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Akinlabi Peter
Amanda Sington-Williams
A M Gatward
Ayat Ghanem
Bobby Parker
Chuma Nwokolo, Jr.
Dike Okoro
E C Osondu
Katie Metcalfe
Laura Solomon
Mandy Pannett
Michael Larrain
Oge Anyahuru
Terri Ochiagha
Uzor Maxim Uzoatu




Okot p’Bitek at Ife: Days of Dance, Dreams and Drinks


By Uzor Maxim Uzoatu


The urge to go the university was not to earn a degree, but to hang out with writers. And lionized writers do not come any greater than Professor Wole Soyinka whose name I traced down to the department he was heading at the then University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University), before I filled in the university entrance examination forms. I got to Ife and Soyinka was there with a supporting cast of engaging characters, but it was Okot p’Bitek, the inimitable Ugandan author of Song of Lawino who took over my life completely for the period he spent at the university. Soyinka, like his art, could be aloof, but Okot was readily accessible and a charming man of disarming simplicity who drank beer and whisky with all in fetching fellowship and would not want to be referred to as “Prof” or whatever title.


            “Just call me Okot,” he always said in his soft, cooing voice. Between 1978 and 1980 at Ife Okot was the issue. It was while Soyinka’s lad Francis was taking me to the great man’s refrigerator for yet another beer session on a certain campus afternoon that I ran into Okot the Ugandan. He did not wait to hear the personable Francis out before he turned to me and said: “Let’s go and drink!” Okot could not understand why I should be wandering to an absent Soyinka’s beer when his was ready to hand!


            The drinking with Okot lasted till late in the night, and resumed very early the next morning. It was a process that continued until Okot left Ife, and there was hardly any space between the drinking bouts for hangover to get a look-in!


            The son of a prominent Protestant family from Gulu in the northern region of Uganda, Okot was born in 1931. He published a novel, Lak Tar, in his native Acholi language in 1953. He revealed that he had earlier written a poem entitled “The Long Spear” as well as composing an opera in English modeled after Mozart’s “The Magic Flute”. Okot could not really be brought into recounting the details of his juvenilia, save to say that the novel Lak Tar told the sad story of a young man who travelled to the city of Kampala to earn the bride-price for his sweetheart, only to end up coming back to the village broke after being robbed of the pittance he had earned.


            In addition to his interest in literature, Okot was at once a choirmaster, schoolteacher, local politician and an ardent footballer. It was in fact for his prowess in the football field that he earned his early renown. He was in the squad of the Ugandan national team that travelled to the United Kingdom in 1958. He was an enchanting dribbler who left his opponents kicking the grass in his wake. While other members of the team went back to Uganda Okot stayed on in the UK to further his studies. He earned a Diploma in Education at Bristol University, England. He would later bag a Law degree from the University of Aberystwyth in 1962 before ending up at Oxford University to study Social Anthropology. A polymath, Okot excelled in diverse fields.


            According to Kojo Senanu and Theo Vincent in A Selection of African Poetry, Okot’s study of Social Anthropology “has become an abiding passion and in some sense has enabled him to study in great depth the oral literature, culture and traditions of his people. His poetry is not only the outcome of his findings, but is also fortified by a rich blend of native traditional literary forms and acquired English forms. p’ Bitek’s poetry represents one of the best examples of African poetry to successfully express African ideas in European forms, retaining the lyric freshness and simplicity of the songs of his own tribe, the Acholi, and using personal imagery. The distinct result has no comparison in the whole range of African poetry.”


            A student of traditional songs and divinities, Okot who had lost his Christian faith while studying abroad returned to Uganda to organize the Gulu festival of song and dance. The original version of the classic Song of Lawino was written in the Acholi language and was titled Wer pa Lawino. In the words of Okot, the song was “translated from the Acholi 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.”


Song of Lawino became an immediate phenomenon on publication in 1966. Bookshops could not stock enough copies, and the East African Publishing House was hard-pressed to meet with reprint demands. Okot won more fans for poetry than all the other African poets put together. While the general readers celebrated Okot, the politicians felt threatened. Okot in fact lost his job as the director of the Uganda Cultural Centre because of his strident lampoon of politicians in Song of Lawino. The best critic of the poem, according to Okot, was an enraged woman who broke a bottle on Okot’s head while he was drinking in a Gulu bar with his friends. The woman whose name was Tina pointedly accused Okot that she was the Clementine lampooned in the poem. Okot bore the scar of the wound till his death! Who says poetry makes nothing happen?  


