“That poem which lay in my heart like a secret”: Juliane Okot Bitek reflects upon Okot p’Bitek’s “Return the Bridewealth” and the role of the poet

Our warmest thanks to Juliane Okot Bitek for the following Guest Editor post at Zócalo Poets:


Okot p’Bitek (1931 – 1982)

Return the Bridewealth (1971)




I go to my father

He is sitting in the shade at the foot of the simsim granary,

His eyes are fixed on the three graves of his grandchildren

He is silent.

Father, I say to him,

Father, gather the bridewealth so that I may marry the

Girl of my bosom!

My old father rests his bony chin in the broken cups of his

withered hands,

His long black fingernails vainly digging into the tough

dry skin of his cheeks

He keeps staring at the graves of his grandchildren,

Some labikka weeds and obiya grasses are growing on the mounds.

My old father does not answer me, only two large clotting

tears crawl down his wrinkled cheeks,

And a faint smile alights on his lips, causing them to

quiver and part slightly.

He reaches out for his walking staff, oily with age and

smooth like the long teeth of an old elephant.

One hand on his broken hip, he heaves himself up on

three stilts,

His every joint crackling and the bones breaking.

Hm! he sighs and staggers towards the graves of his


And with the bone-dry staff he strikes the mounds: One!

Two! Three!

He bends to pluck the labikka weeds and obiya grasses,

But he cannot reach the ground, his stone-stiff back cracks

like dry firewood.

Hm! he sighs again, he turns around and walks past me.

He does not speak to me.

There are more clotting tears on his glassy eyes,

The faint smile on his broken lips has grown bigger.




My old mother is returning from the well,

The water-pot sits on her grey wet head.

One hand fondles the belly of the water pot, the other

strangles the walking staff.

She pauses briefly by the graves of her grandchildren and

studies the labikka weeds and the obiya grasses waving

Like feathers atop the mounds.

Hm! she sighs

She walks past me;

She does not greet me.

Her face is wet, perhaps with sweat, perhaps with water

from the water-pot,

Perhaps some tears mingle with the water and the sweat.

The thing on her face is not a smile,

Her lips are tightly locked.

She stops before the door of the hut,

She throws down the wet walking staff, klenky, klenky!

A little girl in a green frock runs to her assistance;

Slowly, slowly, steadily she kneels down;

Together slowly, slowly, gently they lift the water-pot and

put it down.

My old mother says, Thank you!

Some water splashes onto the earth, and wets the little

girl’s school books.

She bursts into tears, and rolls on the earth, soiling her

beautiful green frock.

A little boys giggles.

He says, All women are the same, aren’t they?

Another little boy consoles his sister.




I go to the Town,

I see a man and a woman,

He wears heavy boots, his buttocks are like sacks of cotton,

His chest resembles the simsim granary,

His head is hidden under a broad-brimmed hat.

In one hand he holds a loaded machine-gun, his fingers at

the trigger,

His other hand coils round the waist of the woman, like a

starving python.

They part after a noisy kiss.

Hm! he sighs.

Hm! she sighs.

He marches past me, stamping the earth in anger, like an

elephant with a bullet in his bony head.

He does not look at me,

He does not touch me; only the butt of his weapon

touches my knee lightly,

He walks away, the sacks of cotton on his behind rising and

falling alternately

Like a bull hippo returning to the river after grazing in

the fresh grasses.

Hm! I sigh.

I go to the woman,

She does not look up to me,

She writes things in the sand.

She says, How are my children?

I say, Three are dead, and some labikka weeds and obiya

grasses grow on their graves.

She is silent.

I say, your daughter is now in Primary Six, and your little

boys ask after you!

The woman says, My mother is dead.

I am silent.

The agoga bird flies overhead,

He cries his sorrowful message:

She is dead! She is dead!

The guinea-fowl croaks in the tree near by:

Sorrow is part of me,

Sorrow is part of me. How can I escape

The baldness of my head?

She is silent.

Hm! I sigh.

She says, I want to see my children.

I tell the woman I cannot trace her father.

I say to her I want back the bridewealth that my father

paid when we wedded some years ago,

When she was full of charm, a sweet innocent

little hospital ward-maid.

She is silent.

I tell the woman I will marry the girl of my bosom,

I tell her the orphans she left behind will be mothered, and

the labikka weeds and obiya grasses

that grow on the graves of her children

will be weeded,

And the ground around the mounds will be kept tidy.

Hm! she sighs.

She is silent.

I am silent.

The woman reaches out for her handbag.

It is not the one I gave her as a gift last Christmas.

