I like Okot P’Bitek’s Song of Lawino. It taught me how to enjoy the long poem and led me to other book-length poems by William Carlos Williams (Paterson), Lyn Hejinian (My Life), and M. NourbeSe Philip (Zong!). I am a huge, huge fan of the long poem. Much as Song of Lawino might be understood as masculinist and conservative—a space where “the” African woman represents the sacredness of tradition—it was also the first space where I encountered an African woman speaking in a book-length work. I did not know then how to write about a penile signature, how to think about ventriloquism, how to critique appropriation: I understood what I was reading as the voice of an African woman. This could be dismissed as naïveté. One might rightly indict my unlearning at that point. But I want to hold on to what that unknowing made possible: the realization that women could speak entire books. Was I a feminist before I discovered this? I don’t know. I do know that when I later encountered feminist claims about women having voice, Lawino had prepared the way.
Reading Song of Lawino also prepared me for Muthoni Likimani’s What does a Man Want? (which, totally, needs to be made available on kindle, especially since I can’t find my copy right now!) and for David Maillu’s urban feminism. I’m going to weave in and out of Song of Lawino and After 4:30 to consider the dialogue they enact, and what it might mean to read them as part of a Kenyan male tradition of writing women in verse.
P’Bitek’s work still excites me because of its formal ambition. Here’s the pre-text to the volume:
Translated from the Acoli by the author who has thus clipped a bit of the eagle’s wings and rendered the sharp edges of the warrior’s sword rusty and blunt, and has also murdered rhythm and rhyme.
No doubt, I’m missing much of the reference—what does he mean by “eagle’s wings” and what is this “warrior’s sword” business?—and I’m too lazy to look up scholarship at the moment, but certainly one could take this 1966 pronouncement in the spirit of Kamau Brathwaite’s later calls against “pentameter” in History of the Voice and, more locally, in the spirit of the call to expand notions of the literary at the University of Nairobi. Note, also, that the “warrior’s sword,” that penile object, is not being rescued or valorized: if it represents the cutting edge of colonizing language, it is being dulled by translation. Here, the aesthetic is enacting politically necessary work—what Taban lo Liyong will call “lexicographicide.” (As a side note, I’m incredibly grateful to the KCSE examiners who decided we should learn this short story; it remains one of the reasons I attempted to study literature, as I was captivated by how much I did not understand. Read it. It’s worth it.)
Enough delay. Here are the opening lines to Song of Lawino:
Husband, now you despise me
Now you treat me with spite
And say I have inherited the stupidity of my aunt;
Son of the Chief,
Now you compare me
With the rubbish in the rubbish pit,
You say you no longer want me
Because I am like the things left behind
In the deserted homestead
And, perhaps, more familiar lines:
Ocol says he is a modern man,
A progressive and civilized man,
He says he has read extensively and widely
And he can no longer live with a thing like me
Who cannot distinguish between good and bad,
He says I am just a village woman,
I am of the old type,
And no longer attractive.
Many readers have suggested that P’Bitek fetishizes the past: he wants “things” to remain “as they were.” This is a profound misreading. Lawino is not “against” progress: she is against the arrogance deemed progress. An arrogance that persists in the genocidal fantasies we have toward pastoralist and border communities. Why, we demand, can’t they “enter modernity?”
For me, Song of Lawino has always meant one name: Clementine!
Ocol rejects the old type.
He is in love with a modern woman,
He is in love with a beautiful girl
Who speaks English.
Ocol is no longer in love with the old type.
He is in love with a modern girl;
The name of the beautiful one
Her lips are red-hot
Like glowing charcoal,
She resembles the wild cat
That has dipped its mouth in blood,
Her mouth is like raw yaws
It looks like an open ulcer,
Like the mouth of a fiend!
Tina dusts powder on her face
And it looks so pale;
She resembles the wizard
Getting ready for the midnight dance.
This rendering of Clementine continues for a while and takes an interesting turn:
I am not angry
With the woman with whom
I share my husband,
I do not fear to compete with her.
All I ask
Is that my husband should stop the insults,
My husband should refrain
From heaping abuses on my head.
Lawino admits that she might be suffering from “jealousy,” but she does not reject the modern woman; instead, she rejects the logic that refuses to accept multiple spaces, multiple traditions, multiple temporalities, multiple forms and practices of beauty. Seen in this way, Song of Lawino embraces erotic heterogeneity, refusing the narrowing impulses of what is deemed “progress” and “civilization,” those things incarnated as directed highways with definite trajectories. Does it, at the same time, naturalize male promiscuity? Excuse it, even? I’d say so.
But what is Clementine’s life like? What is the world of the urban woman? Maillu offers a partial answer in the figure of Lili Mbemba, a secretary who refuses her boss’s clumsy advances. Here’s his reaction to her rejection:
I was amazed, astonished
D’you think you would’ve done me
a great favour by letting me
enter your thing?
May I remind you that
I’ve got a million admirers?
To be very frank with you, surely
there’s nothing important about you
You’re just a cheap Akamba girl
from the bush, very primitive
carrying a bloody filthy thing
between your legs, possibly
devoured by a deadly disease!
Lili’s cousin, the main speaker in After 4:30, sounds much like Lawino when she claims,
We should keep the countryside
the countryside is our only hope
for bringing up better people
morally stronger. . . .
This is a surprising turn that allies P’Bitek and Maillu: this yearning for a “pure” space, though I’d insist that it’s a nostalgic yearning. Song of Lawino demonstrates that the “unpolluted” countryside no longer exists. Because I’ve been writing on mourning, I’m tempted to claim this is about mourning. But this is my tic. So I’ll let it go.
Clementine, as Lili in Maillu, is in a precarious position, as she registers to her boss:
D’you remember that you tore my pants
and when I refused to submit to you
you began to vomit on me
such bitter words
saying that I was too primitive
And this precarity extends to wives who cannot trust their husband. When Lili’s boss’s wife confronts him about his infidelity, patriarchy asserts its silencing rhetoric:
And by the way, woman
you’re getting in my nerves!
You’ve got to discipline
that sharp tongue of yours
or else I lose my temper and
pluck it out!
You, say that again and see
how many of your silly teeth
I will shatter with a violent blow!
D’you really know me?
Woman, have you got an idea
who is talking to you?
D’you mistake me for a woman
wearing a man’s clothes?
Sit down there!
And on it goes.
One can certainly read P’Bitek and Maillu as romantics who fetishize an atavistic rurality unsullied by the gender-unmaking of colonial modernity. And I don’t think such an interpretation is entirely wrong. But, it’s not clear to me where that gets us. Instead, I want to suggest that these two figures, one revered as the “father” of contemporary Kenyan poetry and the other maligned for his urban “pornography,” take up the urgent question of women’s roles in the patriarchal nation. Read together, they pose questions that we have yet to address in any substantive way. In positing them as opposing figures, P’Bitek representing tradition and Maillu modernity, we have missed their deep engagements with African feminism. If Maillu is more obviously feminist, and I’d argue he is, he also offers us a way to read P’Bitek through a feminist lens.
Song of Lawino is published in 1966 and After 4:30 in 1974. I am interested in what a post-independence history of Kenyan male feminism might look like in, say, the first fifteen years after 1963. What names could be included? How could we read those engagements with feminism? How might we read the absence of such efforts now? (This is, perhaps, a too-broad claim, but I want to see what work it can do.) And what might it mean to read canonical against un-canonical authors?