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Critical Essay by K. L. Goodwin
SOURCE: "Okot p'Bitek," in Understanding African Poetry: A Study of Ten Poets, Heinemann, 1982, pp. 154-72.
In the following excerpt, Goodwin describes p'Bitek's work as an effort toward "cultural analysis" and provides an overview of p'Bitek's major poetry, discussing his influences, sources, style, and themes.
As a poet Okot p'Bitek has several claims to importance. He was the first major East African poet in English; he has influenced a number of other poets; and he is a maker of abiding satiric myths. Song of Lawino (1966) not only showed that East African poetry could achieve more than the nonchalantly slight lyrics or brief graphic situation poems that had earlier appeared in periodicals and anthologies; it established that there was a readership for volumes of poetry in English by a single author, and so made possible the publication of such works as Okello Oculi's Orphan (1968), Joseph Buruga's The Abandoned Hut (1969)—two volumes heavily influenced by Song of Lawino—, John Mbiti's Poems of Nature and Faith (1969), Jared Angira's Juices (1970), Taban lo Liyong's Frantz Fanon's Uneven Ribs (1971) and Richard Ntiru's Tensions (1971). The East African literary desert for works in English that Taban lo Liyong [in his The Last Word: Cultural Synthesism] had polemically described in 1965 clearly no longer existed; if, indeed, it ever had in Liyong's terms.
Okot p'Bitek has been reticent and even off-handed when questioned about his literary antecedents. Unlike a large number of African poets in English, he did not read English as a university subject and, though he has taught literature at school and university, he seems to have a mild contempt for the formal questions raised by its more earnest practitioners. That, together with his mischievous sense of fun, means that such statements as this comment on Song of Lawino and Song of Ocol cannot be taken too literally:
I don't think they are very much influenced by the African oral tradition; they cannot be sung, for instance. Possibly they are influenced by The Song of Hiawatha by H. W. Longfellow and also by Song of Solomon. These books I enjoyed very much when I was a student and I consider Song of Solomon the greatest love song ever.
Hiawatha seems at first an improbable suggestion, but Okot may have been referring to its discursive, repetitive mode of story-telling; its athletic hero ('Swift of foot was Hiawatha'); his love of music and story; and his requirements in a wife ('Feet that run on willing errands'). He may also have remembered its short unrhymed lines, though their trochaic tetrameter measure bears little resemblance to Okot's standard free-verse two- and three-beat lines. Song of Solomon is more plausible, for Okot is an expansive, even extravagant, love poet.
The dismissal of orally composed and recited poetry as an influence must be considered playful. Song of Lawino was written in Acoli and translated into English. The two Acoli versions (composed in 1956 and 1969) not only draw directly on many Acoli songs, but could themselves be sung. In the English translation, as Okot says in the preliminary matter to the poem, he has 'murdered rhythm and rhyme'; or at least has dispensed with rhyme and settled for a very free rhythm. Even so, one can readily appreciate something of the traditional Acoli songs quoted by Lawino and can appreciate how similar they are to the surrounding context of Lawino's own 'Song' or 'Lament'. So, for instance, the love song of the Acoli man imploring his father to 'Gather the bridewealth' is the first part of the traditional song, Wora kel lim, translated in The Horn of My Love as 'Father, bring the bridewealth'. Or, in section 8, when Lawino sings the dirge 'Fate has brought troubles', she is quoting part of the traditional dirge, Woko okelo ayela (The Horn of My Love). Or again, just before the end of the poem, when Lawino sings 'She has taken the road to Nimule', she is quoting from Okwanyo ger Lumule, the song about the 'Chief of all women, Alyeka, the brown one' (The Horn of My Love).
It is not, however, only in direct quotation that Okot is indebted to the Acoli oral tradition. When, for instance, Lawino says
My husband's tongue
Is bitter like the roots of the lyonno lily
she is quoting an Acoli proverb referring to the bitterness of a wild lily, the tubers of which are eaten only when nothing else is available. When she ends section 2 with
The pumpkin in the old homestead
Must not be uprooted!
she is quoting a proverb much used by old men to make the point that old customs, like the wild pumpkins that grow over abandoned settlements, do no harm and may even be useful.
The point is too obvious to need labouring. Song of Lawino is clearly related, in content, tone, and style, to Acoli songs. Its basic three-beat line, with frequent variations, is as close as one could expect to get in English to the pattern of the Acoli line. It is also very similar to the kind of line being written in English at this time by such East African poets as Taban lo Liyong, John Mbiti, Joseph Mutiga, John Ruganda, Edwin Waiyaki or Walter Bgoya.
