3.1 East African Poetry & Drama: Who are some of the most famous African writers? What makes African Culture rich?

Chapter 3

Poetry that Praises African Culture


3.1     Name some of the writers who have written texts praising African culture

3.1.1      Evaluate elements that make African culture rich


Creative writers have sought to argue through their works the superiority of the African cultures against foreign cultures on the African soil. This has been necessitated by the onslaught on African culture by foreign cultures. East Africans have not been left behind in this debate. Writers from East Africa who have creatively joined in this debate include Francis Imbuga in his play The Burning of Rags, Austin Bukenya in his play The Bride, and Okot p’Bitek in his poem Song of Lawino. We shall analyse the latter text in this lesson.


3.1.2     Discuss at least three aspects of style in Song of Lawino

Song of Lawino by Okot P’Bitek

Song of Lawino is a long poem that defies Western forms of Poetry and uses the African traditional song form to condemn the Western culture as epitomized by Ocol and his new found love Clementine or Tina.  It also praises the traditional culture in all its respects as embraced by Lawino the singer or the poetic persona.  Through Lawino’s eyes, we see the way the Western culture has been used by Africans to undermine their own culture.  Okot uses Lawino as his mouthpiece to articulate not only issues of culture but of economy, politics as well as social and religious implications.  He offers the stakes to the reader or the listener to judge for whether Lawino’s plea is mere fabrications; figments of her imaginations or real problems that face the present day Africa.

Song of Lawino, first written in Acholi as Wer Par Lawino, has relevance and popularity in the present world.  The question of the impact of Western civilization on African civilization that the conflict between Lawino and her husband Ocol symbolize is a thorn in the flesh of many scholars of African studies in the present world.  Up to date there are lamentations of the onslaught on African culture through Western media, language, technology, diet among others.

The setting of Song of Lawino is a kind of traditional marriage court that was set up in order to settle cases of marital problems.  It is the setting that allows the author to use taboo world.


Okot p’Bitek writes about twelve songs (chapters) that are strung together by a general theme of superiority of the African culture and the one poetic persona Lawino. These are as follows:

  1. My Husband’s Tongue is Bitter,
  2. The Woman with whom I Share my Husband,
  3. I do not know the dances of White People,
  4. My name blew like a Horn among the Payira,
  5. The Graceful Giraffe Cannot Become a Monkey,
  6. The Mother Stone Has a Hollow Stomach,
  7. There is no fixed time for Breastfeeding,
  8. I am Ignorant of the Good Word in the Clean Book,
  9. From the Mouth of which River?
  10. The Last Safari to Pagak,
  11. The Buffaloes of Poverty knock the People Down,
  12. My Husband’s House is a dark Forest of Books,
  13. Let them Prepare the Malakwang Dish.


Throughout the song, Lawino speaks, laments, warns, cries, mocks, jeers, accuses, as her husband and the elders or villagers listen. The response given by her accused husband is given in the Song of Ocol, which is a different text altogether.


Lawino starts by accusing her husband of being very disrespectful and abusive both to her, to her mother, to her aunt and to her clan in general.  We pity her especially through the words and the idiom she adopts to portray her husband’s gross misconduct.

Husband, now you despise me

Now you treat me with spite

And say I have inherited the stupidity of my aunt (p.12)


This beginning alone tells you who the protagonist and who the antagonist of the song are.  She goes on to tell the clansmen to listen to her as she pours forth the insults that her husband heaps not only on her but also on her aunt and on all the clansmen in general;

He says my mother is a witch

That my clansmen are fools

Because they eat rats

He says we are all Kaffirs (p.13)


Then she goes on to reveal that the husband doesn’t just stop at that.  His hatred is directed to all Africans and black people in general.

He says black people are primitive

And their ways are utterly harmful

Their dances are mortal sins

They are ignorant, poor and diseased


In this manner, Okot explains how the alienated African is the most dangerous person to the national cultures of Africa.  Through his slanders, the alienated African despises African medicinal herbs (which incidentally cures diseases and from which many Western medicines have been made).


Lawino’s and Ocol’s quarrel ceases to be a normal domestic one and becomes a symbolic struggle between the cultural nationalists and the cultural critics who are victims of Western cultural imperialism. Lawino goes on and brings into her accusations Clementine, her co-wife who she simply refers to as the woman with whom I share my husband.  Tina aspires to be a white woman in a black skin.  She does everything the Western way including walking, talking, eating and beautifying herself.  We are told that all these have left her looking sickly and ugly.

