Follow Us by Email

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Song of Lawino by Okot p'Bitek

Listen, my clansmen,
I cry over my husband
Whose head is lost.
Ocol has lost his head
In the forest of books.

When my husband
Was still wooing me
His eyes were still alive,
His eyes were still unblocked,
Ocol had not yet become a fool
My friend was still a man then!

He had not yet become a woman,
He was still a free man,
His heart was still his chief.

My husband was still a Black man.
The son of the Bull
The son of Agik.
The woman from Okol
Was still a man,
An Acoli.

My husband had read so much,
He has read extensively and deeply...
And he is clever like white men

And the reading
Has killed my man,
In the ways of his people
He has become
A stump.

He abuses all things Acoli,
He says
The ways of black people
Are black
Because his eyeballs have exploded
And he wears dark glasses,
My husband's house
Is a dark forest of books
Some stand there
Tall and huge
Like the Tido tree...

But when will he come
Before the next morning?
Will he arrive in time?

Bile burns my insides!
I feel like vomiting!

For all our young men
Were finished in the forest,
Their manhood was finished in the classrooms...


Song of Lawino is an epic poem written by Ugandan poet Okot p'Bitek . It was first published in 1966 in Acholi Luo, which is a Southern Luo dialet spoken by the Acholi people in the districts of Gulu, Kitgum and Padre (a region known as Acholiland). It was later translated into other languages, including English.

Although the work was turned down by several British publishers, in 1966 it became a bestseller. In 2001, Okot’s good friend made another translation of Song of Lawino which he claimed was closer to his old friend’s Acholi version called In Defence of Lawino.

The poem uses the literary device of a female character to address issues that were facing Africa at the time. When Okot p’Bitek wrote this poem, Africa had recently been liberated and there was a question whether or not it should keep its African values or look to the West for new ideals. Song of Lawino, after publication, was quickly translated into other languages  and is more known for its scathing attempt in the exposure of how African society was being destroyed by the colonization of Africa.
Song of Lawino was followed by Song of Ocol published in 1970, in which Lawino’s husband responds to her.

Song of Lawino has become one of the most widely read literary works originating from Sub-Saharan Africa. It has also become culturally iconic within Africa, because of its scathing display of how African society was being destroyed by the colonization of Africa and desertion of the African culture by Africans.

Song of Lawino was originally written in rhyming couplets and had a regular meter. The poem is told from the point of view of Lawino, in the first person. The poem is a lamentation of Lawino, who is a traditional, uneducated and illiterate African woman who feels abandoned by her husband. Lawino is married to Ocol, who is "the son of the bull, the son of Agik", the tribal leader of their Acoli tribal leader. When Lawino marries Ocol, he is still African with bright eyes, unburdended by the insatiable and impossible desire to be white. "He was still a Black man/The son of the Bull/ The son of Agik/ The woman from Okol /Was still a man,/An Acoli."
Ocol is now educated, clever and well-versed in Western education, educated in the Western sense. "He has read at Makerere University / He has read deeply and widely". He abandons Lawino and the African culture for the Western culture. Ocol falls in love with another woman, Clementina, mockingly referred to as "Tina", whom Lawino says "looks like the guinea fowl. Tina is not just educated but has also taken on the ways of the white people. She is the modern woman in the Acoli society.

Lawino on the other hand has never been to school, not to talk of getting an education.  She has never been baptised. She doesn't know the dance of the white man, neither can she eat with cutlery. She is generally a village girl.  Ocol  insults her and her parents because of this supposed weakness. In the process, he insults the black people and all the African ways and says "The ways of the black people are black."
Although Ocol's polygamy is accepted by the African society, and by Lawino herself, Ocol is said to shun Lawino and favour  Clementina, instead of treating both wives fairly and equally as the polygamy culture dictates. Lawino verbally attacks the modern women who try to imitate the ways of the white people. Tina speaks English, she uses powder and lipstick and fears getting fat, and eats little food.  In a very vivid tirade, Lawino calls Tina ugly. “And her lips look like bleeding/Her head is huge like that of an owl/She looks like a witch."

Meanwhile, Ocol is fascinated with the culture of the European colonialists and has totally neglected African ways, which leads to Lawino believing her husband is blind because "His eyeballs have exploded,/And he wears dark glasses", so he cannot see that "He has become a stump". He has also lost  his manhood and is no longer a man. She believes his "testicles were smashed with large books!"
 He is no longer interested in the ritualistic African dance but prefers the ballroom-style dances introduced by the colonising Europeans. This loss of culture on the part of Ocol is what disturbs Lawino the most. The poem is an extended appeal from Lawino to Ocol to stay true to his own customs, and to abandon his desire to be white.

Ocol's attitude baffles Lawino greatly because she believes that in the pursuit of the Western culture, Africans lose an essential part of themselves, especially their manhood which is why she cries out against her husband's "forest of books."  "For all our young men /Were finished in the forest/Their manhood was finished/ In the class rooms/ Their testicles
Were smashed/With large books!"
Ocol is  politically active. He is the leader of the "Catholic democratic Party". His main political opponent is his brother,  the leader of the "Marxist Congress Party", whom he also despises. Lawino does not understand the political (and personal) differences between both sides, who both seem to want the same thing. She wonders why they cannot unite as one. "Then why do they not join hands, /Why do they split up the army /Into two hostile groups ?"

Lawino symbolises Africa, her culture, values, norms and belief system, while Ocol symbolises the average African who deposes Africa and all that she stands for, discarding all African values in the bid to acquire a Western education and Western way of life. Clementina, "Tina" symbolises the ephemeral attractions of the Western life, makeups, cosmetics and a punishing diet.

All in all, the song of Lawino is a plea of Africa to her children begging them not to lose themselves in the  pursuit of Western ideals.


The negative impact of Western culture.
Superiority of the African way of life.
Rejection of African traditions for Western ways by the educated elite.
Lack of cultural consciousness of Africans about the richness and diversity of the African heritage.
Loss of identity of the educated African.

1 comment: