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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Form and value in the poetry of Okot p’Bitek Igwe, Bernard Ezuma

Abstract

This study maintains that any principled reading of the poems of Okot p'Bitek will have to start with the recognition of them as aesthetic objects created by an artist who is deeply concerned with the nature of, and the problems facing, traditional African culture, vis-a-vis the political and social realities of modern African nations. Literary creativity in the pre-scientific cultures of Africa is realised through a performer who possesses a repertoire of permanent records, including utterances and the various forms of songs and dances. All those parts of the utterance which are outside the permanent records are areas in which the performer is left free choice, and judgment on the comparative excellence of the performance depends upon the choices he makes. Okot p'Bitek has consciously chosen the role of such a performer in order to grapple with the relationship between the individual and the culture that encloses him. The form of the poems is thus crucial for understanding their meaning, for it is conceived as a song which carries through the voice of the individual as he sings about the meaning of life in the particular human society in which he finds himself. The song is projected towards listeners who not only watch to see that traditional ethic is left inviolate, but also judge the performer's skill in manoeuvring within the areas society allows him. There are four kinds of performers. In the Song of Lawino, the performer is a woman whose husband has abandoned the traditional African culture for a new 'modern', European one. This threat to the stable order of traditional society will not be tolerated, of course, by her conservative audience. In presenting this threat to them, however, Lawino is careful to slip in enough of her own personal wishes, anxieties, opinions and triumphs to make the song an elaborate panegyric on herself. The performer in the Song of Ocol is ill at ease in traditional society and is brash enough to say so. His song is a failure not because he seeks to destroy his inherited tradition but it is due to a deep-seated weakness in his character as an individual. He does not have an acute perception of the relationship between himself and the reality around him, hence his inability to see even the areas of freedom society allows. Where he fails, the prisoner succeeds. In his song, the prisoner starts from the position of outcast from society and culture and ends by turning himself into the principle of freedom in society. If his performance depicts the individual's ability to rise above circumstance and contingency, the Song of Malaya portrays the opposite. The malaya is one who has deliberately chosen life outside the moral boundaries of society. Okot suggests, as in the case of Ocol, that the true individual is one who will live in traditional culture, even in spite of itself. Freedom from societal tyranny is earned, not usurped, and the individual attains it because he has the strength and skill to struggle for it. There is thus a thread that runs through the four songs. That thread is the poet's own performance. What he achieves is a subtle examination of one moral problem from four perspectives. His conclusion seems to be that here is no conflict when society is seen in terms of the separate individuals who are part of it. If there is a threat to it, or injustice against its members, it is the individual in any of the guises he may assume, who is ultimately responsible.

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