He is indubitably one of the most notable literary scholars on the African Continent. From his youthful days to the time of his death in 1982, Okot p’Bitek distinguished himself as an author of several popular poems, and books that included Song of Lawino; Song of Ocol; Two Songs: Song of a Prisoner, Song of Malaya; Religion of the Central Luo; African Religions in Western Scholarship; Africa’s Cultural revolution; Horn of My Love; Hare and Hornbill; and Lak Tar Miyo Kinyero Wi Lobo (White Teeth). But one book that traversed the world and granted him wide international recognition is Song of Lawino. Published in 1966, the book played a pivotal role in shaping critical and cultural debate across Africa, especially during the transition from colonialism to independence. Through this work, Okot P’ Bitek carried the torch of African cultural renaissance, which would shine even brighter in his later non fictional works, such as Africa’s Cultural Revolution and Artist, the Ruler. Based on and inspired by Acoli oral literary tradition of the satirical song, Okot p’Bitek in this long poem launched a poetic form that has come to be dubbed, the song school which has been variedly adopted by later poets such as Joseph Buruga (The Abandoned Hut), Okello Oculi (Orphan), and more recently p’Bitek’s daughter, Jane Okot p’Bitek Langoya (The Song of Farewell). To date, Song of Lawino not only remains one of the canonical texts to have come out of Africa and a prominent part of African Literature curriculum the world over, it is also the pioneer of the poetic form that can be said to be distinctly and proudly African. Indeed the book continues to enjoy international recognition as demonstrated by the number of translations. Since its publication, the book has been translated into more than 30 languages that include Luganda, French, Spanish, German, Swedish and Kiswahili.
Song of Lawino, which is a narrative poem, describes how Lawino's husband, Ocol, the son of the tribal leader of the Acoli, 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 colonizing 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. Song of Lawino 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."
On 18th March, 2016, Literary and cultural scholars converged in the Makerere University Main Hall to celebrate Song of Lawino at 50, the great works of Okot p’Bitek and to launch the Luganda translation by Prof. Abasi Kiyimba, “Omulanga gwa Lawino”.
The function was graced by eminent literary scholars who gave insights into Okot p’Bitek’s great works, especially the Song of Lawino. These included Prof. Simon Gikandi from Princeton University, Prof Molara Ogundipe – Leslie, Assoc. Prof. Okaka Dokotum, Prof. Taban lo Liyong, Prof. Arthur Gakwandi, Prof. Timothy Wangusa, Mwalimu Austin Bukenya, Prof. Charles Okumu, Assoc. Prof. Ernest Okello Ogwang, Assoc. Prof Dominica Dipio, and Dr Okot Benge.
Delivering a keynote address titled; “Song of Lawino@50: Translation and the Remaking of World Literature”, Prof. Simon Gikandi praised Okot p’Bitek for successfully challenging his readers to critically examine the significance of traditional and modern cultures. He said Okot had understood that contributing to debates on colonization at the time was only through law, anthropology and religion.
“The poem is distinctive and Okot uses it to transcend his own origin and influence other cultures and politics in Uganda. It is important for contemporary readers to reconstruct the content of ‘Song of Lawino’ placing it in the context in which it was written,” noted Prof. Gikandi.
In the presentation, Prof. Gikandi says one of the most notable aspects of Song of Lawino was its ability to travel across linguistic, cultural, and national borders. “I can’t think of another text published in the period or since that can claim a distinctly East African identity. I cannot think of another text that connected East Africans and helped establish a school of poetry—the Okot p’Bitek school. We should hence not underestimate the cultural work of Song of Lawino.”
He further notes that the story behind Song of Lawino is remarkable. “Here was a text from a corner of Northern Ugandan, published by a Ugandan poet in exile in Kenya, yet widely read in translation across the whole region. And when it came to communities of reading, Song of Lawino was not just a school textbook, but also a communal event. I remember seeing school boys and girls in uniforms carrying the school edition in small towns in Central Kenya; but I also remember school teachers and book sellers reading the poem and arguing over Lawino’s case against Ocol or the other way around. But perhaps the most vivid mark of the book’s moment of arrival was not its effect on actual readers, but its impact on what I will call its presumed readers, people who had not read the poem but had heard of it and could hence adopt its vocabularies for everyday conversations,” he says.
