Song of Lawino is a long poem that addresses the issues facing a liberated Africa. The poem poses a question: what kind of liberation should Africa take on? Should it honor its traditions, or should it adopt the European values that were already set in place during colonialism? Okot b’Bitek addresses this question by telling the story of Lawino, a woman whose husband, Ocol, throws her out of their home and brings home a more Europeanized woman as a wife. The story is told as a dialogue between Lawino and Ocol. The poem itself is separated in different chapters, each one detailing the problems facing Lawino and Ocol in their marriage, their differences and value systems.
The first chapter sets up the differences between Lawino and Ocol. Ocol despises Black people and their traditional ways and has adopted European values. Because he works in the government, he wants to modernize Africa in those values. Lawino disagrees and implores her husband to stop hating his own people. The next chapter addresses the issue of Ocol’s new wife. Ocol’s new wife, unlike Lawino, is thoroughly Europeanized. The next chapters address the culture Lawino values. The poem becomes an argument honoring the traditional African values.
Chapter three Lawino praises the cultural dances of her people. Chapter four details when Lawino was a young woman and how Ocol once wooed and won her. Chapter five looks at the question of what is considered beautiful. Ocol thinks the way Lawino does her hair is ugly, but Lawino praises her beauty and the beauty of her people. Lawino makes the argument here that Ocol should not try to be something he is not. Chapter six deals with food and how Ocol criticizes his wife for not cooking white people’s meals. Lawino again argues that the food that is native to her people is best for them. Chapter seven looks at the issue of time.
Ocol is governed by time, often stating the hour whenever the sun rises. Lawino doesn’t understand the importance of being led by such strict definitions and thinks everything happens in its own time without their forcing it. This idea is followed into Chapter Eight when Lawino also argues that breastfeeding isn’t something you can hold strictly to time. When children are hungry, then they will be breastfed. To do it by Ocol’s way, children should be fed even if they aren’t hungry. Religion, healthcare, and politics are also dealt with. Again, Ocol argues that they should follow European ways-adopting Catholicism and rejecting traditional spiritual values, and using modern medicine instead of old-fashioned cures.
Lawino argues that their spiritual beliefs are just as valid as Catholicism, but also points out the ignorance and arrogance of the priests and nuns who run the missionaries in their villages. She also honors the traditional medicines which she claims do work and are right for her people. Lawino observes how Europeanized forms of politics affect her people when she sees how they have separated her husband from his brother. Ocol wants to bring European forms of democracy to Africa, while his brother is a communist.
All of the issues the poem address are ones that have concerned and divided African nations since liberation from colonialism. b’Bitek argues that Africa should reject European ways and re-embrace traditional African values. b’Bitek does not dismiss European ways by having Lawino state that they are good but only good for Europeans. There is no room for cross-cultural re-inventions in b’Bitek’s beliefs. In Song of Ocol, Ocol is allowed to address his own beliefs, but his argument isn’t as strongly realized at Lawino’s. Ocol does bring up issues regarding healthcare in Africa, stating that traditional medicines harm people rather than help them.