Reassessing African Poetry Fifty Years after Song of Lawino

By Jumoke Verissimo


  • Title: Song of Lawino
  • Author: Okot p’Bitek
  • Publisher: East African Publishing House
  • Number of pages: 216
  • Year of publication: 1966
  • Category: Poetry

It is fifty years since the book Song of Lawino first got published. The volume of poetry by the legendary Ugandan poet was one of the first widely accepted attempts to authenticate African oral tradition in the language of the colonialists. It is also a product of the school of writers who experimented with the concept of mirroring themselves in literature, who grappled with creating conceivable bridges between the traditional oral forms and the acquired language of the colonialist, who would not wipe the stock of images with which they were familiar off the face of the earth but preferred to distort it. This issue of ideological distortion of the African experience, this discourse, the discourse, still hovers above literature written by Africans.

In essence, it can be argued that not much has changed if one considers the rooting of African poetry in criticism. The borderlines of debate have been defined around the We vs Them rather than what defines us and the techniques to help us arrive at the us-junction. The reception of African poetry staggers through the recurring debate on the difficulties of analysing modern African poetry to finally fall flat on its face on the question of what actually is African poetry.

Since the publication of p’Bitek’s widely known volume, Song of Lawino, Africa has seen several changes in its social and political spheres. It is therefore expected that the literature of the continent would have adapted to newer responsibilities, which rest largely on what issues are to be considered when viewing or discussing what is ‘African’ within the context of label or of being. There are two contexts or levels to what is African: to be called African and to be African.

To be called an African poet is to be referred to as a thing of atypical selves that does not align with the expected forms conceived by the west. To be an African poet is to identify with the tradition of a lyrical genealogy – as many African traditions trace ancestry in songs or praise chants – and to evolve from the stratum of this community into an urbanity that redefines itself around the individual. These constructs have become the perspective from which the African poet defines the self. They also inhibit the creation of theories around art forms that do not comply with the anticipation of non-Africans of what should be African poetry and what should not. The chanting poet is today’s western stereotype – the hoarse poet screaming into the air for every form of liberation.

The number of scholars engaging African poetry is not enough, and the existing ones conveniently interrogate the literary canons created from the literature of the likes of Okot p’Bitek, whose writing interrogated the experiences of colonial Africa and the immediate post-colonial era. One thing African scholarship has not done is create a vantage for interrogating poetry coming out of Africa today.

Today’s newspaper reviews and scholarly criticism fall flat on their faces on the keenly contested subject of what actually Africans should write about themselves, with an understanding of the breadth of Africa – from the white end to the black end. How should Africans write about themselves, and where should their writing situate them? The defining subject of form is difficult – African poetry is like the geography of its countries, a hybrid of forced, assimilated, shared and owned continental nationhood as well as fickle ethnic sensibilities.

The line has even begun to fade with the heavy influence of the universal spoken word poetry, which regulates itself within the context of African oral poetry but expresses itself in the languages of colonial origin, so would one say p’Bitek saw the future and in recognition of how quite distinct the African poem is preferred to title his ‘poetry’ songs?

Perhaps, the lack of conjunctive focus has created that problem of accessibility and the absence of a canon that resonates and upon which poetry written by Africans can be established, interrogated and reviewed. The lens from which African poetry is defined is largely western.  In a recent essay by Keguro Macharia, ‘African Poetry: Gbenga Adesina’, he explains that ‘one is not quite sure how to read Africanishly, what strategies can accommodate the hyper-local and the metonymic’. This is so considering the fact that most African poets use the post-colonial language to write on the African experience, on African discourse, on the African condition and several other invocations of the continent’s spirit as are discussed in Abiola Irele’s The African Imagination, which Macharia references in his essay.

Unlike modern African poetry, fifty years of study in the universities and a placement in the canon of classic African literature has earned Song of Lawino scholarship, which brings an understanding of the book closer to its reader. The Heinemann African Writers Series edition that was first published in 1984 and again reprinted in the same year already had an introduction that enumerated the likely contentions for the reader: ‘Influence of Songs and Effect of Translation’, ‘Verse’, ‘The Character of Lawino’, ‘Lawino as Spokesman’, as well as a list of references.

It will not be out of place to explore how the work of a poet like Okot p’Bitek – who borrows from the oral tradition, specifically, the traditional songs – shook the literary scene and has continued to echo in the styles of today’s poets, many of whom are not translating poetry or experimenting with traditional songs but have continued to ride on the introspective and imaginative to perpetuate their forms. Yet, there is a need to ask if anyone who writes today in the way Okot p’Bitek did would be respected as a ‘true poet’.

It is interesting that the dominant theme in Song of Lawino is the conflict between tradition and modernity, the consequences of advancement and the extinction of culture. Lawino believes in tradition but Ocol desires modernity and the new-fangled possibilities of its ideas. Today’s poets, the likes of Gabeeba Baderoon, Remi Raji, Clifton Gachagua, Dami Ajayi, Lisa Combrink, Rethabile Masilo, Tade Ipadeola, Safia Elhillo, deal with themes that have more intricate temperaments, and they explore a wider range of issues.

African poets have created a hybridity that invests in a native imagination fermented by western imagery and conceived in the language of use. It is a constant that African poetry is heavy on symbols, metaphors, and imagery, which could be a starting point for critiquing its form. The idea that African poetry is impossible to critique is a denial of the validity of the experiences formed, the credibility of the reinvention of languages and the accessibility that opens up when a new language is learnt and used to investigate other worldviews.


Photograph: ‘Vaso fittile, Uganda/ Sudan’ by Soggettimigranti


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Jumoke Verissimo is widely published in magazines and journals across continents. She has written two books of poetry, I Am Memory (2008) and The Birth of Illusion (2015).

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