Of Poets and Poems
Published On March 26, 2016 » 2053 Views» By Hildah Lumba » Entertainment, Theatre
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Zam ArtsIN oral cultures of pre-colonial Africa, historical trends, myths, religious, metaphysical ideas and prominent events were passed on from one generation to another by word of mouth.
The means of transmission varied from community to community and, therefore, the choice of form would either be traditional theatre performances or narrations or poetry or a blend of forms.
Riddles, for example, were a common feature during household night –fire oral performances. Riddles, conundrums, brain teasers were fierce battle fields for wit and wisdom; for example, between two performers one would start by challenging another: “Cho” (There it comes, literally, Take that!) whereby another would respond, “Chise” (Let it come or I am ready for it!) The first performer would then say: “A beautiful round house which has no door,” and thereupon, if the rival performer was knowledgeable and witty, he/she would respond: “Aah! you think I can fail to answer that: ‘it is an egg, it is round and has no door.’”
Then other listeners would give a round of applause. There were unspoken rules for the game, though, and one was that the performer would not speak until the challenge received a response even if it was a wrong answer.
Similarly, in our encounter with Lawino the past few weeks, this traditional oral technique seems to be applicable. For, despite all her lamentations, we do not get to hear Ocol respond until his embattled wife has had her last word.
By way of an illustration, let us revert to Lawino’s last words set against Ocol’s first response in our current discourse (p 98, p 124):

All I ask (Lawino in ‘Song of Lawino’)
Is that you give me one chance,
Let me praise you
Son of the chief!
Tie ankle bells on my legs
Bring lacucuku rattles
And tie them on my legs,
Call the nanga players
And let them sing,

Let me dance before you,
My love,
Let me show you
The wealth in your house,
Ocol my husband,
Son of a Bull,
Let no one uproot the
Pumpkin.
Woman (Ocol in ‘Song of Ocol’)
Shut up!
Pact your things
Go!

Take all the clothes
I bought you
The beads, necklaces
And the remains
Of the utensils,
I need no second- hand things.

There is a large sack
In the boot
Of the car,
Take it
Put all your things in it
And go!

Ocol’s emphatic voice is unmistakable; it is firm, resolute and final. It sounds like a sticker on one of Achebe’s rumbling trucks on a lonely Lagos road with words: ‘God’s Case No Appeal;’ the Pumpkin is under threat, unfortunately; there is no restoration, dance or no dance. It is set for uprooting.
It seems as though Ocol has had enough of Lawino’s rantings, he cannot take it anymore. The situation has reached a point -of –no return, Lawino has to go.
Her departure from a recently car-owning husband is symbolic of a cultural death: Ocol’s past of beads—including, waist ones, I suppose; necklaces and the ‘remains’ of utensils must be stuffed in a sack!
At least, when Lawino had her say, she referred to Ocol as her husband while in Ocol’s first words she is now but just a woman! And a woman who must go. Invariably, in this riddle of wits, Lawino has to remain silent as Ocol hits back with spite: (p 12; p 124)

Song of the woman
Is the confused noise
Made by a ram
After the butcher’s knife
Has sunk past
The wind pipe,
Red paint spraying
On the grasses;
It is a song all alone
A solo fragment
With no chorus
No accompaniment,
A strange melody impossible
To orchestrate.

This is some fine art of lyrical poetry which only Okot’s educated hero can produce. It is orderly in form, deep in content and prowess in imagery.
Okot himself, as an accomplished singer, understands only too well how impossible it is to sing coherently without any percussion to accompany the orchestra performance.
However, the thing is that, Lawino’s song has no depth; it is a sonorous echo from a confused woman. The image of a ram’s voice when its neck is severed is powerful.
Ever heard of anybody who listened to the melody of a dying (indeed, dead since the butcher’s knife has sunk past the wind pipe) beast, let alone a renowned but dying (or as above) celebrity and danced to their tune?
It is a foregone conclusion, this is a muffled drum impossible to discern its harmony and respond rationally to it.
Ocol’s other image of red (or whatever color) paint spread over grasses is equally potent because it is bereft of beauty and charm and no credible painter would ever get to do such a thing.
But, there is more from Ocol’s lashing tongue (p 125):

Woman
Your song
Is rotting buffalo
Left behind by
Fleeing poachers,
Its nose blocked
With houseflies

Sucking bloody mucus,
The eyes
Two lumps of green flies
Feasting on crusts
Of salty tears
Maggots wallowing
In the pus
In the spear wounds;

Skinny-necked
Bald headed vultures
Hover above,
While aged stiff-jointed lions
And limping-hipped hyenas
Snarl over bones;

Song of the woman
Is sour sweet,
It is pork gone rancid,
It is the honeyed
Bloodied sour milk
In the stinking
Maasai gourd.

