*Song of Lawino & Song of Ocol*: Colonialism’s Remnants in Africa

(IMAGE: Courtesy of Heinemann)

The fight scenes from the Rocky movie series were brutal. Whether taking on Apollo Creed, Mr. T or Drago, the match resulted in the men beating each other beyond recognition.

I remember the men’s eyes swollen shut, the bloody tissue stuck out of busted noses while corner men fixed up the fighters. I also remember the fighters limping around the ring, throwing tired punches—their bodies worn from the physical abuse.

Even still, those brutal fight scenes appear as mere child’s play, compared to the no-holds-barred verbal brawl between Okot p’Bitek’s speakers in Song of Lawino & Song of Ocol.

Lawino and her husband, Ocol, both of the Acholi people in Northern Uganda and South Sudan, are in a fight between traditional and modern ways. In that sense, the conflict between Okot p’Bitek’s speakers touches on a common issue of married African couples around the time p’Bitek published Song of Lawino & Song of Ocol (1967).

During those times, the husbands, who once loved and adored their wives, despised them once they surpassed their wives’ level of education. These men, whose broadened horizons resulted from their travels abroad, returned to their countries with a sense of superiority, scorning what they saw as the “out-of-touch” ways of their wives and people.

Ocol’s treatment of Lawino is no different. After ridiculing his wife for what he perceives as her ignorance, both speakers knuckle up, metaphorically. Both parties’ words pack punches that even leaves the reader winded and dazed.

As a traditionalist, one way Lawino dismisses the modern ways is in the poem “I Do Not Know The Dances of White People,” in which Lawino uses dance as a form of commentary. “I am ignorant of the dance of/ foreigners/ And how they dress/ I do not know,” she tells Ocol. “I cannot dance the rumba,/ My mother taught me/ The beautiful dance of Acoli […]/ I cannot dance the samba!”[1]

(PHOTO: Courtesy)

The physical details here are even more striking: “When the drums are throbbing/ And the black youths/ Have raised much dust/ You dance with vigour and/ health […]/ When the daughter of the Bull/ Enters the arena/ She does not stand here/ Like stale beer that does not / sell,/ She jumps here/ She jumps there./ When you touch her/ She says ‘Don’t touch me!’[2]

The throbbing drums, the “raised…dust ”and “the daughter of the Bull” jumping “here” and “there” intensifies the Acoli dances’ liveliness and free-spirited nature. It also intensifies the speaker’s excited tone.

Lawino’s use of humor jabs at Ocol here: “the daughter of the Bull/ […] does not stand here/ Like stale beer that does not/ sell.” Lawino’s humor also jabs at European dances, which pale in comparison. She fires away again:  “I cannot dance the ballroom/ dance./ Being held so tightly/ I feel ashamed […]/ Women lie on the chests of men […]/ Women throw their arms/ Around the necks of their / partners […]/ Men hold the waist of the/ women/ Tightly, tightly . . .[3]

That the European dances require women “being held so tightly” and laying their heads “on the chests of men” only reinforces Lawino’s belief that the European culture men like Ocol impose on their wives is another way of former colonizers continuing their oppression of African people.

And on the topic of old-fashioned vs. contemporary, that conflict isn’t restricted to only couples in developing countries. That conflict also exists here among American couples who debate over issues ranging from child rearing (to beat or not to beat, that is the question) and sexual preferences (anal vs. vaginal, oral vs. none, missionary position vs. something new), to dating habits (man pays vs. going Dutch) and a spouse’s employment preference for the other (stay-at-home vs. a career).

(PHOTO: 3D Photo)

While the speaker’s excited, hurt and disappointed tones jab in “I Do Not Know The Dance of White People,” Lawino’s right hooks fly in “The Woman With Whom I Share My Husband.”

She throws punches at both Ocol and his mistress, Clementine: “Brother, when you see/ Clementine!/ The beautiful one aspires/ To look like a white woman.”[4]

And that’s just the set up before she unleashes these striking physical details: “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/ […]Tina dust powder on her face/ And it looks so pale;/ She resembles the wizard/ Getting ready for the midnight/ dance.”[5] Ouch!

That Clementine “resembles the wizard/ Getting ready for the midnight/ dance” means that Ocol’s shallow desire for this woman will hurt him in the long run. Lawino’s tone is condescending when she reduces Ocol to something caught and devoured by the woman who “resembles the wild cat” with its “mouth in/ blood.” Those lines are also Lawino foreshadowing that since the chase is over, Clementine will toss Ocol into a pile of playthings that once amused her, but were now boring.

The psychological details are just as striking: “The smell of carbolic soap/ Makes me sick,/ And the smell of powder/ Provokes the ghosts in my head;/ […] The ghost-dance drum must/ sound/ The ghost be laid/ And my peace restored.”[6]

Those details intensify Lawino’s sardonic tone sparked by Ocol’s desire for a woman with “powder on her face,” a woman pale enough to resemble “the wizard/ Getting ready for the midnight/ dance.” That Lawino likens the powder on Clementine to “ash-dirt,” which represents death and decay (“ashes to ashes, dust to dust”), she finds it ludicrous that Ocol could love someone so flaccid and lifeless.

(PHOTO: beautyrival.com)
(PHOTO: beautyrival.com)

A musical moment in that line is the recurring “mouth”: “[…] mouth in/ blood,/ Her mouth […]/ […] looks like an open ulcer.” The repeated mouth, followed by “in/ blood” and its comparison to “an open ulcer” only intensifies the foreshadowed heartache Clementine will bring upon Ocol.

Lawino’s striking physical details of Clementine’s appearance mirroring the European standard of beauty raises this question to Ocol: how can you embrace a culture that’s taught you self-hate?