What is new is the sustained rhetoric of the complaint, the organized characterization and satire of the dramatic monologue, and the use of translation as a subject to make polemical and satiric points. Of Okot's four major poems, this is the one that lies closest to his own education in traditional culture, for which he was largely indebted to his mother, Lacwaa Cerina, 'who first taught me to sing', as he says in the dedication to Song of Ocol. Song of Lawino is, indeed, named after her, for Lawino (meaning born with the umbilical cord wrapped round the neck) was one of his mother's names; and, like the fictional Lawino, his mother had been 'chief of girls'. It is also the poem closest to his academic studies in anthropology and religion; it contains a dramatic summary of some of the main positions taken up in his later study, African Religions in Western Scholarship. It has the most detailed characterization of any of his works and, in that Lawino is very much a woman who has been brought up in an identifiably Acoli culture, the narrowest frame of cultural reference. Lawino is, of course, also representative of the values of village life anywhere in Africa, as contrasted with those of European colonialism. She represents, too, the values of the African woman (or at least of a certain kind of African woman) faced with rivalry in love. But her quarrel with Ocol is more personal and more specific than one finds in Okot's later works. They spread out into cultural and political comment on the whole of black Africa in a way that would be quite foreign to the mind of the village-raised Lawino.
The beginning of the poem and the last section are addressed to her husband, Ocol, meaning Son of Black, or Blackman, as Taban lo Liyong points out [in "Lawino is Unedu," in The Last Word]. Once, says Lawino, he
… was still a Black man
The son of the Bull
The son of Agik
but now—and there is hence a good deal of irony implicit here—
My husband pours scorn
On Black People
These two passages, like all the poem[s] between the opening and section 13 (except for a brief passage in section 12), are part of the diatribe addressed to her clansmen as a complaint against her husband.
It is a proud complaint, however, for she was chief of girls and so has a 'Bull name,' a title or nickname given to an outstanding person. This, like so many key concepts, is a literal translation from the Acoli, for in this poem, though not in others, Okot finds the strategy of literal translation a fruitful source of ironic comment. In this instance, however—and it is a fairly rare one—any amusement is immediately neutralized by an explanation of why such names are called 'Bull names' and how they come to be bestowed. Lawino says
My Bull name is Eliya Alyeker
I ate the name
Of the Chief of Payira
Son of Awic.
The Payira, the most populous and most extensive in landholding of the Acoli chiefdoms, had as their chief in the 1940s Eliya Aliker, of whom Okot tells something in The Horn of My Love. Lawino was given his name as a tribute to her leadership, but it was assimilated into the word alyeker, a term of affection. She is the daughter of a man with the title 'Lengamoi', someone who has killed another man and is probably a respected leader in warfare. She knows that she is neither 'shy' nor 'easily browbeaten'; that she is not 'a fool' and not 'cold'. She is proud of her appearance, of her skin and her hair, of her tattoos, her breasts and eyes and her singing, playing, and dancing. She knows that in fair competition she could hold Ocol's love by her appearance and by her housekeeping.
Ocol, too, has reason to be proud of the place he holds in his own clan, for he is a 'Prince Of an ancient chiefdom', one whose grandfather and father were great men. But he has been so seduced by European ways that he 'abuses all things Acoli', even threatening to cut down the Okango, the small sacred tree at his father's shrine.
His change of heart is symbolized in his supplanting of Lawino by Clementine, 'a modern girl … Who speaks English'. Lawino at first professes herself not jealous but then admits 'We all suffer from a little jealousy'. Her own common sense tells her, however, that it is impossible to prevent men from wanting women and her pride that 'I do not fear to compete with her'.
Section I is a summary of the insults and arguments her husband has used against her; sections 2 to 5 contrast the ways of the rival, Clementine, with Acoli ways; sections 6 to 12 leave Clementine in order to concentrate on Ocol's other prejudices, all of which are contrasted with Acoli beliefs and customs; section 13 is a final appeal to Ocol. All of this would, of course, be mere raillery if Lawino had no desire or hope of drawing Ocol back. Despite his insults, she is still in love with him, deeply hurt that he treats her 'As if I am no longer a person'. She is concerned that he will be ridiculed by the clan; she recalls his infatuated courtship of her; she imagines herself taunting him with his putative flabbiness and with her accomplished boyfriend who plays the nanga; and she ends by asking him to let her dance before him and sing his praises. Her main argument, however, always implicit and sometimes explicit, is that Acoli ways, though not necessarily better than European ways, are the right ones for an Acoli; that he should be true to his lineage, should cease behaving like a woman and behave like the Acoli prince he is, having due respect for his ancestors. The ancestral shrine, the otole war dance praising past leaders of the clan, the Stool of the chieftain, the images of prowess with spear and shield in warfare are the outward emblems of large-scale argument in favour of Acoli ways.
Lawino's moderation, exemplified in her admission that talcum powder is 'good on pink skin', that white woman's hair 'Is soft like silk', that Ocol is free to eat 'White men's foods' if he enjoys them is intersected by passages of bitter raillery, not just at Clementine and Ocol for foolishly aping white ways, but also at some of the white ways themselves. The coprologous description of a modern dance-hall in section 3; the description of white man's food as tasteless or repulsive (a fried egg as being 'slimy like mucus'); or the exposition of the idiocies and inconsistencies of Christian catechetical instruction in sections 8 and 9 not only are very funny in themselves, but they also serve to characterize Lawino as passionately biased and sometimes deficient in understanding or judgment.
