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An Adaptation of Okot p' Bitek's Song of Lawino and Song of Ocol 

First published in 1966, Song of Lawino & Song of Ocol by Ugandan writer Okot p’Bitek (1931-1982) is considered one of the most important literary texts to come out sub-Saharan Africa and is a seminal commentary on the colonial experience. (Fike 2000, Knight 1981, Lehman 2009, lo Liyong 1994)

p’Bitek first wrote the text in the Acoli language as Wer pa Lawino but published his own translation, a tellingly different version, into English as Song of Lawino and Song of Ocol in 1966. The lengthy prose poems are reflective of the form of traditional Acholi poems but also (in keeping with the poetic tradition) expressing the contemporary political themes and cultural issues.

The issue of tradition is a central theme in p’Bitek work, more correctly the issues of modernity vs tradition is an abiding concern.  One of the first of the post-colonial generation of English/western educated Africans, p’Bitek was also deeply invested in traditional practice.

He was born in Gulu in the Acholi region of northern Uganda where his father was a school teacher and a renowned story teller, while his mother was an equally renowned singer of Acoli songs. P’Bitek received a solid middle class, western oriented education in Uganda and then went on to study in the UK: Education at the University of Bristol, Law at the University of Wales, and then Social Anthropology at Oxford with a dissertation on Acholi and Lango traditional cultures.

Returning to Uganda in 1962, he taught at the University of Makarere, became Director of Uganda’s national theatre and established the still active Gulu Arts festival celebrating the traditional oral history and performance art of the Acholi people.  He published Song of Lawino in 1966 which got him recognition as a major new voice in African literature but which earned him the ire of the new post-colonial government for his acerbic criticism of politicians and the political systems.  p’Bitek moved into self-imposed exile in Kenya  where he founded the Kisumu Arts Festival and taught at universities in Kenya and the USA.  P’Bitek eventually returned to Makerere University in Kampala where he taught creative writing until his death in 1982. (Heron, 1972, Ojaide, 1986, Opali, 2007)

In addition to critically lauded books of novel poems, Song of Prisoner and Song of Malaya (1971), p’Bitek produced several books on Acholi culture including Africa’s Cultural Revelation (1975), a collection of Acholi poetry in both Acholi and English. The Horn of My Love (1974) and a collection of Acholi folktales in Hare and Hornbill (1978) As always, his central concern was for the recognition of traditional Acholi and African cultural values in the headlong rush to post-colonial modernity.

“…Africa must re-examine herself critically. She must discover her true self, and rid herself of all 'apemanship.' For only then she can begin to develop a culture of her own…. As she has broken the political bondage of colonialism, she must continue the economic and cultural revolution until she refuses to be led by the nose by foreigners…." (p’Bitek. 1975),

Arguably p’Bitek’s most famous work, Song of Lawino and Song of Ocol is an angry call for the preservation of Acholi cultural tradition from the corrosive influence of Western colonial powers.

The prose poem is structured, as in the Acholi tradition, in a series of ‘songs’ directly addressed to the community.

Lawino is a middle aged, non-western educated housewife whose western educated, politician, husband Ocol has abandoned her and her traditional ways in favour of a new westernized African mistress and for Western modernity. Song of Lawino is Lawino’s furious complaint to the community about her husband’s new found contempt for and rejection of the traditional ways. She is bewildered at his adoption of western modernity which makes no sense to her in the African context. 

Song of Ocol is Ocol's response. It is an enraged, visceral outpouring against traditional African culture but is much more revealing for the self-hatred and cultural cringe that colonialism has wrought. “Smash all these mirrors/That I may not see/The blackness of the past/From which I came/Reflected in them.” (p’Bitek 1972, p 129)

There are two particular points about p’Bitek’s publishing of the Song of Lawino and Song of Ocol in English that are relevant to his political positioning and that have implications for the adaptation to performance.

As noted earlier, p’Bitek first wrote song in Acholi as Wer pa Lawino. According to p’Bitek’s friend, Ugandan poet and cultural activist Taban lo Liyong who undertook his own translation of the poem into English in 2001, p’Bitek’s original translation from Acholi into English was written specifically for Western audiences and English-speaking Africans by eliding some of the more traditional Acholi elements in diction, rhythm and structure and focusing on the “drama, humour, and…striking figures of speech.” (Lewis, 2002)  lo Liyong’s own translation titled The Defence of Lawino: A New Translation of Wer pa Lawino by Taban lo Liyong claims to “return the discussion to where it was: Lawino’s discoursing on African ways of life to fellow Africans without too much consciousness about the presence of the whites” (p, xvi).

The difference in translation is telling as the following comparative sample indicates.

In p’Bitek’s original version 

 You kiss her on the cheek

As white people do,

You kiss her open-sore lips

As white people do

You suck the slimy saliva

From each other’s mouths

As white people do.

(p’Bitek, 1972.)

 In lo Liyong’s translation

The dancers would all smoke cigarettes, like Europeans

Both women and men: smoke like Europeans

They would all suck their cheeks, like Europeans

They would all suck their tongues, like Europeans  They would lick the saliva from their mouths, like Europeans

 Leaving men's mouths plastered with paints, of Europeans

With which their women had smeared their lips

(lo Liyong, 2001)

p’Bitek’s original translation, the graphic imaging is made more directly effective by the use of the second-person verb form and use of the present rather than conditional tense, is less lyrical, more staccato and deliberately abrasive than lo Liyong’s later translation. The inference is that p’Bitek rewrote Song of Lawino and Song of Ocol  specifically for a Western(ised) audience. He meant for a different impact than that on an Acholi audience.  

p’Bitek himself tried (perhaps a tad disingenuously) to emphasise the cross cultural mutations of Song Of Lawino.  At an interview with students at Aarhus University in Denmark in 1977, he was asked how much the style of the songs was influenced by the African oral traditions.  P’Bitek’s response was : “I don't think they are very much influenced by the African oral tradition; they cannot be sung, for instance. Possibly they are influenced by The Song of Hiawatha by H. W. Longfellow and also by Song of Solomon. These books I enjoyed very much when I was a student and I consider Song of Solomon the greatest love song ever.” ( p’Bitek, interview 1979)

The second element of significance is that p’Bitek borrowed the distinctive song character for his poetry from Acoli traditional culture however,  the use of print medium took away a vital characteristic of the Acoli song tradition.

Where print fixed the text permanently in place and time, in the oral tradition the songs are much more ephemeral.  “Oral songs are composed in response to an immediate event or as a means of reflecting a localised issue within the village or clan. … their length is dictated by three factors: the creative ability of the composer-singer, the chosen theme, and the reaction of the audience.” (Okumu, 1992, p 55)

The very localised performative structure means that other singers could take the song and modify it to their particular performance context giving the piece renewed life and giving it specific relevance to the new audience. This production then, in keeping with the communal owner/author tradition is an attempt at visiting –not returning, a return is impossible – the original oral tradition but in a western performance context and engaging in contemporary local issues of importance to the communities....

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