The third edition of the Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry published in 2003 features three African poets: Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka, Christopher Okgibo and Okot P’ Bitek. It is a landmark recognition for this crop of postcolonial poets.
Okot P’ Bitek’s Song of Lawino & Song of Ocol (African Writers) was first published in the Acholi language, before being translated into English in 1966. Winning recognition on two grounds, style and theme, it is also arguably one of the longest and most substantive works of fiction from Africa.
Grappling with a conflict of cultures, the modern or western on one hand and the traditional on the other, it traces the trials of a traditional wife Lawino who is married to a rather mobile, university trained husband, Ocol. Her husband has fallen in love with another woman Clementine, mockingly referred to as Tina who, is not just educated but has taken on the ways of the white people. She is a modern girl.
Lawino, meanwhile, has not been to school. She was never baptised. She can’t dance like the white people and neither can she eat with forks. She is generally a village girl. And her husband Ocol is bitter with her. For this perceived ‘weaknesses,’ Lawino tells us, her husband insults her all the time. This does not stop at her though; Ocol also insults her parents in the process; the black people and all the African ways.
Lawino decides to speak back. The poem moves from her talking back to her husband, in a manner akin to giving counsel to a rather errant man, to reporting him in front of the clan elders. At one point she says, “My friend, age-mate of my brother/ take care” and at another, she says, “My clansmen, I cry, listen to my voice/The insults of my man/Are painful beyond bearing.”
The poem has been divided into segments that address particular sections of western culture as they are compared to the traditional values. But all through, the defence for tradition embodied by the central character is visibly strong and well pitched. There are sections that appraise traditional values like My Name Blew Like a Horn Among the Payira, and sections that attack the western or modern ones, like From the Mouth of Which River?
In a section titled, The Woman with whom I share My Husband, Lawino attacks the ways of the modern women who attempt to take on the ways of the white people. It is one of the most vitriolic sections in the book. Tina speaks English, she uses powder and lipstick and fears getting fat, and she is eating little food. In a poignant tirade, Lawino gathers all ugly images for Tina. Take for example,
“And her lips look like bleeding/Her head is huge like that of an owl/She looks like a witch/Like someone who has lost her head.”
At the level of style, Song of Lawino blossoms at the use of native Acholi imagery and figurative language. The pictures drawn are tellingly from the African reality. They create a very live impression that the African has interacted a great deal with his environment, in a manner that provides so much meaning to him. Writing in English to represent something African has been a major preoccupation of several African writers. Amos Tituola of the Palm Wine Drinkard gave us something close, but arguably, Okot P’ Bitek did it best.