, I believe, below the surface for what is really being said. Given also the lyrical beauty of many of the passages in which Lawino speaks of Acholi customs. In a way, one could say this of the poem: that the intense longing for cultural coherence that arises from such passages is the point of the poem. It may be true that we cannot halt the dislocation of cultures that everywhere is occurring; or it may simply be true, as the poem seems often to imply, that the price paid for such dislocation is too high. But in fact it is an apparently impossible thing that is being said in Song of Lawino: that perhaps we should pause, or that perhaps we cannot afford to move at such a fantastic pace. This is impossible, as a statement, because we have nowhere in the world really begun to think along such lines. But in the impossible propositions set out by a poet have often lain the seeds of what, belatedly, the world has seen to be necessary kinds of action. Lawino, I suspect, is a poem that performs this function. We may swarm critically all over it, and point to all its logical weaknesses, and yet we may still not have robbed it of a fraction of its intrinsic strength. The poet, after all, is only describing his own sense of being himself intolerably divided. You can hardly study in three Western universities without becoming something of an Ocol, and yet we cannot doubt—I do not see how we can—that Lawino's voice is in great measure Okot's. It is in this sense that I mean that the argument may not yet be ready for wholly rational discussion. What appears to be an argument is often, I suggest, a simple statement of the poet's awareness of being divided against himself, and (as I think we shall see plainly when we turn to Song of a Prisoner) his awareness that the whole world is, in some such way, intolerably divided. I am often reminded, reading Lawino, of the great cry uttered, in so many and powerful ways, by the English poet John Donne as he stood with one foot in the medieval world and the other in the world of early modern science. Donne's arguments do not stand up: he cannot abolish the work of Copernicus: he cannot restore the medieval sense of a coherent chain of being. And yet his cry was essential to the awareness of his time. It was a cry that, under the hopelessness of the surface argument, was an utterly necessary reminder of the permanent human need of coherence, of order. And such a cry, I believe, Lawino utters: being, for that reason, a poem important not only to Africa, but to the whole world.

So, throughout much of the poem, a double operation is being conducted. All of Okot p'Bitek's deft and darting sense of mischief is at work when he attacks, in terms of Lawino's carefully wide-eyed and deceptively innocent amazement, the forms of dancing preferred by Ocol and Clementine: their Westernised taste in dress, their Western attitudes to time and to sickness and death. In much of this there is a marvellous, mischievous comedy. I have known Western readers bereft of all appetite for a while by Lawino's account of their feeding habits:

     The white man's stoves
     Are good for cooking
     White men's food:
     For cooking the tasteless
     Bloodless meat of cows
     That were killed many years ago
     And left in the ice
     To rot!
     For frying an egg
     Which when ready
     Is slimy like mucus,

     For boiling hairy chicken
     In saltless water.
     You think you are chewing paper!

Lo Liyong has curiously little patience with this element in the poem. It turns the work, he suggests, into "light literature" (a term which he surely ought to discuss before he uses it merely as a phrase of disparagement). "Too much space and energy," he argues, "is taken up with pointing out the foibles in the Western way of life … these foibles that are easily seen." Lo Liyong regards this as "childishness": "Some of it is fun for an Acholi audience: some impudence, some sarcasm, and plenty of 'raw' social anthropology. Juvenility…." To say such things is surely to fail to weigh the pure comic success of these elements in the poem. It is not easy to imagine an Okot p'Bitek entirely or even largely stripped of his wicked and mocking manner. Even when he is most deeply serious, as we shall see when we look at Song of a Prisoner, a kind of dark laughter is never far away. And the truth is that much of Lawino, much that Okot's old classmate frowns over for its "lightness," has proved to be durable fun for audiences much wider and less special than Acholi ones. There is no wishing away the jester in this poet's work. When his targets are obvious, they are most unobviously teased and taunted.

The second part of the operation that one can see Okot conducting in Lawino lies in the account of Acholi customs and ways of life—idealised, no doubt, but not the less lovely and grave for all that. So, opposed to the hilariously mocking descriptions of Western dance is Lawino's celebration of Acholi dancing: to the tendentiously revolting view of the European cuisine, Lawino's marvellous tour of the Acholi kitchen:

       Here on your left
       Are the grinding stones:
       The big one
       Ashen and dusty
       And her daughter
       Sitting in her belly
       Are the destroyers of millet
       Mixed with cassava
       And sorghum.

It is all appallingly unfair, as lo Liyong notes—and yet again, one has to say that we are not really concerned with an attempt to be fair, to provide a balanced argument. It is with Western dance and cooking exactly as it was, in that dispute of Okot's with the British Council, with the piano. I remember that Okot made the piano, that patently superb musical instrument, seem an absurdity beneath one's contempt! How ridiculous the piano was! Not for one moment did one believe that Okot truly withheld his admiration from the piano: just as one would not have been surprised to see him dancing the detested rumba. This was not the sort of argument he was conducting. Mockery of the one was necessary to reinforce the idealisation of the other: of the piano, to promote the drum: of the rumba, to intensify the claims made for the get-stuck dance. Lo Liyong asks us to set on one side "all the crocodile tears which Okot made Lawino shed profusely, for Okot is a sceptic on the surface as well as between the lines." But for that sentence really to have meaning, lo Liyong would have had to say that Okot was a cynic, not a sceptic: the claim being that he is making an empty show, in order to secure easy laughter and literary honour. Of course the surface of the work sparkles with scepticism, with all the facets of a complex and elusive mind. But I would argue that under this, there is the deepest possible gravity. And again, the test is one that each reader must make for himself, subjectively: it lies in the tone of what is written. I cannot doubt the profound seriousness of tone with which Okot addresses himself to the ways of the Acholi world. He may, for his own purpose, have turned that world into a Utopia. But to claim that he wrote these passages, so lyrically celebratory, with his tongue in his cheek, is (on the evidence of my ear) nonsense.

Another quality of Okot's writing to which I want to pay more attention when I come to Song of a Prisoner seems also, for what it implies as to the poet's entire intention, an element that can be weighed only by the ear, as it were—by the reader's general sensitiveness. It lies in that habit, so intrinsic to Okot p'Bitek's writing that one almost ceases to notice it, of referring incessantly to life other than human—to the life of animals, insects, plants.

      His eyes grow large,
      Deep black eyes,
      Ocol's eyes resemble those of the Nile Perch!
      He becomes fierce
      Like a lioness with cubs,
      He begins to behave like a mad hyena …

      The backs of some books
      Are hard like the rocky stem of the poi tree …

      You wish you were lucky
      To find someone to assist you
      Who does not shout
      Like house-flies
      When disturbed
      From an excreta heap!…

This is certainly a habit of Ugandan poetry, a deep part of the oral tradition. It is not an originality, in Okot. And yet it seems to me that his use of it, constant, profuse, is another means by which he roots his vision in Africa, and nowhere else: by which he brings the reader back, time and again, to that profound sense of place that, together with that profound sense of rooted custom he appears endlessly to offer as an alternative to the shallow confusions of half-westernised ways. Again, it is the rootedness he seems to insist upon. Again, under all the imperfections of the surface argument, what he can be felt to be saying is: Let us, before we enter the nowhereness of uniform modern existence, consider desperately the importance of knowing where we come from, where we live. Let us think generally in terms of roots. Or, to adapt the famous epigraph to the poem: Let us think what we shall be doing before we uproot the pumpkin in the old homestead. Lawino, in fact, is no innocent and naive village girl, at all. She is a poet and anthropologist, mingled, with a profoundly difficult and provocative argument to put forward in whatever ways may offer.

Of course, poets of any quality are mixed creatures! Of course, many of the criticisms that, in his lively way, Taban lo Liyong brings to bear against Lawino, and which really stem from his knowledge of Okot the man, are likely to be justified. Into Lawino's attacks on Western forms of religion lo Liyong reads Okot's malice towards the Catholic missions. No one can read this section without suspecting that personal revenges are being exacted. It is in this section and again in the section on politics, which lo Liyong feels to be the best in the poem, that Okot's impersonation of Lawino, the village girl, most obviously slips. The poet steps out from behind the mask. Without being experts on the Ugandan political situation, we can believe that, here and there, the voice that speaks is that of Okot p'Bitek, the disappointed political candidate. Lo Liyong says, from his knowledge of his friend, that if Okot has "an overriding passion beyond living life, it is politics." But when we have accepted that such a section of this poem, from a man so committed and concerned, so clearly and properly anxious to play a part in the developing history of his country, must have its moments when the frustrated or ordinarily irritated man speaks, rather than the larger poet, still, and especially in view of what is to come in Song of a Prisoner, one must note, and with proper gravity, what in essence is said in the eleventh part of Song of Lawino:

      If only the parties
      Would fight poverty
      With the fury
      With which they fight each other,
      If diseases and ignorance
      Were assaulted
      With the deadly vengeance
      With which Ocol assaults his mother's son,
      The enemies would have been
      Greatly reduced by now….

      … those who have
      Fallen into things
      Throw themselves into soft beds,
      But the hip bones of the voters
      Grow painful
      Sleeping on the same earth
      They slept on
      Before Uhuru!

This does not belong to the field of purely personal revenges or irritations or disappointments. It is again a cry of something like panic at the rootless disorder of things—the too sudden and too infatuated plunge into some travesty of national politics.

I cannot leave Lawino, such a deviously serious poem, as I claim, and yet such a fiercely comic one, without a word about the twelfth part, called "My Husband's House is a Dark Forest of Books." Here is Okot p'Bitek, nourished on books, producer of books, in a wild extravaganza of disdain attacking Ocol for being a bookman. The section is worth looking at closely by any reader because it is so relevant to the accusation that, in much of the poem, Okot is intent purely on mischief, on appealing to the sense of fun of an Acholi audience. Whatever a reader's view about any argument for or against intellectualism, or bookishness, it would require a reader of some owlishness, and considerable resistance to comedy, not to be vastly entertained by this section.

      My husband's house
      Is a mighty forest of books,
      Dark it is and very damp,
      The steam rising from the ground
      Hot thick and poisonous
      Mingles with the corrosive dew
      And the rain drops
      That have collected in the leaves …
      For all our young men
      Were finished in the forest,
      Their manhood was finished
      In the classrooms,
      Their testicles
      Were smashed
      With large books!

Of course, one thinks with that radical academic, this is to put the clock back with a vengeance! Of course, one thinks momentarily with Lo Liyong, here is "Okot the sceptic posing as a champion for dying and dead customs he doesn't believe in." Here is Okot p'Bitek the intellectual pretending to a swinging anti-intellectualism! But one recovers quickly—I speak for myself—and adds two other statements. First: here is fun! Here is the most hilarious delight! If there had to be mockery of book-reading, could it be more amusingly, and more unexpectedly, expressed? in terms of a more grotesque poetry? And second: this cannot, in the nature of the poem and the poet, be merely mischief, or merely fun—or merely perversity! By an unbalanced bookishness, I think Okot is saying, it is possible that the new African is being severely damaged. Books have taken on an undue importance. Books have been resorted to beyond their true virtue. The use and reading of books, too, needs rooting in the African soil. The new man who tries to climb by books alone will climb nowhere at all.

Taban lo Liyong argued, in the essay already quoted, that Song of Lawino should be part of a triptych. Ocol should be allowed to state his case: so should Clementine. I don't know if it was in response to this suggestion that Okot wrote Song of Ocol, which appeared in 1970. It is a furious, headlong, bewildering poem, far briefer than Lawino, without the swarming life of its predecessor. I am indebted to my friend Cosmo Pieterse for the suggestion that, in this poem, Ocol is attempting to defend himself against accusations of which he has forgotten the actual nature. In the first five of its nine parts Ocol simply rages against old Africa. Lawino's song is

       the mad bragging
      Of a defeated general …

The whole past will be swept away. The pumpkin will go early—had already almost gone.

      I see a large pumpkin
      A thousand beetles
      In it;
      We will plough up
      All the valley,
      Make compost of the pumpkins
      And the other native vegetables,
      The fence dividing
      Family holdings
      Will be torn down,
      We will uproot
      The trees demarcating
      The land of clan from clan,
      We will obliterate
      Tribal boundaries
      And throttle native tongues
      To dumb death.

And this is the tone, this the wild and whirling character, of the first half of the poem. It is destructive shout, close to hysteria. Old Africa is blisteringly impugned. All that Lawino celebrated is savaged by this extraordinary song of Ocol's. He cries out against the very fact of his Africanness.

      Mother, mother,
      Why was I born

All will be burned and broken. The whole past will be swept away: all the witches and wizards, the poets, priests, musicians, story tellers, myth makers, glorifiers of the past. There will be an end to

      The stupid village anthem of
      "Backward ever,
      Forwards never."

All the professors of anthropology and teachers of African history shall be hanged. All the anthologies of African literature destroyed. All the schools of African studies closed down. Ocol becomes surely, in these passages, not a character at all, but an extreme part of the tormented African spirit: the part that, in its despair, would turn from the effort of knitting past with present. "Smash all these mirrors," cries Ocol,

      Smash all these mirrors
      That I may not see
      The blackness of the past
      From which I came
      Reflected in them.

So taboos, customs and traditions must be shattered. The women of Africa must be shown that they have taken pride in what is merely grotesque. The men must be shown how derisory their achievements have been, over the centuries:

      A large arc
      Of semi-desert land
      Strewn with human skeletons …
      A monument to five hundred years
      Of cattle theft!

This Ocol—the Ocol of the first half of his song—is driven by a destructive dread and hatred of his African self. And later in the poem, his desire to efface Africa is given a monumental wildness of utterance:

      We will uproot
      Each tree
      From the Ituri forest
      And blow up
      Mount Kilimanjaro,
      The rubble from Ruwenzori
      Will fill the Valleys
      Of the Rift,
      We will divert
      The mighty waters
      Of the Nile
      Into the Indian Ocean.

But from the sixth section of the poem onwards, the whole nature of the statement seems to change. Now Ocol is one of those who have done well out of Uhuru. In the sixth section, with guilty defiance, he taunts the poor and dispossessed with an account of his properties—

      Do you see
      That golden carpet
      Covering the hillside?
      Those are my sheep …

and denies his responsibility for the poverty of the peasantry. And from now on, we are not sure how to take the voice of Ocol. He speaks at times in terms of an ironical observer regarding him from outside.

      We sowed,
      We watered
      Acres of Cynicism,
      Planted forests of Laughter,
      Bitter Laughter …
      Fat Frustrations
      Flourished fast
      Yielding fruits
      Green as gall …

Those who stand aside from this fearful opportunism are "cowardly fools"; they must creep back and hide in their mothers' wombs. And in the eighth section there is another change in the voice—or another note enters briefly and confusingly into it. For a moment Ocol speaks with something like tenderness of the world he once shared with Lawino:

      That shady evergreen byeyo tree
      Under which I first met you
      And told you
      I wanted you,
      Do you remember
      The song of the ogilo bird
      And the chorus
      Of the grey monkeys
      In the trees nearby?

But from this unexpected wistfulness Ocol turns at once to a fiercer fury than ever. He tells Lawino that there are only two alternatives:

      Either you come in
      Through the City Gate,
      Or take that rope
      And hang yourself!

The City is barely described. It is defined almost entirely by negation—by an account of what must be destroyed to clear the way for it.

And as an end to the poem there is a last storm of wildly ironical self-disgust. The monuments in the modern Africa will be effigies of its founders: Leopold of Belgium, Bismarck. Streets will be named after the European explorers. All the great men of the African past were made nothing by defeat and irrelevance.

      What proud poem
      Can we write
      For the vanquished?

A final question that makes it impossible not to remark to oneself that such a proud poem has certainly been written, and by Okot p'Bitek: and that it was called Song of Lawino.

Song of Ocol, as fierce and powerful as anything Okot has published, seems to me very much a poem in which the author is moving towards a new position. I mean that it begins as a statement that, in the extreme violence of the view it expresses, must make it an expression of the impulse in a modern African to raze his whole world flat and begin again. Ocol, whom we had taken even at Lawino's worst estimation to be a new young African of a fairly characteristic type, turns out to be a sort of super-Tamburlaine, in his destructiveness, driven by an almost hysterical dread of the black past and much of the black present. Clearly, Okot is no more expressing the whole of his self here than he was in Lawino. It doesn't begin to be a personal statement: it is the ferociously extreme utterance of something that is in the African air. But the poet cannot keep this up: because the destructive, desperate Ocol is also one of those who have turned Uhuru into an opportunity for their own advancement. So the end of the poem, its second half, is an attack, by ironical implication, on those who have betrayed the hopes that fed the fight for independence. By the end of Song of Ocol, it seems to me, Okot p'Bitek has moved into the position that made possible the writing of this new sequence of poems, Song of a Prisoner. Certainly, to turn from his first long published poem to these last ones, he had to swivel: from teasing impersonations to impersonations that are deadly serious: from the "lightness" of which Taban lo Liyong has spoken to an unsmiling gravity. The distance between Lawino and Song of a Prisoner is, I feel, in some respects so great that added force is given to lo Liyong's suspicion that the earlier poem was in essence very early indeed.

"Only rarely," lo Liyong wrote of Lawino, "do I see an Okot with tight lips and protracted visage." That a friend who knew him so well should have looked for such an Okot, and should have based so much of his criticism of Lawino's lament on that Okot's absence, does suggest that between the jester and the more serious man an acute struggle may long have been going on. The fact is that Song of a Prisoner is throughout a work of the tightest lips, the most protracted visage. The jester has vanished; though not the user of masks. In Lawino and Ocol Okot spoke—as we have seen, with bafflingly variable degrees of convincingness—through the mouths of his characters. Much of the voice of Lawino must have been his own: and, one feels, even in its desperate extremism, something of the voice of Ocol. In this new sequence, Okot dons several such masks. The prisoner cannot be read as a single character. At times he is a kind of Patrice Lumumba, being beaten to the point of death: a betrayed hero of Uhuru. At other times he seems to be any political detainee, imprisoned for his opinions or his political actions. Again, he is an assassin, who has rid his country of a tyrant: who pretends wildly not to understand why his captors do not form a guard of honour for him.

We see, from the dedication, that the sequence is wide-spread in its reference. It makes two major statements: both familiar to us, though not in such agonised tones, from Song of Lawino. The first is that the hopes of Uhuru have been wrecked, and horribly. The state of a newly independent African country may be even worse than before, since it is worse to be devoured by your own people than by strangers. The second statement is barely a statement at all … rather it is a constant reference to a dream. As Lawino looked back at the vision of Acholi order and comeliness of life, so the prisoner constantly sets up a dream of peaceful happiness:

     I have bought
     A farm
     In the fertile valley,
     A thousand acres
     Of heaven
     For you and me
     And our children,

     The crested cranes
     Dance love dances
     By the stream
     That flows gently
     Through our garden,
     Our children will play
     And swim in the stream
     And hook fish
     For the afternoon meal …

It is the tone of Lawino's celebration of the good things in the Acholi way of life. And added to this is the longing for old prides, old understandings. The assassin yearns to go back to his village, to be received there as one who has killed from a necessity generally understood, to be cleansed and to be marked with the killer mark. It seems to me, I must say here, as widely off the point to claim that, in such passages, Okot is crying for a return to an older Africa as to make such a claim for his arguments in Song of Lawino. It is a hearking back, rather, to the past, not as a pleasing mode of life, but as an experience on which some decent order had been laid: when there were recognised ways of setting a limit to the larger tyrannies, the more intolerable greeds. In the light of this sequence, I do not see how one can continue to have any doubt as to the import of Okot's backward looking. It is, in a sense, a metaphor for a kind of forward looking—for a looking, at any rate, in any direction but towards the spectacle of modern Africa as the prisoner experiences it: where

     Black corpses stream
     Along the streets,
     Dead to free Africa

     So that they may
     Suffer in

And to these elements we must add another. There is a great cry, at many points in these poems, but most clearly towards the end of the sequence, for a sort of vast international tolerance—a relaxed international order. The prisoner wants to dance all the dances of the world, to sing all the world's songs. He wants even

      to dance the dances
     Of colonialists and communists …

Even, that is, to span the widest gulfs of ideology and political action. There is a great weariness in this sequence of all the waste of human strife.

For all the changeableness of the masks behind which the poet sings his desperate songs, Song of a Prisoner seems to me a true sequence, as some series of poems so linked do not succeed in being. It is held together, of course, in the first place, by the pure style of the poet. There is much here that readers of Lawino will recognise—given the far grimmer context. There is, above all, and even more cunningly and evocatively used than before, the constant reference back and forth to the life of animals, insects, plants. These references are methodically placed in the sequence, so that no human event is without its gloss drawn from nature. Again, the images may be used to suggest a deceptive simplicity and sweetness, a sort of hopeless happiness: sometimes, as in "This Stupid Bitch" and "Voice of a Dove," the references to animals (in both these cases, to birds) give to the opening a soaring pleasantness that makes all the fiercer the descent into the prison, the actual use made of the image. I am struck, in many of these passages, by the absence of all strain, the effortlessness, with which Okot modulates into lyricism. He has always been a poet who seems to sing with ease: it is hard to find a phrase in his work behind which you can detect any large pretension. So with:

      The yellow acacia thom tree
      Lifts up her arms,
      Her clean fingers
      Speak soft invitations
      To the yellow birds …

It may even be careless (a purist might object to the obviousness of the three adjectives in those three lines—I mean, to the obviousness with which each noun is given its adjective). But the lyricism seems always to come at the right—that is, usually, the startling—moment: to sustain this curious weaving, so characteristic of the poetry, of violence and sweetness. And once more, the effect of these images drawn from the common scenes of a continent rich in insect, animal and vegetable life is far more than decorative, or descriptive: again, this is one of Okot's devices for giving the deepest possible roots to his work. And at other times the references to nature are fierce and grim:

       A stone wall
       Of guns
       Surround our village,
       Steel rhinoceroses
       Ruin the crops …

       I am an insect
       Trapped between the toes
       Of a bull elephant …

I am struck always, as I say, by the naturalness of these images, in the sense that they arise in Okot's text with a kind of inevitability. Never behind such images was there less feeling of a mere search for colourfulness. But then, Okot can indeed—and I suppose it is partly the oral tradition that makes this possible for him—employ even a slightly bizarre figure of speech and make it seem natural: as in

      Olympic athletes throw javelins
      Inside my belly.

