Song of Lawino and Song of Ocol

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Song of Lawino and Song of Ocol

by Okot p’Bitek


Two poems set in Uganda in the 1960s; Song of Lawino written in Acoli (as Werpa Lawino), translated and published in English in 1966; Song of Ocol written in English, published in 1967.


An estranged couple speak of their marital difficulties, which encapsulate the social problems of postcolonial Africa.

Events in History at the Time the Poems Take Place

The Poems in Focus

Events in History at the Time the Poems Were Written

For More Information

Among Africa’s most celebrated poets, Okot p’Bitek is also among the continent’s most idiosyncratic writers. Between his birth in 1931 and his death in 1982, p’Bitek was a choirboy, a soccer player, an anthropologist, director of Uganda’s national cultural center, and a teacher, in addition to his more famous roles as poet and essayist. p’Bitek is also unusual for the degree to which he rejected the European influence on Africa. He rejected the Christian faith of his parents in the early 1960s, and wrote his most famous works in his native Acoli rather than in English. His essays ruthlessly critique Africans who have fallen under the spell of such European ideas as Christianity or socialism. His scholarly work provides a deeply sympathetic defense of Acoli culture. Both of these purposes are achieved as well in his poems—especially in “Song of Lawino”—which attempt to voice the beliefs and concerns of traditional Acoli culture.

Events in History at the Time the Poems Take Place

The Acoli

Song of Lawino and Song of Ocol provides vivid records of the pre-1970s life and customs of the Acoli. Far less numerous than the Buganda or Banyoro peoples, the Acoli reside in the elevated grasslands of northwest Uganda. They are a subgroup of the Luo people, and they speak a Nilotic language (unlike their Bantu neighbors to the South).

Prior to the occupation by the British (formalized by their establishment of the East African Protectorate in 1899), the Acoli pursued subsistence farming and cattle herding. They lived in polygamous, extended families under the leadership of a single male, who dictated plans and divided responsibilities. The various family compounds were loosely knit, first by a village leader who coordinated cooperative activities (such as raids and hunts) and arbitrated interfamily disputes, then by a Rwot, or leader of a number of territories, who performed the same functions on a larger scale. Both were hereditary positions. Altogether there were some 30 clans in Uganda before the coming of the British, who consolidated the clans and reduced them to six; the old clans, however, retained strong allegiances that would surface in the postindependence (1962) competition for political posts.

The presence of the British beginning in 1892 wrought changes in Acoli customs. In addition to the conversion of many Acoli to Christianity (sometimes a superficial conversion, as p’Bitek’s poems suggests), new leaders were appointed by the British, creating some tension between these and the older sources of authority. The British introduced cotton and tried to force the Acoli to grow it for cash, with mixed results. There was strong resistance to cash farming, though in time Uganda would become a major supplier of cotton to the world.

In Acoli culture, elaborate dances are crucial to social events such as transfers of power and courtship; these dances play a vital role in p’Bitek’s poems. Central also to the culture is a pre-Christian religion based on a polytheistic concept—the notion of Jok. Jok represents the spirit of individual clans, villages, or wild animals—anything of significance to the life of the Acoli. A Jok can be beneficent or malicious; either way, it is an Acoli’s duty to appease the spirits, both good and bad, to ensure success in human endeavors.

When the British withdrew from Uganda in the early 1960s, they left behind traces of colonialism that threatened to fragment Ugandan society. There was a small elite of black Africans, generally Protestants, whom the British had trained to fill government and bureaucratic posts. Educated in the West, these Africans often had little sympathy for the mass of Africans, who lived traditional lives in the villages and in many cases had adopted Catholicism or perhaps Islam rather than Protestantism. Economically the British left behind a situation that favored trade with the West over the growth of industry in Uganda or trade with other Africa nations. In religion, they left behind a divided populace. The rift between Africans who adhered to traditional African religions (such as the Acoli’s polytheistic faith) and those who had converted to Christianity was no less wide than the gap between the Catholic and the Protestant converts or that between the Western-educated elite minority and the illiterate majority. In p’Bitek’s poems, Ocol is a Catholic Christian while his wife clings to Acoli beliefs, a difference that mushrooms into one of their deepest tensions. The conflict reflects a larger rift in society as a whole. Around independence, some 34.5 percent of Uganda was Catholic, 28.2 percent Protestant, 5.6 percent Moslem, and the remaining 31.7 percent traditional (Mittleman, p. 68).

