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the Complete Review
the complete review - poetry

Song of Lawino
Song of Ocol

Okot p'Bitek

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Song of Lawino and Song of Ocol

Title: Song of Lawino and Song of Ocol
Author: Okot p'Bitek
Genre: Poetry
Written: 1966/70 (Eng. 1972)
Length: 154 pages
Original in: Acholi
Availability: Song of Lawino and Song of Ocol - US
Song of Lawino and Song of Ocol - UK
Song of Lawino and Song of Ocol - Canada
La Chanson de Lawino - France
Lawinos Lied / Ocols Lied - Deutschland
La canción de Lawino - España
  • Acholi title: Wer pa Lawino
  • Translated by the author
  • With an Introduction by G.A.Heron
  • Also translated as The Defence of Lawino by Taban Lo Liyong (2001)

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Our Assessment:

B+ : fascinating if extreme contrasting of traditional-African and colonial-European

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
TLS . 16/2/1967 Gerald Moore

  From the Reviews:
  • "In rewriting his poem in English he has chosen a strong, simple idiom which preserves the sharpness and frankness of this imagery, a structure of short, free verses which flow swiftly and easily, and an uncondescending offer of all that is local and specific to the original (.....) (W)hat survives is enough to offer one of the most varied and exciting contributions yet made to English poetry in Africa." - Gerald Holyoake Moore, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       As G.A.Heron notes in his Introduction, Song of Lawino and Song of Ocol:

are not songs in any literal sense. You cannot sing them. They are not simply a written version of Acoli songs. Acoli songs do not grow to book length. They are one or two verses repeated with musical accompaniment. [...] They do ot use rhyme or the regular rhythm used in Wer pa Lawino.
      The lengthy poem  Song of Lawino, in particular, is a lament and denunciation one can imagine being declaimed, if not sung. For all the (local) universality of its arguments, it is not a communal work but an individual and personal one, the poet giving voice to a strong leading figure, Lawino. It is a litany of specifics, bitter complaints about her husband, Ocol -- even as their individual differences are representative for two camps, one espousing the entirely traditional (Lawino), the other looking only towards a European-culture-guided future (Ocol).
       Even if not of the traditional oral-poetic (or song) form, the approach is appropriate, given that Lawino is illiterate, and given her complaint about Western book-learning: "Ocol has lost his head / In the forest of books" she laments, denouncing the written texts that have displaced traditional values and customs (including, presumably, oral culture):
And the reading
Has killed my man,
In the ways of his people
He has become
A stump.
       The form of the 'song' is adapted in translation (Okot p'Bitek's own), Heron also explaining:
     In Song of Lawino Okot replaces the regular rhythm and rhyme of the Acoli version with irregular free verse in the English version.
       Clearly, this gives a different feel to the work, but it seems reasonably successful. Lawino's expression hammers home her complaints in stark, quick succession -- though one wonders whether the regularity of rhythm and rhyme in the original suggest a much more tempered argument: as is, the clipped, rapid-fire English gives a very heated feel to Lawino's expressions of frustration.
       Lawino is Ocol's first wife, and the mother of his first children. Now educated -- in the Western sense: he "Has read at Makerere University / He has read deeply and widely" -- and religious -- again in the Western sense, having become Christian --, Ocol sees everything about his origins as backward, and something to distance himself from. He has tried, and apparently managed quite well, to reinvent himself in the Western mold, complete with a European name -- Milchizedek Gregory ("It sounds something like / Medikijediki Giriligoloyo", Lawino thinks) -- and a new wife who understands these new ways. Among the reasons he rejects Lawino is: "Because, he says / I have no Christian name. / He says / Lawino is not enough.
       In separate chapters, Lawino addresses the variety of differences between the traditional that Ocol now rejects (but which she still clings to) and the new, which he has embraced entirely. He is dismissive of Lawino for not being able to cook European-style food, or being able to: "dance white men's dances". He is disrespectful of his parents and of family in general, and not welcoming in the way expected of him, barring visitors because, among other reasons:
They ruin his nicely polished floor
With the mud in their feet.
       Among the many areas of disagreement is about time, Ocol angry at Lawino because: "I cannot keep time / And I do not know / How to count the years". For Lawino, things happen when the need and circumstance arise: the child is fed when it's hungry (as opposed to fixed, regular mealtimes), or goes to sleep when it is tired. Ocol's life, meanwhile, is ruled by precise schedules -- and by the baffling grandfather clock whose: "large single testicle / Dangles below" (in one of Okot p'Bitek's most inspired images).
       Lawino is baffled by Ocol's attitude:
I do not understand
The ways of foreigners
But I do not despise their customs.
Why should you despise yours ?
       Yet ultimately she too seems to judge reflexively: for Ocol all things Western are unquestionably superior; in reaction, she finds only flaws (and no potential positives) while wholeheartedly endorsing the entirely traditional. There is no middle ground here -- as, indeed there is no discussion: these are the songs of two individuals presenting their positions.
       Lawino complains:
My husband refuses
To listen to me,
He refuses to give me a chance.
My husband has blocked up my path completely.
       Ocol's treatment of Lawino does seem outrageous. He is in no way supportive, and seems to make no effort to convince Lawino of the superiority of his newly-found ideas and ways. He lives (and lords) by fiat, the traditional so hidebound and silly that it can be dismissed without explanation; he is not in the least responsive to Lawino's plaints: "I cannot understand all this / I do not understand it at all !" Lawino makes some efforts to learn about and try to take up some of Ocol's ways, but finds a darker side lurking there too that Ocol seems completely blind to.
       Meanwhile, Lawino thinks Ocol and those who have pursued European-style education have lost an essential part of themselves, in distancing themselves from the traditional. As she ultimately bluntly puts it:
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 !
       Ocol is also politically active, presented as the leader of the Catholic 'Democratic Party'; his main, despised political opponent is his brother, leader of the Marxist 'Congress Party'. Lawino does not understand the political (and personal) differences at work here: both sides seem to want the same thing, so:
Then why do they not join hands,
Why do they split up the army
Into two hostile groups ?
       Song of Ocol -- shorter, and even more spare and stark and direct in its presentation -- gives Ocol a chance to respond, and to explain his own reasoning and feelings. Ocol sees Africa as only something to be fixed, a place:
Diseased with a chronic illness,
Choking with black ignorance,
Chained to the rock
Of poverty.
       Africa has failed, and he wants to move forward -- by leaving everything African behind. This is also reflected in his personal philosophy: his loathing runs so deep that he wants to:
Smash all the mirrors
That I may not see
The blackness of the past
From which I came
Reflected in them.
       The Ocol of Song of Ocol seems even more radical and absolute than that of Lawino's complaints. His argument is taken to such extremes here that it becomes almost comical, as in his raving call to:
erect monuments
To the founders
Of modern Africa;
Léopold II of Belgium,
Bismarck ...
       His position as presented here is even less nuanced than in Song of Lawino. With religion playing less of a role, the divide is presented even more starkly as simply between the old and forgettable (Africa) and the new (European and Western ways).
       Ocol's position is so extreme as to be indefensible; Lawino's, while less so, also leaves little room for compromise. Yet, as Heron observes in his Introduction: "These two poems are not the thesis and antithesis of the argument, from which the reader can deduce a synthesis". Nevertheless, in their frustrated, extreme opposition the two do suggest possible middle ground: Okot p'Bitek leaves it as a vacuum here, but there is much room for positive advancement that does not neglect the traditional.
       The world-views of Song of Lawino and Song of Ocol are so polarized that neither can be embraced. Lawino's position is the more sympathetic, because she at least expresses some openness to trying to understand, while Ocol has simply cut himself off from both his (and his continent's) past and from any constructive dialogue. The more carefully composed Song of Lawino is by far the stronger of the works, but even if Song of Ocol is almost crude in its simplicity, there is still considerable power to it.
       In clinging so firmly to specific (and extreme) positions, Song of Lawino and Song of Ocol might seem facile, but there is considerable art and, on some levels even subtlety, to them. They remain powerful works that are well worth revisiting.

- M.A.Orthofer, 7 March 2015

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Song of Lawino and Song of Ocol: Reviews: Okot p'Bitek: Other books by Okot p'Bitek under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Okot p'Bitek (1931-1982) was a leading literary figure in Uganda.

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© 2015-2021 the complete review

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