The sequence is held together, too, by the recurring or echoing themes or passages. So we are constantly in a court of law, or some other place of judgement: so the prisoner, in this of his guises or that, is perpetually being required to plead guilty or not guilty. And always he answers with another plea altogether, until, when the sequence is over, he has pleaded a great range of emotions: fear, helplessness, hopelessness, smallness (how unexpected and telling, that!), hatred … It is the entire history of the moods of imprisonment; we are swept through the whole awful landscape of imprisoned despair. And again, a theme to which the earlier poems have accustomed us appears—or perhaps it is rather a note struck than a theme. Lawino spoke so often of the manliness of her clansmen, of the masculinity and athletic pride she felt Ocol had lost. The prisoner's sense of his own fate is made more bitter by the memory of his own virility: he was a footballer and a boxer: he is a man to whom it is natural to compare the pains of hunger with javelins thrown by Olympic athletes. He had teeth that

       were the
      White okok birds
      Standing on the back
      Of a buffalo bull.

Beaten by his "uniformed brothers," refused a blessing by "our black nationalistic bishop," aware of wife raped, of children excluded from school and employment—raging against tribalism, capitalism, diseased nationalism—he thinks constantly, intolerably, of the power there once was in his own beaten body.

I spoke earlier of the dark laughter in Song of a Prisoner: and I can understand that a reader might claim that he found no laughter in this sequence, at all. I use the word in its very widest reference. It seems to me, for example, that those two companion poems, "Bonfire" and "This Stupid Bitch"—in the first of which the prisoner upbraids his dead, rotting father for choosing such a wife, and in the second of which he attacks his mother for marrying such a husband—a very dark humour is at work, using the mirror argument of these two poems to bear his meaning as to the intolerable character of tribalism, and especially of tribalism wedded to modern politics, which may exclude so many of the beneficiaries of Uhuru from all prospects in life.

In the end, when we have read and thought about these latest poems by this remarkable African, we may be left—and particularly non-Africans may be left—with a sense of having, in a dialectical sense, bitten off more than we can chew. I mean this: that we may feel (and many Africans must feel) we do not exactly know how to evaluate this apparently wideglancing attack on post-Uhuru Africa. This is no issue, especially for an outsider, to comment upon lightly. We cannot attempt to gather up the entire African experience and to say that on it Song of a Prisoner is a meaningful general statement. It is certainly no cue for a widespread disillusionment with independent Africa. All an outsider can say is that, given the disorder which colonialism brought to Africa, given the disorder in which it quitted Africa, it will take patience and nerve to rebuild African stability, and to repair what has been broken. Perhaps only a fellow Ugandan can judge Okot p'Bitek's particular case. In all respects in which it is a sequence of personal poems, it must be left to longer and more intimate judgement than we can bring to it. But Song of a Prisoner is, clearly enough, not simply a series of poems of personal experience. It is a song, agonisingly felt, most powerfully expressed, vivid and individual, about the universal experience of political imprisonment.

     How can I think freely
     When the very air I breathe
     Has ears larger than
     Those of the elephant
     And keener than the bones
     Of the ngaga fish?

More than Africa speaks there, and to an audience larger than Africa.

I am aware of letting Okot p'Bitek down, rather, in those last words. Of course this is a poem of very explicit personal anguish. Of course no one can doubt that Okot feels himself to be the "proud Eagle, shot down by the arrow of Uhuru." He cries out clearly enough to the "pressmen of the world":

     I want to speak to you,
     For the candle
     Of Uhuru
     Has been blown out …

I did not wish to evade this direct challenge of the poet's: but only, as (to return to the beginning) a modest early mapmaker, not to plunge into judgements of a kind not strictly necessary to a verdict on a poem or a sequence of poems. As a private reader, I have my own way of reading Song of a Prisoner. As a public critic, I can only try to account for my admiration of the poems as poems.

But I feel of them much as I have felt about Lawino. As I see it, Okot's power as a poet is of the kind that perpetually raises his work above the particular emotions and experiences—necessarily very tangled in any poet, and in him probably most severely tangled—from which it sprang. This is to be a really good poet. I don't believe anyone could seriously think about modern Africa without trying to weigh the meaning of Song of Lawino and Song of a Prisoner. I believe Lawino has an importance far beyond the boundaries of Uganda: it is, when generalised, a poem about the situation in which we all find ourselves, being dragged away from all our roots at an ever-quickening rate. I believe, as I have said, that beyond the note of alarm and anguish that it strikes as to the condition of some newly independent African countries, Song of a Prisoner is full of the despair and anger, fiercely expressed, of anyone anywhere who is politically in chains. But having said all this, one is left with a last—and perhaps, in the end, even more important—thing to say. And that is that Okot p'Bitek is a marvellous poet. I wish I could read him in his own language. But in English he has found a tone, a pattern of verse, a rhythm, that are highly original and inventive. It would not be easy to mistake Okot, in English, for anyone else. Though—and perhaps my friend Taban lo Liyong will note this—his matter is never light, his manner often is, in a sense that any writer must envy. I count him among the few masters I have read of literary mischievousness. He can modulate from one mood to another with a skill that, though startling in its effect, rarely draws attention to itself. He is a master of writing for the human voice—and sometimes, I suspect, for the animal or insect voice, too. Much in his style might be made the basis of an argument for drumming, as a musical accomplishment for a poet, in much the way that one might have said experience of the lute was a formative influence on Elizabethan verse. And finally, Okot p'Bitek, as man and poet, is one of those valuable souls who add manifestly to the gaiety of the nations, at the same time that much of what he expresses is closely concerned with their agony.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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."

Bahadur Tejani (review date 1973)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 usual prosaic piece at the back, there is an evaluating comment with the emphasis on connotative use of language. Eleven enticing illustrations by Trixi Lerbs, in the right places, make this volume compulsory possession. The only major complaint from the reader's point is the price. Who is going to buy Okot's work? One thought he was famous enough now for the publishers to take a risk and produce ten to fifteen thousand copies for the first edition to bring the price down.

Okot's prisoner [in Song of Prisoner] is a vagrant in the city, and his first question as he lies beaten and torn behind bars is:

     How could I …
     A young tree
     Burnt out
     By the fierce wild fire
     Of Uhuru …
     Inspire you
     To such heights
     Of Brutality.

In section after section, the irresistible, plaintive, rich, hungry voice of mad ecstasy draws us on, pleading for justice. It is the 'cry of his children' with bellies 'drumming the sleep off their eyes'; the 'fiery lips of his sister's song'; the 'helpless ululation of his mother'; the cold body of his wife rocking 'with grief and regrets'; it is the voice of a clan surrounded by 'steel rhinoceroses and roaring kites sneezing molten lead and splitting the skies' with bombardment. It is the call of the common man for justice and for revenge, a defiance of the power-laden bellow of the chief's dog growing fat on people's labour:

     Listen to the Chief's dog
     Barking like a volcano,
     Listen to the echoes
     Playing on the hillsides!
     How many pounds
     Of meat
     Does this dog eat
     In a day?
     How much milk …?

The dog is the perfect symbol to expose the Chief's alienation from society, for only when man wants to barricade himself from his own kind, does he use this savage species as a means of protection. Later in one of the loveliest passages he has composed so far, the poet evokes the image of the Big Chief himself, breaking into the prisoner's home, riding his wife. Our sight, smell, sound and sense of movement combine to form this memorable picture created by a mind always exploring the language for fresh meaning.

     A black Benz
     Slithers smoothly
     Through the black night
     Like the water snake
     Into the Nile,
     Listen to it purring
     Like a hopeful leopard,
     Listen to its
     Love song,
     The soft poem
     That embraces the valleys
     And caresses the hills …

     The grasses on
     The pathway
     Hiss in protest
     The shrubs scratch
     Its ribs
     With their nails,
     Foxes hit the windscreens
     With their laughter,
     Dogs whine

     And sharpen their teeth,
     The gods riddle the car
     With yellow arrows
     Of starlight….

The combined efforts of natural, animal, and spiritual life are powerless in preventing the soft caress of the Wabenzi from spreading itself. This theme is not new to East Africa. But the poet's style and rich imagery expresses the contrast between the haves and have-nots in an entirely new manner. Implicit in the lines is the ruthless mercenary power of the politician, his quiet hunting style, his capacity for sacrilege. As the exploiter's fingers reach the very centre of his life, the prisoner demands revenge in words that have the terror of the French guillotine in them.

     I want to drink
     Human blood
     To cool my heart,
     I want to eat
     Human liver
     To quench my boiling thirst,
     I want to smear
     Human fat on my belly
     And on my forehead.

Here Okot speaks for all the wretched of the earth. Indeed in his dream, the prisoner actually imagines himself shooting and destroying 'The sharks of Uhuru that devour their own children'. But in section nine the poet's humanity, while justifying the action of the prisoner, consoles the widow of the Big Chief.

In the last five sections of the poem, Okot tries a complex experiment, of contrasting the inner life of a 'Minister' with that of the prisoner. Somehow this doesn't quite come off, simply because it's difficult to judge who is who. One also feels the Minister's portrait to be a stereotype, though once again, in the description of the prisoner's clan-life, proud and dignified like the 'colourful cattle egret', there is excellence.

In the last two sections, the poem takes another turn. The dream is over. The futility of protest, a voice shouting in the wilderness for justice and revenge, is understood, accepted. The poet's plea seems to suggest that at least if we can't have social and political justice, let's have the freedom of spirit to sing and dance. This is what is claimed in the synthesis, which follows Okot's usual anthropological bent, of combining various cultures:

      I want to dance the dances
      Of our friends and
      The dances of our enemies,

      I want to lift their daughters
      To my shoulder
      And elope with them …

      … Let me dance and forget
      For a small while
      That I am a wretch,
      The reject of my Country,
      A broken branch of a Tree
      Torn down by the whirlwind
      Of Uhuru.

Yet if Okot's verse is to sell here and not in U.K., or U.S.A., if it's African ears who are to feel the twang of the social and political injustice, and not foreign mouths which are to savour the fantasies of his rich imagery, if the poet is to belong to us and not to them, E.A.P.H. had better look into their accounts again. Give us more Okot and give it to all of us, not the big chiefs only.

There is no discipline better suited than anthropology when you want to destroy the reading public's concept of morality.

Okot has given his historical and cultural sense full play in the malaya's song [Song of Malaya], which explodes all our sacred notions of good and bad.

The composition is 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.

The prudes, the puritans, and the respectable, have always frowned upon the street-walker, the adulteress, the courtesan, the malaya. But the history of sexual deviation, of perversion, seduction, and temptation, it is as old as man himself, embracing, according to the poet, the great names in world history.

The sly glance and the sensuous laugh is in the shanty of the slum, the royal bed, the appetite of Eve, and in the action of the acolyte near the saint, so claims the malaya:

     Listen, Sister Prostitutes
     In the Hilton suites.
     Fill your glasses
     With champagne …
     And you in the slums
     Distilling illegal gin …
     Here's to Eve
     With her golden apples.
     And to the Egyptian girl
     Who stole Abraham from Sarah's bed …
     We'll drink to the daughter of Sodom
     And to the daughter of Gomorrah

     Who set the towns ablaze
     With their flaming kisses …
     Let's drink to Rahab
     With her two spy boy friends,
     To Esther the daughter of Abigail,
     To Delilah and her bushy-headed
     Jaw bone gangster,
     To Magdalena who anointed
     The feet of Jesus!
     We will remember Theodora
     The Queen of Whores …
     And the unknown prostitute sister
     Who fired Saint Augustine
     To the clouds.

In the malaya's philosophy, Christianity, that supporter of the sexless, is given special treatment. The poet creates a warm human picture of mother-malaya waiting for the return of her school child. Upon the discovery that the lad has been dubbed a bastard, her wisdom lets itself loose upon our fundamentals.

     Now, tell me
     Who was the greatest man
     That ever lived?
     The saviour
     The light …
     King of Kings
     The Prince of peace …
     What was His Father's name?
     Was the Carpenter
     Really His Father?

And a pertinent question is put to the teacher:

     How many teenagers
     Have you clubbed
     With your large-headed hammer.
     Sowing death in their
     Innocent fields?

The malaya's song is for everyone. The sailor coming ashore with 'a time bomb pulsating' in his loin, the released detainee with 'granaries full to overflow', the debauching Sikhs at the nightclubs with heads broken open, and the vegetarian Indian 'breeding like a rat'.

The schoolboy lover is given a concession for the 'shy smile on his face' so long as he does not swap tales with the teacher who was there last night!

The bush-teacher, chief, business executive, factory workers and shop assistants, party whips and demagogues, will all line up at her door to quench their thirst.

Okot's merciless satire takes toll of a whole humanity and the political mercenary collects the largest part of the whiplash on his groin.

      But you were drunk,
      You could not finish …
      You feigned sleep.
      Snoring like a pregnant hippo …
      Your silly baby tortoise
      Withdraw its shrunken skinny neck …
      Leaving me on fire
      The whole night long …!

The big chief's impotency is matched only by the dark frustration of the family man. In one of the illustrations we see his pumpkin-bosomed wife, with a waistline like a barn door, ranting while a bunch of skinny children shiver at the hut's entrance.

No wonder the mini-skirted malaya, with breasts arched like the underbelly of the Concorde, is a relief for his soul. Automatically with such pleasure and brightness goes the poet's question: 'How dare you blame the gay-time girl?'

The malaya because of her intricate and wide experience of men, can teach the house-wife a thing or two.

     Come on Sister.
     Do you think
     Your wild screams
     And childish sobs
     Are sweet music
     In the ears of
     Our man?

The irony of the last line, of course, works both ways, for the malaya as well as the well-wedded wife.

The total effect of this intimate, seductive voice of the malaya is as illuminating as a thunder-flash in the silent night. Her rancour, her claims, her knowledge of men's ways and movements are unsurpassable. Through her, Okot explores the essence of guilt and shame that we harbour in ourselves.

The malaya is sharp enough to have facts and situations at her fingertips[;] she knows how to silence her brother's sham morality by pointing out who it was that shared a bed with her friend next door two nights ago.

The sergeant who calls her a vagrant carries the 'battleaxe' with which he wounded her last night. For her and her kind, the cycle of the geisha is as natural as the rise of the morning sun and its dip in the west at dusk.

The bouncing vigorous voice of the malaya has enough intelligence and humour for her song to get the listener at one go.

     Black students
     Arriving in Rome,
     In London, in New York
     Arrows ready, bows drawn
     For the first white kid

The imagery is superbly hilarious, as when

     The wife
     In house
     Eats lizard eggs
     To prevent pregnancy!

Or when disease has made some inexperienced fool run mad, the courtesan adjusts her focus kindly for him

     Let the disappointed
     Shout abuses at us.
     Let them groan, sleep
     Their spears vomiting butter,
     Their buttocks swollen
     After the doctor's caning

Principal Works

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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

Gerald Moore (review date 21 February 1975)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 Beier's valuable anthologies, can help to build up the stock of African poetry for enjoyment.

The Acoli (pronounced "Acholi") are a grassland people of the Uganda-Sudan borders whose songs and ceremonial dances are still remarkably alive. Not preserved, with all that this word implies of mustiness and artificiality, but continually changing; continually acquiring new words, new tunes, and in the case of the dances, new steps or instruments. Okot p'Bitek himself describes the many changes of style and title undergone by the Acoli Orak (Love Dance) over the past seventy years. Dances do not change in this way unless they are still in the mainstream of the people's cultural experience.

Perhaps the Acoli were relatively lucky in this respect. Their music and poetry were not court products, played by a corps of professional artists. They were the common stock of the whole population, diffused by the communal dances and ceremonies into the knowledge and practice of every member of the group. A young man or girl unable to perform adequately on such occasions could not escape ridicule. There was no question of being "in the audience" when great ceremonial dances like the Otole (war dance), Bwola (victory dance) or Guru Lyel (funeral dance) were performed.

This total cultural involvement lasted until quite recent times. The main occupations for men who left Acoliland were soldiering or policing, both easily assimilated into the traditional concept of the warrior. Indeed, army terms, drilling moves and whistles were often incorporated into the constantly changing dances, which is another example of the response of these popular arts to the changing experience of the people. Add to this the relative inaccessibility of the area, far from the major towns, with few roads and no railway until the 1960s, and with a colonial interlude which really lasted only some forty years. All these factors worked in favour of continued vitality within the traditional arts of the Acoli, and they were assisted by the recent efforts of a small group of educated young men, such as Okot p'Bitek himself, who studied and mastered these arts in order to introduce them in the schools. Thus the schools became the new sphere for acquainting the young with the cultural achievements of their people, instead of the sphere for their estrangement and reorientation towards foreign cultures.

The expressive range of Acoli song is remarkable, extending from the fiercest of war chants to the tenderest of love lyrics or funeral laments. There is no more stirring sight than that of hundreds of men and women, ostrich plumes waving in the sunlight, singing and stamping in unison, so the ground seems literally to shake and the dust rises ever higher. But many of these songs are also sung on small and comparatively private occasions, to the accompaniment of a solo nanga (boat-zither) or adungu (jaw-harp) played by the singer. Thus the same song may be heard in the moonlit arena of the Love Dance, sung by hundreds of young people to the electric beat of calabashes and the stamp of anklets, or floating in the still night air from the top of an anthill, where a girl is crying the praises of her lover:

      When the chief of youths enters the arena
      He is like a waterbuck breaking the circle of hunters.

This variety in the modes of presentation is matched by the variety of imagery to be found within even a single genre. In his interesting chapter, "Themes in Acoli Dirges", Okot p'Bitek identifies no fewer than six more or less distinct groups of imagery, all of which might be heard sung in the course of a single night-long Guru Lyel. This event might open with an advancing group of warriors entering the arena and fighting the "mock fight" with Death to the accompaniment of words like these:

      If I could reach the homestead of Death's mother,
      I would make a long grass torch;
      If I could reach the homestead of Death's mother,
      I would destroy everything, utterly, utterly,
      Like the fire that rages at Layima.

Yet this cry of anger and aggression may be interrupted by a new chorus, sung perhaps by some of the women mourners, whose words re-evoke the actual agony of a death suffered many months before (since the Guru Lyel is performed only in the dry season and only after elaborate preparations):

      Death burned the body of the young woman
      Like fire,
      She cried with pain in her chest,
      Beloved of my mother, Oh!
      Death burned your body,
      At last, today, it has taken you.

Among the most interesting, though not among the most moving, of these digres are those in which the dead person is actually attacked, for having in some way disgraced the clan. There is a bitterness in these satirical songs which is conventionally shocking. But they are probably best understood as having the same basic virtue as the others: they articulate the spite and resentment within the group, just as the others articulate its grief, and thus play something of the same purgative role. Every feeling aroused by this particular death is thus given open but ritualized expression, and the solidarity of the surviving group is actually renewed by this very expressiveness.

Another valuable chapter is devoted to the patterns of relationship between the chiefdom songs (Bwola) and certain historical events in the story of each chiefdom. These are not the explicit historical narratives which are found among many African peoples. The references are cryptic and vivid, but they cannot be fully understood without some independent historical instruction. Their very presence within these ceremonial songs, however, serves to keep alive some of the group emotion associated with these, often ancient, events.

There are useful descriptive notes introducing each group of songs but, owing to some vagary of composition, these notes are all placed together, instead of each being set separately before the particular group to which it refers. There is also an occasional visual irritation, where a very short poem, rightly given a page to itself, is set tightly at the very top, crowding the title and leaving an ugly expanse of blank paper beneath it. The book would also benefit from a bibliography, though there are some bibliographical references scattered in the text.

Above all, however, it is a book of poetry to be handled and enjoyed, rather than a ponderous headstone placed on the living body of a popular art. It can be read with equal enjoyment, in these facing texts, by Acolis relishing the felicities of the original languages and by English readers relishing the muscularity of Okot p'Bitek's translations. Those familiar with his own poetry, especially The Song of Lawino, will recognize here the indigenous poetic tradition in which that fine work is embedded. The bitterness of Lawino's sense of betrayal is not a personal but a cultural bitterness. And it takes on additional depth and meaning for those who understand, from these songs, why a husband who cannot show his body in the dance arena is an insult to his whole clan, not just to his deserted wife.

These songs must also deliver a fatal blow to those who contend that romantic love is an alien importation, unknown in traditional African cultures. The great love-duets sung by Goya and his wife, in which they jointly ridicule "the roughskinned man" once destined to be her husband, attack the avarice of her father, and proclaim their intention of running off together without the payment of bridewealth, expose the hollowness of pronouncements based on anthropological norms. And it would be hard to imagine a more romantic lyric than that of this deserted lover, as he watches the hot pathway all day long:

    She has taken the path Nimule:
    Tomorrow she will return.
    As she walked away her buttocks danced.
    Bring Alyeka, let me see her!
    My eyes are fixed on the path,
    my eyes on the path …

Further Reading

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share


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 beliefs p'Bitek describes in his writing represent his own beliefs.

Mbughuni, P. "A Grain of Wheat, Song of Lawino, Song of Ocol, and Kongi's Harvest," UMMA 5, No. 1 (1975): 64-74.

Analyzes the literary treatment of political values in East African literature. Mbughuni uses A Grain of Wheat, Song of Lawino, Song of Ocol, and Kongi's Harvest to discuss the ideals and reality of politics and literature.

Ogunyemi, C.O. "In Praise of Things Black: Langston Hughes and Okot p'Bitek." Contemporary Poetry 4, No. 1 (1981): 19-39.

Discusses how Langston Hughes and p'Bitek have helped to demythicize the image of the black man through their poetry.

"Unfettered, Unfree." The Times Literary Supplement, No. 3390 (16 February 1967): 125.