The religiously split household was not uncommon in Uganda, with family members often divided along generational lines. For example, Lawino recalls when her Christian-educated mate, Ocol, then still a boy, attacked a traditional healer who had come to his father’s house, breaking the sacred drum and sending the old man away. As Christian-educated youths matured into adulthood, matters just grew more complicated. In the 1950s-60s struggle against colonialism, many young Africans who had been born Christian or who had been converted to Christianity rejected this faith as the oppressor’s religion. In adulthood, p’Bitek, like his Kenyan friend Ngugi wa Thiong’o (see Weep Not, Child , also covered in African Literature and Its Times), rejected Christian names as well as Christian beliefs.

To understand the religious situation in British East Africa, one must realize that Christianity was never, for Kenyans or Ugandans, simply a matter of belief. Missionaries first introduced Protestantism and Catholicism to Uganda in the 1870s. While white missionaries thought that they were simply bringing God’s light to heathens, Africans saw the new religion quite differently. For Africans, from the highest leaders to the poorest villagers, Christianity was just one more aspect of colonization. With the new religion came education, Western health care, material advantages, and a chance for individual advancement in the new culture of foreign control. Africans chose Christianity for all sorts of reasons, but rarely for a disinterested belief in Jesus Christ. They understood from the start that Christian missions were part of the colonial project. Therefore, they did not see their choice to convert as hypocritical or deceitful, even when they did so without rejecting aspects of their birth religions or their culture that were not Christian at all, such as polygamy.

Most missionaries sensed this, at least in general terms. The first missionary in the land of the Acoli, Albert Lloyd, reports that an Acoli leader invited him with these words: “We have heard long ago that the Bunyoro and Baganda [peoples north of the Acoli] have learned to worship the white man’s God but we too want the same…. Do you think we should mind the destruction of our old and worn-out customs and religion if you provided us with good food for our souls?” (Russell, p. 2). However, Keith Russell, a Bishop in Uganda at the time of liberation in 1962, expresses a more practical motivation for embracing the colonial religion:

The new teaching…. that he wanted for his people: that he thought in the least of worshipping God—white man’s or anyone else’s—no; that his people were missing something valuable that others were getting—yes; that this had anything to do with clan ritual, was in any way thought of as a substitute for it—no.

(Russell, p. 3)

Most missionaries in Uganda were keenly aware that their converts’ new belief was superficial, that it hinged on material benefits and was liable to be repudiated as soon as Christianity contradicted or outlawed traditional belief. The missionaries showed a reluctance to disturb even polygamy, the most obviously non-Christian aspect of native culture.

Yet over time Christianity created a schism among native-born Ugandans. The disunity tended to result less from Christianity than from its fringe benefits, especially education. In “Song of Lawino,” Lawino recalls sneaking away from night school to attend a “get-stuck” dance, where young couples declare their love for each other. Ocol, by contrast, stuck to his studies with diligence. At the end of his course of education, he finds himself alienated from his people, his village, even his wife. Access to Western knowledge makes him intolerant of what he comes to regard as superstition, and he is unable to appreciate Acoli culture. Ocol is representative of a common type in postcolonial Africa: the educated African who feels closer to the traditions and practices of the European invader than to those of his own people. This group imported European goods, followed Western ways, even preferred women who mimicked the styles of white women. They put their faith in Christ, and could be as intolerant as any white priest when considering indigenous theology.


Okot p’Bitek has been loudly critical of Christianity’s role in Africa. He asks about missionaries, “Why did these run-away fellows come to Africa to teach Jewish history? Why did they not stay at home in Europe to bring light to that darkest of all continents? If all Europeans hold (and at the moment not many do) that their ancestor was a sinful Jew called Adam, why do they force this ancestorship on Africans?” (p’Bitek, Artist the Ruler, p. 61).