He links the popularity of Song of Lawino to Okot p’Bitek’s ability to find the right word for the moment, to give his audiences words and phrases that would enable them to think through their cultural dilemmas.
The paper was discussed by Prof. Ogundipe -Lesilie and Assoc. Prof. Dominica Dipio who affirmed the strength of the voice of Lawino as a woman with great command of knowledge of her culture.
The session was chaired by Prof. Mahmood Mamdani, Director Makerere Institute of Social Research who equated cultural power to soft power for its ability to shape “our thinking”. “Societies that do not invest in soft power are condemned to be colonized perpetually,” he noted.
The event was also marked by a panel discussion on the great works of Okot p’Bitek. During the session, Professors, Taban lo Liyong, Arthur Gakwandi, Charles Okumu and Dr Okot Benge described Okot p’Bitek as an obstinate, classic poet, moralist and liberator of African culture.
In the course of the celebrations, the Vice Chancellor, Prof. John Ddumba-Ssentamu, launched the Luganda translation of Song of Lawino titled Omulanga gwa Lawino. The book was translated by Prof. Abasi Kiyimba, the Deputy Principal of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences (CHUSS). Mwalimu Austin Bukenya stood in for Prof. Kiyimba who was indisposed. Commenting on the book, Mwalimu Bukenya said Prof. Kiyimba had invested a lot of time in translating the work and as a result, Okot p’Bitek and Prof. Kiyimba’s achievement echoed one of the famous lines in Song of Lawino, “My name blew like a horn among the Payira”. He commended Prof. Kiyimba for his outstanding contribution to Luganda literature.
Omulanga gwa Lawino is a thoughtful and thorough interpretation of the famous poem in terms of what Lawino, the village woman, was saying to Ocol, her husband, and to the rest of us, as her “relatives”. It was published by Fountain Publishers.
In his remarks, the Vice Chancellor applauded Prof. Kiyimba for translating the book which he said would further promote understanding of our cultures. He also appreciated Okot p’Bitek’s role in championing local culture by articulating the importance of traditional values. “We remember Okot p’Bitek not only for his poetic skill and scholarly expertise, but also as a champion of local and national culture. In his life and works, Okot p’Bitek extensively documented Acoli tradition and oral art, celebrating it as a valuable heritage not only of the Acoli but also of Uganda as a whole,” he said.
He further acknowledged the efforts of Okot p’Bitek, along with Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Henry Owuor-Anyumba, and Taban lo Liyong in championing the move to transform the then English Departments across the University of East Africa into Literature Departments. “The goal of the revolution was to decolonize literary study across the University of East Africa and usher in, as Taban has appropriately put it, “the study of the universal academic discipline of Literature in an East African setting, both Oral and Written, albeit still taught in and through the English language”. It is my pleasure to announce that one of first fruits of that revolution is our keynote speaker of this symposium, Prof. Simon Gikandi,” he said.
The Principal of CHUSS, Prof. Edward K. Kirumira, said the College was progressively reclaiming its position in speaking to national issues through conferences, debates and seminars organized by its staff. He appreciated the role played by the Department of Literature in recognizing the contribution of various literary scholars. “We should adopt the culture of celebrating the achievements of our own when they are still alive.” He lauded Okot p’Bitek as a cultural icon whose work will not lose relevance.
