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A study on Okot p’Bitek’s works ”Song of Lawino and Song of Ocol”

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Okot p’Bitek worked as anthropologist, poet, novelist an even footballer which led him to go and being educated in England on law and anthropology and later literature. He differed himself from other African writers who wrote in western styles and in western point of view. He has chosen an African tool to express himself, a tool associated with oral tradition of Africa. He called it ”song”. He published his works in Acoli language however upon requested to translate them into English in one of his conferences, he translated his most famous works ” The Song of Lawino and The Song of Ocol” into English. There is an important point here which should be mentioned. He said after translating them into English that I have clipped a bit of Eagle’s wings and rendered the sharp edges of warrior’s sword rusty and blunt and also murdered rhythm and rhyme as he thought his native language suited much better than English (Lindfors, 1977).

The Song of Lawino explores one African woman’s (Lawino) feelings towards her husband’s adoption of western life and Acoli life in details and is full of ironies. Okot reflects both the situation of the native people of an African country willing to imitate the western culture and way of life and the other group of people resisting so as not to lose their core values. Ocol is the character chosen for those representing the western puppets and his wife Lawino is the innocent native who has chosen the way for remaining fidel to her past and original values. In this condition, a clash between these people is inevitable.

The whole story of the book is setting around this conflict. Every time Ocol criticizes his people’s lifestyles and cultural practices. For instance, he criticizes his wife because she is sticked to her origin. On the other hand, Lawino is in a struggle of preserving her identity and advocating their own lifestyle. However, Ocol favors another woman instead of Lawino just because she has western characteristics like him. Okot demonstrated that only those who share the same values can live together. Ocol and other woman have already adopted what colonizers wanted and thus they act together.

Another important point Okot emphasized is that to colonize a country virtually is becoming hard and what is needed to be done according to the colonizer masters is to colonize the minds of the people in the target countries. African countries are among them. After they have imposed the western values into the minds of these people as portrayed in Okot’s book, then there is no need to invade that country by force because they are already conquered. They are ready to give what the western powers demand.

In this book, Okot also sends messages to his countrymen and those who are in the position of writing and the people in his own country ; why do you insist on copying western lifestyle and concede your own values? Why don’t you be what you are? This is one of the most significant messages sent to the native people in his country.

Before going into the deep in Song of Lawino and Song of Ocol, we should know more on Uganda, the place of the two works of Okot. The Acoli people pursued a living on farming and cattle herding. They lived in polygamous families under the leadership of husband who is responsible for the whole family. There were territories in which these families lived. British presence began in 1890s and these affected the customs and social situation of Acoli people profoundly. Some of the Acoli people were converted into Christianity which was a tool of colonialism. New leaders were appointed by British. One of the leaders like that is Ocol, one of the characters in Okot’s works we will discuss. British people forced Acoli to grow cotton and coffee for cash. Their leaders worked in parallel with British orders. Uganda lived a sharp exploitation in those days.

After the people withdrew from Uganda in 1960s, the outcomes of colonialism was still prevalent, which was a great threat for fragmentation of Ugandan society. The population consisted of a bunch of black people ,generally protestant, whom British trained in their universities to fulfill their tasks in Ugandan government and bureaucratic posts. Those small elites did not have much sympathy for Africans living traditional life in their villages. When it was looked to the religious diversity after the withdrawing of British, some 34.5 percent of Uganda was Catholic, 28.2 percent Protestant, 5.6 percent Moslem and the remaining 31.7 traditional (Gale, 2008). After the colonial power’s withdrawing, African countries chose capitalism. The system of democracy was intended to be built
but nearly all ended with dictatorships and tyranny.

Okot was one of the intellectual people of Africa saying all of the influence of Europeans must be thrown away completely and traditional culture must flourish in order for Africa to be independent and survive. He harshly criticized the teaching of western works in African universities.

There are some controversial subjects in Song of Lawino and Song of Ocol depicting the sharp realities of Uganda after the withdrawing of colonial powers.

Lawino is at fault as she cannot play a guitar and her mother is a witch, primitive according to Ocol. He regards them as ” sorcerers”.