Dance and song

P’Bitek’s European training was in law and social anthropology, the latter of which turned out to be crucial to his Africanist poetry. Much of his intellectual work was focused on revising European notions of African primitivism; he produced a book critical of Western views of African religion, and produced insightful studies of Luo theology and Acoli oral culture. His work in this last area is critical for understanding Song of Lawino and Song of Ocol. As one critic observes, p’Bitek “wrote the Acoli version of Song of Lawino in a period in his life when he was daily concerned with Acoli traditional songs, both in his research and in his activities in connection with the Guli festival [of native arts]” (Heron in p’Bitek, Song ofLawino and Song of Ocol, p. 5). Acoli folk songs and stories, and the dances at which they were sung, exert a profound and continued influence on p’Bitek’s work. In the 1970s he produced a book of traditional songs (Horn of My Love) and another of stories (Hare and Hornbill). p’Bitek understood that, for Africans, oral culture was not a transitory or meaningless form. In cultures without a written tradition, oral tales and songs were the central forms of artistic expression. Thus, it is far from accidental that he interpolates so many traditional tunes into Song of Lawino, or that some of his most vigorous poetry occurs when his speaker describes the dances of the people.


One of p’Bitek’s most common weapons against colonialism is humor. Making fun of the odd behavior of Europeans in Africa allows him to communicate how strange their presence is, how untenable their goals, without having to assert with anger the evils they introduced to the continent. In one such story, an anthropologist emerges as a ridiculous figure, who ends up hurting himself because of his enthusiasm to delve into African culture:

My old teacher, Professor E. E. Evans Pritchard, used to attend these youthful dances at night among the Shilluk. In the spirit of the social anthropologist he had to be naked as everybody else was. But he always carried a torch. When two lovers left the arena for the nearest private spot, he would follow them, his torch blazing. The Welsh fellow got a thorough beating one night; it left large scars on his legs.

(p’Bitek, Artist the Ruler, p. 33)

Acoli dances come in several varieties. Bwola and otole dances were elaborate political affairs; the first celebrated the coronation of a new leader, and the latter celebrated friendly relations between two neighboring villages. There is also ritual dancing, accompanied by funeral singing, to express both struggle against death, and eventual surrender to it. Finally, there are the orak or larakaraka dances described so memorably by Lawino; she calls them “get stuck” dances because their primary purpose is romantic.

The scene at a “get stuck” dance is both chaotic and carefully organized, a mixture of social and individual desires. To the beat of different types of drums, a man or woman calls for a given tune, known to all the dancers. Then everyone becomes a soloist at once, singing his or her own song. These songs consist of traditional elements, lines, thoughts, and images, selected and ordered by the individual singer’s inspiration. Thus, no song is ever repeated, not in any exact way, but each song is in broad terms familiar to all; they know how to interpret the images chosen. For p’Bitek the miracle of this form is that it allows for individual expression within an affirmative, supportive context of shared participation. Young men sing to their beloved, and the women reciprocate with their own love songs. Insults too are exchanged; romantic advances are made and rejected, or made and reciprocated. The whole drama supports p’Bitek’s argument for the unity of culture. For him, it is no use trying to separate artistic expression from social behavior: in a healthy culture, all these elements form a unified whole. In his poetry, Christians like the drunken priest in Song of Lawino, who is both aroused and repelled by the naked dancers, and bureaucrats like Ocol, who want to Westernize Africa, threaten the healthy beauty of the dance.

Political factionalism

Uganda was rife with divisions after independence in 1962. Already noted are the religious rivalries. Likewise there were ethnic rivalries, linguistic differences, and political competitions. The two major parties were the Uganda Peoples Congress (UPC), constituted largely of Protestants, and the Democratic Party (DP), comprised mostly of Catholics. In the poems Ocol belongs to the DP, his brother to the UPC. While the UPC enjoyed a large measure of control of government under Prime Minister Milton Obote (1962-72), it was itself riddled with factionalism. All the rivalries were less about establishing a solid footing for the new nation “than about who was going to get the most benefits from independence. Instead of working together to build their new nation, [the politicians] worked against each other. They built disunity instead of unity,” in part a result of the fundamental ethnic divisions on which society rested (Davidson, p. 147). Lawino asks in her poem, “Is this the Peace / That Independence brings? / When my husband / Opens a quarrel / With his brother” (p’Bitek, Song of Lawino and Song of Ocol, p. 105).