She opens it

She takes out a new purse

She takes out a cheque.

She looks up to me, our eyes meet again after many


There are two deep valleys on her cheeks that were not

there before,

There is some water in the valleys.

The skin on her neck is rotting away,

They say the doctor has cut her open and

removed the bag of her eggs

So that she may remain a young woman forever.

I am silent

A broad witch-smile darkens her wet face,

She screams,

Here, take it! Go and marry your bloody woman!

I unfold the cheque.

It reads:

Shillings One thousand four hundred only!


.     .     .

Juliane Okot Bitek

A Poet May Lie Down Beside You


She might even let you run your palm over her hip

Round and round and round

So you remember what it’s like to lie down beside a woman

A poet may lie down beside you and listen to you sigh

Turn around, turn around

She may even take in your stories of days gone by

Turn around, turn around

Spit roasting like pigs

It’s been bloody weeks

It’s been long, stone years

Since you lay down beside a woman, anyone

A poet may lie down beside you

Let you bring the covers over her shoulders and

Lift the hair off her face

She will take you back to the lean months, lean years, two

Or has it been three?

She will take you all the way back to a time without kisses

Without touch

Forever since anyone touched you

A poet will take you back

And return with the clingy scent of yesterday

For several moments

Before this, before this

A poet might even let you kiss her

She might open up ovens and ovens of pent up heat inside you

A poet will let you think

That this is what it means

To lie down beside a woman

Rolling, rolling, drowning, searching

A poet may lie down beside you

And sing, or not sing, speak, or not speak

This is your time

A poet will not let a moment like this go wasted

So she lies down beside you and lets you touch her

So you know what it’s like

To lie down beside a woman.

.     .     .

I first encountered “Return the Bridewealth” in Poems from East Africa, a 1971 anthology edited by David Rubadiri and David Cook. It was a text that we used at Gayaza High School in Kampala, Uganda. It was a text from which our teachers found creative ways of engaging us with poetry. One teacher had us write a short story that incorporated the title of Jared Angira’s “No Coffin, No Grave” as the last words. Another teacher had us think about ways that we could have ‘built the nation,’ a lesson on citizenship based on Henry Barlow’s “Building the Nation”. And the fact that Barlow’s daughter was on the teaching faculty was not lost on us, even though she wasn’t the literature teacher for that class. I prayed that we would not study “Return the Bridewealth” or “They Sowed and Watered” – both poems were in the same anthology – and both had been written by my father Okot p’Bitek.

I used to imagine that the teacher might put the burden on me to explain what the poet’s intention was as they did in the old days, as if anyone would know. I couldn’t have known what his intentions were in writing poetry and yet I was aware, even then, that my father’s poetry read like the truth. But I wasn’t mature enough to discern whether he wrote factually about everything. I was embarrassed to think that it might have dissolved into a class discussion in which my father would’ve had to beg his father and an ex-wife for money to get married. Perhaps the teachers knew not to assign those poems for our class, but that poem that read like a story (“Return the Bridewealth”) stayed with me over the years. I read my father’s other works and, after grad school, I was finally confident enough to discuss my father as a poet, an essayist, a novelist and a philosopher. But I never talked about that poem which lay in my heart like a secret, even though it remains a public document.

“Return the Bridewealth” reads true. It reads true because the poet, my dad, had an eye and an ear for the environment around a story. It wasn’t just the plot with main characters whose lives spanned time before and after the poem begins and ends. We hear the old woman’s stick: klenky, klenky! We see the old man’s fingers digging into his bony cheeks; we understand the insistence of weeds and the infuriation of the old couple who cannot maintain the graves of their grandchildren. This couple, who has endured the divorce of their son and his wife, are struggling to take care of their grandchildren, both dead and alive. And their son has the gall to return and ask for financial support to remarry.

It is a modern story, immediate and accessible. The poetry is in the language, the lines and the delivery of what might have been a short story by another writer and perhaps a novel by another’s hand. My dad boiled this story down to its bare bones and it still resists the notion that it could be a poem that celebrates its use of language and calls for attention to its lyricism.

For a man who founded the song school of poetry, Okot p’Bitek’s “Return the Bridewealth” is not a song, even though it is punctuated by the refrained sighs of all the main characters: Hm! the mother sighs; Hmm! The father sighs; Hm! the woman sighs. Hm!, the soldier sighs; Hm! I, the narrator sighs. The sigh may be a long and breathy sigh but as any Ugandan knows, hm is short and decisive. It means everything and sometimes it means nothing. But the boy giggles and the girl cries. The boy also says within earshot of his father: All women are the same, aren’t they? before he turns to console his sister.

