Inter-sections of conflict between African tradition and modernity in Divorce of Lawino

A scene from the play

Originally published in 1966 by Okot p’Bitek as Song of Lawino, a woman’s lament about a husband, who has forsaken his traditional ways, with its corresponding Song of Ocul, as a response for the demands of modernity, with the poet deploys folkloric, African poetic idiom to highlight the changing society of his day, as western civilization aggressively made its inroad into Africa to displace traditional norms and values.

p‘Bitek, like most of his contemporaries in the 1960s, saw the imminent endangerment western civilization posed to Africa’s traditional societies and raised the alarm. But the alarm would appear to have come too late, as the enchantment western values offered young Africans at the dawn of independence became too alluring to ignore or resist. They felt themselves helplessly drawn into its whirlpool, and those who remained stuck to the traditional ways were left to gape in stupefaction at a changing world they could not understand and mourn the old ways passing away.

This is the unfortunate position Ocul’s uneducated wife, Lawino, finds herself, when her educated husband of many years with many children, suddenly finds her too backward for his educated tastes and seeks to drive her out so he can marry an equally educated, city girl, a secretary in his office, who has totally imbibed the western ways with all its artificialities.

How does Lawino (Eseosa Eguamwense) convince her husband that he can literally and literarily marry both women and African and western traditions and be the better for it? How does she convince Ocul (Uche Enechukwu) that the ways of life his people, which nurtured him to adulthood are not bad and that he need not repudiate them for foreign, western ones? How can Lawino talk sense into her husband’s head, who is so sold to alien civilization he does not see anything good in the age-old, cherished values of his own people? That is the uphill battle Lawino, a woman sold totally to her people’s ways of life, has to fight to regain the love of her wayward husband.

Remarkably, Divorce of Lawino was staged as part of the closing events of the maiden edition of Alkebulan Festival, organised by Kokwe Yebovi, designed to as a return to African traditional values. Said to be the original name for Africa, Alkebulan Festival lived up to its name as a celebration of everything African. Alkebulan, which means ‘Mother of Mankind,’ is believed to be the name of the continent now known as Africa, used by the Moors, Nubians and Ethiopians.

From the modern to traditional African art exhibitions, the textile and fashion exhibitions, the dances, traditional wrestling contest, the food, tattoo-making section, and the music, it was a return to the source. The festival was also a gathering of performances and displays from far and near, as guests and participants also came from outside Nigeria to make it a true African project.

Performed by Crown Troupe of Africa, Divorce of Lawino is a dramatic harmonization of p’Bitek’s twin poetic offerings – Song of Lawino and Song of Ocul. It was performed in seamless and, true to the Segun Adefila-led Afro-centric troupe’s style of total theatre, of dance and music, and his domestication of the play to fit Nigeria’s performance idiom, which made it all the more exciting for the packed audience at Freedom Park’s amphitheatre, Lagos. Dovorce of Lawino was directed by Adefila.

When the stage opens, Lawino is lamenting her fate as a wife soon to lose her place before her husband. Ocul is naked (a man at the cross roads, who must go one way or the other) save the short he is wearing. Soon, his transformation begins, as he asks his houseboy to fit him in his newfangled attire. First, he is given his western trousers, his singlet, shirt, shoes, and then his coat, to complete his total turnaround and transformation from who he formally was, an African man in a hurry to abandon his roots for the new way of life. As a modern man, he finds his old wife reprehensible because of her African ways; he can no longer contemplate life with her. He has an eye for a new wife, who will meet his modern needs – a wife he can take to western dances at the clubhouse, a wife who can cook western food, who can speak western tongue with him; in short, a wife who is no longer African!

But dutiful Lawino argues otherwise; Ocul does not need to throw away his origin for the foreign. He can, indeed, bring the two under his roof and have the best of both worlds. But Ocul won’t even see his own hypocrisy, when he counter-argues that his Christian virtues won’t allow him marry two wives, also on account of bigamy charges. But does his Christianity allow him to divorce his wife? He is a man set on fulfilling his own whims and desperate to find excuses to do so. But he gets more than his match in Lawino, who will not give up on what is legitimately hers. She matches Ocul logic for logic on his foolhardiness in choosing a woman, who has sold every virtue of naturalness for artificiality just to entice men like Ocul.

And so, when the educated, city girl, Clementina (kate Odiong), arrives Ocul’s home, the fireworks begin. Lawino totally overwhelms her with her logic and commonsense. Clementina rejects Lawino’s offer to share Ocul with her, but is bent on displacing another woman just so she can step in. Lawino descends on her and beats her black and blue. She flees and Ocul is rendered helpless in the process. In the end, Lawino and reason prevail and Ocul is shamed in his foolishness.

p‘Bitek might have written his two poetic volumes over 50 years ago, but their adaptation as Divorce of Lawino in dramatic form retrains an enduring quality and carries unparalleled resonance. Only recently, a newly married, young woman commited a crime of passion when she stabbed her husband to death because of a text message on his phone, ostensibly from another woman. One Man One Wife, as TM Aluko wrote many years ago, is alien concept that continues to haunt most modern African men, sometimes to their utter ruin. Adefila’s deft interpretation and his use of local performance idioms made the play a memorable show for the audience. His transformative use of the crowd as children, townspeople, and dancers, with even the drummers playing a part, rendered Divorce of Lawino a piece of drama to treasure.



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