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"Do Not Uproot The Pumpkin": Okot P'Bitek Legacy Seminar At Cornell University



L-R: Ber Anena, Prof. Juliane Okot Bitek, Prof. Sam Imbo


On March 28, 2024, in collaboration with the Institute for African Development (IAD) at Cornell University, we organized a literary seminar commemorating the enduring influence of Okot p’Bitek, a significant figure in 20th-century African literature and philosophy. Themed "Do Not Uproot the Pumpkin: Reflecting on Okot p'Bitek, African Literature, and Culture”, the seminar drew 35 attendees at the Africana Center and an additional 40 participants who joined virtually via Zoom.

The seminar was curated by our founder and CEO, Ojok Okello who also moderated the event.

Ojok Okello, seminar curator and moderator.

During his opening remarks at the seminar, Ed Mabaya, a professor of global development and director of the Fulbright Humphrey Fellowship program at Cornell University, pondered the significance of ancestral ties and their role in influencing our perspectives and self-perception. Born in a rural Zimbabwean village himself, Mabaya shared personal insights into the disruptions caused by pursuing Western education, which led to his detachment from his ancestral village and experiences of studying, working, and marrying across the Atlantic. He reflected on the resultant complexities and praised p’Bitek's literature for guiding us through such challenges.

 

Prof. Juliane Okot Bitek, who teaches creative writing at Queens University in Canada gave the keynote address entitled, “Returning to the Pumpkin: Poetry and Song as Decolonizing Practice”. Juliane’s keynote address used the Luo proverb of “not uprooting the pumpkin”, as well placing emphasis on truth-telling to provoke the audience to think about placemaking and art practice, especially for the African people living in the diaspora. To reflect on this issue, she encouraged us to borrow a lift from the Anishinaabe (an Indigenous people in North America) concept that you cannot get lost if you constantly ask yourself: Where do I come from? Why am I here? Where am I going? And who am I? While always uprooted from her own land of Acholi (born in Nairobi, raised in Kisumu and Kampala, studied and now living in Canada), Juliane tries not to get lost by leaning on this indigenous American philosophy.


Moreover, Juliane's presentation also examined the role of wer (song), a Luo poetic tradition, as tools for truth-telling, decolonization, and political engagement. She highlighted how her paternal grandmother, Cerina Lacwa, passed on her songs and love for poetry to her son, Okot p’Bitek. Juliane observed that in Acholi culture, poetry and art are considered collective assets, passed down from one generation to the next for the shared benefit of society. In fact, many of the songs featured in p’Bitek’s book, "Horn of My Love," were authored by his mother. Juliane also noted that the fact that her grandmother’s songs are still sung is evidence not just of her skill but also of how songs are imbued with meaning and how they continue to resonate with people across time and space.


After Juliane’s address, Ber Anena, Ber Anena, a Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature in Africa laureate and a creative writing scholar shared her insights on rereading Okot p'Bitek in contemporary Africa. In her talk, she asked the question: How does Okot p’Bitek’s writing mirror Africa's political and social landscape today? Focusing on p’Bitek’s Song of a Prisoner, Anena explored the literal and metaphorical prisons inside which Africa, particularly, Uganda, finds itself decades after attaining “independence” from Western colonial masters. First published in 1971, Song of a Prisoner navigates post-independence Uganda marked by flowery promises from African politicians, silencing of opposition, and meager delivery of critical social services to the citizens.

 

Detailing the metaphorical prisons constructed and managed by successive Ugandan leaders (from Obote and Amin to Museveni), Anena remarked that while it might seem like airing Uganda's dirty laundry in public, the reality is that the country's “linen has been hanging in the square for quite a while." Indeed, "no country is immune from the mess of its politics”.  She then recited a verse from Song of Prisoner to exemplify the political turmoil in Africa during p’Bitek’s era, which sadly still remains true to date.  

 

Do you plead guilty

Or

Not guilty?

I plead smallness,

I am a mare Pygmy

Before your

Uniformed Power

Which towers like

Mount Elgon

And covers the Land

With its dark shadow.

My eardrums

Are torn

I cannot hear you,

A red wall

Stands between you and me,

I cannot see you,

But I feel the cold blade

Of your axe on my neck!