Praises the sharpness of imagery in p'Bitek's Song of Lawino.

wa Thiong'o, Ngugi (James Ngugi). "Okot p'Bitek and Writing in East Africa." In Homecoming: Essays on African and Caribbean Literature, Culture and Politics, pp. 67-77. London: Heinemann, 1972.

Presents an overview of East African literature. Wa Thiong'o discusses p'Bitek's Song of Lawino in terms of its place in East African literature.

Ward, Michael R. "Okot p'Bitek and the Rise of East African Writing." In A Celebration of Black and African Writing, edited by Bruce King and Kolawole Ogungbesan, pp. 217-31, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975.

Discusses the emergence of East African literature after independence. Ward asserts that p'Bitek's poetry displays a strong sense of East African identity.

Weinstein, Mark. "The Song of Solomon and Song of Lawino." World Literature Written in English 26, No. 2 (Autumn 1986): 243-44.

Asserts that "The Song of Solomon" was a source for Song of Lawino and analyzes aspects of love poetry found in p'Bitek's work.


Serumaga, Robert. "Okot p'Bitek." In African Writers Talking, edited by Cosmo Pieterse and Dennis Duerden, pp. 149-55. New York: Africana Publishing Corporation, February, 1967.

Serumaga and p'Bitek discuss the Uganda National Theatre and its place in Ugandan culture.

Robert L. Berner (review date Summer 1979)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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, this oral literature derives from the close relation of the storyteller and "a live, responsive audience, taking up the chorus, laughing and enjoying the jokes." p'Bitek is particularly qualified to deal with these tales; he has already produced a collection of renderings of Acoli oral verse [The Horn of My Love]; and his own poetry, such as the Song of Lawino, reveals a thorough understanding of African folk materials.

The population of these tales [collected under the title Hare and Hornbill] is about evenly divided between human beings and animals, and the plots reveal similarities with motifs which are widely observable in other oral literatures. One tale is a carefully structured parable about the process by which a poor man gives the "gift" of poverty to a rich man. Others have to do with the origins of institutions—for example, of a particular chiefdom. The animal stories often concern ten-eyed Ogres, who are associated with natural forces and who must be subdued by trickery. Several of them account for the origin of natural phenomena—why Leopard is spotted, why Tsetse is always killed, why Owl flies only at night, and so on. The Trickster figure, which is universal, appears frequently in these stories as Hare, who tricks and is tricked in return and who thus serves to educate the human audience. The moral of one really funny story, for example (about Hare's tricking his mother-in-law into sexual intercourse), is that "Even if you take your mother-in-law under the lake you will be found out."

The field of African folklore is vast, and extensive recording is necessary before the task of comparative study can begin. p'Bitek's collection, though he has made no attempt to exhaust his subject and though this edition lacks scholarly apparatus, is a model for this enormous task.

Annemarie Heywood (essay date August 1980)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 of struggle for nationhood, a struggle which is still experienced as a struggle for freedom from colonial exploitation and alienation. With the antinomy Prisoner/Malaya we find ourselves in a later perspective. Freedom from has been attained, and what Berdyaev calls "the second freedom", the freedom to, is experienced as destructive chaos and painful anarchy. Uhuru has become a prison, the sustaining mother country a punitive, barren nightmare.

      … The stone floor
      Lifts her powerful arms
      In cold embrace
      To welcome me
      As I sit on her navel.
      My head rests
      On her flat
      Whitewashed breasts …
               [Song of Prisoner]

This chill blankness recalls that "tabula rasa" which Frantz Fanon says [The Wretched of the Earth, 1967] "characterises at the outset all decolonisation." As early as 1961 he pointed out how such a disillusioned, blank phase is a necessary condition in that "total change from the bottom up" without which decolonisation must remain merely a change of masters.

In a way which seems to me fruitful the sequence of four Song cycles can be viewed as an ongoing meditation on Freedom—not a private meditation, to be sure, but an interactive meditation by, and on behalf of, the whole social web which is undergoing change. It is from this angle that I propose to look at Okot's work, and I shall deliberately give less attention to what has already been well described and analysed in the critical literature than to what seems to me to have been neglected, if not misapprehended.

Okot's meditation is from the outset troubled and painfully torn by conflicting loyalties and belief structures. He explores the conflicting claims of the Old and the New by means of complementary personae. Lawino and Ocol confront one another not as fictional 'characters' but as choral presences. They are masks which hold our attention precisely because they are vividly and vitally particularised, but choral masks nevertheless. Soyinka did something similar in Kongi's Harvest where Kongi and Danlola confront and mirror one another in dialectical opposition. But Soyinka's approach was still Hegelian: he sketched a proposed third term, a saving synthesis, in Daodu/Segi. Okot's rendering is more penetrating, uncompromising, radical. He presents us with a true antinomy, a confrontation of irreconcilable and equally valid positions, and does not resolve the painful tension between them with even a hinted conciliation. There is something profoundly moving, truly tragic, to the laments and recriminations of these two lovers torn apart by the growth process of liberation. Listen to them both:

      Lawino: … But oh! Ocol
       You are my master and husband,
       You are the father of my children,
       You are a man,
       You are you!

       Do you not feel ashamed
       Behaving like another man's dog
       Before your own wife and children?

       My husband, Ocol
You are a PrinceOf an ancient chiefdom.
       There in the middle of the homestead
       Stands your grandfather's Shrine,
       Your grandfather was a Bull among men
       And although he died long ago
       His name still blows like a horn,
       His name is still heard
       Throughout the land …

       Has the Fire produced Ash?
       Has the Bull died without a Heart?
       Aaa! A certain man
       Has no millet field,
       He lives on borrowed foods …
                   [Song of Lawino]

      Ocol: … SisterWoman of Acoliland
       Throw down that pot
       With its water,
       Let it break into pieces
       Let the water cool
       The thirsty earth;

       It is taboo
       To throw down water pots:
       With water in them,
       But taboos must be broken,
Taboos are chainsAround the neck,
Chains of slavery;
       Shatter that pot,
       Shatter taboos, customs,
       Traditions …

       Listen not
       To the song of the poet
       The blind musician
       Plays for his bread,
       The bread owners
       Are your slavers …
Lift up your headWalk erectMy love,

       Let me see
       Your beautiful eyes,
       Let me caress
       Your sultry neck,
       Let me kiss your dimples …

       In Buganda
       They buy you
       With two pots
       Of beer,
       The Luo trade you
       For seven cows …
       They purchase you
       On hire purchase even,
       Like bicycles,

       You are furniture,
       Mattress for man
       Your arm
       A pillow
       For his head!

       Woman of Africa
       Whatever you call yourself,
       Whatever the bush poets
       Call you
       You are not
       A wife!
             [Song of Ocol]

Each addresses the other's freedom, a nobility which is not realised: Lawino addresses the forgotten nobility of the past, Ocol the potential nobility of the future; but for all their passion they no longer meet in the present. The only escape from this painful tension is total change, a radical leap into the undefined, still-to-be-created future. Fanon of course makes the same point. The men who will create the new society have still to create themselves in the struggle to do so (in Armah's words, The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born!).

… this struggle which aims at a fundamentally different set of relations between men cannot leave intact either the form or the content of the people's culture. After the conflict there is not only the disappearance of colonialism but also the disappearance of colonised man. This new humanity cannot do otherwise than define a new humanism both for itself and for others. [Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth]

In the same vein, Marcuse speaks of a Nietzschean "radical transvaluation of values" which can, by its very nature, not be programmatic.

… What kind of life? We are still confronted with the demand to state the 'concrete alternative'. The demand is meaningless if it asks for a blueprint of the specific institutions and relationships which would be those of the new society: they cannot be determined a priori; they will develop, in trial and error, as the new society develops. [An Essay on Liberation, 1969]

Once one perceives the lawfulness of chaos within the radicalisation programme, and one's sympathies are opened to the "positive and positing effect of negative thinking," the Songs of Prisoner and Malaya take on a new colour. "But so long as we insist that disintegration is bad per se and that anyone producing it can only wish to 'destroy'," says Charles Hampden-Turner in Radical Man, "we shall fail to understand the growth process itself." The anguish, rage and moral anarchy of these Songs, justly seen, are tokens of radicalisation "oriented towards," in the words of Marcuse, "and comprehending a future which is 'contained' in the present. And in this containment, the future appears as possible liberation." Marcuse's term 'containment' employs the same metaphor as Prisoner: as Camus remarked, à propos of The Plague, imprisonment is the most suitable metaphor for life in the Absurd which is the expression of radical Freedom. (I am further moved by the correspondence of this metaphor to certain icons which portray the Christ child as contained within the body of the dark Virgin).

It is in this light that I propose to view the progression of the Songs. Okot's greatness lies in the—I think—unique achievement that he leads his reader fully into the human experience of each position. He brings each home to heart and mind as experience, in all its shades and nuances and implications—and then sets it against an opposite developed with equal attention and compassion; and in doing so, avoids all judgemental rancour. His Songs, moreover, are truly popular, truly accessible to every reader. Originally written in Luo and employing, with tremendous success, the conventions of traditional laments, mocking songs and songs of challenge, they have even in the English versions an irresistible authentic life.

But my focus must be on themes rather than form. To summarise the relationship between the four cycles, I shall use a typology proposed by Raymond Williams in Chapter 3 ('Individuals and Society') of The Long Revolution which offers a useful shorthand in describing African Literature generally. Williams defines a spectrum of ways in which a given individual may relate to the social structure within which he finds himself. Society and its structures, he says, are by definition oppressive. They impose restraints on the free play of human energy and regulate its expression into controlled forms which permit the greatest possible good for the greatest possible number. This restraint is experienced as anything from benevolent to intolerable according to the degree to which the individual identifies with it, or accommodates to it. Williams proposes six types of stance:

To the MEMBER society is his own community which he endorses unconditionally, and the demands of which he perceives as his own. To the SERVANT society is an establishment within which he finds his place. He is comfortable within it so long as he studiously avoids all friction and consents to serve collective goals loyally; his conscience is in abeyance. To the SUBJECT society is an imposed system in which his place is determined without choice; he must conform or perish. To the REBEL a particular society is a tyranny. He actively opposes it, fights to change it. He exercises his freedom to offer it a new and better future. The EXILE withdraws. He may hope for change, but does not participate in the struggle to attain it. The VAGRANT repudiates the condition of society as such. He is a liminal, radically withdrawn from all collective goals, and serves his individual conscience alone.

If we apply Williams' typology to Okot's Songs, we find an interesting progression. Lawino is a MEMBER at that unreflecting stage where the question of individual freedom has not yet arisen. She appears politically unawakened; her focus is clannish; she sees only the tribal community. Her political ignorance is the focus of Ocol's impatience. Ocol has been a REBEL as an activist in the liberation struggle; he now is a SERVANT of independent nationhood in its primary form, that established by the departing colonial masters; and striving to become a MEMBER by freely accepting responsibility for the shaping of a new, authentically structured society. One of his most potent accusations against Lawino is that she is blind to her SUBJECT status within the system she so ignorantly seeks to perpetuate. He calls on her to assume the freedom which is her due—but only if she rouses herself to claim it. Ocol's status then is that of REBEL turned SERVANT. (There is an interesting parallel here to the progression in Armah's Beautyful Ones: the Man who was REBEL finds himself the impotent SERVANT of a rotting system, and is reborn into VAGRANCY). Later, in Song of Prisoner, the Ocol-type again turns to REBELlion. Within Williams' typology the choral personages of Prisoner and Malaya are both VAGRANTS, with moods of REBELlion. Their rebellion however is anarchic and radical; it is no longer the structured programme which inspired Ocol.

Prisoner and Malaya are polar antinomies just like Lawino and Ocol. Ocol and Lawino polarised the Old and the New. Prisoner and Malaya polarise, if you like, the masculine and the feminine Eros or ethos; or the NO and YES as found in Fanon's Black Skin, White Masks, a book which affords a truly remarkable record of the radicalisation process. The conscientious, rational, compassionate SERVANT of humanity undergoes a violent rebirth; an inconceivable sphincter convulses and the VAGRANT is born:

… with all my strength I refuse to accept that amputation. I feel in myself a soul as deep as the deepest of rivers, my chest has the power to expand without limit. I am master and I am advised to adopt the humanity of a cripple. Yesterday, awakening to the world, I saw the sky turn upon itself utterly and wholly. I wanted to rise, but the disembowelled silence fell back upon me, its wings paralysed. Without responsibility, straddling Nothingness and Infinity, I began to weep.

[In Minima Moralia, 1951] Theodor Adorno writes beautifully on this radical conversion:

Someone who has been offended, slighted, has an illumination as vivid as when agonizing pain lights up one's own body. He becomes aware that in the innermost blindness of love, that must remain oblivious, lives a demand not to be blinded. He was wronged; from this he deduces a claim to right and must at the same time reject it, for what he desires can only be given in freedom. In such distress he who is rebuffed becomes human.

This stripped, liminal human potential knows itself only in its commitments. On a later page, Fanon notes passionately:

… man is a yes. I will never stop reiterating that. Yes to life. Yes to generosity. But man is also a no. No to scorn of man. No to degradation of man. No to exploitation of man. No to the butchery of what is most human in man: freedom. [Black Skin White Masks]

It is this voice of the primary libido, of Love and Rage, which speaks through the masks of Prisoner and Malaya. In these later Songs Okot gives utterance to moods of bitterness and frustration the only release from which lies in explosive violence and anarchic hedonism. Prisoner's rage has gone beyond structured rebellion. It envisions no social future, puts forward no causes:

    … I am intoxicated
    With anger
    My fury
    Is white hot,
    My brain is melting
    My throat is on fire

    Fan the fire
    I am engulfed
    By a red whirlwind of pains
                [Song of Prisoner]

Malaya's last song is a radiant Yes to the fertile chaos of life in its anarchic phase of dissolution. Having defied every institution and authority, she declares her radical freedom:

       … Who can command
       The sun
       Not to rise in the morning?
                    [Song of Malaya]

In order to reach this position of positive commitment Malaya had to become a social nothing and rid herself of all collective restraints and dependencies. The lines preceding her affirmation read like a ritual stripping, or like a formal exorcism. She casts off in succession all familial, social, and societal bonds, defying in turn men and their wives; parents and brothers; church and state; God himself (if he is on their side); and every power of civic law and persecution. We have come a long way indeed from Lawino: these were the very ties, connections, bonds of responsibility and affection which were so precious to her.

They were equally precious, of course, to Okot when he embarked on Song of Lawino. He tells about his innocent frame of mind then, in the early 60s, in the Serumaga interview published in African Writers Talking:

When I was doing my work on the oral literature of the people of Northern Uganda, I first got the inspiration. I found that the poetry was rich, the oral literature was full-blooded, the dance was wonderful and the music just inspiring; and I just couldn't stop; I just wanted to go on and on.

From this euphoria of rediscovery sprang Song of Lawino, published in 1966 to instant critical and popular acclaim, and much imitated since. The Song projected a base situation with which every African reader could identify in the dilemma of Lawino, the first wife fighting for the loyalty of her Europeanised husband. As a village wife she is at one and the same time highly cultured and accomplished within the tribal context, and an incompetent illiterate within that of the new nationhood. She is a daughter of chiefs, the leader of her age group, a celebrated beauty in her youth and in her maturity an accomplished exponent of the treasured arts of song and dance and a repository of skills and lore. She is also obsolete. Illiterate and uninformed, she lacks the flexibility and the drive to adapt to wider horizons. The formula works admirably: form and impulse are perfectly married. Lawino's songs allow Okot to build up an extended lyrical celebration of a coherent dignity of life from which the African intellectual is in danger of being alienated, and at the same time unrestrained mockery of the imitative urban consumer culture of the nascent black bourgeoisie which is replacing it, thus throwing into vivid relief the alienation of the colonised which Fanon analyses so brilliantly. Lawino was the perfect persona for Okot's mood in the early 1960s, and was a stirring reminder of cultural integrity for his audience in the early days of independence.

She represents that cultural Eden which Fanon [in The Wretched of the Earth] tells us the colonial freedom fighter passionately rediscovers only to leave it behind, for

the desire to attach oneself to tradition or bring abandoned traditions to life again, does not only mean going against the current of history but also opposing one's own people. When a people undertakes an armed struggle, or even a political struggle against a relentless colonialism, the significance of tradition changes….

The "seething pot out of which the learning of the future will emerge," alas, is not to be found with the beautiful clay pots in the orderly homestead of Lawino's mother. The euphoria of rediscovery which Okot spoke of to Serumaga informs every line of this song cycle nevertheless. Lawino speaks direct to the heart and inflames it with affection for, and pleasure in, the tribal ways.

Whereas Lawino appeals to the heart, Ocol's reply addresses itself to the head, and the traditional song formula does not support the character and his message in the same way. There is no traditional format adequate to what Ocol has to say. His song is shorter, harsher, more urgent and abrupt. It rarely allows itself the space to build up an argument by iterative persuasion: instead it harangues. The traditional song format is here turned against the very life style from which it sprang.

Fanon remarks, "The task of bringing the people to maturity will be made easier by the thoroughness of the organisation and by the high intellectual level of its leaders," and in Ocol Okot has created the persona of an intellectual leader of this sort whose political acumen is attained at the cost of cultural alienation. For the primary model of organisation is, quite inevitably, that inherited from the departed masters and uncritically adopted by a leadership which has emerged, in Fanon's words, from

an intellectual elite … which will attach a fundamental importance to organisation, so much so that the fetish of organisation will often take precedence over a reasoned study of colonial society. The notion of the party is a notion imported from the mother country … and thrown down just as it is upon real life with all its infinite variations and lack of balance.

Ocol is such a party politician who still hopes that the new wine may be contained in old bottles, and thus does not yet perceive the necessity of "total change from the bottom up." Song IX deals with this thorny dilemma direct. But it may be best to summarise the drift of the whole cycle song by song, in order that both the validity and the tragic incompleteness of Ocol's position may reveal itself.

Ocol does recognise of course the hypnotic power of Lawino's Song. To him it is a siren song of the past. Such nostalgia for a golden age in the tribal Eden can only cripple those who are actively engaged in forging a possible future. He therefore sees as falling to him the unpleasant task of demystifying the potencies of the past which paralyse the minds of his people. The fierceness of his Song must be seen, I think, as springing from the strength of his love. He sees the minds of his people—exemplified by Lawino—enslaved by apathy; they must sever the bonds—bonds of habit and of love—which bind them to kin, village, tribe, in order to embrace the new nationhood. Only by assuming this new dignity as responsible citizens and servants of the future can they, he sings, save themselves from degradation and express their freedom. The dream, Ocol sings, is a possibility in the future, not a memory of the past.

In I, he addresses Lawino direct: her Song is ineffectual, of a past already in decay—

      It's the dull thud
      Of the wooden arrow
      As it strikes the concrete
      Of a wall
      And falls to earth

In turning the clans into a nation there must be destruction—

      We will obliterate
      Tribal boundaries
      And throttle native tongues
      To dumb earth

Nostalgia is a waste of energy and vision. Africa as a human reality, he sings in II, is backward and afflicted—

      Diseased with a chronic illness,
      Choking with black ignorance,
      Chained to the rock
      Of poverty,

      And yet laughing,
      Always laughing and dancing,
      The chains on its legs

      Displaying his white teeth
      In bright pink gum,
      Loose white teeth
      That cannot bite,
      Joking, giggling, dancing

III: To this wretchedness Ocol opposes a programme of change and reform which will free the people from superstition and disease. Deliverance must come from science and technology; Negritude offers only a barren pride in ignorance and dread. Song IV is a call to tribal woman to awaken her degradation in poverty and servitude. When Ocol challenges Lawino to prepare to take her place as equal in the new nationhood, he sees with Fanon

the danger of perpetuating the feudal tradition which holds sacred the superiority of the masculine element over the feminine. Women will have exactly the same place as men, not just in the clauses of the constitution but in the life of every day: in the factory, at school and in the parliament.

In seeking to demystify the warrior code, Song V is aimed at the liberation of the masculine element. Cuttingly Ocol asks what has been achieved by all the glorious tribal wars—

     A large arc
     Of semi desert land
     Strewn with human skeleton
     Barely covered by the
     Hostile thorn bushes
     And the flowering cactus,
     A monument to five hundred years
     Of cattle theft!

He calls on the young warrior to abjure customs which dissipate productive energies and degrade not only his own human dignity but also that of his female partners in love and marriage—

     Come brother …
     Walk into your City
     With your head up …
     Here you do not have
     To kill a man or a lion first.

     Take that girl
     She wants you.

These five songs are harshly iconoclastic; their tone of insulting bitterness springs from their defensive stance. Song V is Ocol's self-justification, and the remaining three songs are increasingly pierced with poignant sorrow. Ocol praises the liberating effect of his education; yet whilst his generation were dedicating their youth to rigorous and painful self-training, the tribes were dancing, hunting, talking—

      We spent years
      In detention
      Suffering without bitterness
      And planning for the revolution;

      Tell me
      My friend and comrade,
      Answer me simply and frankly,…
      What was your contribution
      In the struggle for uhuru?

He points to his progressive fertile farm and exhorts those who have been left in the wake of progress to help themselves by acquiring the knowledge and the skills required. Uhuru is not a magic privilege; it is a responsibility which each man must grasp for himself. VII offers an interlude, the crippled beggar's song of Uhuru: a lament over the decaying of the dream and its exploitation by cynical selfseekers. Ocol replies with a challenge—

      Out of my way
      You cowardly fool …
      Vex me no more
      With your hollow wailings
      And crocodile tears
      Over uhuru!

      You pigmy men …
      What is uhuru to you?

He asserts that freedom is for the free, those ready to seize it. Uhuru is no mirage, it is progress and transformation achieved through applied knowledge and energy. Ocol's savagery in this song of bravado barely subdues a mood of raging pity for the impotent afflicted whom he scourges. This mood is sublimated in VIII which invites the new nation to celebrate the passing of the old/homestead. It is a formal, elegiac salutation of the old sanctities before passing on, and a controlled purging of grief. (There is a direct parallel to this in the dirge in Soyinka's Kongi's Harvest—"This the last / that we shall dance together …").

