Okot p'Bitek | Critical Essay by Chikwenye Okonjo Ogunyemi

This literature criticism consists of approximately 20 pages of analysis & critique of Okot p'Bitek.
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Critical Essay by Chikwenye Okonjo Ogunyemi

SOURCE: "The Song of the Caged Bird: Contemporary African Prison Poetry," in Ariel: A Review of International English Literature, Vol. 13, No. 14, October, 1982, pp. 65-84.

In the following excerpt, Ogunyemi discusses the physical and mental deterioration of the prisoner in p'Bitek's Song of a Prisoner.

Okot p'Bitek had been writing in the 50's and his memorable works were written in the late 60's and early 70's, a turbulent period in East African politics. It marked the time when progressive Kenyans were disoriented, bitterly disappointed by a Kenyatta leadership that had no relationship with his Mau Mau radicalism. There was instability under Milton Obote's rule in neighbouring Uganda. Political history was being made in Rhodesia, where Ian Smith held Britain to ransom and Zimbabweans bore the brunt of the impasse between the two. With this instability in the background, p'Bitek's political prison poem, Song of Prisoner or Song of a Prisoner, as he more aptly titled the American edition, was not just timely but was to be prophetic: soon a brutalizing force would sweep through Idi Amin's Uganda. In the tumultuous East African political climate, it was conceptually easy for p'Bitek, though he himself had only had brushes with the authorities, to write about the fate that awaited a political prisoner.

Writing from personal experience, Etheridge Knight had made a memorable statement about prison life [in "Inside These Walls," in Black Voices from Prison, 1970]: "The fact is that physical brutality is as nothing compared to the brutality of the soul incurred by years and years of cancerous prison life." p'Bitek would agree with him. In Song of Prisoner, he concentrates imaginatively on the nature of a prisoner's mental health and conjures up for the reader the primitive conditions under which the prisoner is detained. The brutal treatment p'Bitek's prisoner has received leaves him physically incapacitated and mentally disoriented. The burden of Song of Prisoner is a dramatization of his mental disorientation.

In his private capacity, the prisoner worries about the fate of his family—his children and his wife—and frets about the future of the children of a prisoner. p'Bitek also deals with the prisoner as a public person. This prisoner is severally referred to, from the viewpoint of the government's law enforcement agents, as "A vagrant / A loiterer" and "A foreign bastard." He confesses to the assassination of a public figure, a "capitalist reactionary." The hero thus is established as a political prisoner who claims to have killed to free his people.

Intriguingly, we never know whether to believe him or not. He is mentally deranged and is occasionally given to boasting and delusions of grandeur. Ironically, he insists, like any government, that he is for law and order and Uhuru. From the government's viewpoint, however, the assassination is against law and order and earns him the loss of his freedom. In spite of his heroic act, his "uniformed Brothers" (one is almost tempted to refer to them as uninformed) club him in his cell. Cowed by their brutality, he becomes less belligerent than most political prisoners. Panic stricken, he confesses unabashedly:

     I plead fear,
     I plead helplessness,
     I plead hopelessness,
          ....
     I am an insect
     Trapped between the toes
     Of a bull elephant.

Earlier he had cried out,

     I plead insanity,
     I am
     Mad,
     Can't you see?

And yet he later insists,

     I am not senseless,
     I am not cowardly,
     Not dastardly,
     I am not a thug,
     I am not insane,
     This is not
     Cold-blooded murder,
     I did not do it
     For the money….

Incidentally he had informed us that he was "hired" to eliminate his victim. His contradictions and shifts in point of view could confuse the reader. However, in the schema they are indicative of the prisoner's deteriorating mental state. He reminds us in vivid, unforgettable images that

     There is a carpenter
     Inside my head,
     He knocks nails
     Into my skull.

We should at this point believe the prisoner since these statements are revealing and might help in our understanding of the poem and prevent us from encountering the difficulties G. A. Heron faced in his interpretation [The Poetry of Okot p'Bitek, 1976]. Heron rightly observes that "Section 3 illustrates the way fantasy, the present reality, and memories are confused and intermingled." To cover his interpretive difficulties, however, he blames p'Bitek: "In spite of the importance of this fictional structure, Okot is very careless about the internal fiction of the poem. Much more descriptive detail goes into what are almost certainly fantasies than into information about the past of the prisoners and there are inconsistencies in the information we are given. In Section 7 the vagrant tells his wife to 'Dream about our first meeting / In the forest,' yet in Section 13 the same man talks of 'our first meeting / At the dancing arena'." Heron's mistake is in limiting the confused state of affairs to Section 3 rather than seeing the entire poem as a representation of the prisoner's confusion. The prisoner-singer hallucinates a greater part of the poem. p'Bitek, not writing a memoir, remains detached, a position that enables him to present his prisoner as a creature succumbing to the rigours of prison life, helplessly but steadily moving towards insanity. The incipient madness is graphically captured in the constant, broken thoughts, the scrambled time scheme, and the gross disregard for spatial limitations. His arguments are contradictory: he rebels against his dead father and blames him for marrying somebody unworthy of him—the prisoner's mother. Yet, in an about-face, he sharply criticizes his mother for marrying his father. His self-depreciation demonstrates the depth of his depression. At one point the prisoner threatens to exhume his father's bones in order to hang him by the neck! Rudderless, he desperately attempts to connect with his gaolers who prefer to "communicate" with him by brutalizing him. But, like other schizophrenics, he has moments of sanity, as when he criticizes his country's social conditions. Thinking about the Chief's dog and his own children, in very clever juxtapositioning, he asks

