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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Songs of soldiers : decolonizing political memory through poetry and song Okot Bitek, Juliane


In January 1979, a ship ferrying armed Ugandan exiles and members of the Tanzanian army sank on Lake Victoria. Up to three hundred people are believed to have died on that ship, at least one hundred and eleven of them Ugandan. There is no commemoration or social memory of the account. This event is uncanny, incomplete and yet is an insistent memory of the 1978-79 Liberation war, during which the ship sank. From interviews with Ugandan war veterans, and in the tradition of the Luo-speaking Acholi people of Uganda, I present wer, song or poetry, an already existing form of resistance and reclamation, as a decolonizing project. Drawing from political memory in postcolonial, African, Black, Indigenous and Diaspora studies, I argue that truth-telling, a fundamental aspect of reconciliation and restoration of justice among the Acholi, can be achieved through poetic expression. This dissertation extends the technical definition of Okot p’Bitek’s Song school of poetry to include form and content and the space for social and political commentary in various voices and landscapes. The poet as historian, and the artist as ruler, both Okot p’Bitek’s concepts, are illustrated through “Songs of Soldiers”. This work is deeply rooted in displacement and the desire to return – continuing factors in where and how I think about and articulate myself.

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