A Review of Okot p'Bitek’s ‘Song of Lawino and Song of Ocol’
BY DORINE KANAIZA
I first read Okot’s poem back in 2015 when I was a first-year student at the University of Nairobi. A good book never gets old –so when I bumped into it on my shelf again this week I thought I should read it again. Being a novice to literary criticism it was quite difficult for me to discover some things but while reading the book the second time, it was a walk in the park and I greatly enjoyed it. I am considering reading more African poetry in the future.
In this article, I am going to first give a summary of the two poems separately, starting with Song of Lawino followed by Song of Ocol then give a conjoined review.
Song of Lawino
Lawino, the main character in this poem, laments over his husband’s altered demeanor as he tends to live like a white man. Lawino can’t fathom why one would try to live/become someone else. To her, culture isn’t a piece of cloth that one changes anytime she/he feels like it. It is a pumpkin whose roots run deep underneath the earth and can’t/shouldn’t be uprooted. The Acoli (pronounced as ‘Acholi’) culture should be protected like mother hen protects her chicks under her wings and conserved.
She lashes out at Ocol for marrying another woman called Clementine that is educated and speaks English –whereas Lawino is primitive and illiterate. Lawino feels sorry for her co-wife for she struggles to look like a white woman by making up her face, lightening her skin, and blow-drying her hair. She says;
Brother, when you see
The beautiful one aspires to look like a white woman;
Her lips are red-hot
Like glowing charcoal,
She resembles the wild cat
That has dipped its mouth in
Her mouth is like raw yaws
It looks like an open ulcer,
Like the mouth of a field!
Tina dusts powder on her face
And it looks so pale;
She resembles the wizard
Getting ready for the midnight dance… (Pg. 40).
Additionally, Lawino thinks of the white culture as immoral since women drink as much as men drink –something that is forbidden in the Acholi culture. She observes that these men and women of much younger ages dance in bars in close proximity caressing each other even though they are not married couples. Besides, the bars are filthy places and smell like dung. On the contrary, the Acoli dances are respectable and decent. According to Lawino the Acholi attire, where men and women dress in animal skin, is original and attractive whereas the white man’s clothes are just borrowed stuff. She says that hospitals are useless since they can’t treat curses.
Lawino prefers Acholi cuisines and utensils to English ones. She says that modern stoves are noisy and dangerous for their many confusing knobs and they cause fires. Lawino likes the Acholi kitchen setting because that’s what she was born to. Her mother has taught her how to use the traditional stove and she loves it that way –she’s not willing to conform to the white man’s cooking as Ocol demands. Lawino is bewildered by her husband who treats time like an asset. Ocol has bought a clock and wants his breakfast, lunch, and dinner fixed at a specific time–a norm that Lawino is not accustomed to. All her life, Lawino studies time by observing the direction of the sun and how cool or hot it is. She does not need a thermometer to tell if her child has a fever but she can do so by noticing his watering nose, the erect hairs on his body, parched lips, and when he is dull. She argues that, even if white people know diseases by their names they can’t defeat death because when it knocks on one’s door it knows no time neither is it a respecter of persons.
Another thing that bothers Lawino is the Christianity that Ocol has converted to. She finds the priests and teachers of the church to be hypocritical as they lust over young girls. Lawino narrates her encounter with a ‘white’ man at a dance who tries to sexually assault her. She does not understand why the same preachers of the Gospel get drunk instead of staying sober and pure as the ‘good word’ demands. She is abashed by Ocol since as educated as he is he can’t explain to her how God came into existence.
Lastly, through Lawino’s voice, Okot talks about the effects of politics on the citizens. He addresses greed, self-centeredness, and deceit depicted by politicians. He speaks about the life of penury that voters languish in after being gullible to the politicians’ empty promises. Lawino is mad at her husband who’s the leader of the Democratic Party. As per Ocol’s words, they are fighting for emancipation, independence,, and unity among the Ugandans. Lawino finds it ironic that Ocol is striving for unity among these communities yet he has strained relationships with his kith and kin. She sees no better life during the post-independence era as politicians continue to enrich themselves after elections while voters suffer the consequences of electing them. The ‘big men’ feed on top layers –full of fat and nutrients whereas the ordinary wananchi scramble for leftovers.
Lawino speaks with lots of ethnocentrism in her voice and urges her husband to revisit his decisions and embrace the Acholi culture once again. As they say, east or west home is best.
Song of Ocol
Some folks say you can’t advise a young woman in love as she will only perceive you to be an enemy of progress. Ocol, the main character here, is smitten by the white culture and has fallen in love with its hook, line, and sinker. It is for this reason that he finds Lawino unattractive as she is too glued to the Acholi culture. He is a ‘progressive and civilized’ man who wants a perfect match –and Lawino is a misfit. He sends her packing and says her song is irksome and noisy to his ears.
