Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Book 76, Uganda: “Song of Lawino & Song of Ocol” by Okot p’Bitek

I’ve actually read a bit of Song of Lawino before, in my sister’s old secondary school English textbook, if you can believe it. It was an extract from Chapter 5: “The Graceful Giraffe Cannot Become a Monkey”, in which Lawino sings of how her natural springy Afro do is different but equal to the silky straight locks of a white woman. The textbook illustrator had a fine time drawing the safari animals of her proverbs, drawing the scene where Lawino’s rival has her wig torn from her head by the spirit of a dead white woman.

Commonwealth literature, baby! It’s what us Singaporean poets were raised on.


Turns out, though, that the extract were expurgated – there’s loads of verses and lines in the original that were excised for the sake of children’s tender minds. The poem’s full of stuff that’d shock an innocent schoolkid: excremental imagery of shit and piss and vomit, tribal values that are utterly other: acceptance of polygamy, scorn of Christianity and book-reading and Westernised medicine, even some positive fetishisation of shit and piss and vomit. Who but a witch would love a homestead where the compound is not strewn with the excreta of children, she cries. Oo-er.

Oh, and the whole poem’s about anger – Lawino’s the scorned wife, calling out her Westernised intellectual husband, Ocol, who verbally abuses her for her love of tradition, for her lack of education, for her ignorance. At first the poem’s attacking Clementine aka Tina, Ocol’s Westernised lover, she of the white woman’s wig. But soon she goes on to cover every dimension of the colonized mind: her husband’s political career, his love of ballroom dance, his Christian name (Melchizedek Gregory, no wonder, she’d rather stick with Ocol). Sure, she stops herself now and then to say folks can do what folks choose to, just don’t make her change, but really, it’s invective – there’s a bit where she conjectures that Tina’s aborted her twins into the latrine, where she enumerates all the varieties of human dung to be found at the dance hall (gawd, so excremental).

Basically, it’s a rather thrilling read. Not as brief as you’d expect a book of poetry to be. The introduction makes a good case for the level of ressentiment: after so many European writings had denigrated African tradition, most African writers went on the defensive, saying, “We’re not that bad! If you forget the infibulation-y stuff,” whereas Song of Lawino is on the offensive, written from the viewpoint of an uneducated woman who nonetheless sure as hell knows what she likes and what she doesn’t. Same reason it became an international success, even on the African continent – village folks recognised what she was saying as common talk; the only shock was seeing it in print.

The last bit of Lawino is especially good: she entreats the husband to return to his culture, giving a step-by-step account of the rituals of vomiting and rattle-shaking he should conduct to exorcise the white spirits. After all that, Song of Ocol is actually a disappointment: our poet Okot p’Bitek isn’t interested in giving us a balanced viewpoint, but is making Ocol out to be a supervillain, throwing Lawino out of the house, blustering to the constituents who elected him into office, vowing to blow up Kilimanjaro and fill in the Rift Valleys and execute the shamans, longing to be white. Not a coherent piece; Ocol’s too psycho, shuttling from his nightmares to his proclamations, not even consistent in his villainy when he points out how downtrodden “proud Africans” are.

But there’s an odd logic to the chaos, y’know: three years after this piece was published, the Scots-loving colonial gentleman-dictator Idi Amin came into power; Ocol personified. Song of Ocol is thus a prophecy of the madness that would follow.

Interestingly enough, Lawino was written first in Acoli and Ocol in English. Wondering if I should zap some of the former to show my writing students the effective incorporation of foreign language idioms into English language poetry.


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Representative quote:


My husband’s house
Is a mighty forest of books,
Dark it is and very damp,
The steam rising from the ground
Hot thick and poisonous
Mingles with the corrsive dew
And the rain drops
That have collected in the leaves.

They choke you
If you stay there long,
They ruin your nose and tongue
So that you no longer
Enjoy the fresh smell of of simsim oil
Or the taste of malakwang;

And the boiling darkness
Bursts your eye balls
And the sticky juices
That drop form the gum trees
Block the holes of your ears,
And when ten girls
Standing on the hillock
In the moonlight
Sing oyele songs,
Throwing stones of abuse
At the rough-skinned ugly old men
Chosen for them as husbands
By their money-loving fathers,

Or when your daughter
Sings a lovely lullaby
To her baby brother
Strapped on her back,
And she sways forwards and backwards
As she sings

O baby
Why do you cry?
Are you ill?
O baby stop crying
Your mother has fried the
aluru birds
In ghee!


When the girls sing cycle songs
And the nurse sings her lullaby
You hear only noises,
Noises that disturb you
Like a brick
Thrown on top of the iron roof.

Next book: Ngugi wa’Thiongo’s Devil on the Cross, from Kenya.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

pretty good dude, helped with my homework. keep up the good work!!!