            Song of Ocol, the husband’s reply to Lawino, was published in 1967. Writing in Books Abroad, Richard F. Bauerle states: “Together Song of Lawino and Song of Ocol constitute a heated debate over the future of Africa. In graphic metaphor and with dramatic intensity, p’Bitek presents the conflict between the new and old, and in the process reveals a remarkable sensitivity to the values of both.”


            Okot also published Two Songs, made up of “Song of Prisoner” and “Song of Malaya”. The interesting story behind the writing of “Song of Prisoner” is Okot’s imprisonment after getting drunk in Uganda. He had visited some friends and took to many bottles until his friends put him on a train to send him away. The train passengers accused him of disturbing them with his noise and had him locked up overnight. In the morning he asked to talk to the district commissioner so as to contact his wife. His jailers were shocked to discover that the “vagrant” knew the big man who instantly kowtowed to Okot by ordering his immediate release from captivity. Okot wrote the poem in the weekend following the murder of the prominent politician Tom Mboya who was equally his drinking companion.


            “Song of Malaya” was inspired by the hypocritical arrest of prostitutes by Ugandan potentates who use the women. Actually some of the men were actually pulled off the women in order to make the arrests!


            In 1978, just before coming to Nigeria, Okot published his translation of Acholi stories in the volume Hare and Hornbill. His translation of Acholi songs and poetry is entitled The Horn of my Love.


            As a scholar Okot published African Religions in Western Scholarship in 1971 and Africa’s Cultural Revolution in 1975. His disagreement with John Mbiti, the distinguished authority on religious studies, is total.


            The stories Okot told me of his life can fill a very large book, but only a fraction will suffice here. After his dismissal from the directorship of the Uganda Cultural Centre, Okot was employed by Kenya’s University of Nairobi where he enjoyed a healthy rivalry with emerging East African writers such as Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Taban lo Liyong.


            During the years of Idi Amin’s reign of terror, Okot’s visits to Uganda became fraught with danger. For instance, when Okot travelled to his hometown Gulu for the burial of his father, he was at a ceremony where Idi Amin caught sight of him and exploded in rage: “Get him! He is one of our enemies!”


            One of Idi Amin’s cabinet ministers who happened to be a friend of Okot ensured that the arrest was not brutal. The minister actually helped Okot to escape by literally forcing the adamant poet to put on a coat before pushing him into the ministerial convoy for a death-defying drive across the Ugandan border! It was the narrowest of escapes, but Okot concerned himself more with complaining that he was against his will made to put on a suite and wave to the roadside crowds like a minister!


            Okot’s arrival in Nigeria and at Ife foreshadowed a time of great drama and high jinks. The delegation sent from Ife to meet Okot at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Lagos, missed the man. Okot on his own hired a cab for the journey to Ife. He was hoping to put up with his friend David Rubadiri, the Malawian poet who had also taken up an appointment with the University of Ife.


            “I suddenly barged into David’s room and I was disappointed that I did not catch him making out with a Yoruba woman!” Okot said, laughing.


            Okot was yet to get a breather when Soyinka came in. Then there was a knock on the door, according to Okot’s account, and in stepped JP Clark who was not then on speaking terms with Soyinka. A heavy silence descended on the room. Okot tried to make the most of the embarrassing moment but his two visitors would not play ball. JP had driven all the way from his post as a professor in the University of Lagos when he heard of Okot’s arrival at Ife. In the end, one of the poets stormed out for sanity to prevail.


            Getting Africa’s three leading poets into such a charged room is the stuff of which legends are made, and Okot happens to be a legend and legend-maker. He told me of a reading he had overseas, and how a particular girl appeared to be enjoying his delivery more than the others. He later invited the girl over to his hotel suite, and he was about to start “touching” when the girl told Okot that “Mum wants you at home for dinner.” It was then it dawned on Okot that the girl was actually his daughter!


            “I nearly made love to my daughter!” Okot lamented. Laughing, I quoted his words from his poem “Song of Prisoner”: I want to suck the stiff breasts/ Of my wife’s younger sister.” He leered at me, and ordered yet another round of beer and whisky.


            Okot always held court at the bar in the foyer of Oduduwa Hall, the big theatre of the university. Anything could happen during those drinking sessions. The Deputy Vice-Chancellor accosted Okot one day and said: “This is wrong, Professor p’Bitek. How can you take your students out to drink?”

            Okot stared at the man for a good minute before saying: “You must have gone to a bush university or you would have known that professors share drinks with their students. By the way, why do you part your hair?” The man fled!


            The proprietress of the bar once remonstrated with Okot on not clearing the huge bill he had accumulated and the poet promptly told the woman: “I am sure your husband didn’t do you well last night. When you go home, tell him to f—k you thoroughly!” And the woman, too, fled!