Ocol tries to justify his transition and threatens to destroy the old traditions of the black people. He argues that it is due to the white culture that Africans have access to better schools and hospitals. He is surprised that Lawino accuses white people of subjecting Africans to slavery yet all along they have been living like slaves; splitting heavy logs of firewood, cutting stacks of grass, women fetching water from wells using large pots and carrying them on their heads, etc. Ocol tells African men and women to free themselves from their slave-like lives.
Ocol finds Lawino’s accusations about politicians to be null and void. He says that politicians deserve to live as they do (lavishly) because they have worked for it. He says, ‘lions can’t eat grass and lie down with the lambs.’ Ocol adds:
We have property
We are in power… (Pg. 145)
He speaks with a contemptuous tone toward the African culture and gallantly proclaims his pride in civilization. He finishes by saying that each African shall get what they deserve/worked for. The modern Africans will be remembered for what they did whereas the ancient ones like Lawino and her ancestors shall be forgotten for they have nothing to be proud of. All they did was raid and fight over spears. You reap what you sow is Ocol’s mantra.
A Review of Both
One thing that jumped out at me in Ocol’s books is the contemporary issues he addresses in his two poems. They were first published in 1966 and 1970 respectively and having read them in 2015 and today the same issues still affect us as African people. For instance, the adverse effects of politics on the citizens resonated with me most considering the past elections that happened in Uganda and the going on preparations by Kenyan politicians getting ready for next year’s elections. As much as Ocol tries to justify politicians’ actions, I find his argument to be irrational and biased. Just like a herd needs a herdsman so do people need a leader. Imagine a country without a leader. It would be chaotic! That’s why we as a people elect men and women to guide us as a nation.
I also like how, through Lawino, Ocol urges Africans to preserve their culture. As much as culture is bound to change, as per what I learned in my communication class, we have to be cautious and aware of the consequences. For instance, as Lawino says, let’s be proud of our black skin and not be tempted to alter it. For the 24 years I have lived, I have never heard of a white man/woman who attempted to darken her skin and look like the African people. Just like they are proud to be white so should we be proud to be African. Besides, as Lawino puts it, African men/women should maintain their moral standards instead of ditching them while trying to conform to other cultures.
Okot’s use of figurative language is top-notch. It makes his poems very enjoyable to read and the discovery behind those subtle metaphors makes one feel like a genius! In Song of Lawino Lawino Okot largely uses similes whereas in Song of Ocol he has widely used metaphors. This makes the poems easier to understand as they create a clear mental picture in the reader's mind and enable him/her to not only see the words but also smell, taste, feel, hear, and touch them. Look at the example below from Song of Ocol;
Is rotting buffalo
Left behind by
Its nose blocked
With houseflies… (Pg. 125).
In the above poem, Ocol compares Lawino’s words to a rotting buffalo to show her how useless it is. Maybe if Ocol had just said, ‘woman your song is meaningless’ it wouldn’t have had more weight than it has now. Similary, when Lawino says, ‘My husband’s tongue/Is bitter like the roots of the lyonno lily,’ we can taste the arrogance in Ocol’s words and empathize with Lawino. Okot’s poems are without a doubt creative and aesthetic.
Having read other works by other African authors, I would say Okot writes like Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka. When reading their works I could see the African-ness in Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe and The Death of the King’s Horseman by Wole Soyinka. In the latter, Soyinka uses lots of Yoruba proverbs that have been translated into English. Someone from the Yoruba community would be in a better position to understand the story than an outsider. Similary, In Song of Lawino Okot incorporates some Acholi words in the poem which makes it much better for an Acholi to understand. They are what I’d describe as real African authors.
In conclusion, there is a Swahili proverb that says ‘Hakuna zuri lisilokua na doa,’ (nothing is perfect). I find Okot’s Song of Ocol quite confusing. If Okot first gives the impression of him advocating the conservation of the African culture through Lawino, why does he give Ocol so much power in degrading it that he cares less about scrapping it off? I find Lawino to be a bit lenient that he tells Ocol, yes, the whites have their culture just like we have our own –let us all live as per what our cultures demand. On the other hand, Ocol says no, this is all backwardness that should be destroyed and forgotten. Up to that point, is he still telling Africans to be proud of who they are? Maybe he should have made Ocol fair as well. Such that he looks at both cultures as valuable to the founders.
Dorine Kanaiza is a Communications Specialist and African Literature enthusiast.