     How many pounds
     Of meat
     Does this dog eat
     In a day?
     How much milk …?
        ...
     Have you seen
     The mosquito legs
     Of my children?

He wins us completely to his side by the poignant sarcasm implicit in his phrase "infant pregnancies" to describe the bloated stomachs his children have to bear as a result of malnutrition.

Once we have grasped the true nature of the prisoner's situation and the attendant effect on his health, the poem becomes intelligible as the soliloquy or song of a schizophrenic prisoner. The entire poem is sung in the first person. From the text, we have no cause to believe, as Heron proposes, that other prisoners are involved and also lament their plight using the same first person. There is no indication of a change in the singer. The title, Song of a Prisoner, under which the poem was published in America, is important in grasping the notion of one singer who comes to represent the other singers. The controversial Section II, the section on the minister of state, is by and about the same prisoner. At this point he suffers from delusions of grandeur and believes he is a minister. Since he was a former bodyguard to some dignitary, the sophisticated life of a minister would not be beyond the prisoner's comprehension. His subconscious wishes surface in this section, and he solves in one swoop the problems that have preoccupied him—the fate of his family, their poverty, and his disconcerting relationship with his parents, marked by his confusion about whether his father is dead or alive. He imagines himself writing out "fat cheques." Furthermore, he thinks he will not be absent from his family for too long, which is in keeping with his earlier optimism when, filled with self-importance, he felt the "best lawyers" would defend him and understanding judges would spring him from prison. The minister section thus serves as an exercise in wishfulfilment fantasies.

Suffering from claustrophobia, the prisoner desperately wants connection on a world-wide basis to escape the constrictions of his immediate environment. He wants communion with Russians, South Africans, Indians, the French, and the Chinese. From these global thoughts, his mind drifts closer home, and he feels a need to connect with the Munyoro and the Kikuyu. He is obviously suffering from ideological confusion, or else he is an incorrigible idealist. p'Bitek takes us through "the entire history of the moods of imprisonment; we are swept through the whole awful landscape of imprisoned despair" [Edward Blishen, Introduction to Song of a Prisoner, 1971].

I think the prisoner is deluding himself when he says:

     I am intoxicated
     With anger,
     My fury
     Is white hot.

His inability to dramatize his anger beyond mouthing it belies his position. He is clearer about himself when he says, "I am dizzy / With frustration." And a few lines later, "My head is bursting…." What we see in this prisoner then is a human wreck, the living consequence of the brutality of incarceration. Although he complains about his physical discomforts, he has already undergone a metamorphosis mentally without knowing it. He is, tragically for him and for us,

    A young tree
    Burnt out
    By the fierce wild fire
    Of Uhuru.

Despite his difficulties he rambles through some thoughts of the outside world. Like the prisoner Soyinka, who writes about air raids in "Flowers for My Land," p'Bitek's prisoner expresses the same anxieties:

      Roaring kites
      Split the sky
      And excrete deadly dungs
      On the heads
      Of the people,
      Pots and skulls
      Crack….

Ironically, he still concerns himself with the people's property and lives, as shown in the phrase "pots and skulls," although, as the last two stanzas show, he is in truth a tragic hero, rejected and unacclaimed by the people he fought for. Incarcerated and deprived of meaningful human contact, the closing lines stress his desire for sex and freedom:

      Open the door,
      Man,
      I want to dance
      All the dances of the world,
      I want to sleep with
      All the young dancers
          ...
      Let me dance and forget
      For a small while
      That I am a wretch,
      The reject of my Country.

Detached from the sordidness of prison life, p'Bitek has been able to give us a vivid and penetrating account of the excruciating loneliness that the isolated political prisoner has to endure by showing us the inroads into the mental health and physical condition of a previously happy family man.

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This section contains 1,669 words
(approx. 6 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Ogo A. Ofuani
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