Okot p'Bitek - The gripping poems of Lawino and Ocol capture two opposing approaches to the cultural future of Africa at the time: what kind of liberation should Africa take on? Should it honor its traditions, or should it adapt the European values that were already set in place during colonialism?



Song of Lawino & Song of Ocol
Okot p'Bitek, Song of Lawino and Song of Ocol, Waveland Press; Reissue ed., 2013., / East African Educational Publishers and Worldreader, 2015. [1966.]




During his lifetime, Okot p'Bitek was concerned that African nations, including his native Uganda, be built on African and not European foundations. Traditional African songs became a regular feature in his work, including this pair of poems, originally written in Acholi and translated into English. Lawino's words in the first poem are not fancy, but their creative patterns convey compelling images that reveal her dismay over encroaching Western traditions and her Westernized husband's behavior. Ocol's poem underlines Lawino's points and confirms her view of him as a demeaning and arrogant person whose political energies and obsession with wasting time are destructive to his family and his community.
The gripping poems of Lawino and Ocol capture two opposing approaches to the cultural future of Africa at the time and paint a picture that belongs in every modern reader's cognitive gallery.


Song of Lawino and Song of Ocol Okot p'Bitek Song of Lawino and Song of Ocol are among the most successful African literary works. Song of Lawino is an African woman's lamentation over the cultural death of her western educated husband - Ocol. In Song of Ocol the husband tries to justify his cultural apostasy. These songs were translated from Acholi by the author. They evince a fascinating flavour of the African rhythmical idiom.


"In rewriting his poem in English he has chosen a strong, simple idiom which preserves the sharpness and frankness of this imagery, a structure of short, free verses which flow swiftly and easily, and an uncondescending offer of all that is local and specific to the original (.....) (W)hat survives is enough to offer one of the most varied and exciting contributions yet made to English poetry in Africa." - Gerald Holyoake Moore


As G.A.Heron notes in his Introduction, Song of Lawino and Song of Ocol:
are not songs in any literal sense. You cannot sing them. They are not simply a written version of Acoli songs. Acoli songs do not grow to book length. They are one or two verses repeated with musical accompaniment. [...] They do ot use rhyme or the regular rhythm used in Wer pa Lawino.  
      The lengthy poem  Song of Lawino, in particular, is a lament and denunciation one can imagine being declaimed, if not sung. For all the (local) universality of its arguments, it is not a communal work but an individual and personal one, the poet giving voice to a strong leading figure, Lawino. It is a litany of specifics, bitter complaints about her husband, Ocol -- even as their individual differences are representative for two camps, one espousing the entirely traditional (Lawino), the other looking only towards a European-culture-guided future (Ocol).
       Even if not of the traditional oral-poetic (or song) form, the approach is appropriate, given that Lawino is illiterate, and given her complaint about Western book-learning: "Ocol has lost his head / In the forest of books" she laments, denouncing the written texts that have displaced traditional values and customs (including, presumably, oral culture):

And the reading
Has killed my man,
In the ways of his people
He has become
A stump.
 

       The form of the 'song' is adapted in translation (Okot p'Bitek's own), Heron also explaining: 
     In Song of Lawino Okot replaces the regular rhythm and rhyme of the Acoli version with irregular free verse in the English version. 
       Clearly, this gives a different feel to the work, but it seems reasonably successful. Lawino's expression hammers home her complaints in stark, quick succession -- though one wonders whether the regularity of rhythm and rhyme in the original suggest a much more tempered argument: as is, the clipped, rapid-fire English gives a very heated feel to Lawino's expressions of frustration.
       Lawino is Ocol's first wife, and the mother of his first children. Now educated -- in the Western sense: he "Has read at Makerere University / He has read deeply and widely" -- and religious -- again in the Western sense, having become Christian --, Ocol sees everything about his origins as backward, and something to distance himself from. He has tried, and apparently managed quite well, to reinvent himself in the Western mold, complete with a European name -- Milchizedek Gregory ("It sounds something like / Medikijediki Giriligoloyo", Lawino thinks) -- and a new wife who understands these new ways. Among the reasons he rejects Lawino is: "Because, he says / I have no Christian name. / He says / Lawino is not enough.
       In separate chapters, Lawino addresses the variety of differences between the traditional that Ocol now rejects (but which she still clings to) and the new, which he has embraced entirely. He is dismissive of Lawino for not being able to cook European-style food, or being able to: "dance white men's dances". He is disrespectful of his parents and of family in general, and not welcoming in the way expected of him, barring visitors because, among other reasons:

They ruin his nicely polished floor
With the mud in their feet.
 