     Weep long
     For the village world
     That you know
     And love so well
     Is gone …
     Say Goodbye
     For you will never
     Hunt together again,
     Nor dance the war dance
     Or the bwola dance …

Song IX starts with salutations to the new rulers, the Courts of Law, and the entire political and civic organisation representing the three estates of democratic government on the European model. Painful perplexities are exposed. Ocol is aware of absurdities implicit in the transplantation into the newborn body politic of institutions developed by the erstwhile oppressors, and of their inadequacy to the social distress. Yet the New cannot be based in the African past either, for that has contributed nothing to human evolution—

      What proud poem
      Can we write
      For the vanquished?

Ocol's Song ends here, abruptly, without harmony. Ocol emerges as a complex, tortured persona aware of his alienation and of the paradoxes inherent in his position, but too proud to whisper. His Song is one of challenge, an arrogant call to action. The way onward lies, he believes and says, away from the social and psychological impotence of the tribal, as well as the colonial, past. In spite of the bravado, however, his Song leaves the impression, at the end, of a mind totally exhausted by awareness of what has had to be left behind, and by the magnitude of the task ahead.

The first two Songs define the aspirations feeding the new nationhood. The second pair deal with Uhuru, actual liberty and chaos. "The truths of a nation are in the first place its realities," says Fanon [in The Wretched of the Earth]. In a newly independent state these realities may, he warns, include three major threats to full decolonisation: firstly, the rise of an urban bourgeoisie, "a sort of little greedy caste, avid and voracious, with the mind of a huckster"; secondly, "the heartbreaking return to chauvinism i.e. tribalism, feudalism, regionalism in its most bitter and detestable form"; and thirdly, the automatic "building-up of … yet another system of exploitation" through the very mechanics of militancy itself. Fanon thus anticipated the rise of military dictatorships, tribal enmity, and the continuing economic humiliation of the common man, which have been the scourges of African independence. These grinding realities form the background to the second pair of Songs.

Song of Prisoner lacks the mask of a single persona. It is a choral song of those who are trapped by freedom. The reader is taken into the very heart of that "zone of occult instability where the people dwell," which Fanon speaks of as the place where "our souls are crystallised and … transfused with light." Different social roles and stances are represented in individual laments, but the Song is of a collective, a corporate bewilderment and despair. Every song speaks of entrapment: disappointment, frustration, rage at the cruelty of man to man. In some cases the trap was sprung on apathy and helplessness, in some on militant partisanship; one prisoner at least is a committed assassin. None are criminals in the ordinary sense: all are victims of either social or political change which has overwhelmed them. Hence the refrain of 'confessions'—

I plead drunkenness
I plead hunger
I plead insanity
I plead smallness
    I plead fear
    I plead helplessness
    I plead hopelessness

"In such distress," Adorno observes, "he who is rebuffed becomes human." The bafflement turns into anarchic outrage—

I plead guilty to hatred
    My anger explodes
    Like a grenade

In some songs this hatred and anger is turned on existence itself, "the foul smell / of the world"; both father and mother are blasphemingly accused for engendering life at all; the malaise is ingrained.

The songs are indictments of social abuses, to be sure. But their bitterness goes much deeper. They rail against the betrayal of life's promise, against the dissolution of human roles and functions, against the denial of hope. There is also a pervasive sense of collusive pollution. Again we turn to Fanon for a clinical description of this contradictory anguish—

The collective struggle presupposes collective responsibility at the base and collegiate responsibility at the top. Yes; everybody will have to be compromised in the fight for the common good. No one has clean hands; there are no innocents and no onlookers; we are all soiling them in the swamps of our country and in the terrifying emptiness of our brains. Every onlooker is either a coward or a traitor.

(This very bitter condition of necessary pollution has been magnificently explored in Ngugi wa Thiong'o's A Grain of Wheat).

The predominant mood in Prisoner is rage. One example must suffice, that of the outraged prisoner whose wife is betraying him with a member of the new élite. A famous passage describes the adulterous exploiter's Mercedes on his way to the assignation—

      A black Benz
      Slithers smoothly
      Through the black night
      Like the water snake
      Into the Nile,
      Listen to it purring
      Like a hopeful leopard,
      Listen to its
      Love song,
      The soft poem
      That embraces the valleys
      And caresses the hills …

The Mercedes is a stunning metaphor of what Fanon calls "the libidinal tie of the second nature"—

The so-called consumer economy and the politics of corporate capitalism have created a second nature of man which ties him libidinally and aggressively to the commodity form.

The Mercedes, the commodity form at its most ostentatious and recognisable, is here metaphorically exhibited as, literally, the vehicle of this secondary libido and aggression. In this metaphoric process the singer's anguished mind has made the leap into recognition, and is therewith casting off the chains of the second nature—a process which in turn, as Fanon is at pains to demonstrate, leads to a release of "primary aggressiveness on an unprecedented scale." And so we find the singer, the impotent watcher in the grass, exploding into a desire which is wholly and radically destructive—

      I want to drink
      Human blood
      To cool my heart,
      I want to eat
      Human liver
      To quench my boiling thirst

Marcuse says, rightly, that—

in art, literature and music, insights and truths are expressed which cannot be communicated in ordinary language, and with these truths often an entirely new dimension is opened, which is either repressed or tabooed in reality; namely the image of human existence and of nature no longer confined within the norms of the repressive reality principle, but really striving for their fulfilment and gratification, even at the price of death and catastrophe. ["Herbert Marcuse on the Need for an Open Marxist Mind," The Listener (9 February 1978)]

The 'confessions' of weakness and guilt are one strand in Song of Prisoner; the other is the irrepressible stirring of primary human energy. From the prisoners' guilt, anguish, and anger breaks a new raw libido, expressed in "I want…." The betrayed husband wants to drink blood. The singer of 'Youthful Air' wants—

     … to drink
     A whole bottle of whisky
     To quench my thirst
     For freedom …
     I want to drink
     With the peasants
     In the fields
     And with the old women
     In my constituency, (surprised, we recognise Ocol)
     I want to suck lacoi beer
     And share the sucking tube
     With the old men
     Around the fire …
     I want to drink
     All the drinks
     Of the world …
     I want to forget
     That I am a lightless star,
     A proud eagle
     Shot down
     By the arrow
     Of Uhuru

This is the song of an Ocol released from his second nature and waking to his primary freedom—

     I want to breathe the air
     Of my own choice

Lawino is here too, in 'Cattle Egret'—

     Free my hands and feet,
     I want to clap my hands
     And sing for my children

Apart from primary rage and aggression, then, there emerges also a dream of universal anarchic hedonism which is the positive expression of the primary libido. It is a dream that is only partly 'escapist'; more importantly it signals what Marcuse calls "the ascendancy of the life instincts over aggressiveness and guilt" [An Essay on Liberation], a coming to the senses: "The revolution would be liberating only if it were carried by the non-repressive forces stirring in the existing society" [Armah, The Beautiful Ones Are Not Yet Born]. 'Oasis' is blindly escapist (I want to dance all the dances, and I want to dance with all the girls)—

     Let me dance
     And forget my sorrow.

But the singer of the final song 'Undergrowth' does not seek to forget: he remembers the sorrows of the whole wretched world, and still dances—

     Free my hands and feet
     You uniformed Stone,
     Open the steel gate,
     I want to join the dances
     Of the world

"The form of freedom," says Marcuse, "is not merely self-determination and self-realisation, but rather the determination and realisation of goals which enhance, protect and unite life on earth." One dream in the Song does transcend the anarchic hedonism of the primary libido as it breaks its bonds. 'Voice of a Dove' is a song of love and defiance expressing only transpersonal drives of joy, tenderness and militant courage. The prisoner, a man facing his death, is fully liberated, free of both anger and personal desire. This one song within the choral fever of Song of Prisoner anticipates, embodies those goals Marcuse speaks of which "enhance, protect and unite life on earth."

With Song of Malaya we find ourselves in Fanon's "seething pot out of which the future will emerge." The fundamental shattering of the old strata of culture has been accomplished. Malaya sings the positive anarchism of the radicalised humane. For the seething

which aims at a fundamentally different set of relations between men cannot leave intact either the form or the content of the people's culture.

In a review of this Song Behadur Tejani remarks, "There is no discipline better suited than anthropology when you want to destroy the reading public's concept of morality" ["Okot p'Bitek," African Literature Today (1973)]. There is also no better anthropologist's persona than the prostitute. Like him, she knows all men both as they present themselves and as they nakedly are; is no respecter of social roles and pretensions; is herself a liminal, a professional outsider, and thus singularly well equipped for the exposure of collusive hypocrisy and cant. The prostitute persona has been so used through the ages, e.g. by Dostoyevski, by the existentialists, and in Blake's poem 'London', which indicts the "mind-forg'd manacles" of social man.

Malaya then is positive, combative, and free. "The token of freedom attained," says Nietzsche in Die Frönliche Wissenschaft, "is no longer being ashamed of ourselves." Malaya is not ashamed of anything. She has cast off the manacles of social stricture and browbeating morality—

     Sister Harlots
     Wherever you are,
     The bedcovers of the world
     Have been removed

—and who bugs and parasites, one might ask, need scuttle from the exposure? Her values are radically different, boiled down into "enhancing, protecting, and uniting life on earth." All men come to her—the needy, the debauched, the unfaithful, the timid—and all are welcomed, comfronted and entertained each according to his fantasy. Her knowledge of their ways is unclouded by sentiment, hence expert, and uninhibited by customary restraints and judgments. Husbands are looked after and cherished as by a wife; she advises realistically and shrewdly on hygiene; she solaces those who have no other haven—sailors, soldiers, convicts, travellers; and tenderly initiates the novices. She has no prejudices and very little snobbishness; on the contrary, she shows herself wrily tolerant, wise, shrewd, joyous and humane. To condemn Malaya is to condemn vitality, fecundity, woman, nature herself.

It is also hypocritical. When it comes to hypocrisy, and to the social evils and human suffering caused by authoritarian norms, Malaya's laughing voice becomes harsh. Her humanism is militant, whether she is battling for the dignity of her child ('Peals of Crying') or exhorting her married sister to freedom and solidarity ('Part-Time'). She is saltily feminist, and has only scorn for those who purchase comfort by collaboration in a system of mutual bondage—

     Look at the slaves
     Of the world
     Calling themelves
     Penned like goats
     To unwilling pegs.

Malaya's marvellous vigour, humour, and defiance find their fullest expression in the final song 'Flaming Eternity' which enacts the stripping of the "mind-forg'd manacles" and culminates in a radiant assertion of basic natural freedom—

     Let the disappointed men
     Shout abuses at us …
     Let their jealous wives
     Rage and beat them …
     Let the bitches
     Pour boiling water on us …
     Let their secret
     Schoolgirl wives hiss …
     Let our parents
     Spit curses,
     Let our brothers
     Choke with shame and anger
     And run mad


     Let the black Bishops
     And priests
     Preach against us …
     Let the Lord
     Grant their prayers
     And condemn us all
     To flaming eternity


     Let Parliamentarians
     Debate and pass laws
     Against us,
     Let the police arrest us
     And lock us up
     In their cells,
     Let the magistrates
     Sentence us to jails


     Who can command
     The sun
     Not to rise in the morning?…
     Sister prostitutes
     Wherever you are
     Wealth and health
     To us all …

The stance of Malaya is not a final one. Like the others, it is transitional. Malaya is VAGRANT, antisocial. She is, of necessity, a denizen of the unstructured alternative, the liminal underground. But her lively warmth, her awareness, and her militancy are the soundest base for the transvaluation of values, through trial and error, by the radically humane in the process of positing a political future which is worthy of humanity.

Chikwenye Okonjo Ogunyemi (essay date October 1982)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 neighbouring Uganda. Political history was being made in Rhodesia, where Ian Smith held Britain to ransom and Zimbabweans bore the brunt of the impasse between the two. With this instability in the background, p'Bitek's political prison poem, Song of Prisoner or Song of a Prisoner, as he more aptly titled the American edition, was not just timely but was to be prophetic: soon a brutalizing force would sweep through Idi Amin's Uganda. In the tumultuous East African political climate, it was conceptually easy for p'Bitek, though he himself had only had brushes with the authorities, to write about the fate that awaited a political prisoner.

Writing from personal experience, Etheridge Knight had made a memorable statement about prison life [in "Inside These Walls," in Black Voices from Prison, 1970]: "The fact is that physical brutality is as nothing compared to the brutality of the soul incurred by years and years of cancerous prison life." p'Bitek would agree with him. In Song of Prisoner, he concentrates imaginatively on the nature of a prisoner's mental health and conjures up for the reader the primitive conditions under which the prisoner is detained. The brutal treatment p'Bitek's prisoner has received leaves him physically incapacitated and mentally disoriented. The burden of Song of Prisoner is a dramatization of his mental disorientation.

In his private capacity, the prisoner worries about the fate of his family—his children and his wife—and frets about the future of the children of a prisoner. p'Bitek also deals with the prisoner as a public person. This prisoner is severally referred to, from the viewpoint of the government's law enforcement agents, as "A vagrant / A loiterer" and "A foreign bastard." He confesses to the assassination of a public figure, a "capitalist reactionary." The hero thus is established as a political prisoner who claims to have killed to free his people.

Intriguingly, we never know whether to believe him or not. He is mentally deranged and is occasionally given to boasting and delusions of grandeur. Ironically, he insists, like any government, that he is for law and order and Uhuru. From the government's viewpoint, however, the assassination is against law and order and earns him the loss of his freedom. In spite of his heroic act, his "uniformed Brothers" (one is almost tempted to refer to them as uninformed) club him in his cell. Cowed by their brutality, he becomes less belligerent than most political prisoners. Panic stricken, he confesses unabashedly:

     I plead fear,
     I plead helplessness,
     I plead hopelessness,
     I am an insect
     Trapped between the toes
     Of a bull elephant.

Earlier he had cried out,

     I plead insanity,
     I am
     Can't you see?

And yet he later insists,

     I am not senseless,
     I am not cowardly,
     Not dastardly,
     I am not a thug,
     I am not insane,
     This is not
     Cold-blooded murder,
     I did not do it
     For the money….

Incidentally he had informed us that he was "hired" to eliminate his victim. His contradictions and shifts in point of view could confuse the reader. However, in the schema they are indicative of the prisoner's deteriorating mental state. He reminds us in vivid, unforgettable images that

     There is a carpenter
     Inside my head,
     He knocks nails
     Into my skull.

We should at this point believe the prisoner since these statements are revealing and might help in our understanding of the poem and prevent us from encountering the difficulties G. A. Heron faced in his interpretation [The Poetry of Okot p'Bitek, 1976]. Heron rightly observes that "Section 3 illustrates the way fantasy, the present reality, and memories are confused and intermingled." To cover his interpretive difficulties, however, he blames p'Bitek: "In spite of the importance of this fictional structure, Okot is very careless about the internal fiction of the poem. Much more descriptive detail goes into what are almost certainly fantasies than into information about the past of the prisoners and there are inconsistencies in the information we are given. In Section 7 the vagrant tells his wife to 'Dream about our first meeting / In the forest,' yet in Section 13 the same man talks of 'our first meeting / At the dancing arena'." Heron's mistake is in limiting the confused state of affairs to Section 3 rather than seeing the entire poem as a representation of the prisoner's confusion. The prisoner-singer hallucinates a greater part of the poem. p'Bitek, not writing a memoir, remains detached, a position that enables him to present his prisoner as a creature succumbing to the rigours of prison life, helplessly but steadily moving towards insanity. The incipient madness is graphically captured in the constant, broken thoughts, the scrambled time scheme, and the gross disregard for spatial limitations. His arguments are contradictory: he rebels against his dead father and blames him for marrying somebody unworthy of him—the prisoner's mother. Yet, in an about-face, he sharply criticizes his mother for marrying his father. His self-depreciation demonstrates the depth of his depression. At one point the prisoner threatens to exhume his father's bones in order to hang him by the neck! Rudderless, he desperately attempts to connect with his gaolers who prefer to "communicate" with him by brutalizing him. But, like other schizophrenics, he has moments of sanity, as when he criticizes his country's social conditions. Thinking about the Chief's dog and his own children, in very clever juxtapositioning, he asks

     How many pounds
     Of meat
     Does this dog eat
     In a day?
     How much milk …?
     Have you seen
     The mosquito legs
     Of my children?

He wins us completely to his side by the poignant sarcasm implicit in his phrase "infant pregnancies" to describe the bloated stomachs his children have to bear as a result of malnutrition.

Once we have grasped the true nature of the prisoner's situation and the attendant effect on his health, the poem becomes intelligible as the soliloquy or song of a schizophrenic prisoner. The entire poem is sung in the first person. From the text, we have no cause to believe, as Heron proposes, that other prisoners are involved and also lament their plight using the same first person. There is no indication of a change in the singer. The title, Song of a Prisoner, under which the poem was published in America, is important in grasping the notion of one singer who comes to represent the other singers. The controversial Section II, the section on the minister of state, is by and about the same prisoner. At this point he suffers from delusions of grandeur and believes he is a minister. Since he was a former bodyguard to some dignitary, the sophisticated life of a minister would not be beyond the prisoner's comprehension. His subconscious wishes surface in this section, and he solves in one swoop the problems that have preoccupied him—the fate of his family, their poverty, and his disconcerting relationship with his parents, marked by his confusion about whether his father is dead or alive. He imagines himself writing out "fat cheques." Furthermore, he thinks he will not be absent from his family for too long, which is in keeping with his earlier optimism when, filled with self-importance, he felt the "best lawyers" would defend him and understanding judges would spring him from prison. The minister section thus serves as an exercise in wishfulfilment fantasies.

Suffering from claustrophobia, the prisoner desperately wants connection on a world-wide basis to escape the constrictions of his immediate environment. He wants communion with Russians, South Africans, Indians, the French, and the Chinese. From these global thoughts, his mind drifts closer home, and he feels a need to connect with the Munyoro and the Kikuyu. He is obviously suffering from ideological confusion, or else he is an incorrigible idealist. p'Bitek takes us through "the entire history of the moods of imprisonment; we are swept through the whole awful landscape of imprisoned despair" [Edward Blishen, Introduction to Song of a Prisoner, 1971].

I think the prisoner is deluding himself when he says:

     I am intoxicated
     With anger,
     My fury
     Is white hot.

His inability to dramatize his anger beyond mouthing it belies his position. He is clearer about himself when he says, "I am dizzy / With frustration." And a few lines later, "My head is bursting…." What we see in this prisoner then is a human wreck, the living consequence of the brutality of incarceration. Although he complains about his physical discomforts, he has already undergone a metamorphosis mentally without knowing it. He is, tragically for him and for us,

    A young tree
    Burnt out
    By the fierce wild fire
    Of Uhuru.

Despite his difficulties he rambles through some thoughts of the outside world. Like the prisoner Soyinka, who writes about air raids in "Flowers for My Land," p'Bitek's prisoner expresses the same anxieties:

      Roaring kites
      Split the sky
      And excrete deadly dungs
      On the heads
      Of the people,
      Pots and skulls

Ironically, he still concerns himself with the people's property and lives, as shown in the phrase "pots and skulls," although, as the last two stanzas show, he is in truth a tragic hero, rejected and unacclaimed by the people he fought for. Incarcerated and deprived of meaningful human contact, the closing lines stress his desire for sex and freedom:

      Open the door,
      I want to dance
      All the dances of the world,
      I want to sleep with
      All the young dancers
      Let me dance and forget
      For a small while
      That I am a wretch,
      The reject of my Country.

Detached from the sordidness of prison life, p'Bitek has been able to give us a vivid and penetrating account of the excruciating loneliness that the isolated political prisoner has to endure by showing us the inroads into the mental health and physical condition of a previously happy family man.

K. L. Goodwin (essay date 1982)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 had earlier appeared in periodicals and anthologies; it established that there was a readership for volumes of poetry in English by a single author, and so made possible the publication of such works as Okello Oculi's Orphan (1968), Joseph Buruga's The Abandoned Hut (1969)—two volumes heavily influenced by Song of Lawino—, John Mbiti's Poems of Nature and Faith (1969), Jared Angira's Juices (1970), Taban lo Liyong's Frantz Fanon's Uneven Ribs (1971) and Richard Ntiru's Tensions (1971). The East African literary desert for works in English that Taban lo Liyong [in his The Last Word: Cultural Synthesism] had polemically described in 1965 clearly no longer existed; if, indeed, it ever had in Liyong's terms.

Okot p'Bitek has been reticent and even off-handed when questioned about his literary antecedents. Unlike a large number of African poets in English, he did not read English as a university subject and, though he has taught literature at school and university, he seems to have a mild contempt for the formal questions raised by its more earnest practitioners. That, together with his mischievous sense of fun, means that such statements as this comment on Song of Lawino and Song of Ocol cannot be taken too literally:

I don't think they are very much influenced by the African oral tradition; they cannot be sung, for instance. Possibly they are influenced by The Song of Hiawatha by H. W. Longfellow and also by Song of Solomon. These books I enjoyed very much when I was a student and I consider Song of Solomon the greatest love song ever.

Hiawatha seems at first an improbable suggestion, but Okot may have been referring to its discursive, repetitive mode of story-telling; its athletic hero ('Swift of foot was Hiawatha'); his love of music and story; and his requirements in a wife ('Feet that run on willing errands'). He may also have remembered its short unrhymed lines, though their trochaic tetrameter measure bears little resemblance to Okot's standard free-verse two- and three-beat lines. Song of Solomon is more plausible, for Okot is an expansive, even extravagant, love poet.