She is, for instance, a believer in talismans or charms, saying that Ocol once beat her
For wearing the toe of the edible rat
And the horn of the rhinoceros
And the jaw-bone of the alligator.
As she points out, though, the nuns of the Catholic faith to which her husband adheres seem to use the crucifix for similar purposes. In section 7 she says that Ocol is angry because
I cannot keep time
And I do not know
How to count the years.
Her explanation that the Western system of time-keeping is unnecessary is rhetorically effective as far as it goes. In a rural environment, all events of the day, the year, and the lifetime can be satisfactorily timed by the sun, the cock, the stomach, the climate, the moon, the crops, and unusual events. The notion of a continuum of time ticking away whether anyone notices or needs it, a single linear framework for relating all events to, even to the point where it dictates those events, is a scientific one. It was found necessary in Egypt, Babylon, China, and India originally, it would seem, as a basis for astronomical and astrological calculations. Even thoroughly rural communities have, of course, found some need for a calendar, if only to calculate regular market days. To that extent, Lawino's argument is a bit extreme. But then it is part of her character: she is prone to hyperbole. And to stubborn, almost incorrigible ignorance. She cannot tell the time and seems to refuse to learn; she uses the electric stove, but detests it and refuses to master the controls (section 6); she cannot or will not tune the radio.
[In "The Patriot as An Artist," in African Writers African Writing, edited by G. D. Killam, 1973] Ali Mazrui has criticized the poem for making Lawino
a little too simple. A mind that exaggerates so much and in such an obvious way is not simply culturally distinct from the modernity which enchants Ocol; it is also a mind too naïve to stand a chance of saving Ocol from that enchantment.
Similarly, in a review of the published Acoli version, Wer pa Lawino, Okumo pa'Lukobo objects that Lawino is impossibly backward as a representative of a present-day rural Acoli woman: 'I know of no place in Acoli today where the village girls can't dance at least a sort of rumba'.
This is no doubt true if we assume that the setting of the verse-novel is the 1960s, as the elections of section II and the availability of several sophisticated Western articles clearly indicate. But while this is so for the surface of the novel, the clash of culture-values has to be seen as placed a couple of decades earlier, contemporary, say, with Ngugi's Weep Not, Child or even The River Between. The gap between the date of the superficial life and the date of the work's more deeply felt cultural life should worry no one who is prepared to see the whole poem as a myth. Okot needed to sharpen the contrast between the traditional village and the Westernized town, even to exaggerate the two sets of mores by idealization and caricature. So Lawino is more stubbornly opposed to Western ways despite her assertions of tolerance, and Ocol more intransigent and fervent in his new faith and culture than would be literally credible in the 1960s. Such distortions and anachronisms are inevitable in myth from Gilgamesh, the Mahabharata, or the Iliad on. It is Mazrui's failure to understand that representativeness invariably implies some distortion of individuality in character that vitiates his criticisms of the poem.
The poem does, of course, contain discrepancies, but they can, I think, all be attributed to Lawino's blinding sense of outrage and the hyperbole or distortion that stem from it. When, for instance, in the section on time, she says that among the Acoli
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
She has forgotten that earlier she implied a different system (one that her clansmen must have known very well) in the wonderfully vindictive jibe at Clementine as 'this age-mate of my mother' and in her reporting of Ocol as using the expression 'age-mate of my grandfather'. While these are very broad categories of age-mateship, it is clear, as Taban lo Liyong points out (The Last Word), that the Acoli do in fact use a much narrower age-mate system, rather than relying on categorization 'by what he or she does'. The conclusion to be drawn, though, is simply that Lawino is inconsistent and that this is part of her vehement desire to make as bold a case as she can. To say that she is aware of putting on an act is perhaps going beyond the literary evidence, but certainly Lawino is a performer and has always enjoyed being one.
