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Critical Essay by Charles Okumu
SOURCE: "The Form of Okot p'Bitek's Poetry: Literary Borrowing from Acoli Oral Traditions," in Research in African Literature, Vol. 23, No. 3, Fall, 1992, pp. 53-66.
In the following essay, Okumu asserts that p'Bitek uses the traditional Acoli song in Song of Lawino to comment on "the social, political, religious, and economic situation in post-independence Uganda and by extension, in the entire Third World."
Acoli traditional culture is a living culture in which folklore contributes to the governing of society. Regularly performed before responsive audiences, Acoli folklore genres are as old as Acoli society itself, but they are also individual creations by means of which people fulfill their psychological needs. Over a period of time, these genres become imprinted on the society's collective consciousness, but each performance is unique in the sense that it takes place at a specific time and place. Highly specialized genres like oral songs are performed by adult professional singers who often accompany themselves on a musical instrument. The proverb is another specialized genre, and it is used by Acoli elders to give weight and authority to arguments, teachings or other forms of discourse.
The Acoli word for proverb is carolok, meaning that which alludes to the real thing or to a fact. The allusive character of proverbs is of course not uniquely Acoli. Ruth Finnegan records similar findings and notes [in Oral Literature in Africa, 1970] that "the figurative quality of proverbs is especially striking: one of their most noticeable characteristics is their allusive wording, usually in metaphorical form. This also emerges in many of the native words translated as 'proverb'." As for other peoples, the allusive metaphor is a store-house of wisdom and philosophy for the Acoli. The form of the proverb and its relative brevity help endow it with the poetic quality of rhythm. The Acoli proverb has two distinct structural units, the topic and comment, and they are often separated by a comma. This construction can be seen in the proverb that forms the basis of Lawino's argument against cultural alienation in Okot's Song of Lawino "te okono, pe luputu"—the pumpkin must not be uprooted.
A subgenre closely associated with the proverb is the simile, for which the Acoli term is calo, meaning that which looks like or resembles something else. Generally composed of a noun, adjective, preposition, and an article, the simile is defined by Clive Scott [in A Dictionary of Modern Critical Terms, 1973] as a "comparison, discoursive, tentative, in which the 'like' or 'as … as' suggests, from the view point of reason, separateness of compared item…. Simile is usually a pointedly rationalised perception whose function is explanatory or illustrative." The simile, like the proverb, is used in ordinary conversation when the speaker wants to make a comparison between two related objects. Acoli similes tend to revolve around behavioral patterns, character, color, size, appearance, intelligence, the five senses, temptation, greed, etc.
Speakers' choices of proverbs and similes are entirely dependent on their creative imagination and their powers of speech. Great orators at clan, family, and chiefdom meetings use proverbs to lend credence to their contentions and they use similes to shorten what they would otherwise describe in detail. Similes enliven conversation and speech, for they often express admiration, abuse, disgust, and sympathy. For example, someone who is said to be "dull like a sheep" is not only being abused; he is also sympathized with. A girl whose neck is long and beautiful might be compared with a giraffe whereas one with a short neck is said to have a "neck like that of a beetle."
Similes are frequently used by poets who, as Scott points out, do not wish, for one reason or another, to use metaphors. For them, similes serve as "the repository for their inventive boldness" and play an "alleviatory role, letting air and whimsy into involved narrative or analysis…." Okot adopts similes for this reason in his Song of Lawino. For example, Lawino's clinical and somewhat repugnent description of Tina is achieved through the use of similes. Her intention is clear: she wants to discredit Tina and to prevent her from competing for Ocol's love. Okot also uses similes to describe the sordid night-club atmosphere which he is contrasting with the beauty of the Acoli Orak dance. If proverbs convey the social and moral norms that govern society, similes communicate the wit, irony, and humor that enliven social intercourse. Unlike proverbs, similes can be used by anyone who desires to employ a comparison to express succinctly what might otherwise require a long narrative description.
