Okot p'Bitek 1931–1982
Ugandan poet, essayist, novelist, translator, and editor.
The following entry provides an overview of p'Bitek's career.
One of East Africa's best-known poets, p'Bitek helped redefine African literature by emphasizing the oral tradition of the native Acholi people of Uganda. His lengthy prose poems, often categorized as poetic novels, reflect the form of traditional Acholi songs while expressing contemporary political themes. In the preface to his essay collection Africa's Cultural Revolution (1973), p'Bitek explained: "Africa must re-examine herself critically. She must discover her true self, and rid herself of all 'apemanship.' For only then she can begin to develop a culture of her own…. As she has broken the political bondage of colonialism, she must continue the economic and cultural revolution until she refuses to be led by the nose by foreigners."
p'Bitek's respect for ancestral art forms began during his childhood in Gulu, Uganda, where his father, a school teacher, was an expressive storyteller, and his mother was considered a great singer of Acholi songs. An outstanding student, p'Bitek composed and produced a full-length opera while still in high school. At the age of twenty-two he published his first literary work, a novel in Acholi entitled Lak tar miyo kinyero wi lobo? (1953; White Teeth). After studying at King's College in Budo, p'Bitek played on Uganda's national soccer team while maintaining a position as a high school teacher. In the summer of 1956 he participated in the Olympic Games in London and remained in England to study at several institutions, including the Institute of Social Anthropology in Oxford and University College, Wales. He was first recognized as a major new voice in African literature in 1966 when he published Song of Lawino. In the same year he was named director of the Uganda National Theater and Cultural Center. In this capacity he founded the highly successful Gulu Arts Festival, which celebrates the traditional oral history, dance, and other arts of the Acholi people. Political pressures, however, forced p'Bitek from his directorship after two years. He moved to Kenya, where, with the exception of frequent visits to universities in the United States, he remained throughout the reign of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. After founding the Kisumu Arts Festival in Kenya and later serving as a professor in Nigeria, p'Bitek eventually returned to Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda, where he was a professor of creative writing until his death in 1982.
Widely regarded as p'Bitek's most famous work, Song of Lawino is a plea for the preservation of Acholi cultural tradition from the encroachment of Western influences. The prose poem is narrated by Lawino, an illiterate Ugandan housewife, who complains bitterly that her university-educated husband, Ocol, has rejected her and his own Acholi heritage in favor of a more modern lifestyle. Perceiving his wife as an undesirable impediment to his progress, Ocol devotes his attention to Clementine (Tina), his Westernized mistress. Throughout the work, Lawino condemns her husband's disdain for African ways, describing her native civilization as beautiful, meaningful, and deeply satisfying: "Listen Ocol, my old friend, / The ways of your ancestors / Are good, / Their customs are solid / And not hollow…." She laments her husband's disrespect for his own culture and questions the logic of many Western customs: "At the height of the hot season / The progressive and civilized ones / Put on blanket suits / And woollen socks from Europe…." In an interview, p'Bitek remarked on the protagonist of Song of Lawino: "Lawino realizes that we are evolving too rapidly away from our historical and cultural roots. Her song is a challenge for African leaders and scientists: You learned from white books, but do you link this imported knowledge to Africa? Be aware of your own background." In contrast, Song of Ocol (1970) expresses Ocol's disgust for African ways and the destructive force of his self-hatred: "Smash all these mirrors / That I may not see / The blackness of the past / From which I came / Reflected in them." Rather than reflecting the superiority of Western civilization, Ocol's voice has been characterized as an enraged, violent outpouring against Africa and African culture. Bernth Lindfors observed: "His fanatical [Westernization] and rejection of himself have prevented him from developing into a creative human being. He has lost not just his ethnic identity but his humanity." p'Bitek's next major work, Two Songs (1971), won the Kenya Publishers Association's Jomo Kenyatta Prize in 1972. Widely praised for its political significance, Song of Prisoner describes the anguish of a convicted criminal as he suffers from depression, delusions, and claustrophobia. The specific nature of the prisoner's crime remains unclear: he first claims that he was arrested for loitering in the park but later asserts that he has assassinated a political leader whom he describes as "a murderer / A racist / A tribalist / A clanist / A brotherist." Although he frequently presents himself as a hero, the ambiguous narrator also reveals intense feelings of impotence and anxiety: "I am an insect / Trapped between the toes / Of a bull elephant." In contrast, Song of Malaya (which loosely means "Song of Whore") is narrated by a prostitute whose strength and stable personality prevails as she exposes the hypocrisy of those who condemn her. Several critics have interpreted the narrator's voice as symbolizing tolerance for human diversity. Bernth Lindfors described the work's narrator as "the great social equalizer, humanity's most effective democratizer because she mixes with high and low indiscriminately. All who come to her are reduced to the same level." In his later years p'Bitek focused on translating African literature, and in 1974 he published The Horn of My Love, a collection of Acholi folk songs about death, ancient Acholi chiefs, love, and courtship. Hare and Hornbill (1978) is a collection of folktales presenting both humans and animals as characters. Praising p'Bitek's translation of The Horn of My Love, Gerald Moore commented that anyone "familiar with [p'Bitek's] own poetry, especially Song of Lawino, will recognize here the indigenous poetic tradition in which that fine work is embedded."
Critical reaction to p'Bitek's work has centered on the musical qualities of his poetry and his concern with such social and political themes as freedom, justice, and morality. Song of Malaya, for instance, attacks society's accepted concepts of good and bad. Bahadur Tejani described the work's composition as "one of the most daring challenges to society from the malaya's own mouth, to see if we can stand up to her rigorous scrutiny of ourselves." Interpreting Song of a Prisoner as an allegory for the turbulent political climate in East Africa during the 1970s, Tanure Ojaide stated: "[p'Bitek's] viewpoint in Prisoner is pessimistic about Africa's political future, for there is no positive alternative to the bad leader. The poet sees the need to eradicate a repressive regime, but he fears that the successor could be equally bad or worse." Commentators have also remarked on p'Bitek's concern with the preservation of African culture. In his role as cultural director and author, p'Bitek sought to prevent native African culture, especially that of his native Acholi, from being swallowed up by the influences of Western ideas and arts. While serving as director for the Uganda National Theater and Cultural Center, he proclaimed in an interview: "The major challenge I think is to find what might be Uganda's contribution to world culture…. [W]e should, I think, look into the village and see what the Ugandans—the proper Ugandans—not the people who have been to school, have read—and see what they do in the village, and see if we cannot find some root there, and build on this." He further explained his feelings about the influence of Western culture on his own: "I am not against having plays from England, from other parts of the world, we should have this, but I'm very concerned that whatever we do should have a basic starting point, and this should be Uganda, and then, of course, Africa, and then we can expand afterwards."