Transcript: 16. Samuel Imbo on Okot p'Bitek and Oral Traditions

A conversation with Sam Imbo on approaching oral traditions as philosophy and the Ugandan thinker and poet Okot p'Bitek.

Note: this transcription was produced by automatic voice recognition software. It has been corrected by hand, but may still contain errors. We are very grateful to Tim Wittenborg for his production of the automated transcripts and for the efforts of a team of volunteer listeners who corrected the texts.


I'm going to start us off with a general question. So can you just give us a quick overview of some of the major approaches to finding philosophical material in these oral traditions from Africa that have emerged in the past century or so? 

Well, African philosophers have been interested in this question of whether Africa and philosophy can be spoken about in the same sentences. And so one way to find it is what stories do Africans tell? A number of thinkers have gone into digging up stories from different African traditions. Okot Pabitek was very good at doing that. So that is one approach. The other is to see the literature that has emerged from Africa, not under the guise of philosophy, but African literature. Some of that feeds on stories that were told to people and then these were put down in written texts. So that has been another way of getting into philosophy. A third way is material culture of the different African communities. People use things in the course of daily life and those things have meaning for them. And so anthropologists fell into the idea of figuring out what does this thing have in the way of meaning for the people. So material culture is a very good entry into African philosophy as well. But the philosophers have gone back to myths and stories and creation ideas of one sort or another to get at what the Africans thought philosophy was for them. 

So there's a bit of a territorial dispute here between people who work on literary studies, people who work on anthropology or archaeology, and philosophers, and they all presumably have their own approach to this material and want to claim it for themselves? 

That's true. Even though they may use the same materials, they approach them very differently. And philosophers, traditionally speaking, have been very shy about using anything other than written texts. And so many philosophers don't want to do that. They want to restrict themselves to written documents. But our anthropologists have been working with more materials over the years and people who tell stories have certainly been doing other things. Philosophers now are learning that they could get into that game as well, take the same sources, apply philosophical methods to them, and see what comes up at the other end. 

Is the main reason to oppose this idea? I mean, if a philosopher says, I don't want to use these oral traditions, is that because they're unreliable? Or what's the problem exactly? 

The problem is philosophical training in the West particularly has been to kind of look down on anything that was not textual. And text meant written books. So philosophers who have been trained in the West have an instinct to get away from anything that is not written. So the shyness here comes from their training. It is not that they're going to do it wrong. They just don't think that is the sort of thing you should do. 

Yeah. I guess, I mean, by the time that we're in a position to evaluate this material, like you said, it must have been written down, right? Because unless we're the people doing the interviews of the local storytellers, what we're reading is their reports of what they were told, right? 

That's right. And you have to think about if you are not going to written texts, what would you look at? And so philosophers are coming to this game a little late. Other people have been doing that for a little longer time than philosophers. 

Do you think that this whole issue about using oral traditions as opposed to written literary traditions? Does this have a kind of bearing on the very question of what philosophy is? 

It has a central bearing on that question because those of us trained in the West, we were told to read books and that is what we did. Imagine if you're working with cultures which do not deal primarily with books. So one of the things you'd have to say is that there is no philosophy, but that seems like a mistaken thing to be doing. And so one wants to be much more broad about what counts as philosophy. This question makes us ask about what does philosophy really mean? What are the sources we can go to and could they be oral? So those who are resisting it are simply working with one view of what philosophy is for them. And some of those are Africans. They are Africans who do not think oral traditions should count for very much. The view of philosophy is written texts. And one of the arguments we have with our colleagues is how should we define what a text is? So it's a central question that philosophers in Africa are contending with. 

So part of the question whether a text needs to be written so an oral tradition could be textual. Is that a part of the idea? 

That is part of the idea that could we say text and oral in the same sentence? There's some people who think you cannot say oral texts. Oral materials are different things from texts. 

So part of the idea then be that if we're talking about where the limits of philosophy are or where they could be, that the limits should lie between not written and nonwritten but language and non-language. Because I could imagine someone, for example, saying, oh sure, I accept that oral traditions could be philosophical because they could have arguments that have been passed down or ideas, philosophical ideas that have been passed down. But I don't think that philosophy could be done in the form of a painting. So philosophy has to be linguistic at least. 

Yeah. That you see how central this matter really becomes. Because if I think of philosophy as being restricted to language or non-language, I am giving a certain view of what philosophy is. There are philosophers even in the West who say that maybe our best thoughts might be captured non-verbally. We might need to go in other ways to capture what the thought is. Maybe language gets in the way of thinking. So how do we think of what the project is? I think that is a central question here. Where do we divide it up? And in Africa, it has always been oral tradition should count for at least places you could go to look for philosophical material. Don't rule them out out of hand. 

