Thursday Poem

In 1969, Song of Lawino was published. It is written in the style of a traditional Acholi song. It is an Acholi wife’s lament about her college-educated husband, who has rejected Acholi traditions and ideas for Western ones. Much of Lawino’s anger is directed at her husband’s lover who embodies these Western values and customs, and who she contrasts with herself.

In Song of Ocal, her husband responds to her, decrying what he perceives as Africa’s backwardness, and extoling the virtues of European society and ideas. Lawino and Ocal’s debate reflects the discourse taking place at the time in African societies about the implications of adopting Western culture and ideals. Other works, including Song of A Prisoner (1971) and Song of Malaya (1971) are written in the same poetic style.

Okot p’Bitek has been criticized by other African writers, including Ngugi wa Thiong’o, for not adequately addressing the underlying causes of Africa’s problems. Okot, however, believed that his work, like all good African literature, dealt honestly with the human condition and had “deep human roots.”   More.


Transalation by Taban lo Liyong:

Lawino is a female voice, taking issue with her husband whom she witnesses imitating a European culture which is destroying a more deeply rooted African culture. The text is a deeply philosophical meditation on the subject of its original subtitle: ‘The Culture of Your People You Do Not Abandon’. The translator is the distinguished Sudanese writer Taban lo Liyong, and colleague and friend of the author. His translation was twenty-two years in the making and began as a collaborative project with the author. Although the text was once translated into English by the author himself, lo Liyong asserts the need for a reworking from the original Acholi, since the author only loosely wrote an English version as a reaction, to satisfy an English speaking audience, and gave prominence to the parts which were most easily rendered into English.

Lo Liyong reproduces the original as faithfully as possible, attempting to convey the intricacies, nuances and thoughts of the whole text in a rhythmic English which suits the original discourse. He further intends his translation of the classic as an assertion of the need to engage with, and reflect upon the primacy of African languages and culture in a new era of cultural and linguistic dominance.  —The Norton Anthology of Contemporary Poetry

Excerpts from
The Song Of LawinoPerson_okot_pbitek
Okot p’Bitek

1. 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;
Son of the Chief,
Now you compare me
with the rubbish in the rubbish pit,
You say you no longer want me
Because I am like the things left behind
In the deserted homestead.
You insult me
You laugh at me
You say I do not know the letter A
Because I have not been to school
And I have not been baptized

You compare me with a little dog,
A puppy.

My friend, age-mate of my brother,
Take care,
Take care of your tongue,
Be careful what your lips say.

First take a deep look, brother,
You are now a man
You are not a dead fruit!
To behave like a child does not befit you!

Listen Ocol, you are the son of a Chief,
Leave foolish behavior to little children,
It is not right that you should be laughed at in a song!
Songs about you should be songs of praise!

Stop despising people
As if you were a little foolish man.
Stop treating me like salt-less ash,
Become barren of insults and stupidity;
Who has ever uprooted the pumpkin?

My clansmen, I cry
Listen to my voice:
The insults of my man
Are painful beyond bearing.

My husband abuses me together with my parents;
He says terrible things about my mother
And I am so ashamed!

He abuses me in English
And he is so arrogant.

He says I am rubbish,
He no longer wants me!
In cruel jokes he laughs at me,
He says I am primitive
Because I cannot play the guitar,
He says my eyes are dead
And I cannot read,
He says my ears are blocked
And cannot hear a single foreign word,
That I cannot count the coins.

He says I am like sheep,
The fool.

Ocol treats me
As if I am no longer a person,
He says I am silly
Like the ojuu insects that sit on the beer pot.

My husband treats me roughly.
The insults:
Words cut more painfully than sticks!
He says my mother is a witch,
That my clansmen are fools
Because they eat rats,
He says we are all Kaffirs.
We do not know the ways of God,
We sit in deep darkness
And do not know the Gospel,
He says my mother hides her charms
In her necklace
And that we are all sorcerers.

My husband’s tongue
Is bitter like the roots of the lyonno lily,
It is hot like the penis of the bee,
Like the sting of the kalang!
Ocol’s tongue is fierce like the arrow of the scorpion,
Deadly like the spear of the buffalo-hornet.
It is ferocious
Like the poison of a barren woman
And corrosive like the juice of the gourd.


My husband pours scorn
On Black People,
He behaves like a hen
That eats its own eggs
A hen that should be imprisoned under a basket.

His eyes grow large
Deep black eyes
Ocol’s eyes resemble those of the Nile Perch!
He becomes fierce
Like a lioness with cubs,
He begins to behave like a mad hyena.

He says Black People are primitive
And their ways are utterly harmful,
Their dances are mortal sins
They are ignorant, poor and diseased!

Ocol says he is a modern man,
A progressive and civilized man,
He says he has read extensively and widely
And he can no longer live with a thing like me
Who cannot distinguish between good and bad,

He says I am just a village woman,
I am of the old type,
And no longer attractive.

He says I am blocking his progress,
My head, he says,
Is as big as that of an elephant
But it is only bones,
There is no brain in it,
He says I am only wasting his time.

2. The Woman With Whom I Share My Husband

Ocol rejects the old type.
He is in love with a modern woman,
He is in love with a beautiful girl
Who speaks English.