So far as the attack goes, Ocol’s concern now is to lay ground for his case. He speaks like an educated man that he is, quite unlike the uncoordinated tirades of Lawino.
First things first, he needs to scan the land scape before coming to the specifics, rather do a thoroughly discernible  and academic assessment about a case he is allegedly accused of and for which it is within his right to respond in defence.
And that is why he is just talking about the song in general, but what exactly has vexed him about the song, he is yet to say it.
But, the reader must remember that it is this song that has made him decide that the woman, or rather his wife, must pack and go.
And, here are some more startling metaphors used by Ocol to show just how rotten Lawino’s song really is.
It is, he says, a dead buffalo left behind by poachers, left, as it were, to provide a feast for other wild beasts, fowls of the air and insects: the old lions, the limping-hipped hyenas, bald headed and skinny-necked vultures, green flies and their housefly cousins, including maggots.
This image is nauseating, what with crusty and salty tears, pus, mucus and the blocked nose of a dead buffalo – and, to crown it all, the stinking milk of the Maasai and possibly their rancid pork! I think we’ll do well to hear Ocol proceed with his case (p 127):

I see the Old Homestead
In the valley below
Huts, granaries…
All in ruins;
I see a large Pumpkin
Rotting
A thousand beetles
In it;
We will plough up
All the valley,
Make compost of the Pumpkins
And the other native vegetables,
The fence dividing
Family holdings
Will be torn down,
We will uproot
The trees demarcating
The land of clan from clan,

We will obliterate
Tribal boundaries
And throttle native tongues
To dumb death.

Having surveyed the land scape, Ocol zeroes down on to some finer details. He seems to be standing at some raised land feature, the peak of a hill perhaps, where he is able to look below and dimly, only dimly, sees some little huts and granaries.
That is how, in an abstract sense, education has elevated the man.
Anyhow, he now gets down to some finer bits in his manifesto for the Old Homestead Dwellers’ development where the woman, who once- upon- a- time was his wife, should be returning.
Ocol’s agenda for the Old Homestead transformation is clear, at least in part: the valley, the whole of it, will have to be ploughed up for development, perhaps set up state farms where the Pumpkins will be used as manure for the new imported crops.
is not only the Pumpkin which is part of his agricultural transformation plan, but it is also all other ‘native’ vegetables – they are all suitable manure for the Old Homestead’s agrarian, green revolution!
There is a sense in which Ocol’s Old Homestead re-engineering down the valley will involve a new concept of villagization devoid of any barriers as family fences will have to be pulled down, demarcating trees all cut down, gone too will be the family holdings and tribal boundaries.
But, any revolution worth its salt, which leaves the language (an epitome of a people’s embodiment of culture, art and traditions) intact, is a failed one. Ocol’s reforms, as a matter of fact, should include the annihilation of native tongues (Luo should be one of them), and squeeze them out to extinction in preference for the new languages (English should be a preferred choice!) But, before all this happens, Lawino must go back home (p 127):

House boy,
Listen
Call the ayah
Help the woman
Pack her things,
Then sweet the house clean
And wash the floor,
I am off to Town
To fetch the painter.

Well, dear reader, all that goes up must come down, the woman, our Lawino, is about to go and so must we!
It may not be a pleasant spectacle to see her weighed down by a load of her stonewashed personal belongings.
We had better hear what follows after her departure and Ocol’s return from Town with a skilled painter for his new- look house.
Meanwhile, ardent reader, go fetch Okot’s ‘Songs of Lawino and Song of Ocol,’ the copies are going pretty fast.
Comments: ofpoetspoems@gmail.com

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