Brother, when you see Clementine

The beautiful one aspires

To look like a white woman

Her lips are red-hot

Like glowing charcoal

She resembles the wild cat

That has dipped its mouth in blood

She resembles the wizard

Getting ready for the midnight dance

She looks like the guinea fowl

She looks as if she has dysentery

Tina looks sickly

And she is glow moving

She is piteous sight


These and many more are the comparisons that Lawino says Tina looks like after using the Western cosmetics and aspiring to be like a white woman. Okot purposefully brings in Clementine to show that African can never be like Europe.  If we apply European standards in developing African languages, politics, economy, social status and anything in Africa, what we shall get is an inferior quality which is neither European nor African.  Tina is the epitome of the present African woman and man who is neither African nor European.  She has no cultural base and she has nothing to refer to.

This theme is again alluded to in the fifth song i.e. The Graceful Giraffe Cannot Become a Monkey.  Lawino despises the measures of beauty in terms of hairstyle, dresscode and use of body modifications.  She says that in the African setting every kind of hairstyle had its place in the society.  Long unkempt hair was for mourning, thick and curly hair is for everyday purpose and plaited hair is for dance ceremonies.  For cosmetics, butter from cow’s milk or fat from edible rats is used.


In all the tirades that Lawino says, she keeps on repeating the phrase ‘Let no one uproot the pumpkin in the old homestead’.  A pumpkin is a delicacy among several communities of East Africa.  It symbolizes the cultural food of these communities and uprooting it variedly may mean setting in hunger it nurtures the people.  By emphasizing that it should not be uprooted, Lawino is saying that culture must not be killed just because a new home has been made or found.


Okot also uses Lawino to step up African’s pride in their diet in the chapter that reads The Mother Stone Has a Hollow Stomach, Lawino praises the African kitchen, foods and ways of cooking.  She talks of ways of food preservation.  She alludes to the fact that African foods make one strong and healthy.  Such dishes she says include millet, bread, meat of various animals, beans, peas, fish, dried cucumber, simsim past, dried white ants; cassava and sorghum.  These are foods that are known to protect the body and make one healthy and less prone to diseases.


On time, Lawino feels that her husband has become a slave of time just like a European.  He has no time to live his life because he has very many things to do.  He cannot talk to his wife who he considers wastes time.  In her opinion one should not be conditioned by time but rather by the dictates of social life.  For example, a baby is fed when it cries and not at specific times.  Children go to bed when sleep comes into their head and wake up when it leaves them.  A child is washed when it is dirty and not because it is time to wash it.  Time therefore is used to produce and not to waste or to destroy.


Religion is a sensitive issue and it must be observed within the dictates of the culture.  Imposing ones religion on a different culture is a recipe for confusion and chaos.  That is why Ocol and other Christian converts are portrayed as following religion they half-understand. It becomes something that people simply practice without believing yet religion is hinged on belief and faith in what you believe. The catechist is said to should incantations to the learners as they shout them back to him.


He shouted words at us

And we shouted back at him

He shouted angry as if he uttered abuses

We repeated the same words

Shouting back at him

As when you shout

Insults at somebody’s mother!

We repeated the meaningless phrases

Like the yellow birds

In the lanajawara grass

This seems to challenge the rote learning which does not encourage active listening or proper comprehension.  Instead learners are forced to memorise things that evaporate once they step outside the cold teaching hall.




From the above discussion, it becomes clear that these Christians do not believe in this religion. There faith is wanting because they do not understand its pillars.



With the advent of Christianity people adopted meaningless names that Lawino puns like Jemcon, Paraciko, Tomcon, Gulyelmo, Yroko instead of names with African meanings like Apiyo, Acen, Adoc, Adong, Otoo e.t.c.

Names are meant to show one the season of his/her birth or the situations surrounding his/her birth.

Some names are names of sorrows

Alobo, Abur, Ayiko, Woko

That fate has thrown

A large basket to be filled

With dead children


Lawino questions some of the things Christians simply believe without understanding.  For example how comes Maria conceived without knowing a man.  What was there before Christ was born.  Where did God get the soil for moulding the entire world? These questions are typical of village ignorance but they raise critical questions as to why Africans abandon their way of worship and follow a foreign fake ‘god’.


