BORN: 1931, Gulu, Uganda
DIED: 1982, Kampala, Uganda
GENRE: Fiction, poetry, nonfiction
Are Your Teeth White? Then Laugh! (1953)
Song of Lawino: A Lament (1966)
Two Songs: Song of Prisoner and Song of Malaya (1971)
One of the best-known and most original voices in East African poetry, Okot p'Bitek helped redefine African literature by combining the oral tradition of the native Acholi people of Uganda with contemporary political themes. At the same time he emphasizes the form of Acholi songs, p'Bitek explores the conflict between African and European cultures. In challenging the effects of colonialism and Christianity on Africa in his musical poetry, p'Bitek urges his countrymen to evaluate African society.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Inspired by Acholi Songs and Dances Born in Gulu, Uganda in 1931, p'Bitek was exposed to the songs and ceremonial dances of the ancient Acholi, a grassland people of the Uganda-Sudan borders, at an early age. His father, a teacher, was a gifted storyteller, while his mother was an accomplished singer of Acholi songs. After studying at King's College in Budo, where he wrote and produced a full-length opera before graduating from the secondary school, p'Bitek published Are Your Teeth White? Then Laugh!, also known as White Teeth, at the age of twenty-two.
Diverse Talents In 1956, p'Bitek played on Uganda's national soccer team at the Olympic Games held in London and then remained in England to study at schools such as the Institute of Social Anthropology in Oxford, where he presented his thesis on Acholi traditional songs, and University College, Wales. Returning to Uganda in 1964, p'Bitek assumed a teaching position in the sociology department at Makerere University College in Kampala. He was first recognized as a major voice in African literature with the publication of Song of Lawino two years later.
Artistic Festivals Named director of the Uganda National Theatre and Cultural Centre in 1966, p'Bitek soon founded the Gulu Arts Festival, a highly successful celebration of the traditional oral history, dance, and other arts of the Acholi people. After criticizing the government of Uganda under the rule of Prime Minister Milton Obote, p'Bitek was forced to resign his position in 1968, and he moved to Kenya, remaining there throughout the reign of notorious Uganda dictator Idi Amin. While in Kenya, p'Bitek both served as a professor in Nairobi and organized the Kisumu Arts Festival, which was attended by a large number of talented local artists and writers.
Academic Career Throughout his teaching career, p'Bitek was a frequent contributor to such journals as Traditions, his articles displaying a variety of intellectual interests and ranging from poems to anthropological essays to literary criticism. Focusing on translating African literature, p'Bitek published 1974's The Horn of My Love, a compilation of Acholi folk songs about death, ancient Acholi chiefs, love, and courtship. In 1978, the same year he left Nairobi for the University of Ife in Nigeria, he published Hare and Hornbill, a collection of folktales featuring both human and animal characters. After traveling as a visiting lecturer at various universities, including in Texas and Iowa, p'Bitek returned to Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda, where he was a professor of creative writing until his death in 1982.
Works in Literary Context
Praised as the first major East African poet to write in English, p'Bitek has influenced a number of other poets. According to scholar K. L. Goodwin, works such as Song of Lawino revealed an East African audience for volumes of poetry in English by a single author, thereby demonstrating that East African poetry could consist of more than the casual lyrics or graphic pieces that were typically published in anthologies or periodicals. As p'Bitek's work gained recognition as the unique voice of East Africa, other writers drew inspiration from it, including Ugandan novelist and poet Okello Oculi.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
P'Bitek's famous contemporaries include:
Zulu Sofola (1935–): In addition to being Nigeria's first female playwright, Sofola achieved success as an accomplished musician, theater director, and professor.
Gunpei Yokoi (1941–1997): Yokoi was the head of a team at the Japanese company Nintendo, which created the Game Boy handheld gaming system.
John Gardner (1933–1982): An accomplished medieval scholar, this American novelist's most notable work is Grendel (1971), a retelling of the Old English Beowulf epic from the point of view of its main villain, the moster Grendel.
Mu'ammar al-Gadhafi (1942–): As Libya's head of state, al-Gadhafi expelled foreigners, closed British and American military bases, and supported international terrorism.
David Malouf (1934–): A prize-winning poet before publishing his first novel, Malouf uses vivid, sensuous descriptions and evocative settings in his works.
Desmond Tutu (1931–): Tutu, the first black Archbishop of Cape Town, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984 for his efforts to unite people of all ethnicities in his country.
Luisa Valenzuela (1938–): The fiction of this Argentine writer deals with violence, political oppression, and cultural repression.
Preserving the Past Within the majority of p'Bitek's poetry and fiction is a plea to save Acholi cultural traditions from Western influences. Along with capturing the evolution of Acholi society and the expressiveness of Acholi song, p'Bitek urges East Africa to avoid succumbing to Western ideas of art. In Song of Lawino, for example, Lawino, an illiterate Ugandan housewife, bitterly complains that Ocol, her university-educated husband, has rejected not only her, but also his own Acholi heritage in favor of more modern ways. Lawino criticizes Ocol's disdain for the African lifestyle, heralding her native civilization as beautiful, meaningful, and satisfying. Through the character of Lawino, who realizes that African society is quickly moving away from its historical and cultural roots, p'Bitek issues a warning for his countrymen not to forget their heritage.