Okot poured a great many of his own interests into the poem. traditional dancing and singing, rites and ceremonies, education, religion, and other matters of cultural and anthropological interest; the role of the Christian church; and the two-party system of politics that operated early in Uganda's independence are all incorporated into the poem. His treatment of the church runs parallel to the more extended treatment he gives in his academic works. At the heart of his approach is the belief that in trying to relate their own religion to Acoli religion by translation, Christian missionaries misunderstood Acoli religion and distorted their own. They began with the assumption that the Acoli, clearly a polytheistic people, must believe in a Supreme Being or High God. Okot considers this a gross error not just about the Acoli but about all the peoples of the Upper Nile, that is, the Nilotes. Their attitude to a jok or god he describes thus:
When the Nilotes encounter jok, it is with a specific and named or easily definable jok, and not some vague 'power' that they communicate with. The proper name identifies the jok, placing it in a specific category and social context, for action. There is no occasion when the Nilotes think of all the jogi (pl. of jok) simultaneously. And there is no evidence to show that they regard the named jogi as refractions or manifestations, or hypostases of a so-called High God. Each category of jok is independent of other jogi, although some are used against others. For the Nilotes there are many deities. Not one. [African Religions in Western Scholarship]
The Christian idea of God as omnipotent and as creator, which Okot considers to be a Greek philosophical one applied to Jewish religious experience, thus could not be conveyed in Acoli. But according to Okot the Italian Catholic priests insisted on finding the appropriate words:
In 1911, Italian Catholic priests put before a group of Acoli elders the question 'Who created you?'; and because the Luo language does not have an independent concept of create or creation, the question was rendered to mean, 'Who moulded you?'. But this was still meaningless, because human beings are born of their mothers. The elders told the visitors that they did not know. But, we are told that this reply was unsatisfactory, and the missionaries insisted that a satisfactory answer must be given. 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.
And so 'The name of the Christian God in Lwo is Rubanga', as Okot notes [in] … Lawino, and throughout sections 8 to 10 of the poem he insists on translating the Christian Rubanga as 'the Hunchback', making the unstated assumption that the Acoli jok responsible for spinal deformation in human beings is himself deformed. Similarly, the Acoli word for the Christian heaven is retranslated literally as 'Skyland', the Holy Ghost is 'the Clean Ghost', angels are 'the beautiful men With birds' wings', the Apostles' Creed is 'the Faith of the Messengers', the Holy Bible 'the Clean Book', and the gospel 'the good word'. None of the amusement of these literal retranslations could of course exist in the Acoli version, for the language has assimilated these meanings and lost the original incongruities. It is a little disingenuous of Okot to ignore the fact that words in any language change their denotations and connotations over a period of time and that even at the one time a single word may have a wide range of connotations, the intended one being indicated by context and purpose. It is, nevertheless, all good fun in English, and serves the wider aim of showing the disparity between the two sets of value-systems. It is not a method used elsewhere in his work.
If Okot is right in believing that the Acoli could not accomodate the Graeco-Christian notion of God, it is difficult to see what he expected proselytizing missionaries to do, except give up and go home. Even if their labour was ultimately vain, it seems a little harsh to blame them for trying, albeit misguidedly. The important point remains, though, that in Okot's view no accommodation was possible between two such dissimilar religions. It serves to strengthen Lawino's view that the two cultural systems—religious, educational, artistic, aesthetic, medical, culinary, sartorial, architectural, political, and linguistic—should be kept separate alongside each other. Her attitude is
I do not understand
The ways of foreigners
But I do not despise their customs.
Why should you despise yours?
She is prepared for Ocol to adopt an eclectic attitude to the two cultures, provided he ceases despising his traditional one. But syncretism between the two cultures seems beyond her conceptualization, and is perhaps alien to Okot p'Bitek's own beliefs. She is prepared, though, to admit that her own culture changes, for she takes umbrage at being grouped by Ocol with her grandmother:
He says there is no difference
Between me and my grandmother
Who covers herself with animal skins.
While the Western-educated reader may find goliardic verse, or Skeltonics, or Elizabethan complaints, or Swiftian satire appropriate comparisons for the tone of Song of Lawino, there is no need to go beyond what Okot himself says of Acoli oral literature, whether satirical attacks in short stories, or 'songs of bitter laughter', including dirges that include attacks on the living:
these poems do not cause social strife among the clansmen. On the contrary, they provide a channel through which members of this close-knit group pour out their grievances and jealousies against one another, in public. These attacks, with all the abuse, ridicule and cruel insults, act as a cleansing activity. (The Horn of My Love)
Lawino herself represents her society as a competitive one: 'when a girl knocks you You strike back'; a society where all she asks is the chance to compete openly for her husband's favours, eating 'in the open Not in the bed room.' It is a lusty, vigorous community, where absence of noise is characteristic of wizards. If she seems overemphatic and raucous at times, she can also modulate her tone to blandishment and appeal, though she never becomes servile.
In this characterization of her society she is borne out by her husband's retort, Song of Ocol, which appeared four years later. He begins by drawing attention to the monotony and stridency of Lawino's song, and it is noticeable that his own is much more flexible and varied, its basic two-beat line (in contrast to Song of Lawino's three beats) creating a general effect less of ululation than of curt bitter vilification. It is not a self-confident assertion of one set of values, as Lawino's song is; on the contrary, it mourns the passing of Lawino's values and their replacement by a dubious and, indeed, already collapsing set of values. It is an ironic lament for what has been lost, interspersed with the hollow face-saving formulae appropriate to an intelligent and self-critical member of the new Westernized élite. It hints constantly at an unstated self-disgust. It can also be seen to contain the seeds of Okot's two later Songs.
