By Emmanuel Ssejjengo
Margaret Macpherson: Okot, why do you use sex symbols in your works? Must you be obscene?
Okot p’Bitek: Why not? Anyway, if it’s obscene, why do you carry it to church?
This is an attempt to re-construct a conversation that took place between two art academic personalities more than 50 years ago.
Macpherson then taught Literature in English at Makerere University and also played a central role in founding the department of Music, Dance and Drama.
It is from this conversion that the character of Okot p’Bitek came clear. He was obstinate; a man who did not do things by the book; especially if he thought that “book” was the wrong one. He was ready to go against all odds, against the establishment to liberate himself, and his people.
Even at his most serious moments, humour never deserted him. He belonged to the era of post-colonial (anti-colonial) writers like Chinua Achebe and Ngugu wa Thiong’o.
He was a sociologist, novelist, philosopher, theologian, footballer (on the national football team in 1958), dancer, actor and politician, although he is most remembered as a poet for his seminal long poem; Song of Lawino.
Yet during his time, he could also have been considered a rebel. He fought academic disciplines like social anthropology because he considered them a justification for colonialism. It was wrong to teach such in African universities, he surmised.
Such rebellion is evident in his use of African forms of poetry.
Okot is credited with introducing the song “school” in poetry. However, there have been counter-arguments that he cannot have created with what existed in oral form. He followed the popular Song of Lawino (Lawino was his mother’s name) with such titles as Song of Ocol, Song of Prisoner and Song of Malaya.
His father, Jebedayo Opii Bitek, was a renowned story teller and dancer from the Patiko chiefdom while his mother, Cerina Lawino Lacwaa, was a famous dancer and song composer, a one-time leader of the girls in Palaro chiefdom.
His parentage definitely inspired him in terms of style and theme. That background has produced another generation of poets like Jane Okot (Song of Farewell) and Juliane Okot Bitek (recipient of the 2004 Commonwealth short story contest), two of Okot p’Bitek’s daughters.
Having been born on June 30, 1931, it meant that by the time the independence movement took shape, he was mature enough (physically and mentally) to throw his weight behind a conviction that would liberate Uganda culturally and artistically. He was a Budonian who had the opportunity of studying in prestigious universities like Oxford.
Towards independence in 1962, he returned to Uganda and intended to stand as the UPC candidate for Gulu, but later changed his mind. He researched a lot on the oral literature of the Acholi and the Langi.
Soon after his degree, he worked in Gulu for the extra-mural department of Makerere University (then Makerere College).
While in Gulu, he was central in the creation of the Gulu Festival. He was a performer and organiser. He devised ways of adapting traditional songs into festival performances; something akin to what the likes of Ndere Troupe does today.
Okot was involved in the formation of a large and successful traditional dance group called The Heartbeat of Africa.
In 1966, he moved to Kampala.
While in the capital, the real force of his revolutionary ideas were felt when he tried to change the emphasis of the Uganda National Cultural Centre (commonly referred to as the National Theatre) from mainly foreign to indigenous works.
Then the National Theatre offered entertainment for mainly White expatriate audiences. Could the local artistes fame be a result of changed public attitudes, be a result of Okot p’Bitek’s wars against what were the established norms then?
For his determination and untiring advocacy, he was appointed the director of the National Theatre. He was passionate about his newly independent Uganda and, in a feat of patriotism, organised an eight day festival to coincide with the independence celebrations of 1968.
Exile and return
But his activities at the National Theatre did not go down well with the powers at the time. While returning from a trip to Zambia he learnt that he had been dismissed. The explanation for his dismissal was his strong criticism of politicians in Song of Lawino and elsewhere.
After the dismissal, he worked at the University of Nairobi, University of Iowa, University of Texas at Austin and the University of Ife in Nigeria. He remained in exile during Idi Amin’s regime, returning to Makerere University in 1982 to teach creative writing.
He has influenced generations of artists. In trying to “Africanise the English language”, he is credited with inspiring so many authors that are now able to freely express themselves in an English language that still exposes the Ugandan nuances.
Such has been his prowess that Song of Lawino (first published as Wer per Lawino in Acholi) was recently re-translated by another scholar and poet, Taban La Liyong. Taban felt that Okot’s own translation had not done justice to Wer per Lawino.
Okot p’Bitek died at his Kololo residence on Tuesday July 20, 1982. He had, for the previous two days or so, been complaining of persistent headache for which he had received medical treatment a day before he died. Contrary to the common belief that Okot died of excessive drinking, the Mulago Hospital medical death certificate clearly states that the cause of Okot’s death was “hemorrhage caused by head injury on the right side of the head inflicted by some blunt object.”
Okot p’Bitek was a hard nut to crack as far as principle was concerned. How a blunt object could snatch such a sharp brain from us will remain a mystery to many.
Lak Tar Miyo Kinyero Wi Lobo (White Teeth)
Song of Lawino ( Wer pa Lawino)
Song of Ocol
Religion of the Central Luo, 1971
Two Songs: Song of a Prisoner, Song of Malaya
African Religions in Western Scholarship
Africa’s Cultural Revolu tion
Horn of My Love
Hare and Hornbill
Artist, the Ruler: Essays on Art, Culture and Values
What did p’Bitek do to develop Uganda?
Benjamin Kiwanuka, a teacher;
He was a classic poet whose books have inspired Ugandans intellectually and shaped their world views.
Aruu County MP, Odonga Otto:
He marketed Uganda locally and abroad more than Uganda has marketed him. He deserves a Katonga Award for that!
Philip Luswata, the director Theatre Factory;
Okot’s contribution was definately immense, we would not be talking about him now. Many poets are trying to emulate his style, even in theatre!
Stephen Rwangyezi, the director Ndere Troupe;
Okot is the most influential person in literature. His poetry was Ugandan, promoted African values and was written in simple and touching style. Others are a photocopying his style.
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Okot p’Bitek fought to liberate Uganda’s culture