Ocol says he is a modern man,

A progressive and civilized man,

He says he has read extensively and wisely

And he can no longer live with a thing like me

Who cannot distinguish between good and bad (Pbitek & Horley, 1984, p. 36)

There are passages in the poem in which Lawino is in favor of her own people’s customs regarding marriage. She speaks in the way that Acoli women submit their husband’s need of other women.

I am not unfair to my husband

I do not complain

Because he wants another woman

Whether she is young or aged!

Who has ever prevented men

From wanting women (Pbitek & Horley, 1984)?

For her, competition for the man’s love is a fair behavior.

You win him with a hot bath

And sour porridge

The wife who brings her meal first

Whose food is good to eat…

Such is the woman who becomes

The head-dress keeper (Pbitek & Horley, 1984).

We can comprehend how western people’s food culture is perceived by Acoli people.

The white man’s stoves

Are good for cooking

White men’s food:

For cooking the tasteless

Bloodless meat of cows

That were killed many years ago

And left in the ice

To rat!

For frying an egg

Which when ready

Is slimy like mucus,

For boiling hairy chicken

Is saltless water.

You think you are chewing paper (Pbitek & Horley, 1984)!

Dancing is also a crucial element in Acoli customs. For Ocol, the dancing of Lawino and African people is immoral as they are naked. Yet, for Lawino the dancing of white men is more immoral in that the dancing can be performed between blood relatives, family members. For Lawino, this is not acceptable. Lawino mentions that:

They (white man) dance silently like wizards

Each man has a woman

Although she is not his wife

Shamelessly, they hold eachother

Tightly, tightly

Women lie on the chest if men

They prick the chest of their men

There is no respect for relatives.

Girls hold their fathers.

Boys hold their sisters close,

They dance even with their mothers (Pbitek & Horley, 1984).

European styles of beauty are suitable for white women yet they do not suit African women.

Lawino has been verbally and emotionally abused by Ocol. She thinks the two ways of life are not valid for Africans and neither does Okot. The customs of whites suit only them.

She says :

I do not understand

The ways of foreigners

But I do not despise their customs

Why should you despise yours?

Money talks louder than anything else for Ocol. He fears much in that he should waste a minute of his time.

Time is money (Pbitek & Horley, 1984, p. 67)

Lawino is uneasy about the clock that Ocol has taken for their house, an indicative of civilization for him. She thinks Acoli people know when to perform their daily tasks. They do not need a clock as Ocol needs. On this discussion, Lawino say:

When the sun has grown up

And the poisoned tips of it arrows painfully

The backs of the men hoeing…This is when

You take drinking water

To the workers (Pbitek & Horley, 1984, p. 64).

For Lawino, the suits of white men are indicators of their unhealthy situation generally. They conceal their unfitness with their suits. Lawino says:

You are hiding

Under the blanket suit

Your sick stomach

That has swollen up

Like that of a pregnant goat (Pbitek & Horley, 1984, p. 64)

At the time of funeral, according to Lawino, Acoli people respect the funeral procession wholly. She says :

When death has occurred

Women leave their hair uncombed!

They remove all beads

And necklaces,

Because of sorrows (Pbitek & Horley, 1984, p. 52).

Being natural means much to Acoli people. Lawino criticizes white women’s using wig. She remarks that:

Sometimes she wears,

The hair of some dead woman

Of some white women

Who died long ago

And she goes with it

To the dance!

What witchcraft (Pbitek & Horley, 1984, p. 55)!

Lawino goes to one of the churches. She asks some questions on Christianity. She is not taken serious by priests and later in a time she is offered human blood in the church to drink. She say:

Then he took a cup

He said

There was human blood

In the cup

And he gave it

To the people

To drink!

O! Protestants eat people!

They are wizards

They exhume corpses

For dinner (Pbitek & Horley, 1984)!

Upon Ocol’s bad remarks on her usage of herbal things as medicine, Lawino states that the medicines of Acoli people are not much worse than those of white people.