The Dean, School of Languages, Literature and Communication, Assoc. Prof. Aaron Mushengyezi, commended Makerere University for heeding Lawino’s call to promote African languages, literature and cultures. Makerere University has fully-fledged departments of African Languages and Literature that have produced a lot of scholarship in languages and oral culture of Africans. He however advised that the struggle to preserve African heritage and identity should not result into the rejection of everything foreign. “In this age of globalization, we must be ready to give and take. The tragedy for us is that we are always more eager to take than give,” he said. He urged Africans to uphold the ideologies Okot p’Bitek cherished like Pan Africanism. “Our political leaders have certainly taken strides in the integration of our East African people and the entire continent. But there has also been a lot of lip service paid to the efforts to unify and integrate our people. The ethnic, religious and linguistic divisions that bedevilled our communities in the 1960s, and which Okot p'Bitek wrote so vehemently against, sadly persist.”
Acknowledging his contribution, the Head of the Literature Department, Makerere University, Dr Susan Kiguli, said Okot p’Bitek’s legacy is immeasurable and goes beyond the discipline strictly known as Literature. “If one was to confine oneself to a comment on his impact on literature, one would note that Okot p’Bitek did a new thing for East African poetry that has been a driving engine for poets on the African Continent. Besides, Okot is studied on many African studies programmes across the globe,” she explained. Dr Kiguli described Song of Lawino as an ageless book that speaks across nations and years.
She expressed gratitude for the financial and technical support rendered by the sponsors and various units of the University towards the symposium. These included Ethiopian Airlines, Fountain Publishers, FEMRITE, African Writers Trust, the Office of the Vice Chancellor, Makerere University, the Office of the Deputy Vice Chancellor - Academic Affairs, Makerere Institute of Social Research, the Office of the Principal of CHUSS, the Department of Performing Arts and Film, the Office of the Dean of the School of Languages, Literature and Communication and the Department of African Languages. She particularly paid homage to the keynote speaker, Prof Simon Gikandi, for his efforts and outstanding contribution in developing African literature.
Jane Okot p’Bitek Langoya on behalf of the family expressed sincere gratitude to the Department of Literature and Makerere University at large for recognizing her father’s contribution to African Literature. To celebrate his life, Ms Langoya read out a letter written in memory of her father. Ms Langoya said her greatest inspiration and influence was her father from whom she adopted the ‘song’ style of poetry.
The event was crowned with poetic and cultural performances by students of Literature and the Department of Performing Arts and Film. The student performers from the Department of Literature presented exerts from the Song of Lawino in Luganda, Acoli and English.
Dr Edgar Nabutanyi on behalf of the Department of Literature further appreciated the support from various stakeholders that greatly contributed to the success of the symposium.
In his closing remarks, the Deputy Vice Chancellor in charge of Academic Affairs, Assoc. Prof. Ernest Okello Ogwang, said the celebration of Okot p’Bitek’s works was his ‘proudest’ moment at Makerere University. He acknowledged Okot p’Bitek’s contribution in shaping African Literature.
The symposium was attended by among others the family of Okot p’Bitek, politicians, secondary school and University students and academic staff.
About Okot p’Bitek
An only son, Okot p’Bitek was born in Gulu, northern Uganda, on June 9, 1931. He studied at Gulu High School and King’s College Budo, from where he graduated as a Grade III teacher. He proceeded to Bristol University in the UK in 1957, from where he obtained a degree in education. He also studied Law at Aberystwyth University, Social Anthropology at the University of Oxford, where he also received a Bachelor of Letters (BL).
He joined Makerere University in 1963, where he taught in the Department of Sociology. He was director of the Uganda National Cultural Centre from 1966 to 1968. He left Uganda in 1968 to become a resident tutor at the Department of Extramural Studies at the University of Nairobi, where he also taught at the university’s Department of Sociology, Literature and Philosophy. He was a writer-in-residence at the University of Iowa, and visiting professor at the University of Ife (now the Obafemi Awolowo University) at IIe-Ife, Nigeria. Okot p’Bitek was the founder of the Gulu Festival. In September 1956, he was part of the Ugandan football team that played barefooted and defeated the English Olympic soccer team 2 – 0 in England. Okot left behind seven children, of which six are alive today. His son and secondary school English teacher, George Okot, describes his late father as a man who was passionate with the things that he had his mind focused on.