The Acoli term for the oral song is wer. The texts of these songs do not differ from those of written poetry; the distinction between them lies in the performance. An oral song is meant to be performed to a responsive audience on a particular occasion and for a specific purpose; often it is accompanied by one of several traditional musical instruments. The Acoli song genre is a complex form with sub-genres that are thematically substantive enough to warrant separate occasions for their performances. The sub-genres are intricately linked to the traditional dances from which some derive their generic names. To an Acoli, the generic name of each song indicates the dance during which it is performed and the type of musical instrument that accompanies it. Composer-singers create individual songs, but once they have given public performances, the songs gradually enter the cultural main stream of society. Other singers are then free to give their own renditions (or recreations) of the original songs. [In "Principles of Oral Transmission in Folk Culture," Acta Ethnographica (1959)] Gyula Ortutay describes this process as a "continuously changing course of alternate demolition and construction, with recurring intersections where new and transitional types, old and new themes are steadily interlaced, separated and reunited." Simply knowing the text of a song is as useless as knowing a proverb; one needs to know how it is used in context.
In the generic classification of Acoli songs, two factors must be considered: the theme and the dance during which they are performed. The five broad sub-genres that dominate this genre are: children's songs, historical songs, funeral songs, satirical songs, and spirit possession songs. A more detailed classification requires a breakdown of this board classification, and this is precisely what Okot did in his B. Lit thesis at Oxford and in his Horn of My Love. Because he listed love and war songs separately, his classification includes seven sub-genres: children's songs and games; love songs; satirical songs; songs of the spirit possession dance; songs of war; historical songs; and the dirges.
The oral literary features that Okot borrowed from Acoli traditional culture gave his poetry the distinctive oral song character that sets it apart from other written poetry. Nevertheless, Okot's songs can neither be sung nor fitted into the thematic classification of Acoli oral songs. Oral songs are composed in response to an immediate event or as a means of reflecting a localized issue within the village or clan. They are ephemeral, and their length is dictated by three factors: the creative ability of the composer-singer, the chosen theme, and the reaction of the audience. Other singers therefore have no obligation to perform the whole composition of any song. Modification of the original song gives it renewed life, and the audience's reaction depends on the quality of the performance.
In contrast, written poetry generally consists of fixed texts that have a certain number of lines per stanza. Its organization cannot be altered by anyone except the original poet. The images, symbols, and other literary qualities in it always remain the same, whereas the oral song can be modified to fit the specific performance situation. Once poetry has been written down, critics can only praise or blame the poet. For example, Okot's mother recognized a creative ability in her son, as Okot recounts during an interview with Bernth Lindfors [in Mazungumso: Interviews with East African Writers, Publishers, Editors and Scholars, 1980]:
She went on and asked, "Is it a love song?"… "What kind of song is it?" So I said, "You shut up. Let me read it to you."… She was very pleased but kept on saying, "I wish there was some tune to it." You see, it was not really like Acoli song….
Her positive critical appraisal encouraged Okot to imitate the oral poets to the best of his ability; in fact, his extensive borrowing of literary features from oral songs give his written poetry its songlike quality and its originality. These features include symbols, proverbs and similes. The common symbols in Okot's poetry are the spear, the pumpkin, the bull, and the cave. In Acoli traditional society, the spear is a weapon used for hunting and warfare. There are two types of spear: kaba and alwiri. The difference between them resides in the size of the metal blades and of the handles. Alwiri is the ideal weapon for hunting smaller animals and for daily use, whereas kaba is only brought out when hunters undertake a long hunting expedition (dwar) or when a buffalo or elephant has been sighted in the village. Every male adult has a kaba which has been ritually blessed and can only be used by him. It cannot be substituted for another, for the loss of the kaba is tantamount to losing one's manhood. In Acoli history, disregard for this sacred rule led to a split in the tribe—an event that was mythified in the story of Labongo and Gipir and later recorded by both Okot and Taban lo Liyong. Oral poets have euphemistically used the kaba in place of the penis. The man who has many wives and children is a man whose spear is sharp and strong. At the clan gathering, he commands respect; his advice is accepted and followed. However hardworking or handsome a man might be, if he is impotent or lalur (spearless) he has no place among the elders and will die labot (wifeless). A barren woman is also ostracized, and oral singers describe her as "the woman whose womb has been sucked by the leopard."