The dismissal of orally composed and recited poetry as an influence must be considered playful. Song of Lawino was written in Acoli and translated into English. The two Acoli versions (composed in 1956 and 1969) not only draw directly on many Acoli songs, but could themselves be sung. In the English translation, as Okot says in the preliminary matter to the poem, he has 'murdered rhythm and rhyme'; or at least has dispensed with rhyme and settled for a very free rhythm. Even so, one can readily appreciate something of the traditional Acoli songs quoted by Lawino and can appreciate how similar they are to the surrounding context of Lawino's own 'Song' or 'Lament'. So, for instance, the love song of the Acoli man imploring his father to 'Gather the bridewealth' is the first part of the traditional song, Wora kel lim, translated in The Horn of My Love as 'Father, bring the bridewealth'. Or, in section 8, when Lawino sings the dirge 'Fate has brought troubles', she is quoting part of the traditional dirge, Woko okelo ayela (The Horn of My Love). Or again, just before the end of the poem, when Lawino sings 'She has taken the road to Nimule', she is quoting from Okwanyo ger Lumule, the song about the 'Chief of all women, Alyeka, the brown one' (The Horn of My Love).

It is not, however, only in direct quotation that Okot is indebted to the Acoli oral tradition. When, for instance, Lawino says

      My husband's tongue
      Is bitter like the roots of the lyonno lily

she is quoting an Acoli proverb referring to the bitterness of a wild lily, the tubers of which are eaten only when nothing else is available. When she ends section 2 with

      The pumpkin in the old homestead
      Must not be uprooted!

she is quoting a proverb much used by old men to make the point that old customs, like the wild pumpkins that grow over abandoned settlements, do no harm and may even be useful.

The point is too obvious to need labouring. Song of Lawino is clearly related, in content, tone, and style, to Acoli songs. Its basic three-beat line, with frequent variations, is as close as one could expect to get in English to the pattern of the Acoli line. It is also very similar to the kind of line being written in English at this time by such East African poets as Taban lo Liyong, John Mbiti, Joseph Mutiga, John Ruganda, Edwin Waiyaki or Walter Bgoya.

What is new is the sustained rhetoric of the complaint, the organized characterization and satire of the dramatic monologue, and the use of translation as a subject to make polemical and satiric points. Of Okot's four major poems, this is the one that lies closest to his own education in traditional culture, for which he was largely indebted to his mother, Lacwaa Cerina, 'who first taught me to sing', as he says in the dedication to Song of Ocol. Song of Lawino is, indeed, named after her, for Lawino (meaning born with the umbilical cord wrapped round the neck) was one of his mother's names; and, like the fictional Lawino, his mother had been 'chief of girls'. It is also the poem closest to his academic studies in anthropology and religion; it contains a dramatic summary of some of the main positions taken up in his later study, African Religions in Western Scholarship. It has the most detailed characterization of any of his works and, in that Lawino is very much a woman who has been brought up in an identifiably Acoli culture, the narrowest frame of cultural reference. Lawino is, of course, also representative of the values of village life anywhere in Africa, as contrasted with those of European colonialism. She represents, too, the values of the African woman (or at least of a certain kind of African woman) faced with rivalry in love. But her quarrel with Ocol is more personal and more specific than one finds in Okot's later works. They spread out into cultural and political comment on the whole of black Africa in a way that would be quite foreign to the mind of the village-raised Lawino.

The beginning of the poem and the last section are addressed to her husband, Ocol, meaning Son of Black, or Blackman, as Taban lo Liyong points out [in "Lawino is Unedu," in The Last Word]. Once, says Lawino, he

     … was still a Black man
     The son of the Bull
     The son of Agik

but now—and there is hence a good deal of irony implicit here—

     My husband pours scorn
     On Black People

These two passages, like all the poem[s] between the opening and section 13 (except for a brief passage in section 12), are part of the diatribe addressed to her clansmen as a complaint against her husband.

It is a proud complaint, however, for she was chief of girls and so has a 'Bull name,' a title or nickname given to an outstanding person. This, like so many key concepts, is a literal translation from the Acoli, for in this poem, though not in others, Okot finds the strategy of literal translation a fruitful source of ironic comment. In this instance, however—and it is a fairly rare one—any amusement is immediately neutralized by an explanation of why such names are called 'Bull names' and how they come to be bestowed. Lawino says

    My Bull name is Eliya Alyeker
    I ate the name
    Of the Chief of Payira
    Eliya Aliker,
    Son of Awic.

The Payira, the most populous and most extensive in landholding of the Acoli chiefdoms, had as their chief in the 1940s Eliya Aliker, of whom Okot tells something in The Horn of My Love. Lawino was given his name as a tribute to her leadership, but it was assimilated into the word alyeker, a term of affection. She is the daughter of a man with the title 'Lengamoi', someone who has killed another man and is probably a respected leader in warfare. She knows that she is neither 'shy' nor 'easily browbeaten'; that she is not 'a fool' and not 'cold'. She is proud of her appearance, of her skin and her hair, of her tattoos, her breasts and eyes and her singing, playing, and dancing. She knows that in fair competition she could hold Ocol's love by her appearance and by her housekeeping.

Ocol, too, has reason to be proud of the place he holds in his own clan, for he is a 'Prince Of an ancient chiefdom', one whose grandfather and father were great men. But he has been so seduced by European ways that he 'abuses all things Acoli', even threatening to cut down the Okango, the small sacred tree at his father's shrine.

His change of heart is symbolized in his supplanting of Lawino by Clementine, 'a modern girl … Who speaks English'. Lawino at first professes herself not jealous but then admits 'We all suffer from a little jealousy'. Her own common sense tells her, however, that it is impossible to prevent men from wanting women and her pride that 'I do not fear to compete with her'.

Section I is a summary of the insults and arguments her husband has used against her; sections 2 to 5 contrast the ways of the rival, Clementine, with Acoli ways; sections 6 to 12 leave Clementine in order to concentrate on Ocol's other prejudices, all of which are contrasted with Acoli beliefs and customs; section 13 is a final appeal to Ocol. All of this would, of course, be mere raillery if Lawino had no desire or hope of drawing Ocol back. Despite his insults, she is still in love with him, deeply hurt that he treats her 'As if I am no longer a person'. She is concerned that he will be ridiculed by the clan; she recalls his infatuated courtship of her; she imagines herself taunting him with his putative flabbiness and with her accomplished boyfriend who plays the nanga; and she ends by asking him to let her dance before him and sing his praises. Her main argument, however, always implicit and sometimes explicit, is that Acoli ways, though not necessarily better than European ways, are the right ones for an Acoli; that he should be true to his lineage, should cease behaving like a woman and behave like the Acoli prince he is, having due respect for his ancestors. The ancestral shrine, the otole war dance praising past leaders of the clan, the Stool of the chieftain, the images of prowess with spear and shield in warfare are the outward emblems of large-scale argument in favour of Acoli ways.

Lawino's moderation, exemplified in her admission that talcum powder is 'good on pink skin', that white woman's hair 'Is soft like silk', that Ocol is free to eat 'White men's foods' if he enjoys them is intersected by passages of bitter raillery, not just at Clementine and Ocol for foolishly aping white ways, but also at some of the white ways themselves. The coprologous description of a modern dance-hall in section 3; the description of white man's food as tasteless or repulsive (a fried egg as being 'slimy like mucus'); or the exposition of the idiocies and inconsistencies of Christian catechetical instruction in sections 8 and 9 not only are very funny in themselves, but they also serve to characterize Lawino as passionately biased and sometimes deficient in understanding or judgment.

She is, for instance, a believer in talismans or charms, saying that Ocol once beat her

      For wearing the toe of the edible rat
      And the horn of the rhinoceros
      And the jaw-bone of the alligator.

As she points out, though, the nuns of the Catholic faith to which her husband adheres seem to use the crucifix for similar purposes. In section 7 she says that Ocol is angry because

      I cannot keep time
      And I do not know
      How to count the years.

Her explanation that the Western system of time-keeping is unnecessary is rhetorically effective as far as it goes. In a rural environment, all events of the day, the year, and the lifetime can be satisfactorily timed by the sun, the cock, the stomach, the climate, the moon, the crops, and unusual events. The notion of a continuum of time ticking away whether anyone notices or needs it, a single linear framework for relating all events to, even to the point where it dictates those events, is a scientific one. It was found necessary in Egypt, Babylon, China, and India originally, it would seem, as a basis for astronomical and astrological calculations. Even thoroughly rural communities have, of course, found some need for a calendar, if only to calculate regular market days. To that extent, Lawino's argument is a bit extreme. But then it is part of her character: she is prone to hyperbole. And to stubborn, almost incorrigible ignorance. She cannot tell the time and seems to refuse to learn; she uses the electric stove, but detests it and refuses to master the controls (section 6); she cannot or will not tune the radio.

[In "The Patriot as An Artist," in African Writers African Writing, edited by G. D. Killam, 1973] Ali Mazrui has criticized the poem for making Lawino

a little too simple. A mind that exaggerates so much and in such an obvious way is not simply culturally distinct from the modernity which enchants Ocol; it is also a mind too naïve to stand a chance of saving Ocol from that enchantment.

Similarly, in a review of the published Acoli version, Wer pa Lawino, Okumo pa'Lukobo objects that Lawino is impossibly backward as a representative of a present-day rural Acoli woman: 'I know of no place in Acoli today where the village girls can't dance at least a sort of rumba'.

This is no doubt true if we assume that the setting of the verse-novel is the 1960s, as the elections of section II and the availability of several sophisticated Western articles clearly indicate. But while this is so for the surface of the novel, the clash of culture-values has to be seen as placed a couple of decades earlier, contemporary, say, with Ngugi's Weep Not, Child or even The River Between. The gap between the date of the superficial life and the date of the work's more deeply felt cultural life should worry no one who is prepared to see the whole poem as a myth. Okot needed to sharpen the contrast between the traditional village and the Westernized town, even to exaggerate the two sets of mores by idealization and caricature. So Lawino is more stubbornly opposed to Western ways despite her assertions of tolerance, and Ocol more intransigent and fervent in his new faith and culture than would be literally credible in the 1960s. Such distortions and anachronisms are inevitable in myth from Gilgamesh, the Mahabharata, or the Iliad on. It is Mazrui's failure to understand that representativeness invariably implies some distortion of individuality in character that vitiates his criticisms of the poem.

The poem does, of course, contain discrepancies, but they can, I think, all be attributed to Lawino's blinding sense of outrage and the hyperbole or distortion that stem from it. When, for instance, in the section on time, she says that among the Acoli

     A person's age
     Is shown by what he or she does
     It depends on what he or she is,
     And on what kind of person
     He or she is

She has forgotten that earlier she implied a different system (one that her clansmen must have known very well) in the wonderfully vindictive jibe at Clementine as 'this age-mate of my mother' and in her reporting of Ocol as using the expression 'age-mate of my grandfather'. While these are very broad categories of age-mateship, it is clear, as Taban lo Liyong points out (The Last Word), that the Acoli do in fact use a much narrower age-mate system, rather than relying on categorization 'by what he or she does'. The conclusion to be drawn, though, is simply that Lawino is inconsistent and that this is part of her vehement desire to make as bold a case as she can. To say that she is aware of putting on an act is perhaps going beyond the literary evidence, but certainly Lawino is a performer and has always enjoyed being one.

Okot poured a great many of his own interests into the poem. traditional dancing and singing, rites and ceremonies, education, religion, and other matters of cultural and anthropological interest; the role of the Christian church; and the two-party system of politics that operated early in Uganda's independence are all incorporated into the poem. His treatment of the church runs parallel to the more extended treatment he gives in his academic works. At the heart of his approach is the belief that in trying to relate their own religion to Acoli religion by translation, Christian missionaries misunderstood Acoli religion and distorted their own. They began with the assumption that the Acoli, clearly a polytheistic people, must believe in a Supreme Being or High God. Okot considers this a gross error not just about the Acoli but about all the peoples of the Upper Nile, that is, the Nilotes. Their attitude to a jok or god he describes thus:

When the Nilotes encounter jok, it is with a specific and named or easily definable jok, and not some vague 'power' that they communicate with. The proper name identifies the jok, placing it in a specific category and social context, for action. There is no occasion when the Nilotes think of all the jogi (pl. of jok) simultaneously. And there is no evidence to show that they regard the named jogi as refractions or manifestations, or hypostases of a so-called High God. Each category of jok is independent of other jogi, although some are used against others. For the Nilotes there are many deities. Not one. [African Religions in Western Scholarship]

The Christian idea of God as omnipotent and as creator, which Okot considers to be a Greek philosophical one applied to Jewish religious experience, thus could not be conveyed in Acoli. But according to Okot the Italian Catholic priests insisted on finding the appropriate words:

In 1911, Italian Catholic priests put before a group of Acoli elders the question 'Who created you?'; and because the Luo language does not have an independent concept of create or creation, the question was rendered to mean, 'Who moulded you?'. But this was still meaningless, because human beings are born of their mothers. The elders told the visitors that they did not know. But, we are told that this reply was unsatisfactory, and the missionaries insisted that a satisfactory answer must be given. One of the elders remembered that, although a person may be born normally, when he is afflicted with tuberculosis of the spine, then he loses his normal figure, he gets 'moulded'. So he said 'Rubanga is the one who moulds people'. This is the name of the hostile spirit which the Acoli believe causes the hunch or hump on the back.

And so 'The name of the Christian God in Lwo is Rubanga', as Okot notes [in] … Lawino, and throughout sections 8 to 10 of the poem he insists on translating the Christian Rubanga as 'the Hunchback', making the unstated assumption that the Acoli jok responsible for spinal deformation in human beings is himself deformed. Similarly, the Acoli word for the Christian heaven is retranslated literally as 'Skyland', the Holy Ghost is 'the Clean Ghost', angels are 'the beautiful men With birds' wings', the Apostles' Creed is 'the Faith of the Messengers', the Holy Bible 'the Clean Book', and the gospel 'the good word'. None of the amusement of these literal retranslations could of course exist in the Acoli version, for the language has assimilated these meanings and lost the original incongruities. It is a little disingenuous of Okot to ignore the fact that words in any language change their denotations and connotations over a period of time and that even at the one time a single word may have a wide range of connotations, the intended one being indicated by context and purpose. It is, nevertheless, all good fun in English, and serves the wider aim of showing the disparity between the two sets of value-systems. It is not a method used elsewhere in his work.

If Okot is right in believing that the Acoli could not accomodate the Graeco-Christian notion of God, it is difficult to see what he expected proselytizing missionaries to do, except give up and go home. Even if their labour was ultimately vain, it seems a little harsh to blame them for trying, albeit misguidedly. The important point remains, though, that in Okot's view no accommodation was possible between two such dissimilar religions. It serves to strengthen Lawino's view that the two cultural systems—religious, educational, artistic, aesthetic, medical, culinary, sartorial, architectural, political, and linguistic—should be kept separate alongside each other. Her attitude is

      I do not understand
      The ways of foreigners
      But I do not despise their customs.
      Why should you despise yours?

She is prepared for Ocol to adopt an eclectic attitude to the two cultures, provided he ceases despising his traditional one. But syncretism between the two cultures seems beyond her conceptualization, and is perhaps alien to Okot p'Bitek's own beliefs. She is prepared, though, to admit that her own culture changes, for she takes umbrage at being grouped by Ocol with her grandmother:

      He says there is no difference
      Between me and my grandmother
      Who covers herself with animal skins.

While the Western-educated reader may find goliardic verse, or Skeltonics, or Elizabethan complaints, or Swiftian satire appropriate comparisons for the tone of Song of Lawino, there is no need to go beyond what Okot himself says of Acoli oral literature, whether satirical attacks in short stories, or 'songs of bitter laughter', including dirges that include attacks on the living:

these poems do not cause social strife among the clansmen. On the contrary, they provide a channel through which members of this close-knit group pour out their grievances and jealousies against one another, in public. These attacks, with all the abuse, ridicule and cruel insults, act as a cleansing activity. (The Horn of My Love)

Lawino herself represents her society as a competitive one: 'when a girl knocks you You strike back'; a society where all she asks is the chance to compete openly for her husband's favours, eating 'in the open Not in the bed room.' It is a lusty, vigorous community, where absence of noise is characteristic of wizards. If she seems overemphatic and raucous at times, she can also modulate her tone to blandishment and appeal, though she never becomes servile.

In this characterization of her society she is borne out by her husband's retort, Song of Ocol, which appeared four years later. He begins by drawing attention to the monotony and stridency of Lawino's song, and it is noticeable that his own is much more flexible and varied, its basic two-beat line (in contrast to Song of Lawino's three beats) creating a general effect less of ululation than of curt bitter vilification. It is not a self-confident assertion of one set of values, as Lawino's song is; on the contrary, it mourns the passing of Lawino's values and their replacement by a dubious and, indeed, already collapsing set of values. It is an ironic lament for what has been lost, interspersed with the hollow face-saving formulae appropriate to an intelligent and self-critical member of the new Westernized élite. It hints constantly at an unstated self-disgust. It can also be seen to contain the seeds of Okot's two later Songs.

The tone of Song of Ocol has not, I think, been well grasped by most critics. It is not, except in superficial ways that the author intends us to recognize as such and reject, a defence of Westernization. It is certainly not an answer to Lawino. Indeed, except for section 1, it is not addressed to her. It lacks the specific, dramatic setting of Lawino's monologue. Instead, it is addressed, more in Ocol's thinking than in actuality, to various groups of people, not just Acoli, but groups from all over East Africa. For the richly varied tone there are traditional African precedents, but not, I think, for the wide range of (mostly imagined) addressees. Here the analogy might be with some of Léopold Sédar Senghor's or Walt Whitman's poems, particularly those that combine rhetorical address with symbolic visions. Or, as a dramatic monologue, one might relate it to the fantasizing and the imaginary situations of The Love-Song of J. Alfred Prufrock rather than to the solidly dramatized situations of Browning; it is largely interior monologue rather than spoken monologue.

Its battery of imagery is not, as one would have expected had it been a reply to Lawino, drawn mainly from Western technology, economics, and social philosophy. It is true that in the first section Ocol refers to the boot of his car and to having the house painted by a professional; in section 5 to putting 'the Maasai in trousers'; in section 6 to the modern party system and his own (probably imaginary) town house, farm, and Mercedes; in section 7 to grandiose engineering works; and in section 9 to Westernized Africans in various professions. Many of these references are, however, ironic, filled with a tone of self-loathing and disgust. But even so they are outweighed by the traditional African images, many of them, it is true, offered in a tone of denigration or repulsion, but others offered with affection or nostalgia. The balance of imagery is, in other words, at least as much in favour of traditional imagery as in Song of Lawino.

The extended image of the exiled monarch in section 1 represents not merely Lawino in her irreparable separation from Ocol, but more importantly—for this is a more widely symbolic and less localized poem than Song of Lawino—Ocol, the Blackman, irreparably exiled from his kingdom, the inheritance of his traditional society. Ocol, the character in the poem, is sympathizing with Lawino's plight, bemoaning his own separation from the clan, and then rising beyond these personal concerns into symbolic mourning for the African's separation from his roots. Even in section 1, the most specifically dramatic part of the poem, the wider symbolic framework is introduced.

It might be objected that he cannot be mourning for acts that he accepts responsibility for. He does, after all, say 'We will plough up … We will uproot … We will obliterate…'. In fact, however, this responsibility for one's own destruction, this plucking up of one's own roots, is what makes the whole process so tragic. Ocol, as a character and as the symbolic African, is deeply divided. He knows he is destroying himself but he does not seem able to help it. He despoils his own culture but he loathes himself for doing so. The futile 'Song of the woman' is not merely the woman Lawino's lament; it is the representative case Lawino has put up for the preservation of African culture. It is a doomed case, represented by the symbol of an already defeated General. The symbol is taken up again at the very end of the poem:

      As for Shaka
      The Zulu General,
      How can we praise him
      When he was utterly defeated
      And killed by his own brothers?

It is not the mere defeat that is bitter and desolate: it is the fact that, after the defeat of the African dream, Africans themselves abrogated their leader and killed him.

Similarly, with the images that follow that of the General in section 1, the emphasis is on something once good that has been neglected or abused and allowed to decay: the song of Lawino is 'rotting buffalo', 'sour sweet', 'pork gone rancid', 'sour milk', 'rotting Pumpkin'. In section 2, affection and ridicule are mingled in a lyrical interior monologue that draws on Négritude images for affection and on white caricatures of Africa ('white teeth in bright pink gum') for ridicule.

The mood of section 3 is more violent as Ocol rouses himself to threats of root-and-branch destruction of African ways. This is much more hysterical than anything in Lawino's song, much nearer neurosis. 'All the village poets Musicians and tribal dancers' are to be put in detention, all the 'schools of African studies' closed down. Ocol expresses frenzied hatred for anything reminding him that he is black.

Section 4 changes from this vituperative tone to one of nostalgia, though not uncritical nostalgia, as Ocol recalls a scene of the blind nanga player Adok Too or Omal Lakana singing while an Acoli woman returns from the well. Ocol adjures her and her sisters from elsewhere in East Africa to release themselves from their slavery, ignorance, and unhygienic ways, to revolt against a system that makes them chattels. Lawino had nothing of the feminist in her: she wanted her man to adopt the traditional male role while she entertained him and cooked for him; she even used the bridewealth system, which she obviously accepted, as an argument against the plausibility of the Christian story of the birth of Jesus. Ocol here professes concern at the subjection inherent in such a view of wifehood.

The review of traditional ways continues in section 5, though it is now applied to the more masculine pursuits of the peoples of East Africa and it ranges over various historical periods. The nostalgic roll-call of these people is then succeeded by further vicious threats to eliminate such practices and to turn these rural people into urban dwellers. The tone has, in other words, fluctuated between nostalgia and frenetic ideology.

Section 6 is a long piece of self-justification by Ocol addressed to a village man, a constituent who, it appears, has never seen his local-member of parliament before. It can be taken literally, but such is the extravagance of the tone that it seems best to take it as a daydream: Ocol imagining himself to be a member of parliament with a town house, a Mercedes and a farm, and imagining how he would deal with a constituent. If taken literally, then this is not the Ocol of Song of Lawino, section 11; it is a wealthier Ocol some years later and he has not got rid of Lawino in the intervening years. It seems better to interpret it as a dream of Ocol projected into the future when he has been elected to parliament and has begun to reap the rewards of his Party loyalty.

