Okot p'Bitek | Critical Review by Bahadur Tejani

This literature criticism consists of approximately 6 pages of analysis & critique of Okot p'Bitek.
This section contains 1,782 words
(approx. 6 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by Bahadur Tejani

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

(read more)

This section contains 1,782 words
(approx. 6 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Bahadur Tejani
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