Okot p’Bitek sang songs from the source

Thursday August 08 2013

A painting of Okot p’Bitek by S. Mwanje at the Uganda National Cultural Centre in Kampala. Right, his books. Photos/Morgan Mbabazi.

July 20 marked the 31st anniversary of the death of Ugandan writer, poet, theologian, actor, philosopher and cultural revolutionist, Okot p’Bitek.

At the time of his death, Okot, winner of the 1972 Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature, was a professor of creative writing at Makerere University. His literary career embraced the disciplines of social anthropology, education, law, literature, history, religion and philosophy.

Okot’s most widely read literary works are Song of Lawino and Song of Ocol. His first novel Lak Tar (translated as White Teeth) was published in 1953. His other works are Song of Malaya, Song of Prisoner, Horn of My Love, Hare and the Hornbill, Artist the Ruler (a posthumous publication). He also published several short songs, poems and articles.

In Song of Lawino, the title character takes pride in her Acholi heritage and rebukes her husband, Ocol, who despises his culture.

Ocol retorts:

“What is Africa
To me?
Deep, deep fathomless
Idle giant
Basking in the sun,
Sleeping, snoring,
Twitching in dreams;
“Diseased with a chronic illness,
Choking with black ignorance,
Chained to the rock
Of poverty…”


The lines show how Okot succeeded in skilfully fusing elements of traditional and modern verse.

In regards to Okot’s legacy, Prof Arthur Gakwandi, an author and senior lecturer at the department of literature, Makerere University told The EastAfrican: “Until Okot p’Bitek came on the scene, East African poets who sought to express themselves in English tended to rely on poetic models from the British-American literary tradition. Okot made a radical departure from this dependence by creating a new form of poetry that was based on African poetic forms of free verse to make wide ranging social comment.

“In particular, he adopted the Acholi popular song to create a long satiric poem that became so popular that the approach was quickly adopted by other Uganda poets such as Okello Oculi, Joseph Buruga and Jane Okot. During the next decade, the form was embraced by poets all over East Africa,” Gakwandi added.

The beauty of Okot’s writing was in its simplicity and humour, which made him hugely popular among audiences. In his book, Understanding African Poetry: A Study of Ten Poets, Ken Goodwin writes, “Okot’s technical resources and armoury – the song medium and nimbleness of wit – make him an author of great ingenuity and a master of humour.”

Unheeded protest

Okot discovered early in his life the true roots of his future scholarship during his first lectures at Oxford University in 1960, when he felt insulted by the professors referring to Africans as barbarians, savages and primitive people.

“I protested but to no avail. All the professors and lecturers in the Institute, and those who came from outside to read papers, spoke the same insulting language,” he wrote in the preface of his book African Religions in Western Scholarship.

In the preface of a collection of his essays titled Africa’s Cultural Revolution, Okot argues, “Africa must discover her true self, and rid herself of all ‘apemanship.’ For only then can she begin to develop a culture of her own. Africa must redefine all cultural terms according to her own interests.”

Commenting on the same book, Macmillan Publishers observed, “…His concern is for the regeneration of African culture, too much of which he feels is in danger of being sacrificed to a spurious ‘modern way of life,’ of which many leading Africans are ‘publicly proud, but secretly unsure.’ His songs — the best known, Song of Lawino… reveal a deep compassion for the humiliated and despised, and a continued amazement at the apparent failure of African leaders to concern themselves with the welfare of the rural majority.”

Writing in The Defence of Lawino, S. Raditlhalo notes: “The battle for an African literary reawakening (renaissance) can never be separated from orature. More than anyone, Okot p’Bitek realised that only by ‘returning to the source’ – to use Aime Cesaire’s wonderful phrase – could we ‘rediscover the ordinary,’ and hence our truer selves. His deeply philosophical outlook seeks to re-connect us to that which we lose on daily basis by hankering after European culture…”