The tone of Song of Ocol has not, I think, been well grasped by most critics. It is not, except in superficial ways that the author intends us to recognize as such and reject, a defence of Westernization. It is certainly not an answer to Lawino. Indeed, except for section 1, it is not addressed to her. It lacks the specific, dramatic setting of Lawino's monologue. Instead, it is addressed, more in Ocol's thinking than in actuality, to various groups of people, not just Acoli, but groups from all over East Africa. For the richly varied tone there are traditional African precedents, but not, I think, for the wide range of (mostly imagined) addressees. Here the analogy might be with some of Léopold Sédar Senghor's or Walt Whitman's poems, particularly those that combine rhetorical address with symbolic visions. Or, as a dramatic monologue, one might relate it to the fantasizing and the imaginary situations of The Love-Song of J. Alfred Prufrock rather than to the solidly dramatized situations of Browning; it is largely interior monologue rather than spoken monologue.
Its battery of imagery is not, as one would have expected had it been a reply to Lawino, drawn mainly from Western technology, economics, and social philosophy. It is true that in the first section Ocol refers to the boot of his car and to having the house painted by a professional; in section 5 to putting 'the Maasai in trousers'; in section 6 to the modern party system and his own (probably imaginary) town house, farm, and Mercedes; in section 7 to grandiose engineering works; and in section 9 to Westernized Africans in various professions. Many of these references are, however, ironic, filled with a tone of self-loathing and disgust. But even so they are outweighed by the traditional African images, many of them, it is true, offered in a tone of denigration or repulsion, but others offered with affection or nostalgia. The balance of imagery is, in other words, at least as much in favour of traditional imagery as in Song of Lawino.
The extended image of the exiled monarch in section 1 represents not merely Lawino in her irreparable separation from Ocol, but more importantly—for this is a more widely symbolic and less localized poem than Song of Lawino—Ocol, the Blackman, irreparably exiled from his kingdom, the inheritance of his traditional society. Ocol, the character in the poem, is sympathizing with Lawino's plight, bemoaning his own separation from the clan, and then rising beyond these personal concerns into symbolic mourning for the African's separation from his roots. Even in section 1, the most specifically dramatic part of the poem, the wider symbolic framework is introduced.
It might be objected that he cannot be mourning for acts that he accepts responsibility for. He does, after all, say 'We will plough up … We will uproot … We will obliterate…'. In fact, however, this responsibility for one's own destruction, this plucking up of one's own roots, is what makes the whole process so tragic. Ocol, as a character and as the symbolic African, is deeply divided. He knows he is destroying himself but he does not seem able to help it. He despoils his own culture but he loathes himself for doing so. The futile 'Song of the woman' is not merely the woman Lawino's lament; it is the representative case Lawino has put up for the preservation of African culture. It is a doomed case, represented by the symbol of an already defeated General. The symbol is taken up again at the very end of the poem:
As for Shaka
The Zulu General,
How can we praise him
When he was utterly defeated
And killed by his own brothers?
It is not the mere defeat that is bitter and desolate: it is the fact that, after the defeat of the African dream, Africans themselves abrogated their leader and killed him.
Similarly, with the images that follow that of the General in section 1, the emphasis is on something once good that has been neglected or abused and allowed to decay: the song of Lawino is 'rotting buffalo', 'sour sweet', 'pork gone rancid', 'sour milk', 'rotting Pumpkin'. In section 2, affection and ridicule are mingled in a lyrical interior monologue that draws on Négritude images for affection and on white caricatures of Africa ('white teeth in bright pink gum') for ridicule.
The mood of section 3 is more violent as Ocol rouses himself to threats of root-and-branch destruction of African ways. This is much more hysterical than anything in Lawino's song, much nearer neurosis. 'All the village poets Musicians and tribal dancers' are to be put in detention, all the 'schools of African studies' closed down. Ocol expresses frenzied hatred for anything reminding him that he is black.
Section 4 changes from this vituperative tone to one of nostalgia, though not uncritical nostalgia, as Ocol recalls a scene of the blind nanga player Adok Too or Omal Lakana singing while an Acoli woman returns from the well. Ocol adjures her and her sisters from elsewhere in East Africa to release themselves from their slavery, ignorance, and unhygienic ways, to revolt against a system that makes them chattels. Lawino had nothing of the feminist in her: she wanted her man to adopt the traditional male role while she entertained him and cooked for him; she even used the bridewealth system, which she obviously accepted, as an argument against the plausibility of the Christian story of the birth of Jesus. Ocol here professes concern at the subjection inherent in such a view of wifehood.
The review of traditional ways continues in section 5, though it is now applied to the more masculine pursuits of the peoples of East Africa and it ranges over various historical periods. The nostalgic roll-call of these people is then succeeded by further vicious threats to eliminate such practices and to turn these rural people into urban dwellers. The tone has, in other words, fluctuated between nostalgia and frenetic ideology.
