Monday, July 6, 2015

Counting Years -- in p'Bitek's Song of Lawino

Okot p'Bitek (1931-1982) was a Ugandan poet; one of his central concerns was that African literature should be built on African rather than European foundations.  His epic poem Song of Lawino (East African Publishing House, 1966) is a narrative poem written in the voice of Lawino who appeals to her husband Ocol to stay true to his own customs, and to abandon his desire to be white.  Here is a section of that poem that addresses a system for counting years.

from   Song of Lawino      by Okot p'Bitek

       Ocol tells me
       Things I cannot understand,      
       He talks
       About a certain man,

       He says
       The man was born
       Long ago
       In the country of white men.

       He says
       When Jesus was born
       White men began
       To count years:
       From one, then it became ten,
       Then one hundred
       Then one thousand
       And now it is
       One thousand
       Nine hundred
       And sixty six.

       My husband says
       Before this man was born
       White men counted years backwards.
       Starting with the biggest number
       Then it became
       One thousand
       Then one hundred
       Then ten,
       And when it became one
       Then Jesus was born.

       I cannot understand all this
       I do not understand it at all!

Song of Lawino was originally written in rhyming couplets and had a regular meter. This translation from the original Acoli is by the author.

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