The year was 1966 when Okot p’Bitek’s lengthy poem, Song of Lawino, was published. Fifty years later, it is still recognised as one of the finest piece of literature to come out of East Africa.
That’s why on March 18, Makerere University’s department of Literature together with key players from the humanities and writing sector held a day-long symposium to celebrate the work and its author.
“We organised this to recognise and celebrate Ugandan literary icons that have left indelible marks on the East African literary scene and beyond,” said Dr Susan Kiguli, head of Literature department at Makerere. “In doing this we hope not just to stimulate and revisit critical and cultural debates that the publication of p’Bitek’s Song of Lawino provoked, but also revitalise Ugandan writing.”
The leading critic of African literature, Prof Simon Gikandi, in his keynote address, said Song of Lawino became a canonical literary text very early: “In 1972 the school edition was issued. Apart from the fact that students were reading it for exams, it was also read by the general public, using the language and debate in the book to carry out a conversation on cultural change.”
Prof Gikandi, who has produced an encyclopaedia on African literature, said in spite of the book being very important, it doesn’t always get taught as world literature in American or European universities because the Western world have a very limited notion of the world. “Song of Lawino speaks about a very specific world and Okot is aware of how that world is connected to the other world and one of the advantages of teaching the book is for it to help us expand the notion of the world.”
Prof Gikandi attributed the book’s lasting appeal to its resonance with the people. “The questions and the issues Okot was asking at the time are questions we still ask ourselves. We are always going through periods of cultural transition.”
The Luganda version
Three years after publishing Song of Lawino in English, Okot p’Bitek released the Acholi version because he wanted his book to be accessed in as many languages as possible.
It has since been translated into more than 30 languages; German, French, Spanish, and Indonesian, among others. And during the symposium, its first Luganda version, Omulanga gwa Lawino by Prof Abasi Kiyimba was launched.
In a country where even people with formal education struggle to express themselves in the English language, having our finest literature translated into local languages is certainly a progressive move.
As Austin Bukenya commented: “Song of Lawino is the jewel of East African and Ugandan literature. Its translation and making it available to people who do not necessarily speak English is a very remarkable achievement.”
Joshua Kigongo, a teacher of Luganda at Oxford High School in Kyebando, said the Luganda translation will help his students to “gain a deeper understanding and appreciation of the language” and hopefully inspire them to write powerfully in the local language.
Isaac Ssettuba, an expert in Luganda, said Prof Kiyimba struck a good balance between the spirit and the letter although for personal reasons he said he would have preferred the title to have a direct translation, ‘Oluyimba gwa Lawino’ not ‘Omulanga gwa Lawino’. “Omulanga is more serious, it’s a call, appeal.”
Gains from the conference
Jimmy Muhangi, a student of literature at Makerere University, who performed a 14-stanza recital of the ‘Buffalos of Poverty Knocking People Down’ from the Song of Lawino said: “There would be no life without inspiration, and all the speakers and writers at the symposium are faces of inspiration that have left me with a creative longing to work harder and represent the face of literature some day.” Such conferences, said novelist Goretti Kyomuhendo, could provide the spark for a reading and writing renaissance reminiscent of the golden years of Ugandan literature – the 1960s.
“Developments in the sciences are very important but no society can call itself a civilization without a thriving arts and culture industry,” said UPC party president Olara Otunnu.
Prof Mahmood Mamdani talked about “hard power and soft power”. Hard power is wielded by rulers and soft power by common people through their culture. “Culture is what makes us human beings and that’s what Song of Lawino is about.”
“We need more literary conferences because they give us the conviction that we can make it like Okot p’Bitek did,” said Judith Uwimana, a student of literature.
Prof Taban lo Liyong’s word to aspiring writers is to work real hard. “Not everybody who puts pen to paper is a writer,” he said. “Writing is difficult. You’ve to know the language fully enough to express what your thoughts are.”
About Okot p’bitek
Born June 7,1931, in Gulu, this poet with international acclaim to his name for the famous Song of Lawino died July 20, 1982. He self-translated the English version from which Omulanga gwa Lawino was formed.
He followed Song of Lawino with the pendant Song of Ocol (1970), the husband’s reply, Defence of Lawino, White Teeth and Modern Cookery among other works.
Song of Lawino translated into luganda
As the legendary poetic work of Okot p’Bitek’s Song of Lawino marks 50 years, the literary fraternity across Uganda met to celebrate it with a translated version Omulanga gwa Lawino. Translated by Prof Abasi Kiyimba, this Luganda text is a successful treatise of an attempt to tell our own stories; by our own people.
Prof Kiyimba paid critical attention to the language in Omulanga Gwa Lawino, staying true to Bitek’s meaning despite the word/lingual changes.
“Much as we are saying he eliminated most words in English, it is still a good text, because there are words you can speak in English but cannot say in your local language,” said Rosemary Nakasolya, a Luganda scholar and teacher at Mityana SS.
Kiyimba cleverly rephrased verses like my husband’s anger is “...hot like the penis of a bee...” to simply obusungu bwe “tebumanyi Njuki”. In English, that translation would mean my husband’s anger ‘does not compare to a bee”.
Therefore, the aspect of language, culture and representation was a very large part of discussion at the symposium.
While he was not present to defend his treatise owing to ailment, a consensus was reached that translating it the way he did was marvellous. Charles Kamulegeya also a Luganda scholar said, “It does not take away from the text with text. Even Bitek must have had trouble translating from Acholi to English but at least he is the original author.”
“Translation from English to Luganda, pertaining to the differences in Acholi culture to Buganda should have been tricky. But we appreciate what Prof Kiyimba did,” he said. Prof Kiyimba still maintained general themes in the text.
Justice James Ogoola, the guest of honour, launched the book at Makerere University Main hall, hosted by the university’s Literature department. Panel discussions studied the language, thematic concerns like neo colonialism, immorality, culture, the representation of women in the text and Prof Kiyimba’s choice maintain Bitek’s Acholi words as in Song of Lawino.