Okot's euphemistic use of the spear is a direct borrowing from Acoli oral poetry. In Song of Lawino, Lawino laments the sexual starvation of the young men who go to the mission schools in search of foreign names. They, she says:
Cold, like knives
And the spear
Of the lone hunters
The trusted right-hand spears
Of the young bulls
Rust in the dewy cold
Of the night.
The stanza is a direct borrowing and modification of the oral song "Tong Raa" in Horn of My Love:
Bull of men, son of my father;
The people have left the hippopotamus
spear in the cold
The hippopotamus spear has been
eaten by rust.
This dirge is sung at the funeral rites of Mukamoi, the great warrior who had killed a man and a boy during a clan war. He is further described in the song as "bull of men." On a symbolic level, he will never use his spear again for procreation, while on a physical level, his rusty spear will be a permanent reminder of the great warrior that he once was. In his poem, Okot transforms the situation from the funeral dance to the cold church hall, which is analogous to the cold and lonely tomb. The written poem appeals directly to an audience which is expected to sympathize with the young bulls and to pass its own judgment on their keepers (the missionaries).
A direct contrast to the imposed sexual death of the young men is the fertility prayer at the ancestral shrine. The prayer is couched in explicitly sexual symbols. While blessing the spears, the old woman chants the traditional prayer, part of which Okot has combined with a Bwola dance song to produce the following stanza in Song of Lawino:
She will spit blessing in their hands,
So that their spears may be sharp,
Sharp and hard
So that their trusted spears
Should not sleep outside
But should strike the death spot
Deep and painful
Then the young cob
And shed tears of sweet pains.
The stanza is composed of borrowings from lines recorded in Religion of the Central Luo. From the Pa-Chua clan fertility prayer that was chanted at the annual feast of the Jok-Lalwak clan, Okot adapted these lines:
The spears, let them be sharp
Let them be sharp, sharp, sharp.
From the Bwola dance song performed on the same occasion, he took the following lines:
The spear sleeps in the cold
The spear I used to trust
The spear sleeps in the cold oh!
At the end of her Song, Lawino asks Ocol to beg his ancestors, among other things, to restore his manhood so that he can once again consummate their marriage:
Ask them to give you
A new spear
A new spear with a sharp and hard point
A spear that will crack the rock
One that does not bend easily
Like the earth-worm
Ask them to restore your manhood!
For I am sick
Of sharing a bed with a woman!
The image the poet wants to create is that of a socially and sexually powerful man and not the "ash" (impotent) man that Ocol has become. Commenting on the spear symbol, Laura Tanna states: "The image of the spear runs through the text of Lawino, enhancing aspects of physical beauty, stressing prowess in hunting and fighting and finally emerging as the dominant phallic symbol of the poem, a symbol against which Lawino measures Ocol and finds him lacking."
In interpreting the last three lines as Lawino's sexual frustration, Ali Mazrui attributes Ocol's temporary impotence with Lawino to his infatuation with Clementine and to his sexual relationship with her. Whatever caused Ocol's impotence, however, Lawino's position as his first wife is clear: if Ocol cannot consummate their marriage, it must come to an end. The explicit use of the spear and other sexual symbols prompted the Acoli Literary Committee to reject Okot's Acoli draft version of the poem in 1959. Nevertheless, the phallic connotation of the spear actually derive from its importance in a society where sexual virility and male prowess are highly valued.