African identity, old and new

In the second section of her song, Lawino addresses her husband: “I do not understand / The ways of foreigners, / But I do not despise their customs. / Why should you despise yours?” (Lawino and Ocol, p. 41). This question encapsulates a problem of concern for all Africans after colonialism: how was the newly liberated continent going to think of itself? The old ways, though very far from destroyed, had been complicated forever by Western intervention: African intellectuals, politicians, and ordinary people had to find their own way to fit into the modern world. They had to answer political questions relating to a choice of capitalism, communism, or some third system. They had to resolve social questions—which should take precedence: clan affiliation, regionalism, or pan-African unity? And they had to answer cultural questions—should they opt for loyalty to tradition or for modernization? Behind every question lay the underlying query: how much European thought was appropriate for Africa’s future?

Politically, most forward-looking thinkers agreed that Africa had to find its own path. Some, like Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah, advocated a continental unity to survive competition with the superior development of Europe. Nkrumah also advocated what he called “African socialism,” an ideal espoused in Kenya and Tanzania as well. Most newly independent African countries chose capitalism. The majority started with some version of democracy, but nearly all ended with military coups and dictatorship.

Culturally, much was made of indigenous African forms. There were numerous debates on how best to promote African ways and African history in Uganda. Discussions ranged from revamping school curricula to teach African languages and history, to promoting the internationally acclaimed African dance troupe, The Heartbeat of Africa. According to a top government aide at the time, Akena Adoko,

Ugandans were demanding
That the table should be turned
That there be revolutions
That the old order of aping
And imitating Europeans
Were fit only for the slaves
Independence ushered in
The era of expression
Of things purely African:
Our thoughts and our deeds
We had to be ourselves
Whether for better, for worse.
     (Adoko in Mittleman, p. 117)

Even those writers—the majority—who chose European genres like the novel attempted to capture a quintessential African voice by incorporating patois, proverbs, and elements of traditional tales. In East Africa especially, key writers chose to write in their own languages as often as in English.

Okot p’Bitek was among the most vocal of those intellectuals who asserted that all of these endeavors were insufficient, timid, and doomed to failure. He argued that European influence must be rooted out wholly, and native forms of culture allowed to flourish without foreign graftings. Obviously, he repudiated all intellectuals who desired a synthesis of European and African; he viewed this as a new form of mental imperialism. Ideas like “African socialism” were nonsense to him; the socialist author Karl Marx had written for a European context that had no parallel in Africa. The same was true for capitalism. Okot p’Bitek also rejected many schools of thought that others found appealing. He rejected the “negritude” movement of French-speaking African intellectuals because he believed its proponents wanted to create an image counter to white hegemony, without first extricating themselves from it. He rejected Frantz Fanon’s theory of cultural revolution (see The Wretched of the Earth, also covered in African Literature and Its Times) because it depended on European psychoanalysis and history. He rejected the teaching of Western works in African universities; he even criticized the exportation of African literature abroad.

p’Bitek’s views were markedly radical, and did not become current among the majority of African thinkers. However, the very stridency and intellectual consistency of his position served a crucial purpose: it exposed the depths of European influence on Africa, and identified elements that had to be dealt with in order to eradicate the legacy of colonialism.

The Poems in Focus

Plot summary

Song of Lawino and Song of Ocol is divided into two major sections, both of which are further subdivided—Song of Lawino into thirteen verse “chapters,” Song of Ocol into nine. Each chapter revolves around a certain argument, but only loosely; the poet allows his speakers to digress into long, lyrical asides. It is important to note, also, that the two speakers hardly seem to be addressing each other. While the sources of their disagreement are tragically clear, their worldviews and experiences are so different that they cannot be said to understand each other at all. Each starts by addressing the other, but soon slips into speaking to other, larger audiences. Lawino addresses the villagers who she expects to support her charges; Ocol speaks with hostility to the various groups of Africans whom he despises.

