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by Bamber Gascoigne

Okot p'Bitek (1931-1982)


Ugandan poet, anthropologist, and social critic, who wrote in Luo and in English. Okot P'Bitek was one of the most vigorous and original voices in East African 20th-century poetry. His satirical monologues dealt with the conflict between European and African cultures. In his most famous poem, The Song of Lawino (1966), p'Bitek introduced a style that became known as "comic singing."

"Stop despising people
As if you were a little foolish man,
Stop treating me like saltless ash
Become barren of insults and stupidity;
Who has ever uprooted the Pumpkin?"

(from 'My Husband's Tongue Is Bitter,' in The Song of Lawino) by Okot p'Bitek, 1984, p. 35)

Okot p'Bitek was born in Gulu, Northern Uganda, into a family of Luo people. At that time Uganda was a protectorate of the British Empire. P'Bitek's mother was a gifted singer, composer, and leader of her clan. Under the influence of his mother, p'Bitek grew up learning the tales, proverbs and songs of Acholi folklore (sometimes referred to as Lwo or Luo). P'Bitek himself was an accomplished dancer and drummer. He attended Gulu High School and King's College, Budo, where he wrote and produced theatre and opera. Budo was patterned along the educational tradition of English boy's schools. "I learn very little from my literary tutors in school and universities," , he said later in life. "What they were teaching was irrelevant to my experience – Shakespeares and Shelleys. . ." ('Introduction,' in Song of Lawino by Okot p'Bitek, 1989, p. 2) During this period he became familiar with many Acholi songs.

After a two-year course at the Government Training College in Mbarara, p'Bitek taught at Sir Samuel Baker's School near Gulu. While still a student, p'Bitek published his first poem, 'The Lost Spear', based on a traditional Luo folk story, but also influenced by Longfellow's poem Hiawatha (1855). His first and only novel, Lak Tar Miyo Kinyero Wi Lobo, p'Bitek published in Luo in 1953. Its title is a proverb, meaning "Our teeth are white, that's why we laugh at the sorrows of the world." The story tells about the tragedy of a poor Acholi lad, who struggles hard to save money to marry his sweet heart, but eventually loses his savings.

An adept soccer player and a member of the Uganda national team, he toured Britain in 1956 for a series of games, and decided stay there to study. P'Bitek took a diploma in education in Bristol, and later he studied law at the University of Wales at Aberystwyth and social anthropology at Oxford, where he completed in 1963 a B.Litt. thesis on the traditional songs of Acoli and Largo. "I first met a number of western scholars at Oxford University in 1960", p'Bitek recalled his experiences. "During the very first lecture in the Institute of Social Anthropology the teacher kept referring to Africans or non-western peoples as barbarians, savages, primitive tribes etc." ('from 'Preface' by Okot p'Bitek, in The Acholi of Uganda by Frank Knowles Girling, Okot p'Bitek, edited and introduced by Tim Allen, 2019, p. 5)

Returning to Uganda at the age of 33, p'Bitek joined the staff of the Department of Sociology at Makerere University College in Kampala, the capital city. Two years later he became a tutor with the Extra-Mural department. P'Bitek also founded the Gulu and was appointed director of the National Theatre and National Cultural Centre in Kampala. Later in 1968 in Kenya he founded Kisumu Arts Festivals. Besides being an organizer, p'Bitek was also a performer, singer and dancer at the Gulu Festival. His wide circle friends and acquaintances included such leading poet-musicians of Acholiland as Omal Adok Too, Goya, Yona Acwaa, Acamu Lubwa Too, Oloyo Acil and Abonga Bongomin Lutwala.

As a poet p'Bitek made his breakthrough with The Song of Lawino. It was first composed in Luo in rhyming couplets and was translated into English by the author, who according to his own words clipped a bit of the eagle's wings of the original Acholi poem "and rendered the sharp edges of the warrior's sword rusty and blunt, and also murdered rhythm and rhyme". ('Okot p'Bitek' by Awuor Ayodo, in Postcolonial African Writers, edited by Pushpa Naidu Parekh and Siga Fatima Jagne, 1998, p. 397)  Although the work was turned down by several British publishers, in 1966 it became a bestseller. A separate American edition, by the World Publishing Company, was issued in 1969. The Luo original was published in 1971. P'Bitek's friend and colleague Taban lo Liyong published in 2001 a new translation of the poem, The Defense of Lawino, which aimed to be more faithful to the Acholi original.