Section 6 is a long piece of self-justification by Ocol addressed to a village man, a constituent who, it appears, has never seen his local-member of parliament before. It can be taken literally, but such is the extravagance of the tone that it seems best to take it as a daydream: Ocol imagining himself to be a member of parliament with a town house, a Mercedes and a farm, and imagining how he would deal with a constituent. If taken literally, then this is not the Ocol of Song of Lawino, section 11; it is a wealthier Ocol some years later and he has not got rid of Lawino in the intervening years. It seems better to interpret it as a dream of Ocol projected into the future when he has been elected to parliament and has begun to reap the rewards of his Party loyalty.
In section 7 there is another change of mood. Self-doubt is given expression in the prophetic vision attributed to a crippled beggar. Ocol is abusive to the frightened beggar, but quotes the whole of his song. It is about the cynicism and frustration following Uhuru, then their replacement by anger, which results in a purifying explosion or revolution. The beggar's song reflects Ocol's own fear, but he sublimates his fear into vituperation, ending with the absurd hyperbole of the projected schemes to blow up Mount Kilimanjaro, fill in the Rift Valley, and turn the waters of the Nile into the Indian Ocean. Ocol's divided nature and his tenuous hold on reality are again in evidence.
Section 8 similarly balances nostalgia for tradition and brutal abolition of it. It has some lovely reminiscences of a woman once loved—not Lawino as a character, for this is a prophetic vision of the final destruction of traditional Africa, of the absorption of the country into the city.
The visionary strain continues in section 9, as Ocol surveys the roles of the modern intelligentsia. His cynicism has now taken a very sombre hue. The voice of 'United Africa' has been drowned out by guns, Marxism has been assimilated and distorted to make it seem peculiarly African, even though it is expressed in such widely dissimilar modes as Senghor's rhetoric and Nyerere's Arusha Declaration. The fever of Ocol's address reaches the madness it has always been threatening to embrace with the diatribe on
Of modern Africa
Leopold II of Belgium
and ends with the sorrowful, tragic plaint:
What proud poem
Can we write
For the vanquished?
Okot p'Bitek had of course written a proud poem for the people he now believes to be vanquished: Song of Lawino. Song of Ocol is, by contrast, a poem of despair for the lost culture of the vanquished. It is a poem much more varied in tone, without the long unrelieved stridency of Lawino's complaint. The variety and the deeply troubled subtlety of Ocol's mind have, regrettably, not always been appreciated by readers and critics.
Song of Prisoner arises generally out of the image of corrupt self-justification attributed to successful politicians in Song of Ocol, and specifically out of the following passage from section 6:
Trespassers must be jailed
Thieves and robbers
Must be hanged,
Must be detained without trial …
The anger and madness of Ocol are now transferred to one of the victims of such a policy of repression, a poor man who is delirious after (and while) being beaten up by sadistic warders in gaol. As Ocol lamented to his mother that he was born black (end of section 2), so Prisoner curses his father (section 4) and his mother (section 6) for his genes. Prisoner puts into words what was implicit in Song of Ocol: that 'the cancer of Uhuru' is 'Far worse than The yaws of Colonialism'. In Song of Ocol, 'The lamb Uhuru' was a rotting carcase with deceptively open eyes. In Song of Prisoner, the remains of the lamb's carcase are fought over by 'Old hyenas'. Uhuru is also a 'fierce wild fire' that has burnt out the Prisoner, and a 'whirlwind'. Its effects, in the hands of those who pervert and direct it for their own ends, are like a 'shark' devouring its own children, a 'Rhino' prodding its brothers in the back, or an 'arrow' bringing down an eagle.
Song of Prisoner has evoked a good deal of puzzlement and speculation about the dramatic situation in the poem, much of it generated by Edward Blishen's unfortunate remarks in his Introduction to the New York edition about a multiple persona rather than a single characterized speaker. Apart from one or two very minor inconsistencies, the poem makes sense as the more or less delirious dramatic monologue of a poor man who is being held and beaten up in gaol after he has assassinated an important political leader. The poem was begun immediately after Okot heard the news of the assassination in Nairobi on 5 July 1969 of Tom Mboya, the cabinet minister widely regarded as the most promising candidate to succeed Jomo Kenyatta as President. According to Okot,
The killer of Tom Mboya is the prisoner in Song of Prisoner. He hadn't been captured yet. I captured him first, in this poem. [Bernth Lindfors, "An Interview with Okot p'Bitek," World Literature Written English (November 1977)]
In section 11 he overhears another prisoner, a disgraced Minister for Police and Justice, being beaten up, and he intersperses his own comments. Section 12 is an interior monologue in the mind of the Minister; or, if one insisted on absolute singleness in the point of view, in the mind of the poor Prisoner as he imagines the Minister's thoughts or even overhears them (for the Minister is aware that 'the very air Has ears').