Lawino begins her complaint at the personal level. Her first chapter establishes the situation. The husband she loved, and who loved her, now spurns her; he calls her ignorant, dirty, and superstitious. He abuses her mother and her family. The second chapter discusses Klementina (Tina), Ocol’s mistress. Lawino disavows jealousy; she says she does not mind her husband’s unfaithfulness, only his contempt. If her description of Klementina seems catty or contemptuous, that is only because Tina does exactly what Lawino hates in her husband: she tries to act white. Lawino provides long descriptions of Klementina’s painful pursuit of Westernized beauty; her rival dusts her face, cauterizes her hair, starves herself. And the result, Lawino says, is atrocious:

The beautiful one is dead dry
Like a stump,
She is meatless
Like a shell
On a dry river bed
     (Lawino and Ocol, p. 40)

In the third chapter, Lawino begins her defense of her own culture by discussing the significant tradition of the dance. She opens by asserting that she does not know how to dance the dances of white people, then slips into a long and vivid description of an Acoli dance; she stresses its health, emotional openness, and its crucial social function. Because the dancers are naked, Ocol thinks that Acoli dances are immoral; Lawino sees European dances, where dancers violate Acoli taboos such as the interdiction against dancing with blood relatives, as much more immoral. This discussion of dances segues naturally into the next chapter, in which Lawino recalls her youthful beauty, her popularity, and how Ocol courted her. The fifth chapter returns to the subject of physical beauty. Its title—“The Graceful Giraffe Cannot Become a Monkey”—encapsulates Lawino’s argument: European styles of beauty are fine for white women, but look ridiculous on Africans. When Ocol despises her physical appearance, he is rejecting his entire heritage.

In the sixth and seventh chapters, Lawino contrasts European and African styles in two significant aspects of life: cooking and the concept of time. In Chapter Six, she asserts that she cannot work the modern stove and oven that Ocol has bought for her; the food it cooks seems flat and tasteless. She contrasts spiritless stove-food with what she cooks on her native firepit, and the complaint swells into a lyrical description of the important social function of food in Acoli culture; it brings people together and punctuates the day’s activities. Chapter Seven extends this critique to the treatment of time. Lawino is frightened by the grandfather clock Ocol has brought into the house; her husband mocks her because she has no conception of time—not even minutes or hours, let alone years or centuries. From Lawino’s perspective, however, it is Ocol whose understanding of time is diseased. She sees that he is ruled by his clock. He greets visitors with, “What can I do for you?” rather than letting them get to their purpose in due time; he does not seem to understand that, in Acoli life, people know when to perform a given activity by signs other than what the time is on a clock:

When the sun has grown up
And the poisoned tips of its arrows painfully bite
The backs of the men hoeing… This is when
You take drinking water
To the workers
     (Lawino and Ocol, p. 64)

Chapter Eight moves to the topic of Christianity and Lawino’s distrust of it. She is, first of all, mystified by the attitude of the missionaries, who demand belief but grow exasperated when Africans are interested enough in the missionaries’ ideas to ask questions about them. Next, she recalls the time a drunken priest came to a village dance; for Lawino, this event shows that Christianity provides neither peace nor rest; the priest, who has attempted to repudiate his sexual urges, ends up ogling the naked women at the dance. She closes by criticizing the Christian names Ocol has given to their children. In the next chapter, she extends her critique of Christianity; she wants to understand the faith, but is continually put off by the hostility the priests display to the questions she asks. Chapter Ten concludes Lawino’s critique of Christianity by discussing death; her husband, however, rejects the idea that Acoli beliefs can provide emotional or intellectual solace.

In Chapter Eleven, she switches the focus back to earthly matters. Here, she gives a long description of her husband’s political beliefs. He is a strident supporter of the Democratic Party, which backs free enterprise and the Church. Yet Lawino notes that, in spite of all his talk of unity and independence, Ocol has rejected his brother. They are locked in a mortal feud because this brother supports the Congress Party, which leans to the left and wishes to disestablish the Church. Both brothers claim to want the best for Uganda. Lawino soberly notes that peace must begin at home; if the brothers did not waste their energy fighting each other, they might have improved material conditions for everyone in the country.

In Chapter Twelve, Lawino vents a long complaint about her husband’s books. His library is entirely European, which reveals that Ocol’s ideas, like his clothes, are borrowed from whites: “The dogs of white men / Are well trained, / And they understand English!” (Lawino and Ocol, p. 115). In the final chapter, Lawino pulls together all her complaints in a simple plea to her husband. She still feels hope; if he rejects Klementina, if he understands how mean and dismissive he has been, he will return to the ways of his people and let the elders perform healing rituals for him.

