Brief: Who is Okot P’Bitek?

Okot p’Bitek's lyrical dramatic monologue, Song of Lawino, which first appeared in English in 1966. ILLUSTRATION | JOHN NYAGAH

Guest Post I Common Creative – 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 salt-less 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)

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.

“What they were teaching us was irrelevant to my experiences – Shakespeares and Shelleys”, he said later in life. 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. Licensed under the common creative.



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