Other sexual symbols in the Song of Lawino include the hoe, the knife, and the battle-axe. For example, the fertile and rich land, symbolising Mother-Earth, is sexually assaulted by the gardener who comes with his hoe and plants his seeds, as Lawino says when she describes the process of creation:
And when a gardener comes
Carrying two bags of live seeds
And a good strong hoe
The rich red soil
Swells with a new life.
The seeds must be live seeds, and the hoe must be strong not "like the earth-worms"; otherwise, procreation cannot take place. This is the predicament of impotent men whose spears:
Refuse to stand
That sleep on their bellies
The image of the crawling earth-worms reduces the impotent men to the lowest social status in a society where male virility is greatly admired.
Another oral literary feature that Okot borrowed from the Acoli tradition and creatively used in his poetry is the proverb—carolok. The structural form and allusive metaphor of the proverb appeal to oral compose-singers who easily weave it into songs without being obliged to make radical grammatical changes. J. H. Kwabena Nketia, a Ghanaian musicologist and folklorist, succinctly expresses the artist's feeling for the use of proverbs: "For the poet today or indeed for a speaker who is some sort of an artist in the use of words, the proverb is a model of compressed or forceful language. In addition to drawing on it for its words of wisdom, therefore, he takes interest in its verbal techniques as a method of statement …" ["Folklore in Ghara," The Ghanaian Achimota (1958)].
The composer singer does not have to use the proverb in its original form. He might paraphrase it to suit his poetic diction while retaining its metaphorical meaning. In his own poetry, Okot follows the same technique as the Acoli composer-singer. Unlike the Yugoslav oral poet in A. B. Lord's The Singer of Tales, he does not merely group the proverbs together to form an epigram, for his dramatic monologue technique requires him to paraphrase proverbs and to incorporate them into narrative fragments that fit the poetic diction of a particular stanza. For example, the proverb "Yat ka ogom, dong pe tire" (a tree that is bent cannot be straightened) is paraphrased as:
A young tree that is bending
They do not like to straighten.
In the traditional social context, an elder uses this proverb to criticize a child who fails to respond to the corrective measures of society. In Okot's poetic context, however, the same proverb is used to criticize the Catholic missionaries who fail to answer Lawino's deep searching questions about Catholic dogma pertaining to creation and to the Trinity.
The only proverb that Okot does not paraphrase is the central one in Song of Lawino: "Do not uproot the pumpkin." At the beginning of the poem, Lawino uses the proverb in an attempt to dissuade Ocol from his emulation of European customs. Her hope is that the proverb will add weight to her argument and open Ocol's eyes to the danger of cultural alienation:
Listen, my husband,
You are the son of a chief
The pumpkin in the old homestead
Must not be uprooted.
In the land of the Acoli, the pumpkin grows all year round and is therefore an important source of food and life. No sensible person would intentionally uproot a pumpkin because it symbolizes the continuity of Acoli traditional life as represented by Lawino. Okot is generally critical of the educated middle-class Acoli who embrace Western culture and technology, regardless of whether or not they are appropriate in the African environment. R. S. Anywar made the same criticism during the 1950s [in his Acoli Kiker Megi, 1953]:
Perhaps some Acoli believe that all those things that the Europeans brought here are good. This is untrue because some of them are so dangerous that if you mishandle them they will cause you shame at the least and death at the most. So I suggest that before any new thing is accepted, it must be thoroughly examined. We should not forget our customs altogether simply because we are learning those of the Europeans.
Anywar and Okot are advocating the same set of values, and Elizabeth Knight clearly identifies it when she explains: "Okot calls not for the destruction of the village but a recreation of it incorporating modern technical advances, such as electricity but maintaining the basic values…."
The parallel between the poet and the elder historian has been drawn to demonstrate that Okot's voice is not a solitary one and that he was not the only educated Acoli to recognize the danger inherent in the blind acceptance of an alien culture. Yet, Song of Lawino transcends the cultural conflict with which Anywar was concerned, for it includes the poet's critical appraisal of the new breed of politicians and their role in post-independence Uganda.