Ocol’s much briefer reply makes it clear at once that he will do no such thing. His first words set the tone: “Woman, / Shut up! / Pack your things / Go!” (Lawino and Ocol, p. 120). Indeed, he very quickly stops addressing his wife at all. His first chapter sneers at the wailing and nagging of unhappy wives, but closes on his real theme, which is the destruction of all tradition: “We will obliterate / Tribal boundaries / And throttle native tongues / To dumb death” (Lawino and Ocol, p. 124). The next four chapters trace this same theme repeatedly, with only minor variations.

Chapter Two, the briefest, bemoans Africa; Ocol admits the continent means nothing to him but unfathomable blackness and evil.

Chapter Three begins by mocking what he calls “tribal” superstition; he presents ugly images of witch doctors and their vain attempts to save dying children. He boasts that modern politicians will uproot all traditions, and round up and shoot the singers of traditional songs. He closes by dismissing African proponents of negritude and those who attempt to elevate Africa’s status by pointing to such ancient monuments as the pyramids in Egypt and the ruins of Great Zimbabwe.

Chapter Four is addressed to African women. He asks what they get from adhering to the old ways, and answers: subjugation, disdain, and a lifetime of labor that wears them down to nothing. He says, “They buy you / With two pots / Of beer; / The Luo trade you / For seven cows” (Lawino and Ocol, p. 134).

Chapter Five addresses the men, most particularly the warriors. He mocks the most violent of them for their savagery, and for the fact that their violence could not triumph over the white invaders.

Chapters Six and Seven discuss those whom Ocol believes are Africa’s true warriors—those, like himself, who fought for freedom. In this struggle, he says, the so-called warriors were silent as the Western-educated Africans led the struggle. (He uses this fact to justify his wealth and expensive habits, as well.)

In the last two chapters, Ocol makes everbolder claims about the future, and passes even more scornful comments on the past. He closes in a grand peroration, dismissing the great empires of Africa’s past and boasting, “We will erect monuments / To the founders / Of modern Africa: / Leopold II of Belgium, / Bismarck” (Lawino and Ocol, p. 151).

What’s lost in translation

p’Bitek first wrote Song of Lawino in his native Acoli. The poet reported that he produced a full English version after receiving an enthusiastic response at a conference where he read a small section that he had translated.

The English poem differs from the Acoli version in places. A few details have been added to the English version to clarify meanings that might otherwise not be understood, and some details in the original have been dropped from the English version. Lines that, in the original, read

Timme ducu lutimme Munu-Munu
Ping’o lewic pe mako Munu,
Lukwako dako atyer, calo Munu
Luting’o pong’kor, calo Munu
Wumato taa cigara, calo Munu,
Wa mon, wa co calo Munu,
Wunato lem-wu calo Munu,
Wunato dog-wu calo Munu,
Wunango laa dogwu calo Munu,
Ma dog co nywak ki reng’ng’e pa Munu

are reduced, in English, to

You kiss her on the cheek
As white people do,
You kiss her open-sore lips
As white people do
You suck the slimy saliva
From each other’s mouths
As white people do.
     (Introduction, Lawino and Ocol, p. 6)

G. A. Heron notes that the English version translates only three lines of the Acoli original. In order for an English version of his poem to make sense, p’Bitek had to diminish the effect of repetition with minor variations, which the Acoli original borrowed from folk song. He also found it impossible to mimic the rhyme and meter that are present in the original, so the English version is written in free verse, with relatively short lines. In addition to the very different rules of pronunciation and the immeasurable gulf between the poetic conventions of English and Acoli, p’Bitek had to confront the fact that the original is saturated with Acoli lore and wisdom: songs, proverbs, echoes of stories, and conventional phrases. On almost every page, he encountered a phrase that would echo with meaning for an Acoli reader, but would sound like nonsense to a reader not raised in an Acoli environment.


Perhaps the most comical misunderstanding between Christian missionaries and the Acoli is the use of the word “Hunchback” for “God,” The Acoli, of course, had their own word for God: Jok. But Acoli religion is primarily functional: it does not concern itself with such concepts as creation. Thus, when early missionaries asked Acoli elders, “Who moulded you?” This question made no sense, since the Acoli knew they were shaped by their mothers. The missionaries, unsatisfied, asked again, p’Bitek writes, “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” (p’Bitek, African Religions,, p. 62). One can imagine the chuckle that Okot, who always appreciated the absurd side of colonialism, enjoyed at the thought of missionaries attempting to convert Acoli people to the worship of Rubanga.