A World Voice Though p'Bitek believed Uganda should be the core of literature and drama in his homeland, his work spoke to a more universal reader. Edward Blishen, in the 1971 introduction to Song of a Prisoner, calls p'Bitek “a master of writing for the human voice—and sometimes, I suspect, for the animal or insect voice, too.” Blishen goes on to say that Song of Lawino “is a poem about the situation in which we all find ourselves, being dragged away from all our roots at an ever-quickening rate.” Bahadur Tejani points out p'Bitek's way of encompassing more than a specific people in Africa; Tejani, in speaking about a particular section in Song of Malaya, says that “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’…. Okot's merciless satire takes toll of a whole humanity[.]” Tejani suggests that, as shown in Song of a Prisoner, p'Bitek's message is one that readers can all understand: “[A]t least if we can't have social and political justice, let's have the freedom of spirit to sing and dance.”
Works in Critical Context
Both p'Bitek's poetry and academic works have sparked debate among scholars. Because he condemns a blind acceptance of Westernization and, to a certain degree, modernization, p'Bitek has evoked negative analysis from Western critics. He has been criticized by British reviewers for what they view as his extreme Africanism and nationalism. Furthermore, feminist critics have opposed p'Bitek's one-dimensional, often satirical portrayal of African women.
The Songs While some critics have focused on the musical qualities of p'Bitek's poetry, most academics address p'Bitek's concern with the social and political themes of freedom, justice, and morality. For example, Song of Malaya (“malaya” translates as “whore”) attacks society's basic ideas of good and bad. Bahadur Tejani describes the work 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.”
Written after the death of his friend, politician Tom Mboya, p'Bitek's Song of a Prisoner details a cynical search for justice. In the introduction to Song of a Prisoner, Edward Blishen notes that p'Bitek's poetry is musical and entertaining even as it expresses the agony of his people. Interpreting the work as an allegory for the turbulent socio-political situation in East Africa during the 1970s, Tanure Ojaide observes that “[p'Bitek's] viewpoint in Prisoner is pessimistic about Africa's political future, for there is no positive alternative to the bad leader. The successor could be equally bad or worse.”
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
In the preface to the essay collection Africa's Cultural Revolution, p'Bitek writes, “Africa must re-examine herself critically. She must discover her true self, and rid herself of all ‘apemanship.’ For only then can she 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.” Such concern for the preservation of African culture from the invasion of Western influences is evident throughout p'Bitek's works. Other works that explore the clash between two cultures include the following:
Orphan (1968), a poetry collection by Okello Oculi. Through allegory, this work addresses the modern African social and political situations within a framework of traditional village wisdom.
The Joy Luck Club (1989), a novel by Amy Tan.composed of four sections with four narrators in each section, Tan's novel expresses the conflicts between Chinese immigrant mothers and their Americanized daughters.
House Made of Dawn (1952), a novel by Scott Momaday. Caught between two worlds—life on his reservation and American industrialized society—the main character in this novel embodies the Native Americans' struggle to assimilate standards of the white culture into their heritage.
American Son: A Novel (2001), a novel by Brian Ascalon Roley. Roley represents the Filipino immigrant experience in the early 1990s through the dark portrayal of two brothers as they struggle to assimilate into the alienating culture of Southern California.
Responses to Literature
- Contrast the Song of Lawino with the Song of Ocol. In a 5–7-page essay, identify and describe how the poems dramatize a clash between cultures. Use examples from each text to support your opinions.
- Some academics assert that African literature written in English is not really African. With another classmate, research the ways in which English as spoken and written by people in African countries differs from what you know as “standard,” or even American English. What is the origin of Africa's English and why would African nations adopt the English language? Collect your findings in an organized oral report for the rest of your class.
- Evaluate the following statement and be prepared to defend your position in a roundtable class discussion: Because of differences in language, politics, and culture, Western critics are not qualified to analyze or teach African literature.
- Write an essay in which you describe what features and characteristics of Song of Lawino you think reflect an oral tradition. Incorporate in your essay the ways in which you think p'Bitek's training as an anthropologist might have affected how he creatively presents issues within the context of the poem.
Blishen, Edward. “Introduction to Song of a Prisoner,” Okot p'Bitek. New Rochelle, N.Y.: The Third Press, 1971.
Goodwin, K. L. “Okot p'Bitek.” In Understanding African Poetry. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann, 1982.
Nichols, Lee, ed. Conversations with African Writers. Washington, D.C.: Voice of America, 1981.
p'Bitek, Okot. Song of a Prisoner. New Rochelle, N.Y.: Third Press, 1971.
Zell, Hans M. A New Reader's Guide to African Literature. New York: Holmes & Meier Publishers, Inc., 1983.
Lindfors, Bernth. “An Interview with Okot p'Bitek.” World Literature Written in English (November 1977): vol. 16, no. 2, 289.
Moore, Gerald. “Songs from the Grasslands.” The Times Literary Supplement (February 21, 1975): 204.
Ojaide, Tanure. “Okot p'Bitek and His Personae.” Callaloo 27 (Spring 1986): 371–383.
Tejani, Bahadur. “Two Songs: ‘Song of a Prisoner’ and ‘Song of Malaya.”’ African Literature Today 6 (1973): 160–166.