It is not, I think, impossible to work this out from the poem itself, particularly from the clues given at the beginning of section 11, when the Prisoner hears and shushes the 'millipede'. If external support were needed, however, it comes from Margaret Marshment, who said of section 11:
Okot tells me that this is the voice of a man in the next cell, whom the Prisoner overhears. This was not clear to me, and we could wish it were clearer because it is important … But we can guess at one reason why he might be in prison: that he was the assassin's employer. ["Song of Prisoner: A Reply to Atieno-Odhiambo," in Standpoints on African Literature, edited by Chris L. Wanjala, 1973]
It is a plausible guess, for the Prisoner at one stage has no doubt that the machinery of the Law will soon set him free, an appropriate theory if his hirer had been the Minister in charge of 'Law and Order', and if this was the same man he had been bodyguard to, political organizer for, and procurer of girls for. But it seems as if the hirer-Minister-employer is unable to protect his assassin-bodyguard-Prisoner, for he himself has been thrown into gaol and beaten up in the wake of the assassination. In gaol, one of his desires is 'to sleep With experienced prostitutes presumably the type lined up for him previously by the Prisoner.
Filling in further details of the dramatic situation, we can say that the Prisoner has apparently been arrested while sleeping in the 'City Park'; that he has been before a magistrate for a preliminary hearing, charged with vagrancy and asked whether he pleads guilty or not guilty (a recurring refrain); that the police have beaten him up several times, perhaps sadistically asking him as they do so whether he pleads guilty or not guilty to other offences including the assassination; that he believes the man he killed was a gross political criminal who had wrongfully imprisoned many citizens, that he is so poor that his family is short of food and his children will never go to school, and that during his imprisonment, perhaps in the early stages, he has had visions or hallucinations of being treated as a national hero for his bold action. The height of his euphoria is succeeded by the Minister's monologue, and this is a highly dramatic and ironic interruption, for his dreams of adulation could presumably only be realized if his employer, the Minister, stood by him and acknowledged him as his instrument. But the Minister himself is disgraced. He too has hopes of quick release; he too is beaten; he too has thoughts of his children, though they go to school and should prosper, and of his parents, though unlike the Prisoner's they are comfortably supported; he too has hallucinations of wild pleasure (section 12) to contrast against the brutal realities of the cell.
The main bulk of the Prisoner's dreams of pleasure follow the return of the monologue from the Minister to him in section 13. His pleasures are to be first with his wife, family, and clan, not among the city prostitutes like the Minister's. Then, in sections 14 and 15 his mind takes him beyond his clan, beyond East Africa, to a world survey of music, song, and dancing. It is a visionary expansion comparable to what happens at the end of Song of Ocol. There is madness about it all, as there was in Song of Ocol. Prisoner has been tortured, he has admitted that his mind is on fire and that he is mad. In his delirium, then, conventional moral attitudes are thrown away, and he can 'want to try the dances Of neo-colonialists and ex-Nazis'. Margaret Marshment saw this as an indication of the Prisoner's unreliability as a moral guide, of his reprehensible denial of responsibility for his own act or, indeed, for anybody's acts. It could, of course, also be seen as evidence of delirium brought about by his action, his imprisonment, the brutal treatment he has received, his fears for himself and his family, and his hunger. Or we may recognize that at the end of the poem (as in Song of Ocol) the clear outline of the human protagonist are being expanded and blurred as he is apotheosized into a symbol of the political detainee or political criminal anywhere in the world. Like many such people accused of acts against governments, he sees himself as a world citizen, justified by the euphoric internationalism of his act and condition. But the balance of sympathy still lies, I think, on the side of the Prisoner, whose exposé of the hypocrisy of the independent régime of which he is a citizen has been all too convincing.
In section 15, the examples of international brotherhood narrow down to Africa, and the dancing images are now mingled with images of war, famine, and bloodshed. The last word in the poem is 'Uhuru', and the whole poem has to be seen as a bitter and sorrowful myth of what can happen after so-called Independence, an indictment of African governments and nations as no better than anyone else at establishing a just society. More generally, Song of Prisoner can be seen as a myth of the oppressed citizen, deprived of freedom and dignity in the unjust state. Once again Okot p'Bitek has created a memorable myth centred on a representative type. Once again he has begun with a character and turned the character into a symbol.
The myth of Song of Malaya concerns African attitudes to sex in contrast to missionary-advocated exclusivity and repression. Once again, the seeds of this poem can be found in the earlier ones. Lawino, accepting that she should share her husband with Clementine, asked
Who has ever prevented men
From wanting women?
At the end of Song of Malaya, the prostitute (malaya in kiSwahili, but used in East Africa even by non-Swahili speakers) asks
Who can command
Not to rise in the morning?