In other words, the problems p’Bitek faced in translating his poem replicated the problem he saw at the core of the modern African experience: an irresolvable tension between native knowledge and imported European culture. Not surprisingly, he uses this tension to his advantage: instead of minimizing how different the two cultures are, he tends to highlight it.

One instance of this is in his use of proverbs. In the English version, p’Bitek explains relatively few of the proverbs to which Lawino refers almost continually. The most significant is the tagline for Lawino’s song: “The pumpkin in the old homestead must not be uprooted!” Nowhere does p’Bitek explain the meaning behind the proverb: pumpkins are a special delicacy, around which the homestead garden was built. They symbolize all the values of respect for family and tradition that Lawino defends. “In this proverb…. Lawino is not asking Ocol to cling to everything in his past, but rather not to destroy things for the sake of destroying them” (Introduction, Lawino and Ocol, p. 7). Similarly unexplained phrases occur on nearly every page of the poem: agemate, husband-in-law, horn, bull, “eating” names (instead of “earning”), get-stuck. In almost all cases, the meaning is made somewhat clear by context. Even the novice reader realizes that “horn” is just that—a horn worn by Acoli men, on which they sound their personal note in hunts, after fights, and at dances. “Bull” is an honorific for people of great spirit. However, these phrases retain an air of mystery for the foreign reader, reminding him or her that Acoli culture is far too deep and rich to understand by reading a single poem.

p’Bitek performs a similar operation on aspects of European culture that are incomprehensible to the Acoli. Christianity is especially strange in Lawino’s mouth. For instance, in her Bible class she learned to say, “I accept the hunchback, / The Padre who is very strong, / Moulder of Skyland and Earth” (Lawino and Ocol, p. 86). And her version of “Hail Mary:” “Look Mariya, the clean woman/ Mother of the Hunchback/ Pray for us/ Who spoil things/ Full of graciya” (Lawino and Ocol, p. 75). “Skyland” is obviously heaven. “Clean” works less well as a translation of “grace,” a word for which the Acoli had no equivalent; Lawino also speaks of the “clean ghost” (for “Holy Spirit”). But “hunchback” seems absolutely foreign. By these oddities, minor and amusing in themselves, p’Bitek hopes to underscore the essential absurdity of believing that Christianity has anything to offer the Acoli. If a person does not even understand the concept of grace, how can he or she possibly pray for it, miss it, or desire it?

In most respects, observes G. A. Heron, Song of Lawino is a very literal translation of Wer pa Lawino; in many parts of the poem it is difficult to produce a more literal translation” (Heron, p. 43). Sometimes the very literality of the translation leaves the meaning untapped, as with the proverbs in the poem. p’Bitek’s translation reveals how much of a poem’s meaning depends on cultural context. By refusing to act as a translator of culture as well as of language, he drives home how foreign these two cultures are to each other.

Sources and literary context

Obviously, the most important source for Song of Lawino and Song of Ocol is the folk culture of the Acoli. Lawino’s song is saturated with Acoli song. When she is not directly quoting songs of the type p’Bitek later printed in The Horn of My Love, she is still speaking in the cadences, language, and spirit shaped by Acoli song and dance.

However, it would be naive to claim that p’Bitek is a “purely” Acoli writer, whatever that would mean. The very fact that he produces a printed book indicates that he has been influenced by European culture. In addition, he also uses such Western concepts as individual authorship, rhyme, and division into chapters. But, unlike many African writers, he does not acknowledge specific debt to any European authors, past or present. In his essays, he refers to a remarkably diverse group of European writers, from Horace to John Dewey, but his poetry appears uninfluenced.

A general affinity can be noted between p’Bitek and his friend and contemporary, Ngugi wa Thiong’o. Both rejected Christianity, and favored native over imported languages for writing. However, p’Bitek was unsympathetic to Ngugi’s socialism, which he viewed as a foreign borrowing inappropriate to Africa’s circumstances.