Each conversation in “Return the Bridewealth” allows the reader to be a voyeur of the most intimate conversations. A grown man asks his elderly father for money. A boy shares a moment with his father, deriding all women and girls. A man confronts his ex-wife in an exercise that is fraught with pain and shame – neither parent is taking care of the kids and the money that will change hands is probably from the woman’s current lover in order that the man may marry his current lover – an extremely uncomfortable situation for which the title of the poem is wholly inadequate.

Okello Oculi, another poet from the same anthology, and a contemporary of Okot p’Bitek, includes this poem as one of many works that espouse shame as a trope for post colonial narratives on the fallout from having been colonized by foreigners. Sure, but we also see that there has to be shame from the behaviour of the children’s parents because we know those parents; we are those parents. We screw up, and sometimes, as parents, we don’t get our priorities right.

The poem is broken up into representations of the past, present and future. In the first section, the first person narrator introduces his father, an old man in the twilight of his life, a man whose bony fingers seem to be in the business of hastening his own death by clawing at his face. We’re brought into a home in which there are three buried children who lie in unkempt graves. It is a sorry homestead with a lovesick son who has returned for financial support from his father. His father doesn’t answer the request for money but a smile plays about the old man’s face, perhaps in hope for better circumstances still to come. The second section is a portrayal of the current state of affairs. The grandmother is still involved in the heavy domestic work, even at her advanced age, but her granddaughter is sensitive enough to go and help offload the precious cargo of water. The grade six girl’s and her grandmother’s struggle is symbolized by the water spilling onto the girl’s school textbook. The old woman does not acknowledge her son’s presence. She does not greet him and she doesn’t smile as her husband does. Her anger is evident from the way she “strangles” her walking stick and the “thing on her face” that is not a smile, but she reserves her thanks for her granddaughter who helps her with the heavy water pot on her head. The current state of affairs doesn’t belie the reality of the graves in the homestead from which the weeds are an affront; things are not as they should be.

In the third section, the narrator confronts his ex-wife who has just met up with her lover, a soldier whose well-fed form is represented by the way he fills out the bottom of his pants (“his buttocks are like sacks of cotton”). The woman wants to know about her children, but in the classic tension-filled relationship of exes, the man won’t give her the information she needs. Power plays and replays itself. The woman reveals that her mother is dead. No empathy from her ex. I can’t find your father to get my money back, the man says in response. And the woman, infuriated, writes a cheque which she retrieves from a handbag that the man realizes is not the one he bought for her last Christmas. She’s moved on. This is the present reality for many of us. We know about memory and the power of “stuff”. And this is the future because we witness a man accepting financial support from his ex-wife in order to marry the woman he’s in love with. Power reveals itself in a cash transaction.

Beyond the direct effects of colonialism which colour the poem, the culture of the Acholi people from which my father drew much inspiration, is in flux. Bridewealth, which was the purview of the man’s family, is now dependent on whoever has the money to pay for it – in this case, the man’s ex-wife and, presumably, her lover. The narrator unfolds the cheque to make sure of the amount – One Thousand Four Hundred only. In this modern cash economy, money can and does replace the former symbol of wealth – cattle. Much of the cattle of Acholi was lost in the war that lasted over two decades (1986-2007) and there are barely any Acholi cows with which to show prosperity. The narrator, emasculated by his ex-wife’s cheque, is the modern man, and there’s no shame – or is there? Who or what makes an Acholi man or woman marriageable?

My father’s only novel, a slim book titled White Teeth (first published in 1963 in the Acholi language as Lak Tar) is about a young man from an impoverished family who makes the journey to the capital, Kampala, to see if he can earn the money to pay the bride price for Cecilia Laliya, the woman he loves. Set in colonial times, just before Independence, the main character, Okeca Ladwong, is alienated by the skyscrapers, tarmac roads, traffic, a multi-ethnic society and the fast, fast pace of urban life. But he is buoyed by his love for Cecilia, and so he perseveres until he makes enough money to return to his hometown, Gulu. Okot p’Bitek, who argued against the willful discarding of Acholi culture for a modern and souless life, wouldn’t and couldn’t let Okeca return to Gulu and marry Cecilia with his newly-earned cash. That’s not the way it was done traditionally.

In Song of Lawino, it’s clear that Lawino, the spurned wife of a modern man, Ocol, can see the danger of rejecting one’s culture wholesale. Do not uproot the pumpkin, she keeps saying. Do not uproot the pumpkin. There’s no need to reject the wisdom of Acholi culture for modern ways. In “Return the Bridewealth,” the old man sighs, as does the old woman, the narrator, his ex-wife and her lover. All the adults know and express that something is terribly wrong. Hm! as they still say in Uganda. Hm!