When my child is ill

I try the various Acoli herbs,

I try the medicines

My mother showed me:

If my child is ill

I try the various medicines

That my mother showed me

If all these fail

I go to the medicine woman,

And when the child has improved

I take a chicken to the herbalist,

Or a goat or a ram (Pbitek & Horley, 1984, p. 96).

At the end of the song of Lawino, Lawino tells that in spite of all her husband’s misdeeds to her, she implores her family’s unity and her society. What a loyal wife is she!

I as your first wife,

Mother of your first-born,

I have only one request.

I do not ask for money

Although I have need of it,

I do not ask for meat,

I can live on green vegetables

For a while yet.

Buy clothes for the women

With whom I share you,

Buy beads for her and perfume;

And shoes and necklaces and earrings!

When you have gained your full strength

I have only one request,

And all I ask is

That you remove the road block from my path (Pbitek & Horley, 1984).

Okot p’Bitek explains in nowhere the meaning behind the proverb ( The pumpkins are old homestead must not be rooted!) ” The pumpkin are a special delicacy, around which the homestead garden was built. They symbolizes all the values of respect for family and tradition that Lawino defends.”

In Song of Ocol, Ocol bursts his anger and discomfort and she is ashamed of being African. ” Mother, mother/ Why /Why was I born black (Pbitek & Horley, 1984, p. 14)?

As a politician educated by colonial power of British people so as to exploit Uganda, Ocol says that he is fighting for national unity. He tells that Congress party is against all Catholics and they will steal all their property, if elected. Here is his hypocrisy. He thinks his pocket more than his people. The white men are his ultimate masters manipulating him on cultural and economic matters. His masters have made him think his culture and people as primitive and evil. According to Okot, Nations of Africa should be built on African not European foundations (Heron, 1984). He wishes to borrow technology from Europe but not culture. Politics is also one of the tools of westernizing and colonizing a country. A try of stealing the identity of a country is on the depiction. Why should lawyers and bishops wear robes as the English do? Why should the African legal system be based on English ‘Law Reports’? Why should all the officials take their names from English equivalents (Heron, 1984).

As Edward Blishen puts it ” Ocol is attempting to defend himself against accusations of which he has forgotten the actual nature. One expects Ocol to defend Tina’s hair style, her starving to be slim, her bleached skin, wigs, suggested abortion and alien name and his own Roman Catholicism, his readings and especially his involvement in the party politics which brings disunity to his people. But he does not (Blishen, 1977).

Ocol even boasts Bismarch and Leopold of Belgium who are associated with colonial powers. He shows colonial powers’ reflections. His intention is to plunder and exploit the sources of his land as colonial powers. Here are his plans:

We will uproot tree,

From the Ituri forest

And blow up

Mount Kilimanjaro

The ruble from Ruwenzori

We fill the Valleys

Of the Rift,

We will divert

The mighty waters of the Nile

Into the Indian Ocean (Pbitek & Horley, 1984).

As we all see, Lawino’s voice is also Okot’s voice. Okot depicts his thoughts through Lawino. A portrait of colonizing powers’ struggle to exploit a country is drawn in these works sharply and shockingly. They set people against themselves, divide and exploit the target. This is how colonialism goes. They are good at manipulating wicked people like Ocol. Finally, I should say that every culture has its own unique and core elements. The countries that lose their customs wholly are bound to vanish.


Blishen, E. (1977). _An Introduction, in Song of a Prisoner by Okot p’Bitek_: The Third Press.

Gale, T. (2008). Song of Lawino and Song of Ocol. Retrieved 03.06, 2010, from http://www.bookrags.com/research/song-of-lawino-and-song-of-ocol-wlait/

Heron, G. A. (1984). _”Introduction.” In Song of Lawino and Song of Ocol_. London and Ibadan: Heinemann.

Lindfors, B. (1977). An interview with Okot p’bitek. _Journal of Postcolonial Writing, 16_(2), 281-299.

Pbitek, O., & Horley, F. (1984). _Song of Lawino & Song of Ocol_. Portsmouth: Heinemann.

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