This is a poem celebrating sex as joyful, good, and liberating. The malaya says karibu ('come near' in kiSwahili) to all: sailors, soldiers, Sikhs, Hindus, whites, schoolboys, teachers, chiefs, drivers, factory workers, shop assistants, political organizers, doctors, municipal officers, Kaffirs, farmers, policemen, even perhaps the detested 'advisors The experts and mercenaries', the 'one pest' of Africa.
There are, however, detractors and enemies to be combated. The chief who complains of contracting venereal disease is reminded in section 2 of his visit a few nights earlier, when his virility was impaired by drunkenness. But the section ends with some practical advice on sexual manners: the Kaffir is advised to get circumcised and to bring 'Gum boots' or contraceptives next time; and her Sister Prostitutes are similarly advised to have 'boxing gloves' in their handbags. The out-raged wife is met in section 3 with the argument that her husband is made happier and more amenable by his visits to the prostitute; and there is also advice to do something about bad breath. The moralizing black bishop in section 4 is reminded that he is himself a bastard and that both chastity and monogamy are alien to nature. It is in this section that the poem (like Song of Ocol and Song of Prisoner) moves outward in time and space, drawing analogies from Eve, Hagar, the daughters of Sodom and Gomorrah, Rahab, Esther, Delilah (all Old Testament examples, by no means all normally considered as prostitutes), Magdalena, Theodora, and St Augustine's whore (examples from the New Testament, Byzantium, and the Church Fathers). The analogies are continued into section 5 with the illegitimacy of Jesus, used as a comforting example by the prostitute to her son who has been taunted at school by a teacher, himself indiscriminately licentious. The moral disapproval of her own brother is met by the prostitute in section 6 with evidence of his own reliance on prostitutes, his wife's unfaithfulness, and his own illegitimacy. There is also here a diatribe against wives as 'slaves Of the world', 'Married whores', 'Penned like goats To unwilling pegs'. After the harshness of her criticism she demurely offers to help her brother find a suitable partner, but he apparently storms out in affected disgust while she is speaking. Section 7 begins with her arrest by a police sergeant. She reminds him that he had visited her in another capacity only the previous night and then, echoing the words of the Prisoner, she asks
But how can you now
Then follows a malediction, summarizing her proud defiant argument in the whole of the poem. She defies all her enemies and detractors to do their worst and consign her to hell,
Who can command
Not to rise in the morning?
This is a less serious, less gloomy, and less political poem than Song of Ocol or Song of Prisoner. Its joyous celebration and its relatively unvaried rhetorical tone are more reminiscent of Song of Lawino. But like all the other poems it expresses ideas important to Okot p'Bitek through the monologue of a character who rises into symbolism. The malaya, however, remains very much an individual to the end: her representative character has been conveyed by the repeated addresses of her song to her sister prostitutes of the world.
Okot's uncollected poems are few in number, and can easily be related to his four major works. 'Return the Bridewealth' [available in Poems from East Africa, edited by David Cook and David Rubadiri, 1971], for instance, fits easily into the world of Song of Lawino. The village man wants to marry a second time. Apparently improvident, he shamelessly asks his father for bridewealth, but is ignored. He thinks of borrowing money in the town, but is rejected, apparently as a bad risk. He then has the effrontery to ask his first wife (whose father he says he cannot trace) to return her own bridewealth. And, with a taunt, she does—by cheque. 'Harvest' and 'Order of the Black Cross' are political pieces of a slightly sibylline kind, the second marking the end of the war in Biafra. They can be accommodated within the world of Song of Ocol and Song of Prisoner. They can also be seen as pointing forward to Okot's fifth major poem, which he discussed with Bernth Lindfors in 1976:
I am now working on Song of a Soldier, which examines the destructive role of the military in Africa. It raises the question of just how are we going to get rid of them? The central character is a particular soldier, this great thief, parading all over Africa. I wish he was only a thief! He's much worse than that! He is the one speaking in most of the poem, but the book will have a slightly different structure from most of the others because there is also a narrator who comes in every now and then saying things like, 'He came soon after midnight and sneezed.' Then the soldier will speak, and the narrator will return later. So it's a two-sided sort of thing, the kind of structure you saw in Song of Prisoner. Even the corpses, the victims of the soldier, will speak and interact with their murderer, and then the narrator will push the story on to the next phase. It's a very painful thing I'm writing. It's been going on for some time because it's a very tearful thing to do … But it is a very terrible book because I lost quite a lot of relatives in the Uganda coup, a lot of friends too, and after I write a few lines, I drop it because it causes a lot of tears. [World Literature Written in English (November 1977)]
This dramatic monologue will, then, present the horrific corruption and corrupting influence of the individual agent of destruction. The humorous idiom has now turned very sour indeed, and Okot has moved a long way from the celebratory ebullience of Song of Lawino and Song of Malaya. The new poem confirms the fact, however, that his strength lies in the extended poem. In his four major published pieces he has created memorable symbols of African culture, the perversion of Westernization, the corruption of independent régimes, and African sexuality. The fifth will bring the cultural analysis even closer to the present time.
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