But only recently
We would sit close together, touching each other!
Only recently I would play
On my bow-harp
Singing praises to my beloved.
Only recently he promised
That he trusted me completely.
I used to admire him speaking in English.


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.

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,
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;

She dusts the ash-dirt all over her face
And when little sweat
Begins to appear on her body
She looks like the guinea fowl!

The smell of carbolic soap
Makes me sick,
And the smell of powder
Provokes the ghosts in my head;
It is then necessary to fetch a goat
From my mother’s brother.
The sacrifice over
The ghost-dance drum must sound
The ghost be laid
And my peace restored.

I do not like dusting myself with powder.
The thing is good on pink skin
Because it is already pale,
But when a black woman has used it
She looks as if she has dysentery;
Tina looks sickly
And she is slow moving,
She is a piteous sight.

Some medicine has eaten up Tina’s face;
The skin on her face is gone
And it is all raw and red,
The face of the beautiful one
Is tender like the skin of a newly born baby!

And she believes
That this is beautiful
Because it resembles the face of a white woman!
Her body resembles
The ugly coat of the hyena;
Her neck and arms
Have real human skins!
She looks as if she has been struck
By lightning;
Or burnt like kongoni
In a fire hunt.

And her lips look like bleeding,
Her hair is long,
Her head is huge like that of the owl,
She looks like a witch,
Like someone who has lost her head
And should be taken
To the clan shrine!
Her neck is rope-like,
Thin, long and skinny
And her face sickly pale.


Forgive me, brother,
Do not think I am insulting
The woman with whom I share my husband!
Do not think my tongue
Is being sharpened by jealousy.
It is the sight of Tina
That provokes sympathy from my heart.

I do not deny
I am a little jealous.
It is no good lying,
We all suffer from a little jealousy.
It catches you unawares
Like the ghosts that bring fevers;
It surprises people
Like earth tremors;
But when you see the beautiful woman
With whom I share my husband
You feel a little pity for her!

Her breasts are completely shriveled up,
They are all folded dry skins,
They have made nests of cotton wool
And she folds the bits of cow-hide
In the nests
and calls them breasts!

O! my clansmen
How aged modern women
Pretend to be young girls!

They mold the tips of the cotton nests
So that they are sharp
And with these they prick
The chests of their men!
And the men believe
They are holding the waists
Of young girls that have just shot up!
The modern type sleeps with their nests
Tied firmly on their chests.

How many kids
Has this woman suckled?
The empty bags on her chest
Are completely flattened, dried.
Perhaps she has aborted many!
Perhaps she has thrown her twins
in the pit latrine!

Is it the vengeance ghosts
Of the many smashed eggs
That have captured her head?
How young is the age-mate of my mother?


The woman with whom I share my husband
Walks as if her shadow
Has been captured,
You can never hear
Her footsteps;

She looks as if
She has been ill for a long time!
Actually she is starving
She does not eat
She says she fears getting fat,
That the doctor has prevented her
From eating,
She says a beautiful woman
Must be slim like a white woman;

And when she walks
You hear her bones rattling,
Her waist resembles that of the hornet.
The beautiful one is dead dry
Like a stump,
She is meatless
Like a shell
On a dry riverbed.


But my husband despises me,
He laughs at me,
He says he is too good
To be my husband.

Ocol says he is not
The age-mate of my grandfather
To live with someone like me
Who has not been to school.

He speaks with arrogance,
Ocol is bold;
He says these things in broad daylight.
He says there is no difference
Between me and my grandmother
Who covers herself with animal skins.


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?

Who has discovered the medicine for thirst?
The medicines for hunger
And anger and enmity,
Who has discovered them?
In the dry season the sun shines
And rain falls in the wet season.
Women hunt for men
And men want women!

When I have another woman
With whom I share my husband,
I am glad
A woman who is jealous
Of another, with whom she shares a man,
Is jealous because she is slow,
Lazy and shy,
Because she is cold, weal, clumsy!

The competition for a man’s love
Is fought at the cooking place
And when he returns from the field
Or from the hunt,

You win him with a hot bath
And sour porridge.
The wife who brings her meal first
Whose food is good to eat,
Whose dish is hot
Whose face is bright
And whose heart is clean
And whose eyes are not dark
Like the shadows,

The wife who jokes freely
Who eats in the open
Not in the bedroom,
One who is not dull
Like stale beer,
Such is the woman who becomes
The head dress-keeper.

I do not block my husband’s path
From his new wife.
If he likes, let him build for her
An iron-roofed house on the hill!
I do not complain,
My grass-thatched house is enough for me.

I am not angry
With the woman with whom
I share my husband,
I do not fear to compete with her.

All I ask
Is that my husband should stop the insults,
My husband should refrain
From heaping abuses on my head.
He should stop being half-crazy,
And saying terrible things about my mother.
Listen Ocol, my old friend,
The ways of your ancestors
Are good,
Their customs are solid
And not hollow
They are not thin, not easily breakable
They cannot be blown away
By the winds
Because their roots reach deep into the soil.

I do not understand
The ways of foreigners
But I do not despise their customs.
Why should you despise yours?

Listen, my husband,
You are the son of a Chief.
The pumpkin in the old homestead
Must not be uprooted!