Unable, or unwilling, to face Lawino’s question and warnings, Ocol becomes frustrated. He comes out swinging (“Woman/ Shut up!/ Pack your things/ Go!”[7]), which only confirms Lawino’s portrait of him. Any empathy towards him on the reader’s part is lost in the first chapter of “Song of Ocol” (“Woman/ Shut up!/ Pack your things/ Go!”)

But to hear him tell it, he’s the victim of the backward ways of his wife, ethnic group and the continent. It’s that feeling of betrayal, Ocol seeing his traditions as a hindrance to becoming successful in the white man’s world, which sparks his tones that are at times disgusted, patronizing and scornful.

And though his physical details that follow are striking, Ocol unwittingly incriminates himself. He loses his credibility as a victim by reducing Lawino’s anger and hurt to “the confused noise/ Made by the ram/ After the butcher’s knife/ Has sunk past/ The wind pipe,/ Red paint spraying/ On the grasses.”[8] Blinded by his disdain for his wife and culture, Ocol can’t see that if Lawino’s “the ram,” he’s “the butcher’s knife/ […] sunk past/ The wind pipe.”

(PHOTO: online composite sketch archive)

Reading those lines, I thought of the male outcries against women writers such as Alice Walker, Ntozake Shange and recently Sapphire, who presented less flattering portraits of African-American men.

The Black men accused these women of conspiring with White society’s attempt to continue demonizing Black men. And just as those men did with Walker, Shange and Sapphire, Ocol dismisses Lawino’s reality as mere fantasy and myth.

Clementine and European culture did a number on Ocol. He hates his people and the continent, what he called: the “Idle giant/ Basking in the sun,/ Sleeping, snoring,/ Twitching in dreams;/ Diseased with a chronic illness,/ Choking with black ignorance,/ Chained to the rock/ Of poverty,/ And yet laughing,/ Always laughing and dancing,/ The chains on his legs/ Jangling.”[9]

These thoughts of Africa (“Diseased with a chronic illness,/ Choking with black ignorance”) are not Ocol’s, but that of the European culture he embraces.

That Africa basks “in the sun” all day, “sleeping, snoring” and “twitching in dreams”; that it’s “always laughing and dancing” evokes the Coon image of Black men that dominated American movies and television during the early 20th century. The Coon is a character type that reinforces America’s stereotype of Black men as big, lazy children that would rather play than face responsibilities. (And that image hasn’t gone away. The media redressed that image for today’s movies and TV show sitcoms.)

Ocol’s words, in that context, make him a Tom, a character type also popular in 20th century films and television. The Tom image reinforces America’s stereotype of Black people who think Whites can do no wrong. Everything the White man has, the saying goes, the Toms got to have it. Lawino alluded to this earlier when she raised the question to Ocol: how can you embrace a culture that’s taught you self-hate?

(PHOTO: Ben+Sam)

When Okot p’Bitek published Song of Lawino & Song of Ocol in 1967, I don’t think he knew its relevance to the struggles of marginalized Americans.
At its heart, the conflict between Lawino and Ocol—old-style vs. what’s current—is really about education: those without access to proper resources vs. those privileged to have them.

In that context, Lawino’s a spokesperson for those disadvantaged because of poor schools, mediocre teachers and lack of decent books.
And Ocol’s a representative of those fortunate and privileged enough to excel in better learning environments.

While reading this book, I couldn’t help wondering what if Ocol had shared with Lawino what he learned from his travels instead of ridiculing her. And, if “education is a better safeguard of liberty,”[10] as a late politician and educator once put it, wouldn’t it have served Ocol to use the former colonizers’ tools against them instead of continuing that oppression on his wife and people? I think so.

However, Ocol’s disdain for his wife and ethnic customs make it difficult for him to see the error of his ways. He’s too busy throwing verbal hooks and uppercut, comparing Lawino’s lament to the “rotting buffalo/ Left behind by Fleeing poachers,/ Its nose blocked/ with house-flies/ Suckling bloody mucus,/ The eyes/ Two lumps of green-flies/ Feasting on crusts/ Of salty tears,/ Maggots wallowing/ In the pus/ In the spear wounds.”[11]

Ocol unwittingly sets himself up, again. If Lawino’s cries are the “rotting buffalo,” then Ocol’s added insult to injury are the house-flies in her nose. His insults are the “green-flies/ Feasting on” Lawino’s tears, and the “Maggots wallowing” in her wounds.

At its heart, Okot p’Bitek’s Song of Lawino & Song of Ocol is a story about irony that arises in Ocol’s superiority complex because of his advanced education. That’s the irony the late historian Will Durant alluded to, when he said, “Education is a progressive discovery of our own ignorance.”[12]


[1] Okot p’Bitek, Song of Lawino & Song of Ocol, Portsmouth: Heinemann Educational Publishers, 1967, 42.

[2] Ibid., 42-43

[3] Ibid., 44

[4] Ibid., 37

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., 121

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 125

[10] Edward Everett, Brainy Quote, 2001-2011, http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/topics/topic_education.html (August 2011)

[11] Op.Cite, 124

[12] Op.cite.

18 thoughts on “*Song of Lawino & Song of Ocol*: Colonialism’s Remnants in Africa

  1. Why dont we open OKOT P BITEK FOUNDATION? that has been my ideas always let the late be remember for his great contribution to Africa and the whole world.

    1. Millicen,

      Thanks for checking out this post, and for your suggestion! The topic of western vs. African ways is one I’m sure I could spend a lifetime working on. There’s so much there. I’ll definitely consider it once my time frees up (I’m settling into my role as a new husband; plus, I’m wrapping up grad school). Please spread the word about this blog to your friends! And come back 🙂

      1. love the analysis, am using the collection as my project topic, at Ahmadu nBello University Zaria Nigeria.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s