       Among the many areas of disagreement is about time, Ocol angry at Lawino because: "I cannot keep time / And I do not know / How to count the years". For Lawino, things happen when the need and circumstance arise: the child is fed when it's hungry (as opposed to fixed, regular mealtimes), or goes to sleep when it is tired. Ocol's life, meanwhile, is ruled by precise schedules -- and by the baffling grandfather clock whose: "large single testicle / Dangles below" (in one of Okot p'Bitek's most inspired images).
       Lawino is baffled by Ocol's attitude:

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

       Yet ultimately she too seems to judge reflexively: for Ocol all things Western are unquestionably superior; in reaction, she finds only flaws (and no potential positives) while wholeheartedly endorsing the entirely traditional. There is no middle ground here -- as, indeed there is no discussion: these are the songs of two individuals presenting their positions.
       Lawino complains:

My husband refuses
To listen to me,
He refuses to give me a chance.
My husband has blocked up my path completely.
 

       Ocol's treatment of Lawino does seem outrageous. He is in no way supportive, and seems to make no effort to convince Lawino of the superiority of his newly-found ideas and ways. He lives (and lords) by fiat, the traditional so hidebound and silly that it can be dismissed without explanation; he is not in the least responsive to Lawino's plaints: "I cannot understand all this / I do not understand it at all !" Lawino makes some efforts to learn about and try to take up some of Ocol's ways, but finds a darker side lurking there too that Ocol seems completely blind to.
       Meanwhile, Lawino thinks Ocol and those who have pursued European-style education have lost an essential part of themselves, in distancing themselves from the traditional. As she ultimately bluntly puts it:

For all our young men
Were finished in the forest
Their manhood was finished
In the class rooms,
Their testicles
Were smashed
With large books!
 

       Ocol is also politically active, presented as the leader of the Catholic 'Democratic Party'; his main, despised political opponent is his brother, leader of the Marxist 'Congress Party'. Lawino does not understand the political (and personal) differences at work here: both sides seem to want the same thing, so:
Then why do they not join hands,
Why do they split up the army
Into two hostile groups?
 

       Song of Ocol -- shorter, and even more spare and stark and direct in its presentation -- gives Ocol a chance to respond, and to explain his own reasoning and feelings. Ocol sees Africa as only something to be fixed, a place:
Diseased with a chronic illness,
Choking with black ignorance,
Chained to the rock
Of poverty.
 

       Africa has failed, and he wants to move forward -- by leaving everything African behind. This is also reflected in his personal philosophy: his loathing runs so deep that he wants to:
Smash all the mirrors
That I may not see
The blackness of the past
From which I came
Reflected in them.
 

       The Ocol of Song of Ocol seems even more radical and absolute than that of Lawino's complaints. His argument is taken to such extremes here that it becomes almost comical, as in his raving call to:
erect monuments
To the founders
Of modern Africa;
Léopold II of Belgium,
Bismarck ...
 

       His position as presented here is even less nuanced than in Song of Lawino. With religion playing less of a role, the divide is presented even more starkly as simply between the old and forgettable (Africa) and the new (European and Western ways).
       Ocol's position is so extreme as to be indefensible; Lawino's, while less so, also leaves little room for compromise. Yet, as Heron observes in his Introduction: "These two poems are not the thesis and antithesis of the argument, from which the reader can deduce a synthesis". Nevertheless, in their frustrated, extreme opposition the two do suggest possible middle ground: Okot p'Bitek leaves it as a vacuum here, but there is much room for positive advancement that does not neglect the traditional.
       The world-views of Song of Lawino and Song of Ocol are so polarized that neither can be embraced. Lawino's position is the more sympathetic, because she at least expresses some openness to trying to understand, while Ocol has simply cut himself off from both his (and his continent's) past and from any constructive dialogue. The more carefully composed Song of Lawino is by far the stronger of the works, but even if Song of Ocol is almost crude in its simplicity, there is still considerable power to it.
       In clinging so firmly to specific (and extreme) positions, Song of Lawino and Song of Ocol might seem facile, but there is considerable art and, on some levels even subtlety, to them. They remain powerful works that are well worth revisiting. - M.A.Orthofer



