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Song Of Lawino makes 50 as Omulanga Gwa Lawino

Makerere last week convened a symposium to honour poet Okot p' Bitek. JOHN MUSINGUZI was on hand to capture the mood as literary greats also embraced a translation of his book Song of Lawino to Luganda, by Prof Abasi Kiyimba.

Part of the gathering as Dr Simon Gikandi of Princeton University spoke during the launch of Omulanga gwa Lawino

It was such a big event that FEMRITE, Fountain Publishers, Ethiopian Airlines and five offices/departments of Makerere combined to fund the day-long session that attracted lecturers, teachers and students from many Ugandan universities and secondary schools.

The day-long function dubbed ‘Song of Lawino @ 50 symposium’ included Acholi dances, readings and performances from the book in English and Luganda, critiques, speeches on Okot the man and his times and testimonies by people who worked with him and his contemporaries. Makerere University’s deputy vice chancellor for Academic Affairs, Dr Ernest Okello Ogwang, summed up the mood.

“This is a festival celebrating Okot p’Bitek the man who raised Uganda onto the literary limelight, Song of Lawino the book, the beauty of literature, translation and a lot more,” said Okello Ogwang.

Okot’s poem Song of Lawino was first published in Acholi language in the 1950s as Wer pa Lawino. His friend and colleague Prof Taban Lo Liyong, now a lecturer at the University of Juba, in South Sudan, speculates that it must have been penned in 1949, when Okot was still in secondary school. With the assistance of his mother, Okot brought up a second version in the 1950s which was longer and with more satirical.

He later self-translated it into English and had it published in 1966. Charles Okumu of Gulu University, who is working on a biography of Okot, said chapter 14 of Wer pa Lawino became too difficult even for the author to translate, prompting him to stop at chapter 13!


The occasion included the launch of a Luganda translation of the book done by Prof Abasi Kiyimba of Makerere University. Unfortunately, Prof Kiyimba did not attend the launch of his Omulanga gwa Lawino as he was ill.

However, the keynote speaker, Prof Simon Gikandi of Princeton University, also a former student of Okot, said the book underwent several editions to cater for changing readerships and demands. A school edition came out in 1972, which became a set book for secondary school students of literature in East Africa. Presently, the book is available in 30 languages.

Prof Simon Gikandi of Princeton University makes his keynote speech

Song of Lawino is a long poem by Lawino, an Acholi woman who complains and comments about her Western educated and baptized Christian husband Ocol.

Ocol, the son of a traditional chief, is an arrogant and culturally-alienated husband who has fallen in love with a Westernised woman, Clementine. He answers back in the poem Song of Ocol, published in English in 1967.

“Besides being a school set book, Song of Lawino became an instant hit … it helped people to close the boundary between the public and the private, and delve into politics and contemporary issues with ease,” Gikandi said.

Gikandi argued that although sometimes the poem is misunderstood as a lament about the lost traditional culture of the Acholi, Okot was not asking readers to choose between Lawino and Ocol, but to pay attention to the two competing cultures and fit in the times. 


Okot p’Bitek was born on July 20, 1931 in Gulu.  His mother Cerina Lacwaa, a highly-gifted traditional singer and composer, had a huge influence on the young and grown-up Okot than his schoolteacher and catechist father, Opii Bitek. She taught him many songs and tales and encouraged him to learn many Acholi proverbs and folklore.

The man, who acquired degrees in law, education and literature in UK in the 1950s, later became a literary and educational phenomenon in Gulu, Kampala, Nairobi and Kisumu, before he died in 1982.


Though the direct translation of song in Luganda would be oluyimba, Rose Nantumbwe, a teacher at Aggrey Memorial SS Bunamwaya, explained that Kiyimba preferred to use the word omulanga which translates as call, appeal or wailing. She said Kiyimba settled for ‘appeal’.

“This book took Kiyimba 10 years to translate because it was not an easy task. The translator chose to use simple Luganda, avoiding deep Luganda idioms. He used very short stanzas and he left many words in Acholi but provided a glossary of such names and terms. He endeavoured to preserve the Luo culture by deliberately not translating a number of Luo words. He also softened certain obscene terms and abusive words. Besides relying on the English translation, he had to make several consultations with Acholi speakers,” Nantumbwe explained.

However, there was criticism that Kiyimba’s translation seems to be too moralistic. “Morality doesn’t mean being nice. I will one time write an essay on the morality of the [supposed] immorality in Song of Lawino,”said Okot Benge, a lecturer at Makerere University.


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