Okay. So this is not just a methodological question about what we could be interested in as historians of philosophy. It's actually a philosophical question. Yeah. It is a philosophical question because the way you define it determines what you're going to find. And if you define it in ways that limit what you're going to find, the philosophy that comes out at the other end is going to be constricted. It is constrained. It is limited. And African philosophers now are saying most of what has come down to us as philosophy has been limited and limited in ways that the practitioners did not see. 

Right. Okay. So speaking of the practitioners, let's move on to talking about this figure, Okot Pabitek, who is a Ugandan poet who was born in 1931 and died in 1982. And you wrote a book about him, which is actually called Oral Tradition as Philosophy. So obviously you need to tell us something about why he's an interesting figure for this question of oral philosophy or oral traditions as philosophy. But can you first just give us a quick overview of his life and work? 

Well, Okot Pabitek is an interesting figure. This is why I chose him as a way to talk about orality and philosophy. He was born at an interesting time in the history of Africa and Uganda. He would be of the same generation as the Kenyan writer Ngugiwa Theongo and Chinua Achebe, people who were contending with the legacy of slavery. So he was coming up at around that same time. He was interested in many things. His father was a storyteller, and so he grew up with an interesting story. His mother was a traditional dancer, dancing in the local ways. So growing up, he could see that meaning was attached to these things that the parents did. As many people growing up in Africa at the time, he had a chance to go to Europe. He went to Europe as a football player. He was on the Ugandan football team. This is how he ended up in England. 

So he could have played football against Albert Camus, who was a goalkeeper. 

So this is what takes him to Europe. And then he stays over to study. And he went to college, studied anthropology, and then studied law at Wales. But that was not enough for him. At every turn, he discovered that what he was learning was not helping him figure out the things that had given him meaning before. And so he was trying to combine African traditions with what he was learning in the West. While Okot finished his studies, he was thinking about, do I stay in Europe? Do I go back home? Around that same time, Idi Amin became president of Uganda. And independent thinking people had a difficult time with a dictator such as Idi Amin. And so it was difficult for Okotpabitek to go back home. So he stayed out for a while. But eventually, he made his way back to Uganda. He climbed the ladder in Uganda to become director of the National Theatre Company. Given his earlier interests, what he was trying to do was to mesh his training with his background. And so he was disturbed that the National Theatre in Uganda was catering to European interests. And so he began producing plays and things that were of interest to local people. That put him at cross purposes with the people in power in Uganda at the time. And so he was removed from that position and very quickly had to leave Uganda because of other political problems. He ended up in Kenya and in America for part of the time. Okotpabitek and I crossed paths briefly, I think, because in one of his surgeons, he was teaching at the University of Nairobi. When I was a first year student at the University of Nairobi, this was about a year or two before he died. And so I did not know him. But my colleagues at the University of Nairobi talk fondly about going drinking with Okotpabitek and having discussions with him. So I knew of him. I learned of the work much later.

But you didn't meet him. I did not meet him. That's too bad because I think he would have been the first interview guest I've ever had on the podcast who had met the person that we were discussing. But not quite. 

Not quite. 

Now, as you said, that he grew up in a culture that was suffused with these oral traditions. He was very familiar with them. And he thought about them and discussed them himself. What did he think was the important difference between oral tradition and written text? 

The difference he thought was that anything that was oral was more immediate. It had more meaning. And so when you're engaged in a dance, you're involving a whole lot more of yourself. It is kind of a communion between those who are now here present and those who have gone ahead. And maybe those who are yet to be born, you're part of a much wider community. So when he saw the dancers in the village, it filled him with a sense of the urgency and the meaning that these movements did. Writing did not quite do the same thing for him. Even though the ideas stay with us longer, it's kind of dry. And so he did not think writing was the way that life could be moved forward. Orality was for him much more immediate and much more powerful. 

And would it even be true to say that for him there are ideas that you can express or express more fully in an oral context than in a written context? 

Yeah, I think he would say that. Ideas that can be expressed much more fully in the oral sense than in writing. Because for him, we lost something when it was written down. You might have gained longevity in terms of history, but that immediacy, that connection between people, that is lost. In communities in which there's a give and take and back and forth, the more immediate thing is much more meaningful than what is written down. 

I see. So at least part of it might be that you have a direct attachment between the thing being said and the person saying it. It can also be challenged by other people who are present immediately, whereas the written text becomes autonomous and separate from the person who wrote it. 