Song of Lawino is a poem about an African woman’s cry against her husband’s abandonment of the past in favour of western traditions.
Lawino, a non-literate woman, says “Husband, now you despise me / Now you treat me with spite / And say I have inherited the / stupidity of my aunt /”. Her university-educated husband has adopted Western ways, rejected her, and taken another, Westernized woman.
In there is a mixture of the traditional Africa practice of polygamy that is prevalent of the author’s Acholi’s culture however, instead the husband has chosen to favour the ‘new’ wife instead of treating both wives equally as culture would dictate.
Lawino claims that her husband has lost his manhood by reading books: “Bile burns my inside! / I feel like vomiting! / For all our young men / Were finished in the forest, / Their manhood was finished / In the class-rooms, / Their testicles / Were smashed / With large books!” Lawino says that Ocol has learned how to speak English, and no longer engages, or has any interest in, African dance but prefers the ballroom dances introduced by Europeans, and this ‘loss of culture’ on the part of Ocol is what disturbs Lawino the most. The poem is an extended appeal from Lawino to Ocol to stay true to his own customs, and to abandon his ‘desire to be white.’
Song of Lawino was initially written in Acholi, one of the Luo dialects in northern Uganda in 1971 but later given an English translation by its author who according to his own words clipped a bit of the eagle’s wings of the original Acholi poem “and rendered the sharp edges of the warrior’s sword rusty and blunt, and also murdered rhythm and rhyme”.
Although the work was turned down by several British publishers, in 1966 it became a bestseller. In 2001, Okot’s good friend made another translation of song of Lawino which he claimed was closer to his old friend’s Acholi version called In Defence of Lawino.
The poem uses the literary device of a female character to address issues that were facing Africa at the time. When Okot p’Bitek wrote this poem Africa had recently been liberated and there was a question whether or not it should keep its African values or look to the West for new idealsSong of Lawino after publication was quickly translated into other languages and has become one of the most widely read literary works originating from Sub-Saharan Africa, and is more known for its scathing display of how African society was being destroyed by the colonization of Africa.
Song of Lawino was followed by Song of Ocol published in 1970, in which Lawino’s husband responds to her. “Mother, mother, / Why, / Why was I born / Black?” p’Bitek introduced a style that became known as “comic singing,” in his famous poem.
The poem itself echoes the author’s generation, that had absorbed early native culture during the colonial period, but then had received a British education. P’Bitek’s own choice was to take a stand against Western infiltration and defend Acholi traditions and customs.
Born in 1931, Okot p’Bitek passed away on July 20, 1982. - Kelvin Odooo

Song of Lawino is a book length poem by Ugandan Okot p'Bitek, published in 1972. The character of Lawino speaks in the first person as an African woman lamenting the cultural death of her Western-educated husband Ocol.
The poem is related to and inspired by traditional Acoli oral literature, but it also uses aspects of Western poetry. It was originally written in the Acoli language, then later translated by the author into English.
I love the images and the rhythm of the work. As you may guess, I am highly sympathetic to Lawino's point of view.
Here is a comment of hers on ballroom dancing.
"My husband laughs at me
Because I cannot dance white men's dances;
He despises Acoli dances
He nurses stupid ideas
That the dances of his people
Are sinful,
That they are mortal sins.

"I am completely ignorant
Of the dances of foreigners
And I do not like it.

"Holding each other
Tightly, tightly
In public,
I cannot.
I am ashamed.
Dancing without a song
Dancing silently like wizards,
Without respect, drunk ...
Since arriving in Tanzania Diane and I do not touch each other in public. Especially, any show of affection is considered shamelessly bad manners.
On keeping time and calendars,
"My husband is angry
Because he says,
I cannot keep time
And I do not know
How to count the years;
...
"When the baby cries
Let him suck milk
From the breast.
There is no fixed time
For breast feeding.
...
"In the wisdom of the Acoli
Time is not stupidly split up
Into seconds and minutes.
It does not flow
Like beer in a pot
That is sucked
Until it is finished.
...
"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.
Lawino is not condemning the ways of foreigners but rather imploring her husband not to categorically throw away his own native cultural legacy.
"A certain man
Has no millet field,
He lives on borrowed foods.
He borrows the clothes he wears
And the ideas in his head
And his actions and behavior
Are to please somebody else.
Almost fifty years after independence are Tanzanians still basically trying to please somebody else in some matters such as their educational system? - Earl
Stop despising people
As if you were a little foolish man,
Stop treating me like saltless ash
Become barren of insults and stupidity;
Who has ever uprooted the Pumpkin?

