Required Reading: Reflections on Lawino’s Ocol 50 Years Later

By Gloria Kiconco

When Lawino abuses Ocol, my ears burn and I hope her discerning eyes cannot see through the thin sheet of education I cover myself with. Her attacks in verse chronicle my one-sided romance with whiteness. Her buzzing anger is what I swallow whenever my head cranes to see which fair-skinned face has entered the room like my eyes still haven’t registered centuries of oppression. As I read, I trace the evolution of Ocol. First, the young man whose nose glistens with sweat from his efforts to please white teachers and priests with his knowledge. Then how he is cured of his nervous energy as he realizes he will never please them – the disappointment, the embarrassment, the anger.

He shifts his faith from people to ideas: if not the priests, then Christianity. If not the Englishmen, then English. Ocol never uprooted the pumpkin, he just overturned it to see if there was something he missed. He nurtures a library to hide himself and I know that library well.

I was raised in a library and I call home any place where three or more books are gathered. The watch that tethers Ocol to time is the same my father touts on his wrist. In response to my lateness, my mother would recite from her treasury of British wisdom: Early to bed, early to rise

I grew up watching my father repeat Ocol’s mistakes, trusting education to grant him the humanity his skin would never allow. He gathered degrees according to the arbitrary rules of whiteness. He wore suits and kept time but still got left behind when it was time for America to make good on its promise as the land of opportunity. After years of being unqualified, he was suddenly overqualified.

He did not tell us about the people who design the lines of qualification and adjust them to keep us out. In his silence he became older, smaller, and tired. I inherited the same mistakes and spent years swallowing books, hoping my education would open doors that my passport never imagined. In the process, I misplaced my mother tongue but didn’t know how to excavate the past for my identity.

They discovered new doors to shut in my face claiming I was too African for American scholarships and too American for African scholarships. My father unleashed his disappointment on me. He took it personally but before he could rally a response we had to go back to Uganda. We ran out of time.

Some say black people don’t know how to keep time. Is this why I feel the second hand on the clock will never catch the minute hand and minutes will never catch up to hours?

Our time is not their time; our time is African and like us, is late. Our time was extra cargo across the Atlantic and on shore it was christened coloured. Coloured people time then black people time, which still runs faster than African time. Because when they ran out of things to divide, they began to divide time and now they have cast us across zones, losing and gaining hours as we try to catch up.

Time is beating my ass. I cannot manage the nine to five, the eight hour work day, the one hour lunch, the fifteen minute break. My internal clock is broken and I depend on my alarm as much as my coffee ritual to tell me I am awake. And I cannot regain the hours I lost chasing a figment of whiteness. Ocol knows the pendulum of internalized racism that swings me from personal freedom to self-loathing. Because it’s good to know why I am like this, but knowledge is not something you can put back where you found it. Whatever Ocol found under that pumpkin haunts him to self-pity and I’m trying to dissolve myself because I don’t quite know how to get that stain out.

I throw myself back into my work hoping to prove myself or free myself. I spend my free hours mining blogs for tips on productivity and searching for the core of innovation. Americans and Europeans are busy overturning stones in the cradle of humanity and assigning us the origins of man, learning the secrets of our primitive ways and christening them ancient wisdom. They are busy condemning the pastors they export to our limitless source of believers. They are leading the way to entrepreneurship and we are stumbling over ourselves to catch up. Time is money.

Over a century after countless men and women are murdered in the fight for fewer work hours and fair conditions, the rewriters of history are crowning Henry Ford the innovator of the eight hour work day. Europe and America are trimming the work day: “work to your natural rhythms!” You don’t even have to come to office, so long as you produce results. Each in their own time and time is not their master.

Africans are working overtime. Europeans are innovating hour-less days. Lawino is laughing at us because we need clocks to tell us when to open and close our eyes. Time has left us behind. We relive every decade since independence and we swallow new technology to see into the future that is their present. Our time is not their time.

It is too late to scoop my language off the floor and back onto my tongue. If I look backward, I will lose my future. I must measure my mother tongue against the English that propels me forward.

I am the lost woman in a forest of books that hosted my father before me and Ocol before us and many others scattered and half-grown like pumpkin seeds that never quite took to the soil. We have thumbed a thousand pages, trying to beat the clock, looking for an answer to the wrong question. Because the only question we ever needed to ask is, did we ever stand a chance?


Editor’s Note: Okot P’Bitek’s Song of Lawino was published in 1966 (makes 50 years this year) and followed in 1970 by Song of Ocol. 


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