Song of Lawino

Song of Lawino

Review By

Song of Lawino, a book by the legendary Acholi writer from Uganda, Okot P’Bitek, is about the crumbling marriage of Lawino, a rural African (Acoli) woman and Ocol, her western-educated husband. 

This book was published in 1966, four years after Uganda’s independence, and documents an important period during colonization when most African societies were going through an immense social, economic and cultural change. Reading this book, one gets to understand the cultural clash in an African nation, specifically, how this affected the most intimate of our familial relationships and how we began and continue to perceive ourselves. It is sad and comical at the same while maneuvering complex interchanges between European or western culture and African culture.  

Ocol, her husband was arrogant in an attempt to defend his beliefs as he despises Black/African people and their tradition. He mentions that Africa is a dark and backward continent, associated with death and demise. He rejects any traditional beliefs and practices, insisting that only the white, educated man has the correct ideas for Africa. Lawino disagrees and implores her husband to stop hating her own people……..

He says Black people are primitive 

And their ways are utterly harmful

Their dances are mortal sins 

They are ignorant, poor and diseased!

My husband abuses me together with my parents 

He says terrible things about my mother 

And I am so ashamed! 

Okot p’bitek gives us another twist where Lawino makes a mockery of modern notions of beauty, including the use of make-up and cosmetics, by comparing her rival, Clementine, the girl of modern ways, to what in traditional Acoli Society must be regarded as the ugliest and most weird of all creatures.

She also gives her husband Ocol a serious talk, about how he’s forsaken her for a modern girl (a wench called Clementine who’s been over-doing the skin-lightening cream) because he’s become enchanted with western ways; so it’s an eloquent defense of traditional rural life by someone who knows exactly how her culture is being humiliated. Here lawino becomes fierce and sad saying…………

Ocol is no longer in love with;

The old type;

He is in love with a modern girl;

The name of the beautiful one; 

Is 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;

Her mouth is like raw yaws;

Tina dusts powder on her face;

And it looks so pale…….

This may resonate with present day where women are resorting to skin lightening products or beauty enhancement which may seem as mean to appear more and more, western or closer to “white” Much of this is also driven by men like Ocol who relate Beauty to being brown or light skinned, infact who invariably reinforce a self-hate narrative so many years after colonisation. One’s natural complexion should not be viewed as a crime and neither should wanting to look beautiful but there cannot be much beauty with not being yourself and valuing yourself and your people. 

Lawino is committed to her Acholi culture and values her traditions and only wishes to continue these traditions with honor but she is “entangled” to a man who thinks that her culture needs to be removed from the face of the earth. She struggles to understand why the man who claimed to love her so much, hated her at the same time, in a nutshell, these two were parallel to each other. And through this conflict we observe the conflict of holding on to culture and tradition and engaging new cultures. Lawino may pay a price for holding on to culture and yet Ocol may also pay a price for turning his back on his culture and identity. This remains a critical conflict and balance for the continent as a legacy of colonisation.  

One can only imagine how these two co-existed in their family. This song is full of imagery that calls death upon the culture Lawino praises in her song.

We will smash
The taboos
One by one,
Explode the basis
Of every superstition,
We will uproot
Every sacred tree
And demolish every ancestral

Lawino, on the other hand, doesn’t condemn European culture, but also doesn’t see how it will save them from their mischiefs, when they’ve been doing well for so long. She does not hate foreign customs. They are simply not hers. 

I do not understand
The ways of foreigners
But I do not despise their

It’s on this same note that Lawino couldn’t embrace the new cooking technology of a gas cooker that her husband installed in her kitchen.

Lawino doesn’t know how to use it and is, in fact, scared of it.

I am terribly afraid
Of the electric stove,
And I do not like using it
Because you stand up 
When you cook.
Whoever cooked standing up?
And the stove
Has many eyes
I do not know
Which eye to prick
So that the stove 
May vomit fire
And I cannot tell
Which eye to prick
So that fire is vomited
In one and not in another plate.

Instead of being lenient with and teaching her the benefits of having an electric cooker and how to use it, Ocol criticizes her. He considers her lack of Education one more African deficiency he wants to divorce himself from. His attitude is annoying especially because at some point he became a leader of his country’s independence struggle for freedom. And Lawino says…

White men must return
To their own homes,
Because they have brought
Slave conditions in the country.
White people tell lies
That they are good 
Like men wooing women
They reject the famine relief Granaries
And the forced-labor system.

Seeing how post-colonialism in Africa affects this one couple speaks volumes of what many others had/have to go through. Just imagine how it would be like if you and your partner sang songs and your songs were so different because you have deep rooted cultural differences. Song of Lawino which was then followed by the song of Ocol narrates the relationship between a traditional Uganda / Acoli wife and her westernized husband in the 1960s. Her husband has abandoned traditional customs in favour of western culture and in this sense is also abandoning his traditional wife.

This wonderful book also teaches us postcolonial African literature and I found Lawino’s spirit engaging, the poetry non-threatening and the central conflict between African culture and European culture meaningful. This shows that the Song of Lawino is written against the backdrop of Acholi history, language, and cultural practices. 

Lawino comes down to us as an advocate of African cultural values, insisting that we need not to emulate European standards in order to be recognized, valued and respected. These attributes make this book one of the treasures of East African Poetry and Poetics.

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