Events in History at the Time the Poems Were Written

A political role lost

In 1966 Okot p’Bitek was appointed director of the National Cultural Centre in Kampala, the capital of Uganda. He was the first African to head this important cultural position, and he did not fail to make his mark. In his two years as head of the Centre, “Ugandan theatre, poetry, dance, games, painting and sculpture flourished. The Heartbeat of Africa

Dance Troupe was formed and toured the world” (p’Bitek, Africa’s Cultural Revolution, p. 8). In an interview conducted in the 1960s, p’Bitek indicated what he found significant about his work: “The Centre has become a place where people from all walks of life gather to enjoy the facilities and feasts we have to offer. Not only top people as in, the old days, but also people who had never set foot in the place before: unemployed people, illiterate artisans and dancers, wives of policemen and others” (p’Bitek, Africa’s Cultural Revolution, p. 94).

However, in 1968, Okot was dismissed from his post. He had just made a speech in Zambia, where he declared, among other radical ideas, “If at this stage the schools and universities in Africa think that one type of music or dance or drama is more ’civilized’ than another…. then the universities in Africa are citadels of cultural reaction, fit only for demolition” (p’Bitek, Africa’s Cultural Revolution, p. 14). On his return, he discovered he had been fired. His employers asserted that his speech had not been an issue, and p’Bitek believed them. In any case, he spent the next 11 years in exile.


Song of Lawino and Song of Ocol produced a great impact upon publication; the warring couple encapsulated, as p’Bitek intended them to, an issue of great concern for the continent. One critic wrote, “It is impossible…. to discuss our cultural crisis in East Africa, now, without an illustrative reference to the Lawino-Ocol-Tina axis” (Ngugi wa Thiong’o in p’Bitek, Ajrica’s Cultural Revolution, p. ix). Not surprisingly, praise was mixed with reservations. Taban lo Liyong, for instance, criticized p’Bitek’s refusal to provide the meanings of Acoli proverbs: “The meaning of deep Acoli proverbs are made very, very light by their rendition into English word for word, rather than sense for sense or proverb for proverb” (Liyong, p. 141). Gerald Moore noted that the translation is necessarily flawed: “Rhyme, assonance and tonal variations, the chief ornaments of the original text, are lost” (Moore, p. 53). Okumu pa Lukobo believed that p’Bitek’s real purpose should have been to dramatize Law-ino’s sexual jealousy: “What Lawino has to say would have been better expressed by another Acoli proverb which says Dako abila ni eye meni (your first wife is your mother). What Lawino is really concerned with is a personal matter—her rivalry with her husband’s mistress Klementina” (pa Lukobo, p. 13). pa Lukobo also complained that both participants are caricatures: Lawino is exaggeratedly naive, and Ocol far more contemptuous than his real-life counterparts. This was a fairly common critique, but others, such as Ngugi defended P’Bitek from these charges: “[Some critics] turn the fundamental opposition between two value-systems into a mere personal quarrel between Lawino and her husband. We must in fact see the class basis of her attack: Lawino is the voice of the peasantry and her ridicule and scorn is aimed at the class basis of Ocol’s behavior” (Ngugi, p. 75).

—Jacob Littleton

For More Information

Davidson, Basil. Modern Africa: A Social and Political History. 3rd ed. London: Longman, 1994.

Heron, G. A. The Poetry of Okot p’Bitek. London: Heinemann, 1976.

Liyong, Taban lo. The Last Word: Cultural Synthesism Nairobi: East African Publishing House, 1969.

Mittleman, James H. Ideology and Politics in Uganda: From Obote to Amin. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1975.

Moore, Gerald. “Grasslands Poetry.” Transition 21, no. 51 (June 1967): 50-54.

Ngugi wa Thiong’o. Homecoming. London: Heinemann, 1972.

Ofuani, Ogo. “The Poet as Self-Critic: The Stylistic Repercussions of Textual Revisions in Okot p’Bitek’s Song of Ocol” Research in African Literatures 25, no. 4 (winter 1994): 159-75.

pa Lukobo, Okumu. “Song of Lawino.” Nanga 2, no. 3 (May 1970): 13-15.

p’Bitek, Okot. African Religions in Western Scholarship Nairobi: Kenya Literature Bureau, [1979?].

_____. Africa’s Cultural Revolution. Nairobi: Macmillan, 1973.

_____. Artist the Ruler. Nairobi: Heinemann Kenya, 1983.

_____.Song of Lawino and Song of Ocol London: Heinemann, 1966.

Russell, Keith. Men Without God? London: Heinemann, 1967.