Yeah, because the written thing you can consume on your own. You can do this by yourself. If you are being oral, you're always with others. So for him, the community aspect of this was important. You must do this in community with others. And to do that successfully, you need to know the ways of the people. You need to know what has gone on before. So it calls much more of you than a written document does. Even though he was trained in the West, he did not put down writing. He was simply saying Africans had hit on this idea, which was for him an important one, that the more immediate connections, the community connections could be established in other ways. 

So written works are actually in the form of poems that almost do seem like oral recitations. And I guess we're intended to be orally recited in theater. 

Yeah, yeah. You notice that he calls most of the books he writes song of Okot, song of Ochol, song of Lawinno, song of Prostitute. They're all a song of. They're supposed to be sung in a communal setting. This is a back and forth. It is not a solitary endeavor. That was for him the importance of the oral component of things. 

And two of his poems are called Song of Lawinno and Song of Ochol. 


And these were composed in Ocholi and English. So Song of Lawinno is in Ocholi, but has been translated into English, including by him, right? 

Right, right. Yeah. 

With some difficulty, he complained. And in these two songs or poems, he contrasts two very different attitudes towards the African culture that we've been talking about. So can you tell us what viewpoints on African culture these two characters, Lawinno and Ochol, represent? I mean, who they are and what they think about African culture? 

Yeah. He gave the songs the names of people who are familiar to him. These are not real accounts in this sense. They're fictional, but they represent points of view that were important for him. His father was Jebediah Bitek. And so Pa Bitek, son of Bitek, Lawinno was his mother. And so he's talking about somebody whose viewpoint he knows very well. Now, the Lawinno in the story is not his mother. It's simply somebody who has held on to the traditional ways, who understands the world in a way that is confusing to what we now call modern Africans. Ochol is the Western trained person who having learned the new ways, now is looking down on what he used to be. And Lawinno is saying, by doing so, Ochol has lost out on what gave his life meaning. There's really nothing substantial to the life of Ochol now. He might have gained in Western education, but he has lost the anchor to the traditions of the past to his people. And so most of the things that Ochol does are amusing or confusing to Lawinno. A traditional person would not understand what Ochol was doing. And Ochol is now embarrassed or offended by what Lawinno is holding on to. So what Pa Bitek was going for was the tension between new and old, African and foreign. How do these ideas mix together? And in this story, they don't mix together very well. It turns out Ochol has completely lost his way and in a way that he's unable to step back from. His training is at the very time what does him in. And Lawinno is unable to enter that space because she is holding on to the ways of the past. Ochol despises those ways. They cannot talk to each other anymore. So what progress has done is put asunder what used to be together. 

And would it be too simple then to say that Pa Bitek's sympathies just lie with Lawinno? Is it more like he's trying to show us these two perspectives, both of which are limited in some way? Even though I guess, I mean, he certainly seems to have a more favorable attitude towards Lawinno than he does towards Ochol. 

That's true. That's true. It would be too simple to say that all the sympathies are with Lawinno. Pa Bitek himself was a Western educated person. So he was a world traveler. He knew what was outside of Uganda and Africa. The tension he wants to draw our mind to is that being trained in these new ways takes at all. And it takes at all in ways that people cannot easily recover from. So if you are an Ochol, what you have lost is not something you can snap out of. You need a whole lot of help to do that. It seems like what Lawinno is doing is not enough to help Ochol regain his humanity. In getting an education, he has lost his humanity. And that seems like too great a price to pay for progress. 

I guess though that Pa Bitek himself, since he's still able to write the song from Lawinno's point of view, he must be an example of an educated Western educated person who's managed to hold on to their roots or their kind of feeling for the meaning of traditional culture, right? 

Yeah, yeah. Because he wants us to think, I am able to do this. I can see both perspectives. But the story of his life tells something quite different because the Western trained person who is keen on culture is going to run afoul of the political powers as he did in Uganda. The attempt to bring culture to the national theater was seen as threatening. And so Ochol's life is a warning about the difficulty of educated Africans walking the tight balance between the old ways and the new ways. It's a constant struggle and a struggle which takes a toll on people who are not as strong. Yeah. 

But I guess another obvious dynamic in these two songs is that Lawinno's a woman and Ochol is a man. And that gets us to the issue about the role of women in oral tradition. You already mentioned before that women played a role in the transmission of this material, dancing, singing. So can you say something about that, about the relationship between oral traditions and women and also what Puppetech thought about that? I mean, his decision to make the representative in this sort of dialectic between the old and the new, his decision to make the representative of the old a woman must be significant, right? 