(from 'My Husband's Tongue Is Bitter,' in The Song of Lawino)
Okot p'Bitek was born in Gulu, Northern Uganda, into a family of Luo people. At that time Uganda was a protectorate of the British Empire. P'Bitek's mother was a gifted singer, composer, and leader of her clan. Under the influence of his mother, p'Bitek grew up learning the tales, proverbs and songs of Acholi folklore (sometimes referred to as Lwo or Luo). P'Bitek himself was an accomplished dancer and drummer. He attended Gulu High School and King's College, Budo, where he wrote and produced theatre and opera. Budo was patterned along the educational tradition of English boy's schools. "What they were teachingus was irrelevant to my experiences – Shakespeares and Shelleys", he said later in life. During this period he became familiar with many Acholi songs.
After a two-year course at the Government Training College in Mbarara, p'Bitek taught at Sir Samuel Baker's School near Gulu. While still a student, p'Bitek published his first poem, 'The Lost Spear', based on a traditional Luo folk story, but also influenced by Longfellow's poem Hiawatha (1855). His first and only novel, Lak Tar Miyo Kinyero Wi Lobo, p'Bitek published in Luo in 1953. Its title is a proverb, meaning "Our teeth are white, that's why we laugh at the sorrows of the world." The story tells about the tragedy of a poor Acholi lad, who struggles hard to save money to marry his sweet heart, but eventually loses his savings.
An adept soccer player and a member of the Uganda national team, he toured Britain in 1956 for a series of games, and decided stay there to study. P'Bitek took a diploma in education in Bristol, and later he studied law at the University of Wales at Aberystwyth and social anthropology at Oxford, where he completed in 1963 a B.Litt. thesis on the traditional songs of Acoli and Largo. "I first met a number of western scholars at Oxford University in 1960", p'Bitek recalled his experiences in the preface to African Religions in Western Scholarship (1972). "During the very first lecture in the Institute of Social Anthropology the teacher kept referring to Africans or non-western peoples as barbarians, savages, primitive tribes etc." Returning to Uganda at the age of 33, he joined the staff of the Department of Sociology at Makerere University College in Kampala, the capital city. Two years later he became a tutor with the Extra-Mural department. P'Bitek also founded the Gulu and was appointed director of the National Theatre and National Cultural Centre in Kampala. Later in 1968 in Kenya he founded Kisumu Arts Festivals. His wide circle friends and acquaintances included such leading poet-musicians of Acholiland as Omal Adok Too, Goya, Yona Acwaa, Acamu Lubwa Too, Oloyo Acil and Abonga Bongomin Lutwala.
As a poet p'Bitek made his breakthrough with The Song of Lawino. It was first composed in Luo in rhyming couplets and was translated into English by the author, who according to his own words clipped a bit of the eagle's wings of the original Acholi poem "and rendered the sharp edges of the warrior's sword rusty and blunt, and also murdered rhythm and rhyme". Although the work was turned down by several British publishers, in 1966 it became a bestseller. A separate American edition, by the World Publishing Company, was issued in 1969. The Luo original was published in 1971. P'Bitek's friend and colleague Taban lo Liyong published in 2001 a new translation of the poem, The Defense of Lawino, which aimed to be more faithful to the Acholi original.
"It may seem ironical that the first important poem in English to emerge in Eastern Africa should be a translation from the vernacular original," wrote Gerald Moore in Transition (no. 31, June-July, 1967). Like p'Bitek's other long poems, it was written as a story, narrated by one person. However, there are divisions in the general frame, that suggest individual poems. Lawino, a non-literate woman, laments her fate in 'My Husband's Tongue is Bitter': "Husband, now you despise me / Now you treat me with spite / And say I have inherited the / stupidity of my aunt /". Her university-educated husband Ocol has adopted Western ways, rejected her, and taken another, Westernized woman. Lawino claims that he has lost his manhood by reading books: "Bile burns my inside! / I feel like vomiting! / For all our young men / Were finished in the forest, / Their manhood was finished / In the class-rooms, / Their testicles / Were smashed / With large books!"
The Song of Lawino was followed by Song of Ocol (1970), in which Lawino's husband respons to her. "Mother, mother, / Why, / Why was I born / Black?" says Ocol eventually in 'What Is Africa to Me?', revealing his true alienated character. There is no clear answer to the question, what it means to be African, but in Ocol's Africa age-old traditions give way to modern values, whereas Lawino is proud of the traditional way of life and he rejects foreign intrusion. Together these books form a polemic, oratorical account of the changing times, dramatized through the accusing voices of marriage conflict. Song of Ocol was directly written in English.
