The Event of Song of Lawino

By Benson Eluma


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

A popular event, yes. A great event? Yes. Since there is literary drought’. – Taban lo Liyong

But the text exists as linguistic, as historical, as commercial, as political event. And while each of these ways of conceiving the very same object provides opportunities for pedagogy, each provides different opportunities – opportunities between which we must choose’. – Kwame Anthony Appiah

Yes, of course, the text can exist as an event in any of those dimensions. Sometimes in all of them at once, thus ensuring that certain texts, for all the bravura they may display or conceal, confront us as multidimensional entities, larger than mere rhetorical projects. They exist, as it were, as assemblages of artefacts, as archaeological precincts inhabited by transactions of social life which may coalesce into a pattern. And they, according to established formula, may over time come to accrete into that complex of ruins which every literary archaeologist knows she has to preserve with the care of attentive criticism. Otherwise, what would be the point?

It is in this regard that Song of Lawino stands as an imposing edifice in African literary history, its expanse covering all the relevant dimensions in which a text may exist in its age and in this age. In recognition of this achievement, it behoves the conservationist of literature to engage it for what it is worth. This is not because a case has to be made for its continued inclusion in the canon. Song of Lawino does not need any such defence – the loss could only be ours. Indeed, the poetic intelligence of our time requires renewal by immersion in the pool of a work which, not content with arguing the case, shows what can be done when the individual talent proclaims itself from the shoulder of tradition. Of course, this mention of conservation in relation to something that does not possess a biological essence may look like a call to mere nostalgia – which is not a terrible thing in itself if such nostalgia can excite the imagination, and not limit itself to excitation of the emotions. In any case, we can do without the latter – if not completely, at least we can try and cut out the mushiness. We do not have to align ourselves with Lawino’s vision. We may even conceive of her as Okot p’Bitek’s unwitting caricature of the ‘African’ counter to the noisy triumphalism of ‘modernity’. But what about the poetics of the work, the resources, the logistics of the poetic consciousness that went into its creation?

I have spoken of nostalgia. For the benefit of those who may want to make me account for my literal words, it has to be made clear that this is not the variety of nostalgia that loses sight of the present by fixing its gaze constantly on the Pyramids of Giza, getting its eyes wounded by the sun in the process. I am not concerned about nostalgia that limits itself to the cultic fringe by deciding that nothing further could be done with, say, the Nsibidi script – or let me say I am more concerned to see that script deployed in demotic spheres. Song of Lawino is fifty this year, making it generations old, but it is not an object to induce a cheap hankering after the past. The reality it encompasses still finds its echo in many recent literary productions that seek to project an African voice against an inaudibility supposedly imposed by external forces. To be more precise, Song of Lawino looks for its echo, but does it find it today?

One may turn to those regulation themes about Africa with which this long poem is shot through, precisely the theme of the African woman, the cultural politics of her body – for the body of the black woman is often where it all starts, though it does not always end there. Turn to that theme and then try and measure how much the decibel and ambit of the disputation has been raised beyond Lawino’s lampoon:

The beautiful woman

With whom I share my husband

Smears black shoe polish

On her hair

To blacken it

And to make it shine,

She washes her hair

With black ink;

But the thick undergrowth

Rejects the shoe polish

And the ink

And it remains untouched

Yellowish, greyish

Like the hair of the grey monkey.

But the woman

With whom I share my husband

Does not wash her head;

The head of the beautiful one

Smells like rats

That have fallen into the fireplace.

And she uses

Powerful perfumes

To overcome the strange smells,

As they treat a pregnant coffin!

And the different smells

Wrestle with one another

And the smell of the shoe polish

Mingles with them.

Is this diatribe crude and rude? Perhaps, and Clementine, the other woman, is not vouchsafed the opportunity to say anything. But the diatribe seems more frank in its choice of imagery than most of the glib preachments about the body, particularly about the hair, of the African woman, which we are forced to listen to in a so-called Information Age where the spiel of the savvy replicates itself faster than super-smart viruses. What can one say? It now seems an unyielding practice. From the strand of her hair to her nail varnish, the African woman’s body is cannon fodder as well as poetic form.

But there are forms and there are forms. The quest for form is often problematic for the writer who wishes to convert the postcolonial condition into a literary enterprise. We are now accustomed – in point of fact, over-accustomed – to that stratagem that grafts elements from orature onto a scripted structure, creating a form not so much a hybrid of the two traditions as an appropriation of the former by the latter. But it is a stratagem that works, a stratagem that never fails to fascinate when deployed by a master even for the umpteenth time. This stratagem works because it is an astute technique that bears the burden of an uneven heritage, indeed, the stratagem constitutes the apparatus that converts the said burden into a heritage, making the experience and the expression of it more engaging than merely liveable with. And we see the stratagem put to service in every genre, evidenced, naturally, in varying degrees of sophistication in the works of major and minor writers alike. It may all seem artificial, but art is artifice, even though romanticists, believers in a feigned spontaneity, do not like to be reminded of that. They want the ‘authentic’; they want to implicate art in the ordinary nature of things, in the ordinary nature of society, indeed in ordinary human nature, something madmen and their specialists have searched for in vain. The art of Song of Lawino is anything but natural, even with the seemingly untainted Lawino as the mouthpiece of an eternal Acholi cultural essence. It is all artifice, superb artifice. Lawino, no doubt, knows much more than we usually give her credit for. She is the backslider described by Achebe, who ‘Like Satan a spell in heaven had armed… with unfair insights’.