Yeah, it is significant. And it is a fairly complicated question because for Puppetech, women in the traditional setting had very strictly prescribed roles. So it was very difficult for Lawinno, much as she loves tradition, to step out of them. So traditional roles are very limiting in that sense. There are things women could do, there are things women could not do. And so Puppetech himself struggled with what the role of women ought to be. And he was disturbed by real life examples of women who seem to be doing unwomanly things. So it is a very misogynistic attitude, one might say, in terms of what the proper place of women is. We want a laud tradition, we want a praise tradition, but we don't want to restrict what women are capable of. And Puppetech found himself struggling. He was a very traditionalist in these matters. And on that account, I think would have a very difficult time understanding feminist arguments because his world view was such that women did particular things. So one of the issues I raised after having read Puppetech is, for me, it is important for African philosophers to join forces with feminists. I think Puppetech would have had a hard time doing that. 

He might have just seen it as one more idea that someone like Ochoa would be importing from the West and corrupting traditional culture.

That's true. That would be one more Western thing which was alien to Africa. So there are benefits to the view that he gives us in the character of Lawino. There are serious limitations in terms of what is Lawino capable of doing. And for both Ochoa the person and Ochoa the character, they have difficulty dealing with an independent Lawino. Yeah. 

Now, speaking of the attempts to kind of bring the West to Africa, something else that he thought about was something that we'll also be talking about in the podcast quite a bit, which is what happens when Western scholars go to Africa, interview people from traditional communities and then kind of report on what they found and sometimes claim to have discovered all these philosophical theories in oral traditions. And he was actually quite critical of this. He refers to it as intellectual smuggling, what goes on. Can you tell us what he meant by that? 

I thought that was a delicious phrase from Ochoa, the intellectual smuggling. He was afraid of that both ways in terms of what he was most worried about were the new African converts who, looking around at their own cultures, then found things which were Western within African beliefs. And so what Okotpabitek thought was happening was they were smuggling in ideas into Africa. This is not African, but they're pretending as if they've found it here. That was for him a problem. The Kenyan philosopher John Beatty was a theologian, was a philosopher, and when Beatty talks about the African concept of time, people like Okotpabitek thought, well, what Beatty is doing is simply mouthing Western ideas under the guise of African concepts. So there's a very real sense of smuggling happening. Western ideas are clothed in African garb. But then there was the other smuggling going the other way. Westerners who interviewed Africans or got ideas from Africa and then tried to explain this to people in other contexts, or even took African artefacts and took them to Europe as a way of showing the riches of Africa, that was smuggling in a very real sense for him. And the danger for him there was whenever you remove something from the context in which it is meaningful, it loses all meaning. And I think the example Okot gave was walking into a gallery or in a museum in London one time and seeing an African drum behind a bulletproof glass with a sign saying, do not touch. And for him, that was the most amazing thing. Drums are meant to be touched. So when you take a drum that was supposed to be about dancing and calling people, put it in a museum and invite people not to touch it, you have completely missed the point of what a drum does. 

It's lost all of its meaning. 

So that for him was the most dangerous kind of smuggling. What the Africans were doing, finding Western ideas in Africa was dangerous because they were not critically thinking. They were simply mouthing what they had had in other places. But smuggling the other way was of concern to Okot Pabitekpa as well. He wanted people to be authentic. 

And part of that is also just the difficulty of translating. I mean, we mentioned earlier that he translated the song of Wawinno himself from Acholi into English, and he reported having difficulty doing that. 


He, I guess, really had misgivings generally about the possibility of translating from one language to another, right? And that seems to be maybe a reflection of the same kind of issue. 

It is the same kind of issue because ideas may not translate between languages. And he thought something the Christians were trying to do was particularly disturbing because they were trying to talk about ideas which were alien or un-African, but using African languages to do it. And so the passage he keeps referring to is the missionaries who tried to translate the gospel according to John, trying to talk about the passage that talked about in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. Now that would be a very difficult thing to translate into Acholi, and what O'Court was showing is this may be an idea that makes sense to people who speak other languages. It is not going to be a meaningful idea for local people. So we may not be in need of this thing that the missionaries are bringing to us. 

That connects to something else that you've written about elsewhere, which is the question of whether African philosophy needs to be done in African languages. Do you think that it makes a difference what language philosophy is done in, and in particular, is it important that African philosophy be done in say Acholi or other languages that are indigenous to Africa? 


