Celebrating Okot p’Bitek and the poets of the 60’s

Okot p’Bitek might be the most remembered and known Ugandan poet, born June 7, 1931 – July 20, 1982. His most popular books: Song of Lawino (1969), Song of Ocol (1970), and Two Songs: Song of a Prisoner, Song of Malaya (1971) enjoyed a cherished position for years on Uganda’s syllabus for high school and college.

Two Songs: Song of Prisoner & Song of Malaya

Two Songs: Song of Prisoner & Song of Malaya

Okot P’Bitek will be celebrated this year on 20th, July, 2012, marking thirty years since his death. But I’m not happy that there’s no organized site, virtual or otherwise where folks can go to post stuff concerning the conference, no idea how and what the celebrations will entail, except this call for submissions, which really doesn’t say much in spite of the inspiring poet Okot was. July will be here soon but what’s there to show that we are reaching deep down our hearts and minds to tap into the poetry spirit that changed Uganda’s literary scene especially in the 1960’s?

On my part I’m revisiting Poems from East Africa, an anthology published in June 1971, featuring 50 poets (some of them now deceased), from Kenya, Uganda, and Zambia, edited by David Cook and David Rubadiri. I’m delighting in the gentle lyricism that’s in most of the poems, the flow of passion and creativity that might have been the spirit of the time (what happened??), and remembering how with my high school friends we modeled our first love letters on some of these poems. Laban Erapu, one of the contributors in the anthology with the following two poems that I embraced when I was a teenager:

I Beg You

I beg you,
If you feel something like love for me,
Not to let me know it now
When I feel nothing so certain for you –
Wait until you’ve conquered my pride
By pretending not to care for me.

I beg you,
If you think your eyes will give you away,
Not to give me that longing look
When you know it will force the moment –
Wait until our heartbeats have settled
Then put your head on my shoulder.

I beg you
Not to let us surrender to passion
Until our liking has grown to love:
Let’s stop and look back,
Let’s draw apart and sigh,
Let’s stand back to back,
Let’s say goodbye for the day
And walk our different ways
Without pausing to wait
For an echo to our last word.

I beg you,
If you find yourself interlocked
In my embrace,
To kiss me and keep me silent
Before I start making promises
That time may choose to by-pass –
Wait until our hands are free,
Then listen to me;
Wait until our love is primed,
Then give me your hand.

The Eyes That Wouldn’t Wander

Yours were the eyes that wouldn’t wander,

We met and parted like strangers,

Strangers who would not forget

But met again and again

As if by chance,

Bypassing each other and smiling

As though to someone else.

 

What was it that led us

Somewhere beyond

The eyes of the crowd

To a lonely spot

Where the eyes that wouldn’t wander

Slowly rose and looked into mine?

What was this feeling

That raptured my nerves

As your trim fingers

Linked with mine?

What power lay hidden

In those eyes

That wouldn’t wander?

Taken from: Poems from East Africa, edited by David Cook and David Rubadiri, Heiinemann–African Writers Series, 1971.

Laban Erapu, who has lived and taught in Uganda, Kenya, Zambia and South Africa, will be Author of the Month at Femrite on February 27, 2012. Maybe he’ll awaken some new poetic flowerings so the creative energy of the 1960’s will recur in our present age.

A few more poets that were my gift–student’s companion–in my high school and then I’ll close.

Kwesi Brew (Ghanaian) with the poem, The Meshpublished in Poems of Black Africa, edited by Wole Soyinka, HILL and WANG, NY, 1975.

The Mesh

We have come to the cross-roads

And I must either leave or come with you.

I lingered over the choice

But in the darkness of my doubts

You lifted the lamp of love

And I saw in your face

The road that I should take.

 —

(Oh, how I loved the romance of it, the simplicity, the sentimental touch!)

And now Richard Ntiru with his poem:

If It Is True

If it is true
that the world talks too much
then lets all keep quiet
and hear the eloquence
of silence

If it is true
that the world sees too much
then let’s all close our eyes
and see the inner vision
beneath the closed eyes

if it is true
that the world hears too much
then let’s wax our ears
and listen to the chastity of inner music
that defies betrayal
by the wayward wind

If it is true
that the world moves too much
then let’s stand statuestill
and imitate the stubborn will
of trees
that move without being peripatetic

for the dumb don’t tell lies

for the blind can’t be peeping toms

for the deaf cannot eavesdrop

for the crippled can’t trespass.

Published in Poems of Black Africa, edited by Wole Soyinka, HILL and WANG, NY, 1975.

Though not related in subject matter, ‘If It Is True’ somehow reminded me of Claude McKay‘s ‘If We Must Die.’ Maybe because of the tone or the beginning with If. I generally love poems that begin with If…

If We Must Die

If we must die, let it not be like hogs
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,
Making their mock at our accursèd lot.
If we must die, O let us nobly die,
So that our precious blood may not be shed
In vain; then even the monsters we defy
Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!
O kinsmen! we must meet the common foe!
Though far outnumbered let us show us brave,
And for their thousand blows deal one death-blow!
What though before us lies the open grave?
Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!

Source: Claude McKay, “If We Must Die,” in Harlem Shadows: The Poems of Claude McKay (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1922).

Okay, will end with another of Richard Ntiru that I actually memorized and put in poster form because I wanted to imitate the philosophizing quality.

The Gourd of Friendship

Where is the curiosity we’ve lost in discovery?
Where is the discovery we’ve lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we’ve lost in communication?
Where is the communication we’ve lost in mass media?
Where is the message we’ve lost in the medium?
And where is the community we’ve lost in all these?
It is easy to go to the moon:
There, there are no people.
It is easier to count the stars:
They will not complain.

But the road to your neighbour’s heart –
Who has surveyed it?
The formula to your brother’s head –
Who has devised it?
The gourd that doesn’t spill friendship-
In whose garden has it ever grown?
You never know despair
Until you’ve lost hope;
You never know your aspiration
Until you’ve seen others’ disillusionment.
Peace resides in the hearts of men
Not in conference tables and delegates’ signatures
True friendship never dies-
It grows stronger the more it is tested.

Published in Poems of Black Africa, edited by Wole Soyinka, HILL and WANG, NY, 1975.

 


 

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3 Responses to Celebrating Okot p’Bitek and the poets of the 60’s

  1. TJH February 23, 2012 at 7:32 pm #

    I just followed the link from your story and noticed that my suggestions duplicate much of what Madandcrazy proposes. It seems they even need the sort of volunteers that AWT perhaps could provide: professional writers, editors, etc. Please consider touching base with them, and seeing what shared concerns can be worked on, ventures worked out.

    • MB February 24, 2012 at 12:23 am #

      Great ideas! Will follow through.
      Thx

  2. TJH February 23, 2012 at 6:03 pm #

    You wrote:
    “Okot P’Bitek will be celebrated this year on 20th, July, 2012, marking thirty years since his death. But I’m not happy that there’s no organized site, virtual or otherwise where folks can go to post stuff concerning the conference, no idea how and what the celebrations will entail…”

    Why doesn’t African Writers Trust (AWT) do something? Even a virtual tribute. Line up some writers and poets and get their comments, observations, insights. Include some of the emerging writers that AWT has been working with. See who has photos to share, etc.

    I know that as a technical matter, this would be easy to do: publishing the content, allowing for interaction and dialogue. The real challenge is logistical: lining up the contributors and content.

    Do any of the Ugandan newspapers have archives worth tapping into? What other sources are there?

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