In Song of Lawino, Lawino tells us that Ocol's grandfather and father were Bulls among their people. When she is not driven to madness by Ocol's cultural insanity, she respectfully calls him "Son of the Bull." In fact, Ocol's cultural failure can best be measured against his illustrious father's social status as a war leader and Bull. Okot uses the proverb "Mac onywalo buru" (fire has begotten ashes) to highlight the contrast between father and son. Ashes are easily blown away by the wind just as the alienated Ocol has been blown away from Acoli traditional culture by foreign winds and from Lawino by Clementine. Lawino expresses her disappointment in Ocol in the rhetorical proverbial questions:
Has the Fire produced Ash?
Has the Bull died without a Head?
In contrast, Lawino's own leadership among her agemates earned her an honorary Bull name:
My bull name is Eliya Alyeker
I ate the name
Of the chief of Payira
Son of Awic.
Typical of a proud Acoli woman, she sings her own praises in the fourth section of the poem, "My Name Blew Like A Horn Among The Payira." She also sings the Orak songs in which the composer-singer praises her beauty and her dancing ability. In another variant of the same song, the name changes, and she becomes the daughter of Lengamoi. Taking Acoli traditional society as a standard, Lawino has been more successful than Ocol, and we can understand his bitterness in a society where the man is suppsosed to be the "won gang-owner of the home." Lawino's strong-headedness and her pride in her Acoli identity also bring about a confrontation with the Catholic missionaries and eventually lead to her rejection of Catholicism.
Besides his creative borrowing of literary features from Acoli traditional culture, Okot has blended the different modes of Acoli oral songs in the Song of Lawino. Satire dominates the early sections of the poem, which ends on a note of lament reminiscent of Acoli dirges. In the rest of the poem, Okot adopts the openly critical mode of the Bwola, Otole and Apiti dance songs in which singers discard their satirical masks and directly confront the people they are satirizing. This approach is particularly appropriate for his criticism of politicians and Catholic missionaries. Although Lawino sometimes sings her own praises, she returns to the lament at the end of her Song. She laments the "death" of Ocol on two levels: the loss of a husband who can no longer consummate their marriage and the loss of a "Son of the Chief" who can longer uphold his people's culture because he has assimilated Western values.
Okot's creative use of satire derives from his knowledge of Acoli satirical songs, which he classified in his thesis as songs of justice. These songs contain open criticisms of those who do not conform to social norms. Okot himself recognizes the wide range of subjects that can be satirized by the oral poet when he says, "Any act, behaviour or spoken, so long as it is a breach of, a divergence from the straight and narrow path of customs, is seized upon as a subject for these poems." In Song of Lawino, the traditional social norms provide a standard, and Lawino uses the poetic licence accorded to her by Okot to criticize anyone who departs from this standard. Ocol and Clementine are the principal targets of her satire but she herself does not escape completely unscathed, for she is the member of a community whose social norms she accepts and whose demands "she perceives as her own," but "she is also a Subject who has to conform to the society's norms without choice or perish" [Annemarie Heywood, "Modes of Freedom," Journal of Commonwealth Literature (1980)]. Ocol chose to perish rather than be a "Subject" of the traditional society, thereby subjecting himself to the alienation and cultural death that Lawino laments.
Lawino's attack on Ocol is two-pronged: she criticizes him as the husband who deserted her for another woman and as the non-conformist who refused to respect the social and cultural norms of her society. According to Lawino, Ocol deserted her because she was an uneducated traditionalist who was inappropriate for his new social status as a university graduate. Thus, she claims, "he has fallen in love" with Clementine, a modern girl whose "apemanship" equals his own; however, Lawino does not maintain this line of argument for long. She soon draws other members of her clan into the affair by telling them that Ocol's insults are directed against them:
He says Black People are primitive
And their ways are utterly harmful,
Their dances are mortal sins
They are ignorant, poor and diseased….
