“I think Okot p’Bitek stopped giving thought to Oxford. He understood the colonial venture quite clearly and he believed that we Africans needed to sort ourselves out. In any case, by the time they asked him to revise the thesis (after which they would fail it again) he had already been a successful poet and cultural icon in his own right — setting up arts festivals in Kisumu and Gulu as well as being the first African director of the National Theatre in Kampala.” Juliane Okot Bitek
“Woko, Wi-lobo and Ru-piny were not deities, not spirits or powers. They were not worshiped, no sacrifices were offered to them. And when a man cried ‘Wi-lobo,’ he was not calling on anybody or anything. They were not a prayer or supplication. They were descriptive of the sad predicament of human existence.”
These words, lying deep in the book, after so much has been said and said so passionately, are not the most dramatic in a 625 page-strong tome. But if you were to choose which ones best capture the spirit of this publication, they would not be a bad place to start.
They sound a fairly representative note of the intellectual locus of the man who wrote them. A world view you likely first encountered in Song of Lawino, that gently insistent, powerfully cultured note has since become so much a part of the literary furniture of postcolonial Africa that attributing them to Okot is no longer necessary.
The phrase “sad predicament of human existence”, may sound like any pithy observation that makes instant sense, but after 511 pages, at which point they appear, you as an African reader are desperate for the insight this brings.
Why was the thesis failed?
The sidelining of the academic and scholarly works of Frank Girling and Okot p’Bitek by Oxford University under the supervision of Prof Evans-Pritchard remains a scandalous event, at least to those of us who expected better from British higher learning. In his introduction to the double publication, Tim Allen, Professor and director of the Firoz Lalji Centre for Africa at the LSE, writes that “In the case of Frank Girling, it is obvious why his work is neglected. Although he managed to secure his D. Phil in 1952, he had fallen foul of the Protectorate authorities in Uganda . . . in contrast, the overlooking of Okot p’Bitek’s anthropological contributions is harder to understand.”
Prof. Tim Allen explains that another Evans-Pritchard student and Oxford alumni, Talal Asad, published a collection by well-known anthropologists expounding the very views Okot had postulated. This was the view that British anthropology had played handmaiden to colonial injustice, providing the justificatory, academised loot that made the whip and chain wielders feel less guilty. Allen goes on to say that by the late 1960s, Okot was angry (as a black man, being called “angry” is not flattering), and defiant.
He explains that the offending thesis itself is moderate in tone. So, Okot could not be accused of going rogue activist in the haloed temple of academia.
“It was even more of a casualty of British anthropology’s colonial encounter,” he writes, addressing and at the same time, not addressing, the intrigue.
It has been five decades since the event and we still don’t know why. But after 625 pages, does resolution come?
As far as the Okot part of the publication is concerned, there is nothing really new in the way Girling’s bit is. The central attraction in the Okot section, The Religion of the Central Luo, was published in 1971 by The East African Literature Bureau and went on to have its stellar moment in thinking on African societies.
This resurrection renews the work, and Allen’s introduction along with the shattering clarity of Girling’s materialist approach to anthropology, opens the secret socio-political chambers hidden in the rites and rituals Okot describes here.
The two transform Okot’s text into a crime scene. We approach it, sleuthing tools in hand, ferreting in the undergrowth of scholarly nuance for that stray error that exclaims, aha! Got you!
It is so very much like Okot to come back from the grave to give us once again that frisson of novelty and courage.
But the stigmata is visible. There is an odd, incompleteness in it. We already encountered this oddity in Girling’s part of the book. The explanation for that, we were told, is that the colonial authorities and their academic mentors in Oxford cut Girling’s work with one year left in it so any publishing can only stitch mismatching body parts on.
This affects Okot’s work at a structural level. He describes well the history and politics of Jo Paluo and Alur in the opening chapters. He is starting to establish a historical particularity for his subject. He is also challenging the idea of tribes by showing the cultural-political continuum across colonially tribalised communities.
In Chapter 2, he glancingly connects these to Bunyoro, but we assume that was outside his scope, or he did not have the time to delve much into that, although we can infer from the long line of queen mothers of Bunyoro-Kitara rulers (Abakama) taken from the Luo-speakers, and the tracing of its lineage to Labongo, that this is the case. In any case, the politics of Bunyoro and that of the Central Luo, particularly the Payira Clan, who are also Babiito, like the rulers of Bunyoro-Kitara, which filial connections cover the other kingdoms in the country, were so interwoven that calling them allies would be an under-description.
