Africa: 'Song of Lawino' still controversial half-a-Century on

10Feb 2016
Godwin Siundu
The Guardian
Africa: 'Song of Lawino' still controversial half-a-Century on

THIS year marks the 50th anniversary since the publication of Okot p'Bitek's poem, Song of Lawino. The significance of this poem was at least in three ways.

It demonstrated the centrality of orality in the region's poetic imagination, it confronted the issue of social, racial and gender identities in a society transiting into independence and into modernity and, thirdly, it pioneered an eastern African variant of a larger ideological impulse of a black aesthetic that influenced thought and creativity in an Africa alive to race as a lens of perceiving and appreciating human creativity and industry.

In this regard, it was a helpful contribution to the now reviled Negritude thought made popular by Leopold Sedar Senghor and David Diop from Senegal, and a precursor of sorts to the Black Consciousness.

Movement associated with South African anti-apartheid thinker Steve Biko.

In this way, Song of Lawino was part of a larger revolutionary thinking that dominated struggles for human dignity in East, West and South Africa.

Celebrating Song of Lawino is, therefore, a necessary literary engagement that also allows us to ask questions about the whether the key problems it identified then have been answered.

Sadly, many of those questions remain unaddressed, for instance the divisive nature of national politics and the mass disengagement with some of the key values of our societies.

Because of this, the debates initiated by p'Bitek in Song of Lawino remain relevant and continue to attract critical questions that engage literary critics in different sittings, as it did at the 2nd Eastern African Conference of Literary and Cultural Studies held in August 2015 at Makerere University, where at least three different scholars focused on the poem.

One of the abiding questions that we can ask now relates to how far we can go with the question of literature and translation, or writing African literatures in African languages, in a continent where languages do not exist as lateral artefacts but as entities in hierarchy.

This question is important because, while those who understand both Acholi and English, like Taban Lo Liyong, have adjudged Song of Lawino to be inferior in style and philosophical depth to Wer pa Lawino, its Acholi variant, the latter has enjoyed less circulation and critical appraisal despite its longer existence.

This leads one to conclude, as do Harry Garuba of the University of Cape Town and Okot Benge of Makerere University, that regimes and institutions of value in African literature in English significantly vary from those in African languages, in favour of the English.

Now, with these facts clearly favouring English, what is the rationale for translating Song of Lawino into an 'African' language like Luganda, the way Abasi Kiyimba, now a professor of Literature at Makerere University, has done ending up with Omulanga gwa Lawino?

These questions are quite significant when we bear in mind that, apart from the aesthetic punch of the song form that the work pioneered in the region, a number of serious misgivings regarding characterisation and the ideological position significantly undermined the overall picture that the work created.

Indeed, as far back as 1967, Taban Lo Liyong had found both Lawino and Ocol rather shallow characters, who were incapable of articulating some of the ideological and cultural issues that they mouthed.

Of Lawino, Taban argued that she "did not have the intellectual background to discourse on issues that Okot wanted to debate.

On Acholi culture, fair enough, a chief's daughter, a sage's daughter, a chief of women, would be able to know, understand, and restate the Acholi view. But, on matters on time, of Christian theology, I thought Lawino could not do more than to cavil and make fun."

In the same vein, Taban saw Ocol as a semi-literate character, who could not be a modelled as a 'new' Acholi or Ugandan, while Clementine was 'the model ape, if there was any.'

On this, Taban clearly had a point that one can hardly disagree with. And so we must ask: With all these glaring problems, how did such a work as Song of Lawino assume such prominence in the region's poetic output? Even if we concede that the historical moment in which the text was published allowed for such slippages to occur, how do we then explain the continued celebration of this text whose portrayal of women, to isolate only one issue, would make modern day feminists recoil in horror?

Written in the fog of colonialism's end, Song of Lawino's preoccupation with an authentic Acholi and African culture manifested, not necessarily p'Bitek's love for Acholi culture that had come under colonialist and modernist assaults, but more of his inability to outgrow the paternalistic impact of his encounter with social anthropology that he studied at Oxford University.

So, p'Bitek had immersed himself into writing Song of Lawino while under a heavy influence of an idea of African culture that had been wrought on the anvil of colonialist archives in Oxford, an idea that viewed culture in anthropological, and, therefore, patriarchal, limits.

Portraying Lawino as a naïve advocate of patriarchy and Clementine as an uncritical receptacle of foreign ways demeaned both characters, Lawino as a helpless creature of emotional laments and Clementine as a hopeless mimic of western ways.

Of course, one can defend p'Bitek by either noting that he was a master wordsmith at his best when deploying distancing and self-reflexive irony, or by claiming that he was simply capturing the dominant views of the time.

Either or both ways, that is the easier thing to do. The sad truth is that irony is ambiguous, which p'Bitek must have known.

Further, his portrayal of women gave it a whiff of misogyny and, in so doing, robbed him of a chance to match the substance with the style of his highly acclaimed work.

But then, p'Bitek was not alone in this. Indeed, one of the most potent charges levelled against negritude poetry relates to the ease with which it simplified the role of women in society without paying regard to their marginalisation in society.

Indeed, the entire 'first generation' of African writers in a way privileged racial, cultural and political concerns over those of gender. It would be later that issues like the misrepresentation of women came to light, and p'Bitek in a way made amends in his later works.

Back to Song of Lawino, perhaps the one thing that p'Bitek caught on so well was in his projection of troubled masculinity as captured in Ocol's predicament.

The fact that Ocol feels haunted by Lawino's laments means that he at least gave her a thought, while his insistence on association with Clementine indicates his aspiration to access the new, and possibly the exotic.

In a way, therefore, p'Bitek could see by 1966 the possibility, even if only a troubled one, of cultural hybridity in a manner that would be in vogue a short three or four decades later.

This, coupled with the fact that the poem was a performance of Achebe's widely acknowledged idea that our past certainly had imperfections, but it was not entire savagery, makes Song of Lawino worth celebrating.

Song of Lawino is an epic poem written by Ugandan poet Okot p'Bitek. First published in 1966 in Luo, it was quickly translated into other languages, including English. Song of Lawino has become one of the most widely read literary works originating from sub-Saharan Africa.

It has also become culturally iconic within Africa, because of its scathing display of how African society was being destroyed by the colonization of Africa.

Song of Lawino was originally written in rhyming couplets and had a regular meter. The poem is told from the point of view of Lawino in the first person.

Song of Lawino, which is a narrative poem, describes how Lawino's husband, Ocol, the son of the tribal leader of their Acoli tribe, has taken another wife, Clementine, who is educated and acts European.

Although Ocol's polygamy is accepted by society, and by Lawino herself, her description of his actions shows that he is shunning Lawino in favour of Clementine. Ocol is also said to be fascinated with the culture of the European colonialists.

As an example of this, Lawino says Ocol no longer engages, or has any interest in, the ritualistic African dance but prefers the ballroom-style dances introduced by the colonising Europeans.

This loss of culture on the part of Ocol is what disturbs Lawino the most. The poem is an extended appeal from Lawino to Ocol to stay true to his own customs, and to abandon his desire to be white.

The book also advocates for the African culture that has been lost by the educated elite. Lawino bemoans her husband's lack of African pride and she romanticizes all that is black. Lawino says "all that is black is beautiful."

Dr Godwin Siundu teaches literature at the University of Nairobi