Okot p’Bitek and Taban Lo Liyong
The Defence of Lawino, a poem, has a very intriguing story between literary friends who are also critics of each other. Okot p’Bitek wrote the classic epic poem ‘Wer pa Lawino’ in Acholi his mother toungue in 1971 and later translated in English as Song of Lawino. Bitek admitted that in his English translation he 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, it later 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.
The Defence of Lawino is a work of celebratory anger, or the other way round. It’s made up of 14 ‘submissions’ by Lawino, a woman who knows Acholi culture intimately, in response to accusations of ignorance and uselessness made by her increasingly Europeanized husband, Ochol. Liyong went for literalism over poetry, and there are some lumpen lines: The malakwang sauce that has received a generous sesame paste / And is infused with tomato paste, is eaten in mouthfuls. But, still, you can’t keep a good poet down, and this is the work of one of the greatest African poets.
Lawino comes alive, funny, intelligent, defending herself with spiky genius: Whoever said charcoal was for cooking?/Perhaps it is for cooking jackals / And all sorts of beasts women don’t eat! Ochol is just as interesting, a cultural moron but not a hopeless case:
Listen, Ochol, if you’re still within reach
If your thread of life is not yet cut
If the blood still courses, however slowly,
If the love for life is still with you, take heart, have some porridge.
Bitek’s original Song 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. In Bitek’s version, 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 if the author’s Acholi’s culture however, instead the husband has chosen to favor the ‘new’ wife instead of treating both wives actually and 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!” 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 followed by Song of Ocol published in 1970, in which Lawino’s husband responds to her. “Mother, mother, / Why, / Why was I born / Black?”
In the literary dance that is between the two friends in Song of Lawino and The Defence of Lawino, East Africa was given its proper position in global literary stage.