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Coming soon: Mahewa ya Lawino, Sheng version of Okot p’Bitek’s masterpiece

By Amol Awuor and Abenea Ndago | November 19th 2016

Brother! When you see - Mseeiya! Aki ukicheki

Clementine - Ka Clementini

The beautiful one aspires - Ni msupuu anajifeki

To look like a white woman - Ati yeye saa ni manzi mlami

Her lips are red-hot Lips - zake ziko red kuruka

Like glowing charcoal - Kaa makaa zile zimewaka

She resembles the wild cat - Anafanana kaa pussy ya mwitu

That has dipped its mouth - Pussy imedip lips zake

In blood - Kwa damu pevu...

Something is going on at Kenyatta University’s Literature Department. Okot p’Bitek’s Song of Lawino, which celebrated its 50th anniversary with a grand celebration at Makerere University early this year, is being translated into Sheng. The tentative title is Mahewa ya Lawino. The work is in progress.

This is meant to coincide with a colloquium planned for December 22, this year, where Kenyatta University will honour the late Ugandan poet. The long poem – originally written in Okot’s Acholi language as Wer par Lawino – continues to attract immense interest in the literary world beyond East Africa.

“My fire was lit by Makerere University’s literary scholar, Prof Abasi Kiyiimba, who did a translation of the poem into Luganda language as Omulanga gwa Lawino,” says Dr JKS Makokha of Kenyatta University’s Literature Department. “Kiyiimba’s translation was the main highlight of Song of [email protected], when the University of Nairobi’s Prof Ciarunji Chesaina and I attended the Makerere celebrations on March 18.”

Makokha says the one day colloquium at Kenyatta University’s Department of Literature is meant to celebrate five decades of the song tradition in East African Literature. He points out that Song of Lawino is a landmark text in that tradition.

Earlier rendition

“Kenyatta University has played a vital role in promotion of oral literature since it began as a constituent college of the University of Nairobi. And Okot, being a scholar rooted in the oral literary heritage visible in his other works such as Song of Ocol (1970) and Two Songs: Song of a Prisoner, Song of Malaya (1971); it is only sensible for us to bequeath this East African poet the honour he deserves.”

The literary critic says that p’Bitek’s influence on East African Literature should be appreciated within the context of the three trajectories earlier on identified in Edda Gachukia’s research at the University of Nairobi: the ‘Okotian tradition’ pioneered by p’Bitek’s song mode; the class-conscious ‘Ngugian tradition’ originated by Ngugi wa Thiong’o; and the gadfly ‘Tabanic tradition’ fronted by Taban Lo Liyong’.

“Abasi Kiyiimba’s successful translation of the text was very good. But Taban Lo Liyong’s earlier rendition of the same as The Defence of Lawino eroded the original text. These two reasons have inspired me to translate the work into Sheng’,” says Makokha, himself a poet.

He points out that Okot was a figure who broke boundaries not only as a literary theorist, but also as a pedagogist, folklorist and a cultural worker in the entire East African region. Makokha recounts the Black Aesthetics colloquium of 1972/73 at the University of Nairobi, which he says was a melting pot of scholars and cultural thinkers who engineered the three strands of East African Literature mentioned above.

He explains: “The Okotian strand merged the oral and written. Okot’s greatest follower today is Julius Ocwinyo of Uganda, as seen in the author’s two works, Fate of the Banished (1997) and Footprints of the Outsider (2002).”

Makokha says Okot used different characters to express his viewpoints on cultural decolonisation. As a cultural worker, Okot believed the best production of literature was to deconstruct the dichotomy of the city versus the rural area, or the ivory tower versus the streets.

In Makokha’s view, the fact that Okot brought together the substance of language as graphic (written) and phonic (spoken) is another motivation for him to translate the text, since Sheng’ has largely been used as a medium of spoken discourse as opposed to the written.

“The performance of Sheng’ as a literary medium in the East Africa literary landscape in terms of written materials remains largely marginal,” observes Makokha, whose poem Reconciliation, in his poetry anthology Nests of Stone: Narratives of Verse (2010), experiments with language by infusing Sheng’ words.

The don acknowledges the important role publishers play in the dissemination of a country’s literature. He says that the other motivation to translate the text comes from his desire to see which publishers will be ready to receive his manuscript.

 “The universalism of Song of Lawino, and its transcendental message that cuts across regions, is confirmed by the manner in which it allows for other translations. Using Sheng’ also provides new insights into the nexus between literature, language, and society,” he says.

Kenyan linguists note that when English was made an official language and Kiswahili a national one, children from certain urban neighbourhoods in Nairobi crafted a new language to hide information from their parents.

Born and brought up in Nairobi’s Eastlands, Makokha says he is well aware of the history of Sheng’ as a language of concealment. And since its inception, Sheng’ has continued to mutate in vocabulary, which poses the greatest linguistic challenge to the task of translation.

Makokha acknowledges this fact: “Sheng’ is ephemeral and it hasn’t a standardised vocabulary. It also lacks a stable background as a language. These challenges worry but don’t distract me, coupled with the risk of the language alienating many readers because of its urban orientation.”

Makokha says the conceptual limits of Sheng’ as an urban medium of reflection means the ‘Acholisms’ of Song of Lawino risk being distorted. But he remains optimistic.

Literary justice

Sheng’, he says, has outgrown the original and traditional spaces of its speakers in terms of applicability, and it can today be used to communicate Lawino’s anxieties. “Translation is a continuation of Okot’s fascination with language in order to find new insights that connect language and society. As a literary scholar and critic, I am keen to examine how Sheng’ will explore contours of modernities in the African landscape.”

Makokha also cites Clementine, Ocol’s second wife in Song of Lawino, as an exemplar of what he says are urban imaginaries manifested as cosmopolitanism and metropolitanism. Hence, the use of Sheng’ serves as a form of literary justice by presenting the dramatist personae and not just characters found in Okot p’Bitek’s seminal work.

The literary theorist also lauds the East African Educational Publishers (EAEP) for maintaining Okot’s works in constant circulation, elevating the late poet to the canonical African classics as a poet, cultural worker and organiser.

Other scholars who have confirmed participation in the December 22 colloquium include Prof Charles Nelson Okumu (Gulu University), Prof CJ Odhiambo (Moi University), Dr Danson Kahyana (Makerere University), Dr Fred Mbogo (Moi University), Dr Mercy Ntangaare (Makerere University) and Dr Rose Opondo (Marist International University College).

-The authors are based at the Kenyatta University

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