Ngugi wa Thiong wrote in Homecoming (1972), that "Lawino is the voice of the peasantry and her ridicule and scorn is aimed at the class basis of Ocol's behaviour." However, p'Bitek's narrators are not only representatives of certain opposing values and attitudes, but lively personalities, with their deficiencies, humor, bitterness, and need of understanding. Skilfully p'Bitek inspires his readers to make conclusions and to create a synthesis after reading both collections. The author himself belonged to the generation, that had absorbed early native culture during the colonial period, but then had received a British education. P'Bitek's own choice was to take a stand against Western infiltration and defend Acoli traditions and customs.
Two Songs (1971) included Song of a Prisoner, apparently born as a response to the assassination of the Kenyan politician Tom Mboya, and Song of Malaya, about hypocrisy and sexual morals (malaya means "prostitute"). The book, dedicated to Patrice Lumumba (1925-1961), the murdered prime minister of the Republic of the Congo, was awarded the inaugural Kenyatta Prize for Literature in 1972. All these early collections were published by the East African Publishing House. Although p'Bitek had dismissed Shelley at Budo as "irrelevant," this revolutionary poet, especially his The Mask of Anarchy (1819/1832), written after the Peterloo Massacre carried out by British soldiers, influenced his Song of Prisoner and Song of Soldier, which he never finished. Idi Amin (also known as Idi Amin Dada),  the ruthless dictator of Uganda from 1971 to 1979, is widely believed to be the "soldier" of the latter song.
P'Bitek also published a collection of Acoli traditional songs, The Horn of My Love (1974), and a collection of Acoli folktales and short stories, Hare and Hornbill (1978). His major academic studies were Religion of the Central Luo (1971), African Religions in Western Scholarship, and Africa's Cultural Revolution (1973). P'Bitek was a frequent contributor to Transition, a journal published at Makerere, and other journals. His essays varied from literary criticism, such as 'The Self in African Imagery,' to articles on anthropological, sociological, and philosophical topics. P'Bitek's direct poems and his academic works caused much debate. He attacked both reactionary modes of thought and the uncritical acceptance of modernization, and was criticised by British observers for his Afrocentric views and cultural nationalism, and by feminist observers, who had trouble in accepting p'Bitek's one-sided satirical portrayal of African women.
Uganda became an independent member of the Commonwealth in 1962 with Milton Obote as prime minister. After criticizing the government of Uganda in Zambia, p'Bitek became persona non grata in his own country and moved to Kenya. His disillusionment he expressed in the poem 'They Sowed and Watered,' in which a lamb named Freedom is dead, the cynical people laugh bitterly, and a young boy who cares, is killed. "The peals of laughter / Poisoned arrows / Hit the boy like swords of steel / And blood from his heart / Anointing the land." The rest of his life p'Bitek spent teaching in Kenya and in the United States. Obote was overthrown in a miliary coup in 1971, and Idi Amin seized power. During his reign a huge number of Ugandans were killed and the economy collapsed. In 1971 p'Bitek became a senior research fellow at the Institute of African Studies in Nairobi. He also lectured in sociology and literature at the university. The Amin years P'Bitek spent in exile, and then returned to Makerere as a professor of creative writing. He died of a liver infection on July 19, 1982. His daughter, Jane Okot P'Bitek, is also a writer, whose Song of Farewell (1994, a volume of poetry, was dedicated to the memory of her father.
For further reading: The Last Word by Lo T. Lijong (1969); 'Introduction' to Song of Prisoner by E. Blishen (1971); A Reader's Guide to African Literature, ed. Hans M. Zell and Helene Silver (1972); Homecoming: Essays on African and Caribbean Literature, Culture, and Politics by Ngugi wa Thiong'o (1972); The Poetry of Okot p'Bitek by George A. Heron (1976); Uhuru's Fire: African Literature East to South by Adrian Roscoe (1977); 'Okot p'Bitek: Literature and Cultural Revolution' by S.O. Asein, in Journal of African Studies 5.3 (1978); Twelve African Writers by G. Moore (1980); Thought and Technique in the Poetry of Okot p'Bitek by Monica Nalyaka Wanambisi (1984); 'Okot p'Bitek: A Checklist of Worls and Criticism' by Ogo A. Ofuani, in Review of African Literatures 16.3 (1985); New Poetry from Africa: A Poetry Course for Senior Secondary Schools, ed. by R. Johnson, D. Ker, C. Maduka, O. Obafemi (1996); Postcolonial African Writers, ed. Pushpa Naidu Parekh and Siga Fatima Jagne (1998); The Penguin Book of Modern African Poetry, ed. Gerald Moore and Ulli Beier (1998); Oral Traditions As Philosophy: Okot P'Bitek's Legacy for African Philosophy by Samuel Oluoch Imbo (2002)  - www.kirjasto.sci.fi/pbitek.htm

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