It may seem trite to comment on the basic trope of the poem, the utilisation of the woman, indeed, of two women – Lawino and Clementine – as the poles between which the man, Ocol, bearer of the plight and future of Africa, is caught. I dare not query a male poet’s licence to adopt the persona of a woman. The intersubjective space exists where we can rise above that idea, attacked by Feyerabend, that ‘only an Asian actor can play the part of an Asian, or that only an African American can write the history of slavery in the United States, or that only a disabled person can understand what it means to be disabled’. A man can understand a woman, and vice versa. Yes, it will require effort, poetic more than psychoanalytic effort, something which Freud seemed not to have realised but which Alice Walker was convinced about, not hesitating to summon Okot p’Bitek’s Lawino into her 1974 essay ‘In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens’:

O, my clanswomen

Let us all cry together!

Come,

Let us mourn the death of our mother

The death of a Queen

The ash that was produced

By a great fire!

O, this homestead is utterly dead

Close the gates

With lacari thorns,

For our mother

The creator of the Stool is lost!

And all the young women

Have perished in the wilderness!

Yet it might be a subject worthy of commentary today, perhaps as a marker of a shift in sensibilities between then and now, that that trope of using women to visualise, indeed, to incarnate, the pull-push factors impinging on the destiny of Africa was largely unremarked at the time Song of Lawino arrived on the scene. Nobody can doubt that Okot p’Bitek’s sympathies are with Lawino; his mother has been acknowledged as his principal inspiration and source of material in Acholi orature. But let us imagine a similar poem written today, placing the African woman in the romantic position of being the embodiment of a static culture, a culture celebrated on account of its being timeless and unchangeable – let us imagine the reactions our hypothetical poem would generate on all the platforms and media of voicing available today.

Taban lo Liyong has informed us of what was left out in translation – what is, ironically, lost in this celebration of Song of Lawino. Before Song of Lawino there was the much earlier Wer pa Lawino, a poem written by Okot p’Bitek in Acholi, which he later rendered into English as Song of Lawino. We have been told by Taban lo Liyong that the entire Chapter 14 of Wer pa Lawino, the coda of the work, was left untranslated by Okot p’Bitek because – we just have to believe Liyong here – ‘he was tired’. And it is there, in Chapter 14 of Wer pa Lawino, as Taban lo Liyong argues, that we find ‘Lawino’s judicious stance on development’, where she affirms, among other things, that ‘As regards the development of our land, I am in agreement. Our country should go forward. For water does not flow backwards…’. Well, I have been entertaining the hypothesis that lethargy may not be the true explanation. Let me propose something else, a theory of shame, shame that Lawino, in making a case for ‘development’, uses the zoomorphic trope (as translated by Taban lo Liyong): ‘human beings too, should be better than beasts’. Where could that have come from? 🙁

It is ironic that we are celebrating Song of Lawino and not thinking of the earlier poem Wer pa Lawino, ironic that we are commemorating what G A Heron describes as ‘an afterthought’ in neglect of the work which, in Gerald Moore’s words, is ‘a condition of its very existence’. To understand the achievement of Okot p’Bitek as a poet of the African experience, we must take both poems together because they encapsulate in a holistic frame our poet’s approach to literature. In either work, he does not leave the traditions the way he found them. It has been pointed out that Wer pa Lawino, for all its basis in orature, does something unrivalled by introducing rhyme and a regular metrical structure into the bloodstream of the Acholi traditional song. Part of the éclat of this artifice is that Okot p’Bitek is able to pull off his metrical stunt and not stand accused of writing Acholi with a foreign accent. Song of Lawino is equally unique in its form. As G A Heron puts it, ‘Song of Lawino does not fit into any Western model for a long poem. It is not an epic poem, it is not a narrative poem, it is not the private meditations of the poet. This written “Song” form was born in Uganda while Okot was writing Song of Lawino’. In metrical, semantic and metaphoric matters, p’Bitek is all too happy to twist and stretch that stiff upper lip, making up for whatever losses that are incurred in translation by creating an idiom in English which matches his purposes in Song of Lawino.

When we claim Okot p’Bitek as an African poet who made evident the possibilities of orature for tackling current tensions in postcolonial society, we must remember that he appropriated his resources from home and abroad, fashioning them to suit his poetic will. Politics comes into these things in many ways, whether in the commercial sphere of a publishing house deciding to reject a work it does not quite understand, or understands too well as being subversive of received conventions, or in the sphere of culture wars where our poet shifts from a position of renunciation to one of avowal of influences, Western or African. Song of Lawino followed Okot p’Bitek through the whole trajectory of the political vicissitudes that confronted the engaged African writer of those times, from dismissal from employment to exile from country. His emergence into a place of prominence was on account of the power of the poetic form he innovated. That invented form was the ultimate political weapon he ever could have wielded.

Indeed, Okot p’Bitek made the quest for poetic form appear quite easy. In both the Acholi and English versions of Lawino’s song, he created a structure of expression that could bear his vision of the predicament of the African writer exposed to both the indigenous and the foreign tradition. That he was never able to imitate himself so convincingly again – and that numerous other imitators of his form tried and ultimately failed (please, note that I did not say ‘woefully’) – indicates the difficulty of the quest. And, finally, the fact that the drought bemoaned by Taban lo Liyong ended ages ago, whereas the ensuing proliferation has not produced anything in poetry approaching the subtle and deft synthesis of Okot p’Bitek, establishes the permanence of his place in the canon.


Photograph: ‘Nanga (Angular Zither of the Acholi) in the North Central Region of Uganda’ by James K Makubuya


Comments should be sent to comments@wawabookreview.com. Please use the appropriate review title in the email subject line.

Benson Eluma, Institute of African Studies, University of Ibadan

You must be logged in to post a comment.