Politics in the modern society serves the purpose of disintegrating households and eventually the whole society.  In this text, people create parties which are meaningless and are not able to unite the society.  Ocol’s brother is in a rival party with Ocol and they don’t see eye to eye.  They all shout about unity yet ironically they are not united. The irony is that if the brothers rae not united, how can they claim to have the capacity to unite the wider society that is divided into tribes. On the contrary, Traditional politics preached and practiced unity.  This has led to what Lawino refers to as ‘The Buffalos of Poverty’ that knock the people down; ‘pythons of sickness’ that swallow the children and ignorance that ‘stands there like an elephant’. Politicians and leaders are compared to warlords who are tightly locked in bloody feuds, eating each other’s liver.


As the text ends, Okot through Lawino makes a passionate plea that we go back to our cultural roots and as Achebe puts it, ‘look out where the rain started beating us’ or where we went wrong.  Lawino prescribes an elaborate cleansing ceremony to be performed to her husband, Ocol, so that he may be readmitted into the fold of his people and take up his royal position as a prince and not a slave to the whiteman.  She recommends that her husband should be prepared for a Malakwang dish that will restore his manhood and his royalty and get him out of this slavery to the whiteman.  He should not uproot the pumpkin in the old homestead.  He should take up his rightful duty as the defender of this pumpkin.



The subject matter of this poem is the strength of the African culture to the Africans as opposed to foreign cultures.  All the themes gravitate around this subject. The themes include; politics, religion, economy, time management and even the question of beauty.


Manipulation of language

Okot uses quite a number of linguistic features to make his point.  These include:-

  • Use of Song Technique
  • Imagery
  • Symbolism
  • Taboo Words
  • Irony
  • Use of caricature, burlesque, lampoons and parody


We shall only discuss the first four literary techniques. You can read and identify examples of the other literary techniques on your own.[1]

Use of song technique

Okot contravenes most of the European style of writing a poem and adopts an African style of giving a long narrative.  Therefore, if one wants to make an effective criticism of Song of Lawino, he/she must discard the western strait-jackets of the parameters of fitting words into some form of pre-medicated frame and call it a poem.  One has to go back to the African culture and specifically the Acholi culture.  This is not just a poem and neither is it a song because it is not singable.  We are told that after composing it, Okot went to his mother and read it to the mother who was an expert Acholi singer in her own right.  The mother asked him to sing it and he was unable.

The style of this poem is a blend between Acholi traditions where Poetry was delivered orally by an expert individual with the English tradition of stanzas, Lessons, rhymes, schemes, paper layouts e.t.c.

Okot uses the idiom of the Acholi to effectively capture their oral tradition and exploit it using his western knowledge to come up with something that is not only acceptable in both worlds but also good to look at, to read and to identify with.  Following the success of this text, he wrote its sequel Song of Ocol and others like Song of Malaya and, Song of Prisoner. All these songs adopt the same technique.



Perhaps the most conspicuous feature of style is the heavy use of imagery.  Every object and subject is compared to some other object, subject or animal in the African Kingdom.  Innocent objects like electricity are referred to as the Rain Cock (lightening) just because the two have a characteristic of striking people.  A brassiere is referred to as a cotton nest and Tina’s shrivelled breasts are referred to as cow-hide. This creates mental pictures in the mind of the reader hence conveying the message vividly.  Additionally it enriches the style of the text for it makes the work beautiful to read. For example, the reader is called to witness the way Tina has disfigured herself in the name of beauty through imagery.

Her lips are red-hot

Like glowing charcoal

She resembles the wild cat

That has dipped its mouth in blood

Her mouth is like raw yaws

It looks like an open ulcer

Like the mouth of a fiend!

Tina dusts powder on her face

And it looks so pale;

She resembles the wizard

Getting ready for the midnight dance


The images also authenticate the poem as a true reflection of the African oral traditions. Particular imagery we can single out is similes let us examine the similes in the following extract;

The white man’s stoves

are good for cooking

whiteman’s foods

for cooking the tasteless

bloodless meat of cows

that were killed many years ago

and left in the ice

to rot

for frying an egg

which when ready

is slimy like mucus.


for boiling hairy chicken

in saltless water

you think you are chewing paper

and the bones of the leg

contains only clotted blood

and when you bite

it makes no cracking sound

it tastes like earth

they are for warming up

tinned beef, tinned fish

tinned peas, tinned beans

big broad beans

tasteless like Cooco.



The similes that have been italicised not only create humour but also ridicule the western culture which is alien to Lawino which again to the reader will seem repugnant. The thought of eating food that is comparable to mucus, tasteless like soil or like Cooco is not just repulsive but also laughable. It is even more laughable when the people who consume such food claim to have superior eating culture. Lawino’s disgust and dismissal of the western culture that has encroached on her culture is well brought out in this use of similes. The use of these similes therefore makes the delivery of her attitude and the message she is putting across to the reader more powerful than it would have been had she simply used ordinary language.