In section 7 there is another change of mood. Self-doubt is given expression in the prophetic vision attributed to a crippled beggar. Ocol is abusive to the frightened beggar, but quotes the whole of his song. It is about the cynicism and frustration following Uhuru, then their replacement by anger, which results in a purifying explosion or revolution. The beggar's song reflects Ocol's own fear, but he sublimates his fear into vituperation, ending with the absurd hyperbole of the projected schemes to blow up Mount Kilimanjaro, fill in the Rift Valley, and turn the waters of the Nile into the Indian Ocean. Ocol's divided nature and his tenuous hold on reality are again in evidence.

Section 8 similarly balances nostalgia for tradition and brutal abolition of it. It has some lovely reminiscences of a woman once loved—not Lawino as a character, for this is a prophetic vision of the final destruction of traditional Africa, of the absorption of the country into the city.

The visionary strain continues in section 9, as Ocol surveys the roles of the modern intelligentsia. His cynicism has now taken a very sombre hue. The voice of 'United Africa' has been drowned out by guns, Marxism has been assimilated and distorted to make it seem peculiarly African, even though it is expressed in such widely dissimilar modes as Senghor's rhetoric and Nyerere's Arusha Declaration. The fever of Ocol's address reaches the madness it has always been threatening to embrace with the diatribe on

      the founders
     Of modern Africa
     Leopold II of Belgium
     Bismarck …

and ends with the sorrowful, tragic plaint:

     What proud poem
     Can we write
     For the vanquished?

Okot p'Bitek had of course written a proud poem for the people he now believes to be vanquished: Song of Lawino. Song of Ocol is, by contrast, a poem of despair for the lost culture of the vanquished. It is a poem much more varied in tone, without the long unrelieved stridency of Lawino's complaint. The variety and the deeply troubled subtlety of Ocol's mind have, regrettably, not always been appreciated by readers and critics.

Song of Prisoner arises generally out of the image of corrupt self-justification attributed to successful politicians in Song of Ocol, and specifically out of the following passage from section 6:

      Trespassers must be jailed
      For life,
      Thieves and robbers
      Must be hanged,
      Disloyal elements
      Must be detained without trial …

The anger and madness of Ocol are now transferred to one of the victims of such a policy of repression, a poor man who is delirious after (and while) being beaten up by sadistic warders in gaol. As Ocol lamented to his mother that he was born black (end of section 2), so Prisoner curses his father (section 4) and his mother (section 6) for his genes. Prisoner puts into words what was implicit in Song of Ocol: that 'the cancer of Uhuru' is 'Far worse than The yaws of Colonialism'. In Song of Ocol, 'The lamb Uhuru' was a rotting carcase with deceptively open eyes. In Song of Prisoner, the remains of the lamb's carcase are fought over by 'Old hyenas'. Uhuru is also a 'fierce wild fire' that has burnt out the Prisoner, and a 'whirlwind'. Its effects, in the hands of those who pervert and direct it for their own ends, are like a 'shark' devouring its own children, a 'Rhino' prodding its brothers in the back, or an 'arrow' bringing down an eagle.

Song of Prisoner has evoked a good deal of puzzlement and speculation about the dramatic situation in the poem, much of it generated by Edward Blishen's unfortunate remarks in his Introduction to the New York edition about a multiple persona rather than a single characterized speaker. Apart from one or two very minor inconsistencies, the poem makes sense as the more or less delirious dramatic monologue of a poor man who is being held and beaten up in gaol after he has assassinated an important political leader. The poem was begun immediately after Okot heard the news of the assassination in Nairobi on 5 July 1969 of Tom Mboya, the cabinet minister widely regarded as the most promising candidate to succeed Jomo Kenyatta as President. According to Okot,

The killer of Tom Mboya is the prisoner in Song of Prisoner. He hadn't been captured yet. I captured him first, in this poem. [Bernth Lindfors, "An Interview with Okot p'Bitek," World Literature Written English (November 1977)]

In section 11 he overhears another prisoner, a disgraced Minister for Police and Justice, being beaten up, and he intersperses his own comments. Section 12 is an interior monologue in the mind of the Minister; or, if one insisted on absolute singleness in the point of view, in the mind of the poor Prisoner as he imagines the Minister's thoughts or even overhears them (for the Minister is aware that 'the very air Has ears').

It is not, I think, impossible to work this out from the poem itself, particularly from the clues given at the beginning of section 11, when the Prisoner hears and shushes the 'millipede'. If external support were needed, however, it comes from Margaret Marshment, who said of section 11:

Okot tells me that this is the voice of a man in the next cell, whom the Prisoner overhears. This was not clear to me, and we could wish it were clearer because it is important … But we can guess at one reason why he might be in prison: that he was the assassin's employer. ["Song of Prisoner: A Reply to Atieno-Odhiambo," in Standpoints on African Literature, edited by Chris L. Wanjala, 1973]

It is a plausible guess, for the Prisoner at one stage has no doubt that the machinery of the Law will soon set him free, an appropriate theory if his hirer had been the Minister in charge of 'Law and Order', and if this was the same man he had been bodyguard to, political organizer for, and procurer of girls for. But it seems as if the hirer-Minister-employer is unable to protect his assassin-bodyguard-Prisoner, for he himself has been thrown into gaol and beaten up in the wake of the assassination. In gaol, one of his desires is 'to sleep With experienced prostitutes presumably the type lined up for him previously by the Prisoner.

Filling in further details of the dramatic situation, we can say that the Prisoner has apparently been arrested while sleeping in the 'City Park'; that he has been before a magistrate for a preliminary hearing, charged with vagrancy and asked whether he pleads guilty or not guilty (a recurring refrain); that the police have beaten him up several times, perhaps sadistically asking him as they do so whether he pleads guilty or not guilty to other offences including the assassination; that he believes the man he killed was a gross political criminal who had wrongfully imprisoned many citizens, that he is so poor that his family is short of food and his children will never go to school, and that during his imprisonment, perhaps in the early stages, he has had visions or hallucinations of being treated as a national hero for his bold action. The height of his euphoria is succeeded by the Minister's monologue, and this is a highly dramatic and ironic interruption, for his dreams of adulation could presumably only be realized if his employer, the Minister, stood by him and acknowledged him as his instrument. But the Minister himself is disgraced. He too has hopes of quick release; he too is beaten; he too has thoughts of his children, though they go to school and should prosper, and of his parents, though unlike the Prisoner's they are comfortably supported; he too has hallucinations of wild pleasure (section 12) to contrast against the brutal realities of the cell.

The main bulk of the Prisoner's dreams of pleasure follow the return of the monologue from the Minister to him in section 13. His pleasures are to be first with his wife, family, and clan, not among the city prostitutes like the Minister's. Then, in sections 14 and 15 his mind takes him beyond his clan, beyond East Africa, to a world survey of music, song, and dancing. It is a visionary expansion comparable to what happens at the end of Song of Ocol. There is madness about it all, as there was in Song of Ocol. Prisoner has been tortured, he has admitted that his mind is on fire and that he is mad. In his delirium, then, conventional moral attitudes are thrown away, and he can 'want to try the dances Of neo-colonialists and ex-Nazis'. Margaret Marshment saw this as an indication of the Prisoner's unreliability as a moral guide, of his reprehensible denial of responsibility for his own act or, indeed, for anybody's acts. It could, of course, also be seen as evidence of delirium brought about by his action, his imprisonment, the brutal treatment he has received, his fears for himself and his family, and his hunger. Or we may recognize that at the end of the poem (as in Song of Ocol) the clear outline of the human protagonist are being expanded and blurred as he is apotheosized into a symbol of the political detainee or political criminal anywhere in the world. Like many such people accused of acts against governments, he sees himself as a world citizen, justified by the euphoric internationalism of his act and condition. But the balance of sympathy still lies, I think, on the side of the Prisoner, whose exposé of the hypocrisy of the independent régime of which he is a citizen has been all too convincing.

In section 15, the examples of international brotherhood narrow down to Africa, and the dancing images are now mingled with images of war, famine, and bloodshed. The last word in the poem is 'Uhuru', and the whole poem has to be seen as a bitter and sorrowful myth of what can happen after so-called Independence, an indictment of African governments and nations as no better than anyone else at establishing a just society. More generally, Song of Prisoner can be seen as a myth of the oppressed citizen, deprived of freedom and dignity in the unjust state. Once again Okot p'Bitek has created a memorable myth centred on a representative type. Once again he has begun with a character and turned the character into a symbol.

The myth of Song of Malaya concerns African attitudes to sex in contrast to missionary-advocated exclusivity and repression. Once again, the seeds of this poem can be found in the earlier ones. Lawino, accepting that she should share her husband with Clementine, asked

     Who has ever prevented men
     From wanting women?

At the end of Song of Malaya, the prostitute (malaya in kiSwahili, but used in East Africa even by non-Swahili speakers) asks

     Who can command
     The sun
     Not to rise in the morning?

This is a poem celebrating sex as joyful, good, and liberating. The malaya says karibu ('come near' in kiSwahili) to all: sailors, soldiers, Sikhs, Hindus, whites, schoolboys, teachers, chiefs, drivers, factory workers, shop assistants, political organizers, doctors, municipal officers, Kaffirs, farmers, policemen, even perhaps the detested 'advisors The experts and mercenaries', the 'one pest' of Africa.

There are, however, detractors and enemies to be combated. The chief who complains of contracting venereal disease is reminded in section 2 of his visit a few nights earlier, when his virility was impaired by drunkenness. But the section ends with some practical advice on sexual manners: the Kaffir is advised to get circumcised and to bring 'Gum boots' or contraceptives next time; and her Sister Prostitutes are similarly advised to have 'boxing gloves' in their handbags. The out-raged wife is met in section 3 with the argument that her husband is made happier and more amenable by his visits to the prostitute; and there is also advice to do something about bad breath. The moralizing black bishop in section 4 is reminded that he is himself a bastard and that both chastity and monogamy are alien to nature. It is in this section that the poem (like Song of Ocol and Song of Prisoner) moves outward in time and space, drawing analogies from Eve, Hagar, the daughters of Sodom and Gomorrah, Rahab, Esther, Delilah (all Old Testament examples, by no means all normally considered as prostitutes), Magdalena, Theodora, and St Augustine's whore (examples from the New Testament, Byzantium, and the Church Fathers). The analogies are continued into section 5 with the illegitimacy of Jesus, used as a comforting example by the prostitute to her son who has been taunted at school by a teacher, himself indiscriminately licentious. The moral disapproval of her own brother is met by the prostitute in section 6 with evidence of his own reliance on prostitutes, his wife's unfaithfulness, and his own illegitimacy. There is also here a diatribe against wives as 'slaves Of the world', 'Married whores', 'Penned like goats To unwilling pegs'. After the harshness of her criticism she demurely offers to help her brother find a suitable partner, but he apparently storms out in affected disgust while she is speaking. Section 7 begins with her arrest by a police sergeant. She reminds him that he had visited her in another capacity only the previous night and then, echoing the words of the Prisoner, she asks

     But how can you now
     Call me
     A vagrant?

Then follows a malediction, summarizing her proud defiant argument in the whole of the poem. She defies all her enemies and detractors to do their worst and consign her to hell,

     Who can command
     The sun
     Not to rise in the morning?

This is a less serious, less gloomy, and less political poem than Song of Ocol or Song of Prisoner. Its joyous celebration and its relatively unvaried rhetorical tone are more reminiscent of Song of Lawino. But like all the other poems it expresses ideas important to Okot p'Bitek through the monologue of a character who rises into symbolism. The malaya, however, remains very much an individual to the end: her representative character has been conveyed by the repeated addresses of her song to her sister prostitutes of the world.

Okot's uncollected poems are few in number, and can easily be related to his four major works. 'Return the Bridewealth' [available in Poems from East Africa, edited by David Cook and David Rubadiri, 1971], for instance, fits easily into the world of Song of Lawino. The village man wants to marry a second time. Apparently improvident, he shamelessly asks his father for bridewealth, but is ignored. He thinks of borrowing money in the town, but is rejected, apparently as a bad risk. He then has the effrontery to ask his first wife (whose father he says he cannot trace) to return her own bridewealth. And, with a taunt, she does—by cheque. 'Harvest' and 'Order of the Black Cross' are political pieces of a slightly sibylline kind, the second marking the end of the war in Biafra. They can be accommodated within the world of Song of Ocol and Song of Prisoner. They can also be seen as pointing forward to Okot's fifth major poem, which he discussed with Bernth Lindfors in 1976:

I am now working on Song of a Soldier, which examines the destructive role of the military in Africa. It raises the question of just how are we going to get rid of them? The central character is a particular soldier, this great thief, parading all over Africa. I wish he was only a thief! He's much worse than that! He is the one speaking in most of the poem, but the book will have a slightly different structure from most of the others because there is also a narrator who comes in every now and then saying things like, 'He came soon after midnight and sneezed.' Then the soldier will speak, and the narrator will return later. So it's a two-sided sort of thing, the kind of structure you saw in Song of Prisoner. Even the corpses, the victims of the soldier, will speak and interact with their murderer, and then the narrator will push the story on to the next phase. It's a very painful thing I'm writing. It's been going on for some time because it's a very tearful thing to do … But it is a very terrible book because I lost quite a lot of relatives in the Uganda coup, a lot of friends too, and after I write a few lines, I drop it because it causes a lot of tears. [World Literature Written in English (November 1977)]

This dramatic monologue will, then, present the horrific corruption and corrupting influence of the individual agent of destruction. The humorous idiom has now turned very sour indeed, and Okot has moved a long way from the celebratory ebullience of Song of Lawino and Song of Malaya. The new poem confirms the fact, however, that his strength lies in the extended poem. In his four major published pieces he has created memorable symbols of African culture, the perversion of Westernization, the corruption of independent régimes, and African sexuality. The fifth will bring the cultural analysis even closer to the present time.

Ogo A. Ofuani (essay date December 1985)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 out—to know where the modern ends and the traditional begins, or where the Western ends and the African begins. Therefore, no attempt will be made to show that the modern and traditional influences are mutually exclusive. As with all aspects of life, there are bound to be overlaps, and this kind of overlap cannot be any more expected than in the work of a poet with the diverse kinds of experiences of p'Bitek.

A brief survey of his background is illuminating. Okot p'Bitek is an Acholi from Uganda. His father, Opii Jebedyo, was a teacher from the pa-Cua clan of the Patiko chiefdom and his mother, Lacwaa Cerina, came from the Palaro chiefdom. p'Bitek has repeatedly testified to his early interest in oral literature and his mother's influence in forming that interest:

… my interest in African literature … [was] sparked by my mother's songs and the stories that my father performed around the evening fire. [Africa's Cultural Revolution]

The title, Song of Lawino, is derived from his mother's name and confirms that his mother, as a composer and singer, taught him many of the songs that he enjoyed throughout his life and used in many aspects of his varied career. [In an endnote, Ofuani adds: "In an interview at Aarhus University in 1977, p'Bitek said that Song of Lawino has his mother's name and that his mother 'was a very important woman in my life and she taught me a lot. She was talented and composed thirty-four of the songs in Horn of My Love.'"] In the several interviews p'Bitek granted, he revealed that the oral literature of the Acoli of Uganda had played a very prominent and significant part in his literary development. Oral literature shaped p'Bitek's imagination in his infancy through the contact with, and the influence of, his mother and was at the center of much of his adult employment in Makerere and Nairobi, where he organized several festivals of dance and song.

It is true that oral literature also shaped his own conception of literature. We are of the opinion that p'Bitek's statements at Syracuse University, New York, in 1970, seemed to have been taken too literally by Heron [in his The Poetry of p'Bitek, 1976] when he says that "Okot p'Bitek professes both a contempt and ignorance of the formal study of literature." From our reading of the text of that lecture, it is agreed that p'Bitek professes "contempt" for the formal study of literature because of the strains of examination, but not ignorance of it. As is obvious from his biographies and from numerous interviews, the study of forms of Western literature, if anything, seemed to have merged with traditional literary influences in sparking his own creativity. Thus, it is our contention that for a man who, as Heron points out, "went to a teacher training college immediately after his Advanced Level examinations and thereafter taught English and Religious Knowledge at a secondary school," any claim of complete ignorance of the forms and conventions of modern Western literature would amount to more than "a little exaggeration." Our understanding of that portion of p'Bitek's lecture that is often misinterpreted is that he showed full contempt for the rigors that accompanied the Advanced Level literature examination:

As a Sixth Former at Budo, near Kampala, I used to take part in the weekly seminar at the Headmaster's house for the final preparation for the Cambridge School Certificate. We dressed up like "ladies" and "gentlemen," and sat on comfortable sofas and were served coffee. Those of use who were smokers were offered cigarettes. The atmosphere was always relaxed and pleasurable. But, halfway through the evening, quite a number of us would be snoring in the corners. When the year ended we made a bonfire of the now useless notebooks and English setbooks. Somehow I managed to pass the literature paper; but, on leaving school, I never read another novel or book of poetry, and never visited the theatre, until very much later on (emphasis added).

Though recounted in 1970, this was about an experience that took place in the fifties before p'Bitek went to Government Training College, Mbarara, between 1952 and 1954. In the excerpt above, the crucial elements are those emphasized. p'Bitek did not deny the obvious influence of Western literary tradition on his work. All he said was that he "never read" Western literature of any type "until very much later on." Song of Lawino was published in 1966, more than a decade after his A Levels, but his creativity as a writer started in his school days. He published his Acoli novel Lak Tar in 1953 and wrote the early version of Wer pa Lawino in 1956. Before these, while still a student, he had written and produced an opera in English called Acan. There is, therefore, no doubt that those boring seminars and literary sessions at the headmaster's house must have left their imprint, at least in sparking his own creative instincts. Some of the influences of Western literary traditions, such as the use of verse lines, stanzas, and even writing in English in the first instance, are discussed later in this paper. There is also an unmistakable trace of the influence of such Western literary masters as Robert Browning in his predilection for the long poem and the dramatic monologue. Browning, Coleridge, Donne, Eliot, Milton, Pope, and Shakespeare may have been featured in the Advanced Level English literature syllabuses which in the 1950s ranged from Chaucer to Eliot. African writers and works were hardly featured since most of the prominent African writers today—Achebe, Clark, Ngugi, Okigbo, Soyinka and p'Bitek himself—were still students. One cannot but agree, however, that the place of oral literature in p'Bitek's works "separates him distinctly from many of his fellow African writers," since "all of these writers have been very much involved in the formal study of a European literary tradition." The predominant role of oral literature in shaping the trend of p'Bitek's works is not unconnected with his own conception of literature, a conception which he has been very vocal in defending.

In his article "What is Literature?" [Busara, Vol. 4, No. 1 (1972)] p'Bitek calls for a redefinition of "literature." According to him, the typical dictionary definition, with its emphasis on writing, implies that literature is the exclusive preserve of literate societies. It excludes the literary activities of the vast majority of mankind, both in terms of history and geography. This definition, he says, should be replaced by a "dynamic and democratic" one, by which:

… literature stands for all the creative works of man expressed in words. Writing … is a mere tool for expressing ideas … the poet uses words for expressing his feelings. Now words can be spoken, sung or written. The voice of the singer or the speaker and the pen or paper are mere midwives of a pregnant mind. A song is a song whether it is sung, spoken or written down.

He thus emphasizes the importance of a word, the substance, irrespective of its formal realization. This accounts for the overlaps we find in his poetry of traditional oral poetic forms in which the spoken word is supreme and modern conventions dependent on the graphic mode. With this in mind, p'Bitek defines oral literature as follows:

Literature is the communication and sharing of deeply felt emotions. The vehicle of this communication is words. The aim of any literary activity must be to ensure that there is communication between the singer and the audience, between the story-teller and his hearers. There must be full participation by all present (author's emphasis).

In this direction, literature is to be de-emphasized as an examination-bound subject which gives the student little joy but only "pains." Literature is to be made into a "festival" as it is in the countryside. His stand is also reiterated later in the preface to his collection of translated Acoli poetry, Horn of My Love and several other interviews. This belief aroused his interest in the literature of the Acoli, especially their poetry and short stories collected in Horn of My Love and Hare and Hornbill repectively. This interest in Acoli literature also influenced his own creations. It influenced his writing of Wer pa Lawino in Acoli language and the translation Song of Lawino, a song in which Lawino, the arch-traditionalist, seeks to maintain the Acoli culture from the corrupting Westernizing influence of Ocol, her husband, and Tina, Ocol's mistress. The conflict between traditional African and Western cultural norms and values is thematically central to Song of Lawino. The importance of this conflict, which is highlighted in his other songs, is that it reflects the centripetal (traditional and modern) forces which converge in p'Bitek's poetry.

We have so far seen that the main influences on p'Bitek's works are those of his mother, his home, his Acoli background with its tradition of stories, dances and songs. The school influenced his literacy in Acoli and the English language. [In "Aesthetic Dualism and Creative Literature in East Africa," in Black Aesthetics, edited by P. Zirimu and A. Gurr, 1973] Mazrui summed up the sources of this kind of dualism as it affects creative writing in East Africa:

The problem for creative literature in East Africa, as in much colonial Africa, is the problem of what one might call aesthetic dualism. This is the coexistence of two artistic universes drawn from vastly different cultures, which have yet to coalesce or merge into a new distinct phenomenon. In reality each African country has more than two aesthetic worlds since each nation consists of several ethnic groups with their own civilizations. But for each African individual, the dualism is between the foreign and the indigenous, or the modern and the traditional. The dualism which is most pertinent to the crisis of identity within the arts in Africa is the dualism between the pull of western artistic influences and the stability of older modes of creativity.

The major perceptible traditional influences on p'Bitek's poetry are those arising from his interest in and knowledge of Acoli oral literary performance, while the modern are those that arise from his exposure to Western literary art. That these two main areas have influenced p'Bitek's creative development has been affirmed by Heron, Mbise, and Moore. For instance, Moore has indicated [in "Okot p'Bitek," a paper presented at the Fourth Annual Ibadan African Literature Conference in 1979] that "the new educated class in Acoli land contained many who refused to let their English education turn them aside from the language and literature of their own people." p'Bitek is clearly a member of this class of educated Acoli.