Okot ropes the Lango into this Central Luo grouping whilst acknowledging the difficulty of saying so with certainty. The Lango too had their tight military alliances with Bunyoro-Kitara.
But we note a glaring omission. Okot talks at length about Acoli religion and religious practice when the section arrives. He does not do so with that of the Jo Palwo, Alur or Lango. Could the frustrations he met at Oxford have prevented further work? What emerges sounds more like the religion of the Acholi than of the Central Luo. Is it even remotely possible that Okot did not see such a thing, so that his failure to recognise the obvious failed his D.Phil?
Going after Driberg, Crazzolara, Roscoe et al
One of the most important contributions Okot makes to African studies is on ethnicity. Where his errant antecedents Driberg, Crazzolara and Roscoe wrote of “tribe” in such a way that Africa is transformed into an archipelago of hostile communities, Okot raises out of the colonial abyss the many connecting cultural bridges, so that the familiar fact which prompts Africans when they meet fellow Africans to declare “we really are one people,” emerges. Had Oxford given its imprimatur to such a view, might the likes of Kwame Appiah have written a less discreditable book than In My Father’s House, a book with an annoying colonial view that Africans are disparate tribes?
Okot lends powerful evidence to the position of many black scholars who insist that African societies are language, rather than tribal groups. But it is in Okot on the religion of his Central Luo that one instinctively feels that his work may have rubbed tender egos the wrong way.
Okot goes to War
It is a lively, closely observed section running to six chapters. He opens by examining theories of Jok, then the variations on the idea, and expanding on the African pantheistic concept of deism. He next turns attention to worship places, the Abila, or Kac, the family shrines. He looks at spirit-possession, witchcraft and sorcery, then that social institution of lam, kir and kwong which he calls curses but can also be expansively seen as invocations, and which we need to hear more of for it is a literary genre of African societies which in our time has been brought dramatically to life by Stella Nyanzi. But that is another topic altogether. As these topics follow one after the other, a pattern starts to emerge. He tackles first the idea of God (Jok), and gradually works down to practices that have a filigree of the religious but are otherwise quasi-spiritual and mostly having nothing to do with worship but have been erroneously attributed so.
Take Chapter 9 on Woko, Wi-Lobo and Ru-Piny. As he explains them, these concepts are philosophical, prepositional; Wi-lobo as boundarisation of existence, “Wi, on top of, above, and the common noun lobo, earth. Literally it meant on the land above the soil or earth. But in the context in which we are discussing it, Wi-lobo meant the state of being alive on the earth, being in this world.”
Wi-lobo approximates to what other philosophical traditions refer to as Being. Woko, literally translating as outside, is synonymous with Wi-lobo but as Okot explains it, the idea is something like becoming, a state of transience from, into and beyond. There is much ambiguity about Ru-Piny. It means dawn, dawning, which on the face of it is the passage from darkness to light, the burnishing of the night. And yet, it is also about the exchange of the woes of darkness with those of the light, the double-facedness of existence — an existentialist notion.
Okot puts it better in his inimitable way: “Against Wi-lobo and Ru-Piny, man was impotent. They knelt on their victims and crushed them. There was nothing you could do to prevent them from carrying out their cruel schemes . . . because Wi-lobo, Woko and Ru-Piny were also deaf, blind and senseless.”
These concepts are far-reaching and are to be found as the framing concepts of Luo arts and music, the protagonists of much music and theatre flung into the face of inscrutable fate. Mr Crazzolara, and you benighted Boccassino, this is about art and philosophy, not religion!
Okot’s focus on this triad is, in my opinion, the key that provides entrance into what the religious belief of the people was and what it was not; it is also the key that frees African theology from the demonic incarceration imposed on it by imperial Christianity and anthropology. But before we have arrived at this point (chapter 9) we have been through six prior chapters during which Okot took on the establishment of western scholarship on African religion.
Our Simple Minds
In few places has the black man been more traduced than in his relationship with God. In sexuality, industry, politics, science, commerce, marriage and health, the entire heritage of the black man came under attack by the amassed battalions of enslavers, colonisers and free traders. These attacks follow a template, which is that what is African is dirty, at a primitive stage, without order and purpose.
The other name they used for black people, besides savages, is heathens, kafir, as though our souls (when allowed that we had any) were properties of the devil already.
Okot’s thesis here charges explorers, imperial agents, scholars and missionaries for not only refusing to understand African religions, but for calling whatever they saw happening as so much animist garbage. Africans were accused of worshiping forests, rocks, streams and lakes; we had no idea of a supreme being, no idea of an afterlife.