"It may seem ironical that the first important poem in English to emerge in Eastern Africa should be a translation from the vernacular original," wrote Gerald Moore. (Transition, no. 31, June-July, 1967) Like p'Bitek's other long poems, it was written as a story, narrated by one person. However, there are divisions in the general frame, that suggest individual poems. Lawino, a non-literate woman, laments her fate in 'My Husband's Tongue is Bitter': "Husband, now you despise me / Now you treat me with spite / And say I have inherited the / stupidity of my aunt". (Song of Lawino & Song of Ocol by Okot p'Bitek, 1984, p. 34) Her university-educated husband Ocol has adopted Western ways, rejected her, and taken another, Westernized woman. Lawino claims that he has lost his manhood by reading books: "Bile burns my inside! / I feel like vomiting! / 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!" (Ibid., p. 117)

The Song of Lawino was followed by Song of Ocol (1970), in which Lawino's husband respons to her. "Mother, mother, / Why, / Why was I born / Black?" says Ocol at the end of Chapter 2. By deny his Africanness, Ocol reveals his true alienated character; later in his speech in Chapter he promises to "erect monuments / To the founders / Of modern Africa: / Leopold II of Belgium, / Bismarck . . . " "Okot has made 'the foundation' on which he wishes to build African nations abundantly clear throughout this book. In these last pages he is challenging all concerned with the nation building to reassess their own activities in the light of his ideas. If they don't accept the challenge . . . those like Nyerere and Senghor who are looking for an African mould for nation-building will be 'utterly defeated' by the continuing cultural influence of Europe on Africa." ('Introduction' by G.A. Heron, in Song of Lawino & Song of Ocol by Okot p'Bitek, 1984, p. 32)

Following the popular success of the work, the names Lawino and Ocol became common nouns, prototypes of two opposing types. P'Bitek gives no clear answer to the question in p'Bitek's work, what it means to be African, but in Ocol's Africa age-old traditions give way to modern values, whereas Lawino is proud of the traditional way of life and he rejects foreign intrusion. Together these books form a polemic, oratorical account of the changing times, dramatized through the accusing voices of marriage conflict. Song of Ocol was directly written in English.

Ngugi wa Thiong'o wrote that "Song of Lawino is a satiric assault on the African middle-class élite that has so unbashedly embraced Western bourgeois values and modes of life." (Homecoming: Essays on African and Caribbean Literature, Culture and Politics by Ngugi wa Thiong'o, 1972, p. 74) The narrators of the poem are not only representatives of certain values and attitudes, but lively personalities, with their deficiencies, humor, bitterness, and need of understanding. The author himself belonged to the generation, that had absorbed early native culture during the colonial period, but then had received a British education. P'Bitek's own choice was to take a stand against Western infiltration and defend Acoli traditions and customs.

Two Songs (1971) included Song of a Prisoner, apparently born as a response to the assassination of the Kenyan politician Tom Mboya, and Song of Malaya, about hypocrisy and sexual morals (malaya means "prostitute"). The book, dedicated to Patrice Lumumba (1925-1961), the murdered prime minister of the Republic of the Congo, was awarded the inaugural Kenyatta Prize for Literature in 1972. All these early collections were published by the East African Publishing House. Although p'Bitek had dismissed Shelley at Budo as "irrelevant," this revolutionary poet, especially his The Mask of Anarchy (1819/1832), written after the Peterloo Massacre carried out by British soldiers, influenced his Song of Prisoner and Song of Soldier, which he never finished. Idi Amin (also known as Idi Amin Dada),  the ruthless dictator of Uganda from 1971 to 1979, is widely believed to be the "soldier" of the latter song.

P'Bitek also published a collection of Acoli traditional songs, The Horn of My Love (1974), and a collection of Acoli folktales and short stories, Hare and Hornbill (1978). His major academic studies were Religion of the Central Luo (1971), African Religions in Western Scholarship, and Africa's Cultural Revolution (1973). P'Bitek was a frequent contributor to Transition, a journal published at Makerere, and other journals. His essays varied from literary criticism, such as 'The Self in African Imagery,' to articles on anthropological, sociological, and philosophical topics. P'Bitek's direct poems and his academic works caused much debate. He attacked both reactionary modes of thought and the uncritical acceptance of modernization, and was criticised by British observers for his Afrocentric views and cultural nationalism, and by feminist observers, who had trouble in accepting p'Bitek's one-sided satirical portrayal of African women.