            Even with the talk of unpaid bills, Okot would order a big bottle of White Horse whisky for the great actress Florence Toun Oni who had joined the table. Presenting the whisky with a flourish Okot blew a kiss to the smiling lady. Watching in a safe distance the proprietress simply shook her head. A friend of mine, Patrick Izobo-Agbebeaku who would later make history as the first university graduate bus conductor in Nigeria, demanded to see Okot’s debts. Patrick wondered aloud why the madam should be insulting “Prof Okot for a small amount of money”. Okot quickly shut up my friend with these words: “If you think it’s a small amount, then pay!” 


            Okot would not use the urinary of the bar, stressing that the place was dirty. Motioning to me, Okot started out of the bar. I got the message. He only made use of the Vice-Chancellor’s toilet which he said was the only clean toilet in the entire campus. It was drizzling, and I pointed at the falling rain.


            “Come on, the rain makes you grow,” Okot said to me, walking in the rain.

            Walking with him up the staircase, we came into the office of the VC’s half-caste secretary. “Watch me do some beautiful things to this beautiful woman,” Okot said, grabbing at the lady who ducked and ran.


            Okot felt then that I was a fully-formed poet who had no business being a student. It was under his influence that I wrote the long poem “When I Shall Marry (Eater of my Wealth)” which was published in the university’s arts magazine Sokoti.


            “Sharpen your pen!” This was the unique piece of advice I got from Okot on the art of writing. He discussed everything but the nitty-gritty of creative writing. I once tried to discuss Wole Soyinka’s novel The Interpreters with him. Picking up the book, he said: “Fine book by my friend Soyinka.” Then he tossed the book aside and said, “Let’s go and drink.”


            He told me he was working on a book on his experiences in Nigeria to be dedicated to me. To him, everybody in Nigeria was a lizard, starting from the country’s leader who was the big lizard then based in Lagos. He had actually written the first line of the book which goes thus: “The lizard says he is coming, but the lizard never comes.” Whatever became of the book is in the lap of the gods. There was also mention of a long poem entitled “Song of Soldier.”


            He would not discuss his fellow writers except to say, for instance, that Chinua Achebe is “a beautiful man.” He told the story of how Ugandans broke down and cried when Achebe was flying back to Biafra during the Nigerian Civil War after a visit to Kampala. The East Africans could not bear the thought of not seeing the author of Things Fall Apart ever again as had happened to Christopher Okigbo.


            Okot took ill towards the end of his stay at Ife. He discharged himself from the hospital on regaining consciousness. He got back to his house to discover that all the drinks and alcohol had been removed. He was dying to have a quick drink. Then he saw David Rubadiri’s houseboy learning to ride a motorcycle. Okot promptly ordered the learner to ferry him to the nearest watering-hole. Both fell down from the bike, and Okot had a big gash for his efforts.


            When Idi Amin was chased away from power Okot celebrated. He pointedly told me that I would follow him to Makerere University as he would not want me to continue my studies at Ife which he dismissed as a “University of Lizards”. He spoke glowingly of Yusuf Lule who was poised to take over from Idi Amin. He was so determined to take me to Makerere University that he chased me out of the examination hall of the GNS 1 “Use of English” course. I left the exam hall to help him buy meat at the Leventis Stores near the staff quarters. Then we retired to drinking beer and whisky while my mates were writing the exams!


            Okot was open to a fault. He showed me letters from universities like Iowa, Harvard, Texas, Makerere etc offering him professorships in diverse disciplines such as Creative Writing, African Studies, English and Divinity. In the end I could not summon up enough courage to abandon my studies at Ife for the journey with Okot to Uganda’s Makerere University. Schoolwork and passing exams may not have mattered to me, but damaging my parents and sundry loved ones through transnational rascality did. It was while writing my degree exams in 1982 that the news was broken to me that my great friend Okot was dead. I dedicated my final year thesis to him. He deserved no less.                            



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Uzoatu (b 1960) directed his first play Doctor of Football in 1979. He was the 1989 Distinguished Visitor at The Graduate School of Journalism, University of Western Ontario, Canada. He is the author of Satan's Story, A Play of Ghosts, The Missing Link, and God of Poetry. He is currently writing the text for photographer Owen Logan's caricature of Michael Jackson in a Nigerian adventure entitled Masquerade. Educated at universities in Ife and Lagos, he is married with four children and lives in Lagos, Nigeria. His short story Cemetery of Life was recently published in Wasafiri. He has also published poetry and criticism in the literary press.






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