Taken as they are, p'Bitek's four Songs (Lawino, Ocol, Prisoner, and Malaya) are in print, irrespective of mode of initial composition. The impression this therefore creates is that p'Bitek's poems are to be taken, first and foremost, as written. But this does not rule out the fact that poetry conceived and written may have features of oral art. [In "Aspects of Varietie, Differentiation," Journal at Linguistics, Vol. 3, No. 2 (1967)] Gregory has distinguished two kinds of poetry: in non-literate and in literate societies. In non-literate societies, poems are recited, technically meaning that they involve the speaking of the poetic texts, non-spontaneously, such texts "written down" in the reciter's memory, as it were. If this subdivision is pursued to its logical conclusion, we find ourselves immersed in the controversy about which medium is primary, speech or writing? The implication of the dual categorization is that, at one level, speech is primary (the written text is secondary and dependent upon speech in writing) and that at another, writing is primary and is aimed at speech.

This kind of dualism is perceptible in p'Bitek's poetry with both influences, the non-literate and verbal, blended with the written to produce a complex and integral whole. But whatever differences exist between the two in p'Bitek's songs, especially as we are presented with their printed texts, our desire to see poetry as primarily either written or spoken derive from our everyday experience of language, or rather from the way we tend to think about it. As Levenston observes [in "Speech and/or Writing: Lyric Poetry and the Media of Language," PTL, Vol. 4, No. 3 (1979)], we are accustomed to regarding the two media, speech and writing, as functioning independently. Thus because of the predominantly written form of the poetic texts in literate cultures, the tendency has been for poets and critics to see the written text as primary.

This conventional stereotyped view of the difference between speech and writing is clearly an over simplification. The continuous deliberation of speech and writing supremacy in poetry will not aid a resolution of the debate since it is obvious that poetry has a dual existence, a dual existence which is not sequential, one deriving from the other, but simultaneous. Poetry seems therefore to be essentially both written and spoken, with neither primary, both of equal status. Levenston further observes that this simultaneous duality is seen on examination of the actual process of a poem's composition where it seems that what really happens is the poet's representation in writing of an imagined utterance:

Neither the transcription nor the utterance itself can be independently completed. We can only say the poem when it is completely written out; we can only write it down when we have heard the end. Only when the poet abandons the act of composition is the poem complete.

This exposition about the process of a poet's composition seems to suit only literate societies. Does the composition of poetry in oral, non-literate situations fit into this scheme? How is the poetry "written down" (or conserved) in this context—in the memory through which it is stored or handed down through generations? According to Levenston again:

It has been assumed that poetry exists in a world of speech and writing. This assumption is largely justified as far as western tradition is concerned. It only breaks down when we broaden our conception of poetry to include oral performance in non-literate societies.

This observation is valid for the discussion of p'Bitek's poetry because it reveals that the "aesthetic dualism" Mazrui discusses can be exemplified in p'Bitek's work. This dualism has to a large extent become characteristic of East African poets, p'Bitek and lo Liyong included. As has been queried by the present writer in connection with this dualism in discussing lo Liyong's poetic form in Another Nigger Dead, especially in relation to the choice of medium:

What, for instance, is the pattern adopted or to be adopted by the African writer (poet), caught, as he is, in the web of western literate tradition but who is very much part of his immediate background, its poetic forms and devices?… Can he not use the graphic form of the Western tradition by putting his poems on paper where his ancestors had depended on memory for record-keeping, and at the same time, modify this alien medium to give the purely phonic substance of his background …?

The discussion here attempts to reveal how p'Bitek has successfully blended the two traditions—the non-literate "orature" of his Acoli background and the literate tradition of English literary art acquired through formal education. As will become obvious, the lines beyond the two are not usually as clear as could be suggested.

p'Bitek's language and imagery are drawn from the whole range of Acoli song. The sources of influence include the satirical songs of the beer party, the victory songs of the bwola dance, the war songs, and the praise songs. It has been pointed out that even the narrator's self-praise in Song of Lawino is deeply consonant with the Acoli tradition where praising is not merely permitted but required. Moore, for instance, points out that "every male Acoli carries an animal horn around his neck, on which he is expected to blow his own praise-name as he approaches any inhabited compound as a way of announcing himself." Girls too are allowed to praise not only their lovers but their own charms. Lawino does so a lot. The Malaya was especially exultant in praising herself, her kindred, and her profession (Song of Lawino). The funeral dirges (guru lyel) of the Acoli were also a source of inspiration for Lawino in her songs of mourning for the culturally dead Ocol, her husband (Song of Lawino):

     O my husband
     Let us all cry together;
     Let us mourn the death of my husband,
     The death of a Prince
     The ash that was produced
     By a great Fire!

Every phrase, if compared to the dirges in Horn of My Love, might be found in many of the dirges which are sung and danced at the second burial ceremonies of the Acoli. But what lends them poignancy and force, contextually, is that they are being sung for a man who is still alive. Her song is a testimony of her rejection of her husband and his ways.

It is also possible to reveal the existence of a communal voice in the Songs, a voice typical of that of oral literary form. This communcal aspect has fundamental and philosophical implications. The communal nature of the narrator's voice is in the use of personal pronouns. For instance, the "I" of Song of Lawino is more than the obvious grammatical first person singular. When Lawino speaks, she does so with a collective tone. It is "I" on behalf of the clan, the kinsmen, the whole society. This happens too in the use of the pronoun "you"—a device p'Bitek exploits in using the English language since you is neutral and has both singular (individual) and plural (general, communal) meanings. The collective tone is an important aspect of traditional literature. It is a feature that differentiates oral literature from literature, emanating from modern industrial and technological societies whose poets can afford to be introverted and isolated (or alienated) from the very society they are writing about. The language which p'Bitek uses therefore has communally evolved symbols whose ideas are therefore shared, such as his use of the pumpkin metaphor. In very sense, he seems to speak for his community, its values and its norms.

Part of the background to Song of Lawino and the other Songs then is total participation by the poet in the still flourishing and developing culture of his people. It is possible to go on listing the traditional influences exhibited in p'Bitek's poetry. One could mention the use of formulas that initiate stories and aid memory—formulas that act as a mnemonic device, a device favored by the traditional orator, singer and storyteller. The impression that this leaves with a reader is that p'Bitek was merely imitating the literary form of his people by using a new medium. In going back to his tradition, there would seem to be little room for the individual's creativity or originality. p'Bitek has been shown to follow that which is traditional and that which is traditional cannot belong to any one individual. It can only be copied; and then it is transmitted from one generation to another for further imitation and modification. In traditional Africa this is how oral literature survived. But the concept of imitation here is to be defined, especially imitation that is transposed from the oral to the printed word.

A traditional singer is an artist, and his art involves a degree of creativity and originality. Since not everyone can write a novel or a poem or be a singer or composer, it can be concluded logically that an artist is indeed a unique person in society, whether traditional or modern. In traditional society, the originality or creativity of an artist was not necessarily in the material (the corpus) used as such, but in the artist's performance. This mode of operation demanded the use of the traditional aesthetics. Here, then, is where p'Bitek's mastery of traditional techniques elevates him above most of his contemporaries in East Africa. To produce a work of art with traditional artistic qualities like Song of Lawino, the poet must be a good listener, a good traditional singer and dancer. The poet has revealed these features in his Songs (the singers all sing; Prisoner even wants to "dance" in Song of Prisoner).

p'Bitek also reveals a tremendous zest for teasing, a quality which is really a common, if not essential, part of traditional praise songs and satires. Individuals like Ocol, Tina, the politicians, the general public, are satirized, but in doing so, p'Bitek seems to place more emphasis on ideas than on characters, such that the dramatic monologuers are more of p'Bitek's mouthpieces than fully developed characters. With the exception of Lawino, the characterization of these monologuers yields place to the ideas being developed. Commenting on p'Bitek's art, generally, especially in his relationship with his background, Moore observes that,

This is no question of plagiarism here [in p'Bitek's poetry], for within such a tradition the artist is judged by his knowledge of it and his ability to manipulate it. The western concept of originality is essentially post-classical in original and has no relevance here.

As traditional as p'Bitek may be shown to be, he is at the same time a modern poet with a personal idea of literature and commitment. He is speaking his own ideas in a way, especially if his Songs are seen as fiction, his own creations. It is in this creative realm that the merger of the traditional and modern features of his poetry becomes obvious. p'Bitek is essentially a poet, and poetry as a genre has certain features which distinguish it from other genres, particularly prose. Such distinguishing features are most prominently formal, though a relationship exists between the form and the language used. As a literate artist, p'Bitek has leaned on the written word rather than the spoken mode for the preservation of his art. (This gives his poems their fixedness.) It is possible, however, to talk of his poems as written to be spoken, performed orally, or sung. The features of his literacy in his work include the typography and the graphological lay out of his poems, the use of punctuation and the verse line as a feature of the written shape.

But poetry, whether spoken or written, traditional or modern, African or European, is poetry because of certain ways in which language is organically used in the genre to effect rhythm, rhyme, alliteration, metre, the line, enjambment, caesura, assonance, consonance, and other sound effects, metaphors, similes, hyperboles, litotes, and so on—irrespective of the language or the mode of expression. These are the areas where the traditional and modern features merge in p'Bitek's poetry.

One striking instance of this merger worth mentioning is the verse form of p'Bitek's poetry. As is usual in a discussion of p'Bitek's works, his monumental Song of Lawino often provides a take-off point since it set the trend for the other songs. Heron has demonstrated in his study of p'Bitek's poetry how the writer, in deviating from the traditional pattern of Acoli poetry which is not rhymed, has produced what he described as Acoli "unsung verse" by developing a new prosody for Acoli in using an a-b-a-b rhyme scheme and a more or less regular metrical beat of some nine or ten syllables per line.

This style was adopted in the Acoli original Wer pa Lawino which was later translated into English. p'Bitek was under no illusion about the losses translating would involve, stating in the preface that he must inevitably "clip a bit of the eagle's wings" in the process. He therefore wisely resolved to abandon both rhyme and metrical regularity. To have remained with those features would have forced him to move away from the mainly literal translation which "enabled him to preserve the force and character of the original imagery" (Moore). English is also more prolix than Acoli, which makes abundant use of prefixes and suffixes to modify root words. Okot therefore decided to adopt a short, fast-moving line in the English version, since a line-by-line translation would have been clumsy and long-winded. The result is that Song of Lawino has no rhyme and no consistent stress pattern, all combining to make it an irregular free verse song. This form is thereofre not accidental to Song of Lawino (having been determined by the translation constraints) since it is adopted for the other Songs.

In oral literature, poetry is mainly oral, chanted, or recited, and so there is the problem of establishing the verse lines when writing the poems down. The chanter or reciter often pauses to take a fresh, audible, breath. It is logical, therefore, to use these pauses to delimit the line in oral poetry. But as Olatunji has pointedly observed in a description of his transcription of Yoruba poetry:

There are problems arising from this [use of the pause to delimit the line] which cannot be glossed over. There are occasions when the chanter or reciter rushes through a very long utterance without taking any perceptible breath. Should we regard the utterance as a line? And when the pause occurs in the middle of a syntactic group, especially when the chanter has been struggling for breath, should we write the corpus on different lines? Apart from these two problems, we still need to set up degrees of pauses to know which shall delimit the line and which the period within the line.

His suggestion therefore is that a combination of pauses determined by lexicostructural, lexical, and semantic criteria, should be taken into consideration in determining the nature of the verse line in Yoruba oral poetry. Various questions arise about p'Bitek's poetry. Did he use something similar to Olatunji's prescription in determining his verse line? Did he represent an utterance in lines on the basis of the repetition of lexical items and sentence structure? Or is there any such rule that parts of a sentence or a clause should not be represented in separate lines. For a writer eager to put down all his ideas before he forgets (just as the oral performer who depends on memory and mnemonic devices does), are breath pauses not as useful for deciding his verse lines? Or is his verse so "free" that it has no system? Because he was writing in English, is it not possible that the dictates of English poetry determined his own form?

The answers will not be obvious until we have looked at some of these "dictates" of English poetic form. Such criteria for English verse have already been established. [In his A Linguistic Guide to English Poetry, 1969] Leech has suggested the need to consider how to identify and define a line of poetry—"for to function as a phological unit of verse, the line must be distinguishable on some grounds other than mere typography." As Abercombie points out in working out such a guideline, a line of verse is delimited by "various devices which may be called line-end markers, and there seem to be three of these in English verse." The three he specifies which may be used individually or in combination are the following:

  1. rhyme, or some other sound scheme;
  2. a silent final stress; and
  3. a monosyllabic measure, not used anywhere else, coinciding with the last syllable of the line.

If one or more of these markers are present in a poem, even though it may be printed or recited as if it were prose, a person confronted with it for the first time should be able to recognise the line divisions.

As useful as these suggestions may have been about English poets, they do not seem to apply with any exactness to Song of Lawino or the other songs. For instance, rhyme is ruled out since all the Songs are free verse. The other two criteria may apply in different degrees, especially 2 which does not specify line length. The lines have irregular length and rhythm, and rhyme is absent. An examination of the two passages below makes this clear:

     (i) The one who follows Okang
       Is called Oboi.
       He is always jealous,
       He fights with his brother
       And fights for his brother
       The third son is called Odai
       And the last son is Cogo.
       If you hit his head
       With your finger
       His mother will throw
       Things at you;
       Because that is the child
       Of which a mother is most fond.
                   [Song of Lawino]

     (ii) I want to drink
       All the drinks
       Of the world
       I want to meet
       All the drunkards
       And chat with them …
                   [Song of Prisoner]

Example (i) has no perceptible rhyme and no specific metre as the lines are of irregular length with an unequal number of syllables. Lines four and five look like a couplet but that is not possible if we start from line one. They are only two parallel structures involving repetition of clause structure, lexical variation in the use of preposition in the prepositional phrase ("with / for his brother") and repetition of "brother"—all for emphasis. Instead of adopting some of the features Abercombie suggests, we instead notice that the lexico-structural, lexcial and semantic criteria Olatunji mentions in his work seem applied with some system in the passage. Whether a line is made up of a clause, a group or phrase, none of them is unnecessarily divided into two lines. For instance, line one is a nominal group, line two a predicate clause, line three a full sentence-clause, line 9 an adverbial phrase and so on, with the exception of 10-11 that look truncated.

The comments for (i) also apply to (ii). There is absence of rhyme: irregular line length in terms of syllables. In general, there is no specific rhythmic regularity though lines 4-6 seem regular but with irregular metrical patterning (in terms of stress). The verse here is more condensed than in (i) with the result that they are shorter, faster, with a sense of urgency unlike (i) that is rather slow and ponderous, a feature of the listing which its speaker is engaged in. Passage (ii) also has parallel structures. There are two clauses, each taking three lines (1-3, 4-6), and the structures in lines 1 and 4 ("I want to meet / drink") and in lines 2 and 5 ("All the drinks / drunkards") are repeated with lexical variation in the last word in each structure. This repetition could give these lines parallel rhythms, but the repetition is for emphasis as in the first example.

So it is possible that both traditional and modern influences may have helped in determining the shape of the verse lines in the Songs. It may be difficult to enumerate the degree of both sources of influence since the poet has denied any consistent and prolonged knowledge of Western literary art, but also accepted the influence of the Songs of Solomon and Longfellow's Hiawatha. He has on occasions said that he does not think that his songs are "very much influenced by the African oral tradition," but he assesses the sources of his imagery in the following words:

It is based mainly on the traditional, I think, but one is bound to be influenced by friends, enemies, school, etc., so it becomes all mixed up.

However, as indicated early in this paper, the poet was introduced to some Western authors (poets, novelists, dramatists) through exposure to texts in school syllabuses. The narrative and ballad form of poems is not peculiar to only English or European literary tradition, but it is possible to reveal similarities between p'Bitek's form and that of notable English poets like Browning, Coleridge, Keats, Wordsworth, and Yeats, especially in the predilection for the one-speaker, long, dramatic, monologue poem. Apart from their narrative forms, it is also easy to see how they all exhibit similar qualities of suggestion and concentrated power.

In terms of content or subject matter, in terms of the experiences verbalized, and in terms of the use of the English language, the monologuers in the poems are obviously East Africans of the modern period. The allusions of Lawino, to some extent, stand out from those of Ocol, Malaya, and Prisoner. Lawino is however a village woman living in East Africa. The others are metropolitan in their outlook. The speech of all the narrators, however, retains an unmistakable African flavor in the English they speak. It is as if p'Bitek, having established a kind of confidence between himself and his langage, is able to extend it to cover situations which are not encountered in traditional Acoli poetry. Lawino's comments on the style of independence politics have the same pungency as when she ranges over the familiar life of the village. Thus contemporary issues in modern East African life preoccupy all the monologuers, though they see them from different points of view.

We can sum up this discussion of the traditional and modern influences in p'Bitek's poetry with Mutiso's remarks [in his Socio-Political Thought in African Literature, 1974] which, though about Lawino, also applies to the other Songs and to p'Bitek's art in general and reveals the type of controversy that a compartmentalisation of influences can cause:

One of the most intriguing women in African literature is Lawino … Although p'Bitek has taken a traditional Acoli form, the praise song, and written an extended poem about Lawino's husband, Ocol, who is modern, the poem is not traditional since it is set in the present.

Mutiso agrees that p'Bitek's poetry has traditional form, but that because its content is contemporary, it is modern. This critic is clearly in the minority since most others conclude that because of its traditional form, p'Bitek is a traditional poet. We wish to observe that, often, Song of Lawino provides the basis for each conclusion, but an overall assessment of all his poems, including Song of Ocol, Song of Prisoner, and Song of Malaya, reveals that Lawino is the most traditional of all the personae in her protection of Acoli values. Prisoner, Ocol, and Malaya are products of the modern East African environment. Our interest, however, is not with only thematic influences but also formal influences, and as we have shown, such a discussion deserves utmost restraint. The influences under which a poet writes are often so complicated that they cannot be easily pinned down. These influences are not mutually exclusive, and without contradiction we may choose to label p'Bitek a traditional modern poet.

Charles Okumu (essay date Fall 1992)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 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 [in Oral Literature in Africa, 1970] that "the figurative quality of proverbs is especially striking: one of their most noticeable characteristics is their allusive wording, usually in metaphorical form. This also emerges in many of the native words translated as 'proverb'." As for other peoples, the allusive metaphor is a store-house of wisdom and philosophy for the Acoli. The form of the proverb and its relative brevity help endow it with the poetic quality of rhythm. The Acoli proverb has two distinct structural units, the topic and comment, and they are often separated by a comma. This construction can be seen in the proverb that forms the basis of Lawino's argument against cultural alienation in Okot's Song of Lawino "te okono, pe luputu"—the pumpkin must not be uprooted.

A subgenre closely associated with the proverb is the simile, for which the Acoli term is calo, meaning that which looks like or resembles something else. Generally composed of a noun, adjective, preposition, and an article, the simile is defined by Clive Scott [in A Dictionary of Modern Critical Terms, 1973] as a "comparison, discoursive, tentative, in which the 'like' or 'as … as' suggests, from the view point of reason, separateness of compared item…. Simile is usually a pointedly rationalised perception whose function is explanatory or illustrative." The simile, like the proverb, is used in ordinary conversation when the speaker wants to make a comparison between two related objects. Acoli similes tend to revolve around behavioral patterns, character, color, size, appearance, intelligence, the five senses, temptation, greed, etc.

Speakers' choices of proverbs and similes are entirely dependent on their creative imagination and their powers of speech. Great orators at clan, family, and chiefdom meetings use proverbs to lend credence to their contentions and they use similes to shorten what they would otherwise describe in detail. Similes enliven conversation and speech, for they often express admiration, abuse, disgust, and sympathy. For example, someone who is said to be "dull like a sheep" is not only being abused; he is also sympathized with. A girl whose neck is long and beautiful might be compared with a giraffe whereas one with a short neck is said to have a "neck like that of a beetle."

Similes are frequently used by poets who, as Scott points out, do not wish, for one reason or another, to use metaphors. For them, similes serve as "the repository for their inventive boldness" and play an "alleviatory role, letting air and whimsy into involved narrative or analysis…." Okot adopts similes for this reason in his Song of Lawino. For example, Lawino's clinical and somewhat repugnent description of Tina is achieved through the use of similes. Her intention is clear: she wants to discredit Tina and to prevent her from competing for Ocol's love. Okot also uses similes to describe the sordid night-club atmosphere which he is contrasting with the beauty of the Acoli Orak dance. If proverbs convey the social and moral norms that govern society, similes communicate the wit, irony, and humor that enliven social intercourse. Unlike proverbs, similes can be used by anyone who desires to employ a comparison to express succinctly what might otherwise require a long narrative description.

The Acoli term for the oral song is wer. The texts of these songs do not differ from those of written poetry; the distinction between them lies in the performance. An oral song is meant to be performed to a responsive audience on a particular occasion and for a specific purpose; often it is accompanied by one of several traditional musical instruments. The Acoli song genre is a complex form with sub-genres that are thematically substantive enough to warrant separate occasions for their performances. The sub-genres are intricately linked to the traditional dances from which some derive their generic names. To an Acoli, the generic name of each song indicates the dance during which it is performed and the type of musical instrument that accompanies it. Composer-singers create individual songs, but once they have given public performances, the songs gradually enter the cultural main stream of society. Other singers are then free to give their own renditions (or recreations) of the original songs. [In "Principles of Oral Transmission in Folk Culture," Acta Ethnographica (1959)] Gyula Ortutay describes this process as a "continuously changing course of alternate demolition and construction, with recurring intersections where new and transitional types, old and new themes are steadily interlaced, separated and reunited." Simply knowing the text of a song is as useless as knowing a proverb; one needs to know how it is used in context.