The Heresy of Okot
Okot calls up one at a time, the big names that misled the world about African spirituality:
Sir Samuel Baker, John Roscoe, Joseph Pasquale Crazzolara, Charles Gabriel Seligman, Renato Boccassino, Godfrey Lienhardt, Jack Herbert Driberg, Captain Ernest Grove, John Beattie, Bere, Hayley, Kitching, Tarantino, Taylor Tempels, Middleton, Menzies, Southall, Gray, and many more quoted here, had the same approach — the Africans did not know what they were saying; pay no attention no matter how intelligent they appear to be; study his ways and draw conclusions from that.
Anthropology, in a way, is the fine art of not listening.
Crazzolara best captures this attitude when he writes of what went on in the conversion enterprise: “Natives were urged with tiresome questions to make a choice as to which of the Jok among the many had created them. Such questions implied suppositions which probably never occurred to their simple minds . . . they answered that they did not know, which was more near the truth.”
On the back of a single observation in Equatorial Province, Baker, the pugnacious explorer-colonial agent, concluded that Africans had no religion nor conception of a deity. Baker had a theological debate with a man he names as “Commoro”, in Lotuko, over the existence of a being superior to mankind. This debate, done via a Lotuko translator who understood Bari, to a Bari translator who understood Arabic henceforth to Baker, is recorded by Baker whom we can only take at his word. It is comical. After intense, very patronising exchanges, the man Commoro replies to Baker (of good and bad people): “If they are strong they take from the weak. The good people are all weak; they are good because they are not strong enough to be bad.”
The statement is startling with its raw, irreproachable realism. But Baker, Okot charges, was only interested in affirming his own beliefs and not learning that of Commoro.
The approach they took was to strip-search Africans for spiritual beliefs and feed what they found into a bonfire of racism, an act of culturecide. But there was a challenge to overcome. People don’t let go of their beliefs like that. To make it stick, the Christian god they carried with them (in much the same way African rulers carried Jok from one place to another) had to be disguised as an African deity — a bizarre minstrel act in which Jahweh wore blackface — and faked an African accent. This necessitated taking an existing African deity, emptying it of content and replacing it with Roman-Christian theology. This gave conversion the feel of a smooth segue, with converts often not feeling the jab.
And this is the violence Okot rails against. Through this mendacity, African pantheism was replaced by a monotheistic ethos. The senatorial Republic of gods was superseded by a tyrannical, fili-deist, Augustan imperialism, a one family-rule religion. Rubanga was bleached white, right here in the tropics. The function of African gods disappeared under the harsh colonial regime. Black gods like Mungu, Nyasae, Katonda, Ruhanga, Ngai, Nzambe and Rubanga, worshiped long before the White Fathers and Church Missionary Society arrived, became colonially reconstructed évolués, front-company enterprises; like Liberian flags of convenience, they concealed the real, tax-dodging paymaster in the background. They had become spiritually possessed by an invasive spiritual species.
Among his Central Luo, the missionaries settled on an import from Bunyoro-Kitara, the Luo-ised “Rubanga” (also Lubanga/Obanga) from “Ruhanga”. This was one god among many, picked out because one missionary caught a whiff of the word “mold”, synonymous with create. In similar vein, in Buganda, the missionaries alighted on the Kiganda god of fabricants, Katonda, a lesser deity compared to Lubaale, also from the root verb okutonda (to fashion) as Jahweh’s tropicalised incarnation there. In the case of the Luo, the missionaries did not listen long enough to know that they saw Rubanga as an unpleasant god that afflicted man with tuberculosis of the spine. The name stuck, much to the amusement of South Sudanese writer, Taban lo Liyong, who has had much to say about it.
Trees, forests and rocks
These scholars did not listen to what the Africans were saying about their beliefs. They chose to infer instead and came up with such ideas as “supreme being”, “life force”; their African sources said they had nothing of the sort. They next looked to the places where worship took place, in “forests”, rocks, along rivers and lakes and said Africans worshiped these; the Africans said this was not true. The Africans, they decided, were too daft to know their own minds.
What kind of defence can one start to mount? Okot presents the many ways in which African religious practice was misrepresented. The central pattern in all these is that the interlocutors had come to impose their beliefs and truth is always an inconvenience to imperial enterprise.
