Okot p’Bitek (1931 – 1982)

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“What they were teaching us was irrelevant to my experiences”

He was one of the original voices in 20th-Century East African poetry. Okot p’Bitek was a poet, anthropologist & social critic. He was born in Northern Uganda; in Gulu, to a family of Luo people. Okot p’Bitek’s mother was the leader of her clan, & a gifted singer & composer. Due to her influence p’Bitek grew up knowing all the Acholi folklore (Luo/Lwo), tales, proverbs & songs by heart. At the time, Uganda was very much still under hostage in colonial rule. p’Bitek went on to attend Gulu Highschool & King College, participating in the theatre & opera.
Okot p’Bitek published his first poem “The Lost Spear”; based on Luo folktale, & with a little influence from Longfellow’s poem “Hiawatha” while still a student. In 1953, he published his first novel.
Okot p’Bitek had a strong knack for football -soccer- ; he was a member of Uganda’s national team. Through this, he was able to tour Britain for a series of games, later deciding to take some roots, in order to further his education.
He then studied Law at the University of Wales at Aberystwyth & Social Anthropology at Oxford University. In 1963 p’Bitek wrote a thesis on the traditional songs of Acohli & Largo. Recalling his experiences abroad in the preface to his 1972 book; African Religions in Western Scholarship. Okot p’Bitek states; “During the very first lecture in the Institute of Social Anthropology the teacher kept referring to Africans or non-western peoples as barbarians, savages, primitive tribes etc.”
At the age of 33, p’Bitek returned to Uganda. He became a staff member in the Department of Sociology at Makerere University College, Kampala; 2 years after he became a tutor in another.

He was later appointed director of the National Theatre & National Cultural Centre in Kampala. In 1968 p’Bitek founded the Kisumu Arts Festival in Kenya. Although p’Bitek wrote various pieces of art; satirical monologues expressing the conflicts between African & European cultures, his most notable work to date is “The Song of Lawino”; a poem composed in Luo in rhyming couplets.

It was later translated to English, in which the translator himself admitted caused the poem to lose some of it’s original flare. Albeit turned down by multiple British publishers, in 1966 it became a bestseller & in 1971 the original Luo version was published. In 2001 a new English translation was published by Taban lo Liyong “The Defense of Lawino”, it was aimed to be closer to the original Acholi poem.
Okot p’Bitek frequently wrote articles with topics varying from literary criticism, anthropology, sociology & philosophy. He attacked reactionary modes of thoughts & the uncritical acceptance of western modernization.

He was criticized by his British observers for his “Afrocentric” views & cultural nationalism. In 1962, after he criticized Milton Obote; Uganda’s newly elected Prime Minister at the time, & Okot p’Bitek was declared persona non grata in his own country, forcing him to move to Kenya. There he became a Professor at the University of Nairobi teaching sociology & literature.

After a restoration of political stability to Uganda, Okot p’Bitek returned to Makerere as a professor of creative writing. On July 19, 1982 the legendary & beloved poet passed away due to an infection in his liver. However, his teachings remain.
Fun fact: His daughter; Jane Okot p’Bitek is also a renowned famous Panafricanist poet.

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