BOOK REVIEW : Song of Lawino By Okot P’Bitek

Song of Lawino is a poem about an African woman’s cry against her husband’s abandonment of the past in favour of western traditions. Lawino, a non-literate woman, says “Husband, now you despise me / Now you treat me with spite / And say I have inherited the / stupidity of my aunt /”. Her university-educated husband has adopted Western ways, rejected her, and taken another, Westernized woman.

Song of Lawino is a poem about an African woman’s cry against her husband’s abandonment of the past in favour of western traditions.

Lawino, a non-literate woman, says “Husband, now you despise me / Now you treat me with spite / And say I have inherited the / stupidity of my aunt /”. Her university-educated husband has adopted Western ways, rejected her, and taken another, Westernized woman.

In there is a mixture of the traditional Africa practice of polygamy that is prevalent of the author’s Acholi’s culture however, instead the husband has chosen to favour the ‘new’ wife instead of treating both wives equally as culture would dictate.

Lawino claims that her husband has lost his manhood by reading books: “Bile burns my inside! / I feel like vomiting! / For all our young men / Were finished in the forest, / Their manhood was finished / In the class-rooms, / Their testicles / Were smashed / With large books!” Lawino says that Ocol has learned how to speak English, and no longer engages, or has any interest in, African dance but prefers the ballroom dances introduced by Europeans, and 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 was initially written in Acholi, one of the Luo dialects in northern Uganda in 1971 but later given an English translation by its author who according to his own words clipped a bit of the eagle’s wings of the original Acholi poem “and rendered the sharp edges of the warrior’s sword rusty and blunt, and also murdered rhythm and rhyme”.

Although the work was turned down by several British publishers, in 1966 it became a bestseller. In 2001, Okot’s good friend made another translation of song of Lawino which he claimed was closer to his old friend’s Acholi version called In Defence of Lawino.

The poem uses the literary device of a female character to address issues that were facing Africa at the time. When Okot p’Bitek wrote this poem Africa had recently been liberated and there was a question whether or not it should keep its African values or look to the West for new idealsSong of Lawino after publication was quickly translated into other languages and has become one of the most widely read literary works originating from Sub-Saharan Africa, and is more known for its scathing display of how African society was being destroyed by the colonization of Africa.

Song of Lawino was followed by Song of Ocol published in 1970, in which Lawino’s husband responds to her. “Mother, mother, / Why, / Why was I born / Black?” p’Bitek introduced a style that became known as “comic singing,” in his famous poem.

The poem itself echoes the author’s generation, that had absorbed early native culture during the colonial period, but then had received a British education. P’Bitek’s own choice was to take a stand against Western infiltration and defend Acholi traditions and customs.

Born in 1931, Okot p’Bitek passed away on July 20, 1982.

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