Lo Liyong erroneously agrees with Ocol and dismisses Lawino as an uneducated village woman who cannot comprehend what Ocol says. In reality, Lawino's selective accounts of Ocol's abuses of her clansmen reflect back on the missionary teachings and prejudices that he absorbed from them. Whereas Lawino admits her limitations with regard to Western culture and technology, Ocol's exaggerated allegiance to the new culture leads him to dismiss traditional culture as irrelevant to modern society. But because he cannot gain full access to this modern society, he remains an alien in both cultures.
In the twelfth section of the Song of Lawino, Lawino destroys Ocol's pride by contemptuously describing his newly acquired house and life-style. The section is appropriately titled "My Husband's House is a Dark Forest of Books." Lawino argues that these books have destroyed the Africanness of the educated class and transformed them into mouthpieces for the colonizers' propaganda against Africans. She concludes:
For all our young men
Were finished in the forest
Their manhood was finished
In the classroom
With large books….
Okot himself describes the university graduate in the following terms: "At the end of the third year he dons his black gown and flat-topped cap. In his hand he carries the piece of paper they give him at graduation—the key to power, money and a big car. Over dressed in his dark suit he walks out of the University gate, out into the world materially comfortable, but culturally castrated, dead" [Africa's Cultural Revolution].
In Acoli society, the oral composer-singer wears many masks, just as he plays many different roles. The transition from satirical composition to open critism, reminiscent of the Bwola and Otole dance songs, is a subtle one in the Song of Lawino. Like the composer-singer, the writer discards his mask and plays the role of an angry member of society who has been wronged by another individual or by those in power. His poetic outburst is direct, and it is intended to correct the wrong that has been done, as Okot himself points out: "I really hold that an artist should tease people, should prick needles into everybody so that they do not go to sleep and thing everything is fine …" [Lee Nicholas, "Conversation with Okot p'Bitek," Conversation with African Writers, 1981]. In Song of Lawino, Lawino's needles are directed at middle-class, educated Africans who inherited the multi-party system introduced by their colonial masters as a way of sowing discord among Africans. Okot criticizes the politicians primarily because they are more concerned about their own stomachs than about the need to work together to eliminate the three scourges: poverty, disease, and ignorance. The masses never benefited from flag independence and whenever they confront the looters to demand their share of the national wealth, the Ocols of African society have a ready solution:
Trespassers must be jailed
Thieves and robbers
Must be hanged.
In reality, the opposite is true: the politicians and their collaborators should be hanged for having wronged the masses.
Okot's criticism of Ugandan politicians for the disunity they fostered through their exploitation of the multi-party system cannot be dismissed as a personal vendetta or as an extension of the religious confrontation between Catholics and Protestants, as lo Liyong claims. In The Acoli of Uganda, F. K. Girling defines the smallest unit of Acoli society as the family, which joins with other families to form a clan, the most powerful social unit. Lawino laments the death of the family. When two bulls fight in the same kraal, the kraal will be destroyed, and, by implication, when two brothers fight, the family will die. Lawino reports that Ocol (D.P.) and his brother (U.P.C.) are deadly enemies who only share water from the same river:
I am concerned
About the well-being of our homestead!
The women there wear mourning clothes
The homestead is surely dead
The enmity, the black-heartedness,
The quarrels, the jealousies …
When the fiends …
Go through our homestead
The people will be finished,
This will be the gift
That political parties have brought.
Okot's hope is that the pricking of his needles will awaken the politicians and other authorities to the truth about their own crimes.
Commenting on the role of the oral songs as a means of communicating dissatisfaction to those in authority, Finnegan says, "The indirect means of communicating with someone in power through the artistic medium of a song is a way by which the singers hope to influence while at the same time avoiding the open danger of speaking directly." However, in the case of written verse, the poet can neither be indirect nor switch his allegiance to new rulers as easily as can the oral poets.