Return the Bridewealth” is certainly set in a time of flux for the narrator, his parents, children and ex-wife. Published in 1971, it was a time of instability in Uganda as well. 1971 was the year that Idi Amin overthrew the government of the man who had exiled my father – Apolo Milton Obote. Being the man that he was, Idi Amin did not want my father in the country either, so Okot p’Bitek remained in exile and brought us up in neighbouring Kenya, where I was born. Before Idi Amin was overthrown by organized exiles and with the support of the Tanzanian government in 1979, my father told of visiting Obote in Arusha, Tanzania, where the former president lived, and how they’d had a toast together to the life of an exile. My family returned from exile in 1980. Uganda experienced a series coup d’etats and a general election in 1980 that was heavily contested and led to the creation of a guerrilla movement that sought to overthrow the government of Milton Obote. That government was known as Obote II, given the fact that it was the second time in Obote’s career that he claimed presidency of the country.

In 1982, during the second term of my first year of high school, my father died. It was a surreal time. Dad had driven me to the bus stop at the beginning of that term where I’d caught the bus to Gayaza. I recall nothing about the drive there, not even if we talked, or what we might have talked about. I remember that he said bye very brightly and waved for a long time as he drove away. Maybe I remember a bright goodbye and a long wave because I need to.

I am a graduate student working on a PhD in interdisciplinary studies at the University of British Columbia, in Vancouver, Canada, but I’ve dabbled in creative writing for much of my life. My Bachelor’s Degree was in Fine Art with a focus on Creative Writing, so the question of the role of the poet isn’t incidental to me. I’ve thought about it. When my father wrote his Horn of My Love, a collection of Acholi songs, he declared in that book that poets were loved and feared in Acholi society. In Vancouver, love and fear are not what I associate with poets and poetry. There are small and passionate groups of poets, generally divided into the textual kind and the spoken-word kind, but they exist in a parallel universe for most of the general population. Sometimes, a local poet breaks through the barrier and everybody can see themselves in a poet’s work. Shane Koyzcan, a Vancouver poet, was one of the featured presenters at the Opening Ceremony of the 2010 Winter Olympics which was held in Vancouver. Recently, Koyzcan presented a poem on bullying, “To This Day”, at the TED talks, to much critical and popular acclaim. Like Okot p’Bitek, Koyczan’s poetry sounds like life. Nine million viewers have viewed “To This Day on YouTube, generating thousands of responses from people who could relate to the poem. What is it about poems and poets and poetry?

I write poems, sometimes. I had my first poem published when I was a girl; I wrote it in response to the factions that were struggling for power in Uganda after the liberation war in April 1979 that saw the overthrow of Idi Amin. One afternoon, my father took me to The NationNewspaper offices in Nairobi and I was interviewed and photographed. That Sunday, my poem was published in the children’s section of that national newspaper.

In 1998, my Words in Black Cinnamon was published by Delina Press. In that book, I wrote about spurned love, dislocation and home, but nothing about what it means to be a poet. I considered poetry as one of the arts, one of the practices that human beings use to connect and reflect, but I never saw myself “connected” until Ali Farzat, the Syrian cartoonist, was tortured for his work. I wrote “A Poem for Ali Farzat after several weeks of having heard about the torture of Farzat. I realized that I cannot afford the luxury of writing as an independent artist, making beauty for beauty’s sake. Art has a political function. It can drive change. It can make people think about what’s important to them. And for those of us who seek to work in solidarity with others, it can strengthen our resolve for change in the face of so much power against those that dare to present a dissenting voice. Today, it’s the protests in Turkey, the war in Syria, the dissenting young man who’s holed up in a hotel in Hong Kong while thousands of bones lie unburied in northern Uganda and South Sudan. How else can we deal with all this and more if we don’t immerse ourselves in art in order to understand the way we are?

The most direct poem I’ve ever written about the role of a poet comes from the very private experience of a “narrator poet” who sees her work as that of providing solace. The poet speaks of what she must do to alleviate the loneliness of a person she knows. The poet is a woman, a friend and lover. The poem remains a space in which fiction and fact trade spaces, feeling right and intimate, or distantly rational and strange. Recently, I wore a wide smile when I got a cheque for a small scholarship from my university. It was enough to pay some bills, do groceries and buy some school supplies. It read:  One Thousand Four Hundred and Seventy Eight Dollars and Seventy One cents.

.     .     .     .     .