In the generic classification of Acoli songs, two factors must be considered: the theme and the dance during which they are performed. The five broad sub-genres that dominate this genre are: children's songs, historical songs, funeral songs, satirical songs, and spirit possession songs. A more detailed classification requires a breakdown of this board classification, and this is precisely what Okot did in his B. Lit thesis at Oxford and in his Horn of My Love. Because he listed love and war songs separately, his classification includes seven sub-genres: children's songs and games; love songs; satirical songs; songs of the spirit possession dance; songs of war; historical songs; and the dirges.

The oral literary features that Okot borrowed from Acoli traditional culture gave his poetry the distinctive oral song character that sets it apart from other written poetry. Nevertheless, Okot's songs can neither be sung nor fitted into the thematic classification of Acoli oral songs. Oral songs are composed in response to an immediate event or as a means of reflecting a localized issue within the village or clan. They are ephemeral, and their length is dictated by three factors: the creative ability of the composer-singer, the chosen theme, and the reaction of the audience. Other singers therefore have no obligation to perform the whole composition of any song. Modification of the original song gives it renewed life, and the audience's reaction depends on the quality of the performance.

In contrast, written poetry generally consists of fixed texts that have a certain number of lines per stanza. Its organization cannot be altered by anyone except the original poet. The images, symbols, and other literary qualities in it always remain the same, whereas the oral song can be modified to fit the specific performance situation. Once poetry has been written down, critics can only praise or blame the poet. For example, Okot's mother recognized a creative ability in her son, as Okot recounts during an interview with Bernth Lindfors [in Mazungumso: Interviews with East African Writers, Publishers, Editors and Scholars, 1980]:

She went on and asked, "Is it a love song?"… "What kind of song is it?" So I said, "You shut up. Let me read it to you."… She was very pleased but kept on saying, "I wish there was some tune to it." You see, it was not really like Acoli song….

Her positive critical appraisal encouraged Okot to imitate the oral poets to the best of his ability; in fact, his extensive borrowing of literary features from oral songs give his written poetry its songlike quality and its originality. These features include symbols, proverbs and similes. The common symbols in Okot's poetry are the spear, the pumpkin, the bull, and the cave. In Acoli traditional society, the spear is a weapon used for hunting and warfare. There are two types of spear: kaba and alwiri. The difference between them resides in the size of the metal blades and of the handles. Alwiri is the ideal weapon for hunting smaller animals and for daily use, whereas kaba is only brought out when hunters undertake a long hunting expedition (dwar) or when a buffalo or elephant has been sighted in the village. Every male adult has a kaba which has been ritually blessed and can only be used by him. It cannot be substituted for another, for the loss of the kaba is tantamount to losing one's manhood. In Acoli history, disregard for this sacred rule led to a split in the tribe—an event that was mythified in the story of Labongo and Gipir and later recorded by both Okot and Taban lo Liyong. Oral poets have euphemistically used the kaba in place of the penis. The man who has many wives and children is a man whose spear is sharp and strong. At the clan gathering, he commands respect; his advice is accepted and followed. However hardworking or handsome a man might be, if he is impotent or lalur (spearless) he has no place among the elders and will die labot (wifeless). A barren woman is also ostracized, and oral singers describe her as "the woman whose womb has been sucked by the leopard."

Okot's euphemistic use of the spear is a direct borrowing from Acoli oral poetry. In Song of Lawino, Lawino laments the sexual starvation of the young men who go to the mission schools in search of foreign names. They, she says:

     Sleep alone
     Cold, like knives
     Without handles
     And the spear
     Of the lone hunters
     The trusted right-hand spears
     Of the young bulls
     Rust in the dewy cold
     Of the night.

The stanza is a direct borrowing and modification of the oral song "Tong Raa" in Horn of My Love:

     Bull of men, son of my father;
     The people have left the hippopotamus
     spear in the cold
     The hippopotamus spear has been
     eaten by rust.

This dirge is sung at the funeral rites of Mukamoi, the great warrior who had killed a man and a boy during a clan war. He is further described in the song as "bull of men." On a symbolic level, he will never use his spear again for procreation, while on a physical level, his rusty spear will be a permanent reminder of the great warrior that he once was. In his poem, Okot transforms the situation from the funeral dance to the cold church hall, which is analogous to the cold and lonely tomb. The written poem appeals directly to an audience which is expected to sympathize with the young bulls and to pass its own judgment on their keepers (the missionaries).

A direct contrast to the imposed sexual death of the young men is the fertility prayer at the ancestral shrine. The prayer is couched in explicitly sexual symbols. While blessing the spears, the old woman chants the traditional prayer, part of which Okot has combined with a Bwola dance song to produce the following stanza in Song of Lawino:

     She will spit blessing in their hands,
     So that their spears may be sharp,
     Sharp and hard
     So that their trusted spears
     Should not sleep outside
     But should strike the death spot
     Deep and painful
     Then the young cob
     Will scream
     And shed tears of sweet pains.

The stanza is composed of borrowings from lines recorded in Religion of the Central Luo. From the Pa-Chua clan fertility prayer that was chanted at the annual feast of the Jok-Lalwak clan, Okot adapted these lines:

      The spears, let them be sharp
      Let them be sharp, sharp, sharp.

From the Bwola dance song performed on the same occasion, he took the following lines:

      The spear sleeps in the cold
      The spear I used to trust
      The spear sleeps in the cold oh!

At the end of her Song, Lawino asks Ocol to beg his ancestors, among other things, to restore his manhood so that he can once again consummate their marriage:

      Ask them to give you
      A new spear
      A new spear with a sharp and hard point
      A spear that will crack the rock
      One that does not bend easily
      Like the earth-worm
      Ask them to restore your manhood!
      For I am sick
      Of sharing a bed with a woman!

The image the poet wants to create is that of a socially and sexually powerful man and not the "ash" (impotent) man that Ocol has become. Commenting on the spear symbol, Laura Tanna states: "The image of the spear runs through the text of Lawino, enhancing aspects of physical beauty, stressing prowess in hunting and fighting and finally emerging as the dominant phallic symbol of the poem, a symbol against which Lawino measures Ocol and finds him lacking."

In interpreting the last three lines as Lawino's sexual frustration, Ali Mazrui attributes Ocol's temporary impotence with Lawino to his infatuation with Clementine and to his sexual relationship with her. Whatever caused Ocol's impotence, however, Lawino's position as his first wife is clear: if Ocol cannot consummate their marriage, it must come to an end. The explicit use of the spear and other sexual symbols prompted the Acoli Literary Committee to reject Okot's Acoli draft version of the poem in 1959. Nevertheless, the phallic connotation of the spear actually derive from its importance in a society where sexual virility and male prowess are highly valued.

Other sexual symbols in the Song of Lawino include the hoe, the knife, and the battle-axe. For example, the fertile and rich land, symbolising Mother-Earth, is sexually assaulted by the gardener who comes with his hoe and plants his seeds, as Lawino says when she describes the process of creation:

      And when a gardener comes
      Carrying two bags of live seeds
      And a good strong hoe
      The rich red soil
      Swells with a new life.

The seeds must be live seeds, and the hoe must be strong not "like the earth-worms"; otherwise, procreation cannot take place. This is the predicament of impotent men whose spears:

      Refuse to stand
      Lazy spears
      That sleep on their bellies
      Like earth-worms.

The image of the crawling earth-worms reduces the impotent men to the lowest social status in a society where male virility is greatly admired.

Another oral literary feature that Okot borrowed from the Acoli tradition and creatively used in his poetry is the proverb—carolok. The structural form and allusive metaphor of the proverb appeal to oral compose-singers who easily weave it into songs without being obliged to make radical grammatical changes. J. H. Kwabena Nketia, a Ghanaian musicologist and folklorist, succinctly expresses the artist's feeling for the use of proverbs: "For the poet today or indeed for a speaker who is some sort of an artist in the use of words, the proverb is a model of compressed or forceful language. In addition to drawing on it for its words of wisdom, therefore, he takes interest in its verbal techniques as a method of statement …" ["Folklore in Ghara," The Ghanaian Achimota (1958)].

The composer singer does not have to use the proverb in its original form. He might paraphrase it to suit his poetic diction while retaining its metaphorical meaning. In his own poetry, Okot follows the same technique as the Acoli composer-singer. Unlike the Yugoslav oral poet in A. B. Lord's The Singer of Tales, he does not merely group the proverbs together to form an epigram, for his dramatic monologue technique requires him to paraphrase proverbs and to incorporate them into narrative fragments that fit the poetic diction of a particular stanza. For example, the proverb "Yat ka ogom, dong pe tire" (a tree that is bent cannot be straightened) is paraphrased as:

      A young tree that is bending
      They do not like to straighten.

In the traditional social context, an elder uses this proverb to criticize a child who fails to respond to the corrective measures of society. In Okot's poetic context, however, the same proverb is used to criticize the Catholic missionaries who fail to answer Lawino's deep searching questions about Catholic dogma pertaining to creation and to the Trinity.

The only proverb that Okot does not paraphrase is the central one in Song of Lawino: "Do not uproot the pumpkin." At the beginning of the poem, Lawino uses the proverb in an attempt to dissuade Ocol from his emulation of European customs. Her hope is that the proverb will add weight to her argument and open Ocol's eyes to the danger of cultural alienation:

      Listen, my husband,
      You are the son of a chief
      The pumpkin in the old homestead
      Must not be uprooted.

In the land of the Acoli, the pumpkin grows all year round and is therefore an important source of food and life. No sensible person would intentionally uproot a pumpkin because it symbolizes the continuity of Acoli traditional life as represented by Lawino. Okot is generally critical of the educated middle-class Acoli who embrace Western culture and technology, regardless of whether or not they are appropriate in the African environment. R. S. Anywar made the same criticism during the 1950s [in his Acoli Kiker Megi, 1953]:

Perhaps some Acoli believe that all those things that the Europeans brought here are good. This is untrue because some of them are so dangerous that if you mishandle them they will cause you shame at the least and death at the most. So I suggest that before any new thing is accepted, it must be thoroughly examined. We should not forget our customs altogether simply because we are learning those of the Europeans.

Anywar and Okot are advocating the same set of values, and Elizabeth Knight clearly identifies it when she explains: "Okot calls not for the destruction of the village but a recreation of it incorporating modern technical advances, such as electricity but maintaining the basic values…."

The parallel between the poet and the elder historian has been drawn to demonstrate that Okot's voice is not a solitary one and that he was not the only educated Acoli to recognize the danger inherent in the blind acceptance of an alien culture. Yet, Song of Lawino transcends the cultural conflict with which Anywar was concerned, for it includes the poet's critical appraisal of the new breed of politicians and their role in post-independence Uganda.

In Song of Lawino, Lawino tells us that Ocol's grandfather and father were Bulls among their people. When she is not driven to madness by Ocol's cultural insanity, she respectfully calls him "Son of the Bull." In fact, Ocol's cultural failure can best be measured against his illustrious father's social status as a war leader and Bull. Okot uses the proverb "Mac onywalo buru" (fire has begotten ashes) to highlight the contrast between father and son. Ashes are easily blown away by the wind just as the alienated Ocol has been blown away from Acoli traditional culture by foreign winds and from Lawino by Clementine. Lawino expresses her disappointment in Ocol in the rhetorical proverbial questions:

      Has the Fire produced Ash?
      Has the Bull died without a Head?

In contrast, Lawino's own leadership among her agemates earned her an honorary Bull name:

      My bull name is Eliya Alyeker
      I ate the name
      Of the chief of Payira
      Eliya Alyeker
      Son of Awic.

Typical of a proud Acoli woman, she sings her own praises in the fourth section of the poem, "My Name Blew Like A Horn Among The Payira." She also sings the Orak songs in which the composer-singer praises her beauty and her dancing ability. In another variant of the same song, the name changes, and she becomes the daughter of Lengamoi. Taking Acoli traditional society as a standard, Lawino has been more successful than Ocol, and we can understand his bitterness in a society where the man is suppsosed to be the "won gang-owner of the home." Lawino's strong-headedness and her pride in her Acoli identity also bring about a confrontation with the Catholic missionaries and eventually lead to her rejection of Catholicism.

Besides his creative borrowing of literary features from Acoli traditional culture, Okot has blended the different modes of Acoli oral songs in the Song of Lawino. Satire dominates the early sections of the poem, which ends on a note of lament reminiscent of Acoli dirges. In the rest of the poem, Okot adopts the openly critical mode of the Bwola, Otole and Apiti dance songs in which singers discard their satirical masks and directly confront the people they are satirizing. This approach is particularly appropriate for his criticism of politicians and Catholic missionaries. Although Lawino sometimes sings her own praises, she returns to the lament at the end of her Song. She laments the "death" of Ocol on two levels: the loss of a husband who can no longer consummate their marriage and the loss of a "Son of the Chief" who can longer uphold his people's culture because he has assimilated Western values.

Okot's creative use of satire derives from his knowledge of Acoli satirical songs, which he classified in his thesis as songs of justice. These songs contain open criticisms of those who do not conform to social norms. Okot himself recognizes the wide range of subjects that can be satirized by the oral poet when he says, "Any act, behaviour or spoken, so long as it is a breach of, a divergence from the straight and narrow path of customs, is seized upon as a subject for these poems." In Song of Lawino, the traditional social norms provide a standard, and Lawino uses the poetic licence accorded to her by Okot to criticize anyone who departs from this standard. Ocol and Clementine are the principal targets of her satire but she herself does not escape completely unscathed, for she is the member of a community whose social norms she accepts and whose demands "she perceives as her own," but "she is also a Subject who has to conform to the society's norms without choice or perish" [Annemarie Heywood, "Modes of Freedom," Journal of Commonwealth Literature (1980)]. Ocol chose to perish rather than be a "Subject" of the traditional society, thereby subjecting himself to the alienation and cultural death that Lawino laments.

Lawino's attack on Ocol is two-pronged: she criticizes him as the husband who deserted her for another woman and as the non-conformist who refused to respect the social and cultural norms of her society. According to Lawino, Ocol deserted her because she was an uneducated traditionalist who was inappropriate for his new social status as a university graduate. Thus, she claims, "he has fallen in love" with Clementine, a modern girl whose "apemanship" equals his own; however, Lawino does not maintain this line of argument for long. She soon draws other members of her clan into the affair by telling them that Ocol's insults are directed against them:

      He says Black People are primitive
      And their ways are utterly harmful,
      Their dances are mortal sins
      They are ignorant, poor and diseased….

Lo Liyong erroneously agrees with Ocol and dismisses Lawino as an uneducated village woman who cannot comprehend what Ocol says. In reality, Lawino's selective accounts of Ocol's abuses of her clansmen reflect back on the missionary teachings and prejudices that he absorbed from them. Whereas Lawino admits her limitations with regard to Western culture and technology, Ocol's exaggerated allegiance to the new culture leads him to dismiss traditional culture as irrelevant to modern society. But because he cannot gain full access to this modern society, he remains an alien in both cultures.

In the twelfth section of the Song of Lawino, Lawino destroys Ocol's pride by contemptuously describing his newly acquired house and life-style. The section is appropriately titled "My Husband's House is a Dark Forest of Books." Lawino argues that these books have destroyed the Africanness of the educated class and transformed them into mouthpieces for the colonizers' propaganda against Africans. She concludes:

      For all our young men
      Were finished in the forest
      Their manhood was finished
      In the classroom
      Their testicles
      Were smashed
      With large books….

Okot himself describes the university graduate in the following terms: "At the end of the third year he dons his black gown and flat-topped cap. In his hand he carries the piece of paper they give him at graduation—the key to power, money and a big car. Over dressed in his dark suit he walks out of the University gate, out into the world materially comfortable, but culturally castrated, dead" [Africa's Cultural Revolution].

In Acoli society, the oral composer-singer wears many masks, just as he plays many different roles. The transition from satirical composition to open critism, reminiscent of the Bwola and Otole dance songs, is a subtle one in the Song of Lawino. Like the composer-singer, the writer discards his mask and plays the role of an angry member of society who has been wronged by another individual or by those in power. His poetic outburst is direct, and it is intended to correct the wrong that has been done, as Okot himself points out: "I really hold that an artist should tease people, should prick needles into everybody so that they do not go to sleep and thing everything is fine …" [Lee Nicholas, "Conversation with Okot p'Bitek," Conversation with African Writers, 1981]. In Song of Lawino, Lawino's needles are directed at middle-class, educated Africans who inherited the multi-party system introduced by their colonial masters as a way of sowing discord among Africans. Okot criticizes the politicians primarily because they are more concerned about their own stomachs than about the need to work together to eliminate the three scourges: poverty, disease, and ignorance. The masses never benefited from flag independence and whenever they confront the looters to demand their share of the national wealth, the Ocols of African society have a ready solution:

      Trespassers must be jailed
      For life
      Thieves and robbers
      Must be hanged.

In reality, the opposite is true: the politicians and their collaborators should be hanged for having wronged the masses.

Okot's criticism of Ugandan politicians for the disunity they fostered through their exploitation of the multi-party system cannot be dismissed as a personal vendetta or as an extension of the religious confrontation between Catholics and Protestants, as lo Liyong claims. In The Acoli of Uganda, F. K. Girling defines the smallest unit of Acoli society as the family, which joins with other families to form a clan, the most powerful social unit. Lawino laments the death of the family. When two bulls fight in the same kraal, the kraal will be destroyed, and, by implication, when two brothers fight, the family will die. Lawino reports that Ocol (D.P.) and his brother (U.P.C.) are deadly enemies who only share water from the same river:

      I am concerned
      About the well-being of our homestead!
      The women there wear mourning clothes
      The homestead is surely dead
      The enmity, the black-heartedness,
      The quarrels, the jealousies …
      When the fiends …
      Go through our homestead
      The people will be finished,
      This will be the gift
      That political parties have brought.

Okot's hope is that the pricking of his needles will awaken the politicians and other authorities to the truth about their own crimes.

Commenting on the role of the oral songs as a means of communicating dissatisfaction to those in authority, Finnegan says, "The indirect means of communicating with someone in power through the artistic medium of a song is a way by which the singers hope to influence while at the same time avoiding the open danger of speaking directly." However, in the case of written verse, the poet can neither be indirect nor switch his allegiance to new rulers as easily as can the oral poets.

In the thirteenth section of the poem, Lawino returns to the lament mode which she had used earlier when she was lamenting the death of family unity—a death that had been caused by the introduction of political parties. Her later lament is triggered by two deaths: the cultural death of Ocol and the death of their marriage. She herself feels powerless to halt the changes that have brought about the two deaths. She continues to love Ocol, as evidenced in her desperate attempt to rekindle whatever flame of love may yet be glowing in his heart.

Realizing that her tears are futile she nevertheless performs the traditional nanga dance, her final act before bowing out of the love contest between herself and Tina:

      Let me dance before you
      My love
      Let me show you
      The wealth in your house
      Ocol my husband
      Son of the bull
      Let no one uproot the pumpkin.

Her plea is similar to those that commonly appear in Acoli dirges that Okot has classified as "songs of the pathway" (Horn of My Love). In these songs, the singer knows that the person being mourned is dead yet there remains a lingering hope that it is not too late or that someone else and not the loved one might be dead. For example, in Ogwang Clipper's song, "Omel, the Great Swimmer," the singer asks:

      Was he (the swimmer) dreaming?
      Am I hearing the news through a dream?

According to Okot, disbelief is the dominant theme in "songs of the pathway" although the shock of the news must, in the end, be accepted by the disbeliever. In Song of Lawino, Lawino knows that her pleas cannot change the existing situation. On the cultural level, she is lamenting the "apemanship" which is the root of Ocol's alienation from the culture she represents. The polarization between them reflects the poet's conception of the difference between the two cultures.

While Lawino laments the death of Ocol as her husband and as an alienated modern man, he adopts an arrogant and dismissive attitude towards her and towards the culture she represents. His impatience is evident from what he says:

       Shut up!
       Pack your things

This arrogance is characteristic of Ocol's modern attitudes. He is a social type, and [in "Okot p'Bitek, Literature and Cultural Revolution in East Africa," Journal of African Studies (1978)] Samuel Asein correctly points out that "p'Bitek's focus on Ocol as a type is a convenient poetic device which enables him to make a thrust at a whole generation of apemen and charlatans, insecure, self-centred politicians and other various institutions which grew in the blind acceptance of Western civilization." Yet Ocol's criticism of Lawino is also partly justified, for she is ignorant of modern politics and university culture, whereas Okot himself had always advocated a balance between African and Western cultures. The satirical and open critical modes that he adopted from Acoli oral traditions enabled him to comment on a broad range of Western assumptions about African culture. Against these assumptions, partly echoed by Western-educated, middle-class Africans, stands traditional African culture as presented by an integrated but uneducated Acoli woman.

The form of Okot's poetry is clearly derived from Acoli oral songs, which in many cases are inseparable from the dances during which they are performed. Viewed from this perspective, Song of Lawino falls into three overlapping parts. The satirical criticism in the first nine sections is directly related to the Orak dance songs that Okot classified in his B.Lit. thesis as songs of "poetic justice." In Section Eleven, the mode is that of the political and topical songs that accompany the Bwola, Otole, and Apiti dances. The composer-singers of these songs do not wear the satirical masks of the Orak composer-singers, for their criticisms are collectively expressed by the participants in the dances; therefore, the lead singer cannot be held responsible for criticisms embedded in collectively performed songs. Sections Twelve and Thirteen are characterized by a mixture of modes, but the dominant one is that of lament. Lawino's attempt to dissuade Ocol has failed, and he has therefore died a cultural death. Their marriage has also ended, and her lament echoes the form and themes of an Acoli dirge.

Okot's poetic style is essentially vocal rather than visual; in fact, it is less concerned with the formal pattern on the written page than with breath. The mixture of humor, satire, and lament in Song of Lawino reflect Acoli oral poetic forms, which are interwoven with proverbs, similes, metaphors, symbols, and other figures of speech to constitute a powerful personal commentary on the social, political, religious, and economic situation in post-independence Uganda and by extension, in the entire Third World.


p'Bitek, Okot (Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)