I plead fear,

I plead helplessness,

I plead hopelessness.

I am an insect trapped between the toes

Of a bull elephant,

I am an earthworm

I grovel in the mud

I am the wet dung of a chicken

On the floor

 

“Yes, these words may make you squirm in your seat. They should, because writers have continued to produce work that holds a mirror to the face of our society, despite the hostile environment within which they work. Even if it makes the powerful uncomfortable, today’s writers, like p’Bitek and his generation, know that to stop would be a betrayal of the literary canon”, Anena said.


Prof. Sam Imbo, A professor of African philosophy at Hamline University also gave a talk that focused on philosophical discourses underpinning the work of Okot p'Bitek. Okot p'Bitek's works are a rich source of philosophical discourses on African literature and culture, offering great insights into the complexities of identity, tradition, and colonial legacy. Almost all his writings present and dig deep into the heart of African cultural consciousness, presenting broad themes that resonate with many philosophical inquiries. In p’Bitek’s books, his key protagonists like Ocol, Lawino, the Prisoner, and the Prostitute navigate the tension between the modern and the indigenous, the educated elite and the rural masses, the leaders and the led, the colonized and the colonizer. This exploration serves as a lens through which to examine broader philosophical questions of power, agency, and cultural hegemony.


One of the areas Prof. Imbo reflected on was on the significance of African oral traditions and how Okot p’Bitek has emerged as one of its fiercest proponents. While reason, facts, logic, and science are held as the foundations of a philosophic life, western societies requiring certain individuals to invest time to philosophize, study, think and write, p’Bitek reject this.  He argues that the act of living a life on a daily basis is of and in itself a philosophic practice, and further warns against separating life from philosophy as philosophy is not merely one aspect of life but rather encompasses all aspects of our human life and experience. “So, the role of the philosopher is to make explicit connections between cultural practices, and the social order to serve, as only such a philosophy has durability”, Prof. Imbo noted.

 

During the Q&A session, the speakers provided more depth to the questions raised. In response to a question about how her father inspired her to become a writer, Juliane noted that p’Bitek encouraged all his children to read, think and take a stand especially if one is convicted and believes that that position will bring about collective progress. “Our house was always filled with books, and this inspired all of us to become fervent readers”. Juliane reflected.

 

For Anena and Prof. Imbo, the loathing of and underinvestment in the humanities, literature and arts by most governments in Africa lie in the fact that the arts are instrumental in raising critical consciousness which the politicians see as threats to their privileges and power.

 

Reflecting on Prof. Odera-Oruka's argument that excessive reliance on writing could impair certain cognitive abilities like memorization, both speakers stressed the importance of writing. However, Anena emphasized the need to promote writing in indigenous African languages, citing Okot p’Bitek's initial writing of Song of Lawino in Acholi. This is because much can be lost in translation when foreign languages are used for documentation due to differences in context and nuances. For Prof. Imbo, while writing is good, it cannot capture the emotion of the moment, and so the immediacy of spoken word in portraying realities cannot be taken for granted.

 

The #pBitekSeminar provided a unique opportunity to reflect on many intersections of literature, culture, and identity. From Ed Mabaya's poignant reflections on ancestral ties to Juliane Okot Bitek's impassioned keynote on decolonizing practices, Prof. Sam Imbo’s emphasis on oral traditions, and Ber Anena's thoughtful analysis of contemporary Africa through the lens of p’Bitek's works, each speaker illuminated the enduring relevance of his writings. As we navigate the complexities of our world, p’Bitek’s continuous wisdom never wanes in urging us to embrace our roots, amplify diverse voices, and challenge entrenched power structures through the transformative power of literature and art.


The seminar was part of our "Echoes of Lawino" project, which use a vehicle to spark and join the chorus of voices daring to reimagine a more decolonized African people through plays/theatre, songs, dances, films, literature and other forms of visual art.  Echoes of Lawino is inspired by and adapted from "Song of Lawino" and "Song of Ocol", classic collections of African poems written by Okot p'Bitek, one of Africa's greatest writers of the 20th century. The different activities of project shall be executed through partnerships and collaborations with various curators, artists, and producers. 



 

 


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