Friday, April 8, 2011

"Song of Lawino" by Okot p'Bitek

Song of Lawino is a book length poem by Ugandan Okot p'Bitek, published in 1972. The character of Lawino speaks in the first person as an African woman lamenting the cultural death of her Western-educated husband Ocol.

The poem is related to and inspired by traditional Acoli oral literature, but it also uses aspects of Western poetry. It was originally written in the Acoli language, then later translated by the author into English.

I love the images and the rhythm of the work. As you may guess, I am highly sympathetic to Lawino's point of view.

Here is a comment of hers on ballroom dancing.
"My husband laughs at me
Because I cannot dance white men's dances;
He despises Acoli dances
He nurses stupid ideas
That the dances of his people
Are sinful,
That they are mortal sins.

"I am completely ignorant
Of the dances of foreigners
And I do not like it.

"Holding each other
Tightly, tightly
In public,
I cannot.
I am ashamed.
Dancing without a song
Dancing silently like wizards,
Without respect, drunk ...
Since arriving in Tanzania Diane and I do not touch each other in public. Especially, any show of affection is considered shamelessly bad manners.

On keeping time and calendars,
"My husband is angry
Because he says,
I cannot keep time
And I do not know
How to count the years;
"When the baby cries
Let him suck milk
From the breast.
There is no fixed time
For breast feeding.
"In the wisdom of the Acoli
Time is not stupidly split up
Into seconds and minutes.
It does not flow
Like beer in a pot
That is sucked
Until it is finished.
"A person's age
Is shown by what he or she does
It depends on what he or she is,
And on what kind of person
He or she is.
Lawino is not condemning the ways of foreigners but rather imploring her husband not to categorically throw away his own native cultural legacy.
"A certain man
Has no millet field,
He lives on borrowed foods.
He borrows the clothes he wears
And the ideas in his head
And his actions and behavior
Are to please somebody else.
Almost fifty years after independence are Tanzanians still basically trying to please somebody else in some matters such as their educational system? -Earl

[ I found out about Song of Lawino when Diane used this book in teaching English Literature last year. The entire syllabus consists of writings in English by African authors. No Shakespeare! ]

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