Outside of the monotheistic framework, getting a handle on gods gets complex. But Okot is also entering very dangerous territory. Any African knows just how dangerous it is to even express knowledge of pre-colonial gods; even if you know, you must pretend ignorance. Even the most highly educated feels the pressure to pay lip service to the Christian god. At Makerere, Okot would have walked past the Main Hall flanked by two Christian churches, his own faculty under the shadow of the Protestant St. Francis Church. It need not be said that academia, as the British brought it to Uganda, must first acknowledge the primacy of the Christian doctrine. Throw away the cloak of academia from colonial anthropology and you can clearly see the medievalism in the saga. Growing up in Lango, I was aware that the word Jok was associated with the unsayable, not exactly the devil himself, but the dark and the demonic. And yet next door to the Luo speakers, among the Ateker, the very word itself denotes goodness and sanctity: in Teso we used to sing “Ejok na Edeke” – God is good. In Lango itself, a song sang to children wishing them a prosperous future mentioned Jok, “Jo’jok amalo do/Atini dong roman do,” as a line went, so it was also a word associated with the good among the Luo, for who wishes demons upon her baby?
It was in later years that I came to understand that the fear of jok was itself the shame we had in our own material past, which shame the priests reminded you of each Sunday morning, and via a catechism you learnt by rote. Those of us who dodged catechism classes for confirmation were forbidden from the Eucharist, and can never marry under the Christian banner. These catechism classes are the forges in which black people are still daily taught to be ashamed of their blackness. It will never end, for the forced conversion accuses us of a sin we can’t help but commit; it accuses us of being black.
Okot’s unacceptable truths
Okot starts his dissection of Jok by going into the myths of their genesis. The Jok came in various ways. But one interesting one is that it was the founding leaders of the various Acholi states (chiefdom is a reductive colonial term) that also brought the Jok, as indeed Constantine imposed Christianity on Rome. The founder of Patiko, Atiko himself (we learn from Okot that the many Acholi states starting with “Pa” follow after their founder. Hence, Atiko founder of Patiko, Aweli founder of Pawel, etc.); so that this Jok becomes thought of as the god of Atiko, as others can speak of the god of Abraham.
The Jok of Patiko were Baka and Alela. The complexity here is that Baka and Alela then gave names to hills, so that when he came to Patiko, John Beattie concluded that these hills were considered the father and the mother of the people. Okot sought out a priest of Baka who he said laughed at the idea and said Jok Baka and Alela merely resided in caves in the hills.
He examines the Jok of Koc, called Jok Lokka. It is recognisable in many religious founding myths when the Acholi of Koc, after they fled hunger and crossed the Nile (not the first people in religious mythology to cross the Nile in search of bounty) to Bunyoro, say that one Ojwiya disappeared into the wilderness and returned transformed and started performing miracles, including for instance, multiplying the number of chicks. They called the Jok of Ojwiya Jok Lokka because he came from across the Nile. A people with a religious myth like this can only be converted for political, not religious, reasons. In truth there was little daylight between the religion of it in these parts and the biblical accounts.
As Okot writes, he refamiliarises to you the African reader, what colonial ethnographers had alienated. But he also puts these religious beliefs squarely within the locus of what all religions appear to have — founding myths, miraculous births, disappearances into the wilderness. But religion is politics, and imperialism commanded that savages cannot have a past similar to that of the conqueror.
These anthropologists never imagined that black people would ever read what they wrote. Open any anthropology text and the statement is always there. This may have emboldened them to print any balderdash they cooked up. But could these scholars also not have considered that people were forbidden to discuss their religion with strangers and that the answers they received were wilfully diversionary? Was Okot told the truth because he was himself a local?
Okot also discusses totems and food prohibitions. Although these are closely held, they are not gods, Okot insists, for these totems were so interpreted by colonial scholars who henceforth said that because say an elephant or leopard totem was given near-human potency, it indicated worship. They ought to have followed the matter to discover that those of the elephant clan considered it one of them but not above them.
Okot also states that keeping an ancestral shrine (Abila), and making sacrifices to ancestors did not indicate ancestor worship.
Ala, Omarari and Abiba
It gets more intricate, and as the unfurling of Jok continues, it begins to appear that the term was indeed very widely conceived. It seems to go beyond the idea of a deity. Take the so-called “cults” of Ala, Omarari and Abiba. Omarari is said to have appeared at the end of the First World War. Ala came earlier, Abiba around the Second World War.
It is on the question of “cults” that it starts to become hard to call colonial anthropology an academic discipline. Even Okot’s own reaction is problematic. Could they and he not see what was right there in their face?
The “cults”, said to have “followers” and that feel different to the earlier “jok”, are Ala, Omarari, Abiba and others but I will concentrate on these three.