In the thirteenth section of the poem, Lawino returns to the lament mode which she had used earlier when she was lamenting the death of family unity—a death that had been caused by the introduction of political parties. Her later lament is triggered by two deaths: the cultural death of Ocol and the death of their marriage. She herself feels powerless to halt the changes that have brought about the two deaths. She continues to love Ocol, as evidenced in her desperate attempt to rekindle whatever flame of love may yet be glowing in his heart.
Realizing that her tears are futile she nevertheless performs the traditional nanga dance, her final act before bowing out of the love contest between herself and Tina:
Let me dance before you
Let me show you
The wealth in your house
Ocol my husband
Son of the bull
Let no one uproot the pumpkin.
Her plea is similar to those that commonly appear in Acoli dirges that Okot has classified as "songs of the pathway" (Horn of My Love). In these songs, the singer knows that the person being mourned is dead yet there remains a lingering hope that it is not too late or that someone else and not the loved one might be dead. For example, in Ogwang Clipper's song, "Omel, the Great Swimmer," the singer asks:
Was he (the swimmer) dreaming?
Am I hearing the news through a dream?
According to Okot, disbelief is the dominant theme in "songs of the pathway" although the shock of the news must, in the end, be accepted by the disbeliever. In Song of Lawino, Lawino knows that her pleas cannot change the existing situation. On the cultural level, she is lamenting the "apemanship" which is the root of Ocol's alienation from the culture she represents. The polarization between them reflects the poet's conception of the difference between the two cultures.
While Lawino laments the death of Ocol as her husband and as an alienated modern man, he adopts an arrogant and dismissive attitude towards her and towards the culture she represents. His impatience is evident from what he says:
Pack your things
This arrogance is characteristic of Ocol's modern attitudes. He is a social type, and [in "Okot p'Bitek, Literature and Cultural Revolution in East Africa," Journal of African Studies (1978)] Samuel Asein correctly points out that "p'Bitek's focus on Ocol as a type is a convenient poetic device which enables him to make a thrust at a whole generation of apemen and charlatans, insecure, self-centred politicians and other various institutions which grew in the blind acceptance of Western civilization." Yet Ocol's criticism of Lawino is also partly justified, for she is ignorant of modern politics and university culture, whereas Okot himself had always advocated a balance between African and Western cultures. The satirical and open critical modes that he adopted from Acoli oral traditions enabled him to comment on a broad range of Western assumptions about African culture. Against these assumptions, partly echoed by Western-educated, middle-class Africans, stands traditional African culture as presented by an integrated but uneducated Acoli woman.
The form of Okot's poetry is clearly derived from Acoli oral songs, which in many cases are inseparable from the dances during which they are performed. Viewed from this perspective, Song of Lawino falls into three overlapping parts. The satirical criticism in the first nine sections is directly related to the Orak dance songs that Okot classified in his B.Lit. thesis as songs of "poetic justice." In Section Eleven, the mode is that of the political and topical songs that accompany the Bwola, Otole, and Apiti dances. The composer-singers of these songs do not wear the satirical masks of the Orak composer-singers, for their criticisms are collectively expressed by the participants in the dances; therefore, the lead singer cannot be held responsible for criticisms embedded in collectively performed songs. Sections Twelve and Thirteen are characterized by a mixture of modes, but the dominant one is that of lament. Lawino's attempt to dissuade Ocol has failed, and he has therefore died a cultural death. Their marriage has also ended, and her lament echoes the form and themes of an Acoli dirge.
Okot's poetic style is essentially vocal rather than visual; in fact, it is less concerned with the formal pattern on the written page than with breath. The mixture of humor, satire, and lament in Song of Lawino reflect Acoli oral poetic forms, which are interwoven with proverbs, similes, metaphors, symbols, and other figures of speech to constitute a powerful personal commentary on the social, political, religious, and economic situation in post-independence Uganda and by extension, in the entire Third World.
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