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Sunday, August 21, 2016

Hell hath no Fury... Song of Lawino by Okot P’Bitek



                                                                     'One does not uproot the pumpkin of the homestead' 
                                                                                                                                ~P'Bitek

Sharing one man—legally or illegally—is a source of conflict in many cultures, religions and societies all over the world. Many books filled with such interesting stories are all over—from the Desperate Housewives to the Mexican Soaps and real life dramas having sexual intrigues and marital discord as their selling point. The setting in the poetic narrative, Song of Lawino, is no different. Set in the dim pre-colonial Acholi community from the Northern Uganda, a village woman, Lawino, laments the loss of her husband Ocol, to her ‘rival’ Clementina.  

Lawino fights to keep her man in her bosom, and keep at bay her rival, Tina, ‘the beautiful one’ who has a head start for she’s educated, westernised and a modern woman. Lawino uses the weapon of tradition. She’s not against sharing her man, for polygamy is endorsed in her traditional community—whereas Tina who has seen the light, is single—but for the fact that her rival is having an affair with a married man by laying her ‘boob traps’ that ensnare any rich man through her wiles.
Polygamy is prestigious and admirable in Acholi culture, and there are well-defined rights and duties of a husband and wife. But a modern woman, her rival, her problem, is taking short cuts instead of coming out in the open and consummating her illicit affair. Lawino has no problem with polygamy—it’s not a big deal to share a man—but has a bone to pick with the character of her rival who is destroying the traditional marriage institution. 

Her husband gives her unfair demands—she has to learn how to read, become a Christian and modernize herself—a poor criteria of a good woman, if her own definition and qualification of an African woman is to go by. She finds it odd, for example, that the modern man, through Ocol, is preoccupied with time. He seems to be possessed and controlled by time, and not the other way round. In her traditional setting, she doesn’t even have a fixed time for breastfeeding. Time seem to control Ocol. He is left at the mercy of its elements and her time-conscious rival takes this into her stride. 

She admits her ignorance with anything modern but still needs a man she’s lost. In his rejoinder the husband, through his wry song (Song of Ocol), dismisses her and her tradition and confirms her assessment of negative character and experiences of the ordered western lifestyle. Ocol is incapable of responding to Lawino’s song and he is genuine in his lamenting song for the dying tradition. He confirms what Lawino suspects, that culture is unable to resist the glamour of civilisation. He celebrates the dying of culture—and its minions like Lawino—and embraces the new world without apologies. He agrees with Tina that not only must the old culture be destroyed but is also an inevitable necessity. 


Meanwhile, Lawino has to sing in her strange melody, without chorus and accompaniment. Indeed hard to sing for a woman jilted, and an impossible song to orchestrate on stage—lawino’s song. Her lamentations, like the traditions that have been trampled by the new civilisation, cries that if you abandon your culture in one hill, then it will be expecting you on the next hill! 

The modern African woman must be overwhelmed the new culture, while the old one may have died, but a woman scorned, perhaps not just yet. 

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