Uganda became an independent member of the Commonwealth in 1962 with Milton Obote as prime minister. After criticizing the government of Uganda in Zambia, p'Bitek became persona non grata in his own country and moved to Kenya. His disillusionment he expressed in the poem 'They sowed and watered / Acres of cynicisms / Planted forests of laughters / Bitter laughters that flowed in torrents / And men shed tears as they rocked / And held their chests / And laughed and laughed / The floods of tears turned red". (Poems from East Africa, edited by David Cook & David Rubadiri, 2009, p. 130) The following years of his life p'Bitek spent teaching in Kenya and in the United States. Obote was overthrown in a miliary coup in 1971, and Idi Amin seized power. During his reign a huge number of Ugandans were killed and the economy collapsed. In 1971 p'Bitek became a senior research fellow at the Institute of African Studies in Nairobi. He also lectured in sociology and literature at the university.

The Amin years P'Bitek spent in exile, and then returned to Makerere University as Professor of Creative Writing. P'Bitek died of a liver infection on July 19, 1982. His daughter, Jane Okot p'Bitek, is also a writer, whose Song of Farewell (1994), a volume of poetry, was dedicated "To the memory of Dad / Late Prof Okot p'Bitek / Who left me / An iota of his Poetry."

For further reading: The Last Word by Lo T. Lijong (1969); 'Introduction' to Song of Prisoner by E. Blishen (1971); A Reader's Guide to African Literature, edited by Hans M. Zell and Helene Silver (1972); Homecoming: Essays on African and Caribbean Literature, Culture, and Politics by Ngugi wa Thiong'o (1972); The Poetry of Okot p'Bitek by George A. Heron (1976); Uhuru's Fire: African Literature East to South by Adrian Roscoe (1977); 'Okot p'Bitek: Literature and Cultural Revolution' by S.O. Asein, in Journal of African Studies 5.3 (1978); Twelve African Writers by G. Moore (1980); Thought and Technique in the Poetry of Okot p'Bitek by Monica Nalyaka Wanambisi (1984); 'Okot p'Bitek: A Checklist of Worls and Criticism' by Ogo A. Ofuani, in Review of African Literatures 16.3 (1985); New Poetry from Africa: A Poetry Course for Senior Secondary Schools, edited by R. Johnson, D. Ker, C. Maduka, O. Obafemi (1996); 'Okot p'Bitek' by Awuor Ayodo, in Postcolonial African Writers, edited by Pushpa Naidu Parekh and Siga Fatima Jagne (1998); The Penguin Book of Modern African Poetry, edited by Gerald Moore and Ulli Beier (1998); Oral Traditions As Philosophy: Okot P'Bitek's Legacy for African Philosophy by Samuel Oluoch Imbo (2002); A Study of Okot p'Bitek's Poetry by Monica Mweseli (rev. and rejigged ed., 2004); The Sublime in the Imagery of Solomon’s Song of Songs: and Okot P’Bitek’s Song of Lawino by Halimah Hannah Nambusi (2019) 

Selected works:

  • Lak Tar Miyo Kinyero Wi Lobo, 1953
    - White Teeth (translated in 1989)
  • Oral Literature and Its Social Background Among the Acholi and Lango, 1963
  • Song of Lawino: A Lament, 1966 (originally: Wer pa Lawino)
  • Wer pa Lawino, 1969
    - Song of Lawino: A Lament (translated by P'Bitek, 1966) / The Defence of Lawino: A New Translation of Wer pa Lawino (translated by Taban lo Liyong, 2001)
  • Song of Ocol, 1970
  • Religion of the Central Luo, 1971
  • Themes in Acoli Funeral, 1971
  • Two Songs: Song of Prisoner, Song of Malaya, 1971
  • African Religions in Western Scholarship, 1972
  • Myths and Nation Building, 1972
  • Africa's Cultural Revolution, 1973 (introduction by Ngugi wa Thiong'o)
  • African Culture in the Era of Foreign Rule, 1885-1935, 1974
  • The Horn of My Love, 1974 (translated by Okot p'Bitek)
  • Hare and Hornbill, 1978 (translated from the Acholi by Okot p'Bitek)
  • Song of Lawino & Song of Ocol, 1984 (reprint edition)
  • Artist, the Ruler: Essays on Art, Culture, and Values, Including Extracts from Song of Soldier and White Teeth Make People Laugh on Earth, 1986 (foreword by Lubwa p'Chong)
  • Decolonizing African Religions: a Short History of African Religions in Western Scholarship, 2011 (new revised edition; introduction by Kwasi Wiredu)
  • The Lawino's People: The Acholi of Uganda, 2019
    (by Frank Knowles Girling and Okot p'Bitek; edited and introduced by Tim Allen)

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