Okot uses many symbols but the one that brings the general subject matter of the poem is the pumpkin.  The pumpkin is a delicacy that is loved by many East African communities.  Uprooting it is like taking away the source of livelihood of the community hence inviting hunger and to the worst famine.  It is a traditional dish, easy to make and quite satisfying.  In Song of Lawino, the pumpkin assumes even greater significance.  It is seen as a dish that gives cultural strength to those who have lost it.  It is seen as culture itself that must be defended from foreign intrusion.  In summary it is the embodiment of the purity of African culture.  She says that the ways of the Africans and their custom are not easily breakable not thin, not hollow.  They are solid, good and their roots each deep in the soil.




Identify other symbols in the poem and explain their use especially how they have been used to bring out the themes in the text.




Taboo Words

As stated earlier, taboo words are easily used in this text because the setting allows their use.  This is a kind of village marriage court in which minors are not allowed.  It is a stage of elderly people and children have no business in such a setting.  Lawino uses this stage to say all the things she wants to say without fearing the presence of children who are not allowed to hear obscenities from elders.  For example she claims that her husband’s tongue is as hot as the penis of the bee and that Tina’s breasts are completely shrivelled up, they are all folded dry skins.


She also alludes to the fact that a man’s show of manliness is seen in the arena.  ‘No one touches another man’s testicles’ simply means no one provokes the other one by snatching his girl and goes away scot-free.  She accuses Ocol of wearing the western culture (clothes) so that he may hide is inferior understanding of the African culture.  This she uses a metaphor thus,

Perhaps you are covering up

Your bony hips and chest

And the large scar on your thigh

And the scabies on your buttocks

She alludes to the sexual process as a gardener planting seeds.

Periodically each woman

Sees the moon

And when a young girl

Has seen if for the first time

It is a sign that the garden

Is ready for sowing

And when the gardener comes

Carrying two bags of live seeds

And a good strong hoe

The rich red soil

Swells with a new life


Obviously the moon is periods of the menstrual cycle, the garden is the woman, the gardener the man, the good strong hoe is his manhood, the two bags his the testicles, the live seeds the sperms and the swelling with a new life is the pregnancy that results from the planting process (sexual intercourse).

Okot uses the poetic license bestowed upon creative writers to use these taboo words to shock the reader into paying attention to what he is saying. A reader who reads such words is scandalized and will instantly want to know what issues are these that author is communicating. Therefore the poet uses the taboo words as a stylistic strategy to lure the reader into paying attention to the issues of concern in the text and tocommunicate serious issues affecting the African people who have abandoned the solid ways of their people.  In the court tribunal, we all stand accused of neglecting Lawino and her ways.  We all stand accused of having embraced Clementine, an artificial woman with fake values while disregarding our very source of livelihood (Lawino).

Further on, we are told that Ocol’s testicles have been smashed by the weight of books in his office.  This means he has lost his manhood – the vitality – that makes him an African master.  Instead he has become a praise singer of the whiteman, He is a stooge to the Muzungu.




Write an essay by the title, ‘The use of Irony and its implication on themes in Okot p’Bitek’s poem Song of Lawino.’


Revision questions


  1. Taban Lo Liyong summarises the Song of Lawino thus “Lawino is no more than a village simpleton, unable to understand the complexities of her worthy westernized husband, Ocol”. Do you think this criticism is relevant to Okot p’ Bitek’s intentions in Song of Lawino. Explain your response
  2. ‘The song is a flowering of the tradition of orature.  It is an incisive critique of bourgeois mannerisms and colonial education and values.’ In your opinion, can this statement be seen as a summary of the themes in the text?
  3. ‘Lawino is not only a village woman whose husband has gone wrong; but she is also an archetypal national figure who aims to speak for all people or an issue of national concern.’ Do you agree with Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s assertion?
  4. ‘Lawino’s particular crisis is not simply presented as a private tragedy but also a national one.  It makes an appeal to public sentiments.’ Comment on this statement.
  5. Draw a parallel or a comparison between Okot p’Bitek’s Song of Lawino and Utendi wa Mwana Kupona


[1] For a discussion on the use of lampoons, irony, caricature, burlesque and parody in this poem, please refer to Mugubi’s module for teaching ALT 300: Stylistics and Literary Techniques Pp. 174-181



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