Take Ala. The “cult” performance of Ala consisted of wearing long white robes and turban and pronouncing Arabic words. We already start to see where this is heading. The “followers” of Abiba are said to have believed that a “witch” sent kites into the sky which had fire in their anuses. There is less description of Omarari except to say it followed an epidemic.
Each of these “cults” follow major events and intrusions into these societies. And then they disappear as quickly. What they appear to be are memorialization and communication, performance arts that mark their epoch.
Were these gods, cults or simply pieces of theatre and performing arts, in the manner of masquerade ceremonies? Do plays and films that gain cult status signal worship? Does Elvis Presley following, sightings, costuming, festivals or re-enactments of the American Civil War signal religion? Is the one a god and Gettysburg worshiped? Are the ritualized practices of psychotherapy to heal soldiers returning from war witchcraft? The so-called Abiba cult, a presentation of bombers in mythologised form, was precisely that, albeit by African experts to heal black soldiers returning from Burma (the painting, Guernica, had its own way of portraying this terrifying new power).
There is reason to believe that the “cult” of Ala was a way of dealing with the trauma of Arab slavers from Sudan, for they invoked “Allah” when they attacked Africans.
As with Woko, Wi-lobo, Ru-piny, and Bala and Alela rocks, the notion of the cult reveals the pugnacious impatience imperial scholars had towards the ways of the people they had come to occupy. Those who waited a minute to really try and understand Africa, like Girling, were accused of going native. White people who disagreed with imperialism were severely ostracized. Nuances that would have separated philosophy, legalities (we have not even talked about the manner in which African laws were reduced to taboos), performance arts from religion were cruelly traduced.
To worsen it, The Witchcraft Act was passed which broadly illegalised the people’s beliefs, arts, philosophies and psychotherapy practices. Missionaries established missionary villages at which children were held captive and punished if found to have learnt their culture.
The amassed ranks of colonial scholars are today a disgraced lot. Few if any in Africa take them seriously. Colonialism and its colour bars had artificially kept their magic alive. Decolonisation meant western universities had to tread carefully and, in an interesting twist, many Western scholars are today at the forefront of the defence of African history, as witness the publication of this book. But the hegemony persists, for rather than colour bars, new barriers like travel restrictions mean that western research maintains its extractive practice. The kind of access western scholars have to Africa, African scholars cannot have in their countries. In this industry, we remain native informers. The prosthetics of censorship such as Okot suffered may have kept their respectability for only so long, but the damage they and universities like Oxford did to people of colour will endure for a very long time.
By now, we are wondering where Lawino and her song comes in. Very closely indeed. It appears to have its roots in the worship and prayer ceremonies to jok, which is fitting, for arts everywhere are largely secularised religious rites. Okot being Okot, we expect him to move beyond the turf war with European scholars and celebrate the social and religious side of his Central Luo. He does so with aplomb. His thesis settles frequently into enjoying the beauty of Acholi culture. The most humorous part for me is the quotation of the prayer offered by the people of Palaro to their Jok, Lapul. It bears quoting at length for there is the suggestion that this is the prototype for the Lawino-Okot joust:
Pule oh (Pule is pet name of Lapul)
Pule pa Lacic
Pule (daughter) of Lacic
Anyaka mutero coo i rok
The girl who marries a man outside the chiefdom
Mor wange woko
Explode her eyeballs
Anyaka ma deg awone Palaro
The girl who rejects men of Palaro
Anyaka me mito lu-rok
The girl who loves foreigners
Nek Wang cware woko
Kill her husband’s eyes
Nek cware woko
Kill her husband
The men had had their say before God. Now the women stepped forth:
Pule pa Lacic
Pule (daughter) of Lacic
Anyira wai bene litinni
The girls are also your children
Wegi bolli no
Your children with the spears (penis)
Bene gukelo anyira rok
Have also brought foreign girls
Ci pe ineko wanggi
But you have not killed their eyes
Wan bene gin ma neko wang wa peke
We too nothing will kill our eyes
Okwong ki la-lam
Let it (misfortune) begin with the ill-wisher
Pule pa Lacic
Pule (daughter) of Lacic
Wek okwong ki-lam
Let it begin with the ill-wisher
Mukelo anyira rok
Whoever brings a foreign girl
Nek wange woko
Kill his eyes
Nek dako-ne woko
Kill his wife
Let it begin with the ill-wisher
Pule pa Lacic, konywa
Pule (daughter) of Lacic, help us