Well, my position on this has evolved over time. I think it used to be the case that there was a strong push that African languages need to be a central part of doing African philosophy. The reality of the matter is that colonialism ensured that fewer and fewer Africans speak and use African languages now. So my predecessors, people who are much more important in scholarship than I am, Chinua Chebe, for example, thought about this question, and he said, I'm not going to fight this battle. I think English is going to be much more widely accessible, and so if I can put African things into English, that would be what I need to do. You don't need to go full bore on African languages. Those who are capable of speaking African languages certainly should do it. The other African philosopher, Kwasi Weredu, has written a lot about Akan philosophy in Ghana, and Weredu tells us it's always important to translate your ideas into African before you make them much widely philosophical problems, because what that tells you is something might be a problem in English, which is not a problem in Akan, and so we don't want to import problems that we don't already have. So my view on language is those who can speak African languages should make every attempt to conduct African philosophy that way, but more and more of us are unable to use African languages because of having lived too long in the West, because of never having learned the languages, because of being in the diaspora. There are all kinds of reasons why people do not speak African languages. It's unrealistic to ask them to conduct African philosophy in African languages. 

Yeah, it actually almost seems a version of what we talked about before, the difference between oral and written culture or texts, in that you can only do oral tradition within a community, like with the other participants of the oral culture, and once you're removed from that setting, you're basically stuck with the written record, right? 

That's true. 

And similarly here, if you were removed from a context where you're able to actually speak the indigenous language, then you have to jump up to some global language like English or French. 

So the choice has in many cases been taken away from us. You might want to use whatever language you want, but you are limited to the community of speakers of that language. Another example to your question, the writer Ngugiwa Thiong'o, the Kenyan writer, struggled with this question in the context of Kenya, what language should African literatures be written in? And so he wrote a number of his novels in English. For a period of his life, stopped writing in English and wrote only in Kikuyu. So those novels were then translated into English. But what Ngugiwa found is that the novels written in Kikuyu had very limited readership because not much of the world speaks or uses that language. 

I'm not shocked. 

So this is the practical problem one runs into, how many speakers of Swahili are there going to be in the world? 

But actually, I think it is a philosophical question too, though, not just a practical question because, again, the analogy to oral culture is there, if it's true that there are some ideas that you can only express fully orally and not in writing, then similarly, the ideas you can express in one language may differ from the ideas you could express in another language. And I think that's actually very plausible. 


I mean, actually, probably everyone who's bilingual knows that this is true. 

Yes. This is the problem of translation. If you are trying to work between languages, there are things that are going to be difficult to transfer from one language to another. We are always losing things between languages. And so inability to use African languages for philosophy, we may lose something doing that. We may lose quite a lot. But it's not a choice now that many people in the world have. They're forced by circumstances to use French or Portuguese or English or German. And many Africans have become very fluent in those languages. I happen to be speaking to you in English. This interview would go a very different way if you were speaking Swahili. 

For one thing, I would have had very little to contribute. 

Yeah. So, luckily for us and the listeners, we can speak in English and we'll get our ideas across. One last question. We talked about various reasons to think oral culture is important and that oral traditions might be a repository of philosophical ideas, maybe even ideas that could not have been expressed in any other way. What do you think is the most powerful criticism of turning to oral tradition as a philosopher? 

The most powerful criticisms, surprisingly enough, have come from African philosophers who say that oral traditions are not capable of fostering critical thought. They foster memorization. They foster repeating authority. And so, one of the criticisms we hear very often is that if your interest is in inculcating or training people to be critical thinkers, oral traditions are not going to be the way that one does that. I challenge that by saying what we are learning, what we want people to learn are skills. And so, oral traditions are just as good as written traditions. If you're trying to introduce whatever skills are of interest to you. So that challenge is easily met. It's not one that is devastating. I think there may be other challenges to orality, which is the one we have referred to. It requires a community of speakers. And the less that community becomes, the less impact whatever is done in that oral tradition is going to be. 

So, I guess the worry then would be that, I mean, this criticism that you mentioned is that the individual person is just parroting whatever they were taught to recite by their parents or whatever. And they're not critically engaging with it. But it almost seems like someone like Puppy Tech seems to be thinking that the agent of the philosophical world view isn't just one person, it's a whole culture, right? Or a whole community. 

Yeah. And there's a challenge to that too. The philosopher Pauline Hontongi, Hontongi from Benin, he actually makes the criticism that part of the weakness of relying on oral traditions is relying on the agent being a community rather than individuals. Philosophy is the work of individuals. It's never the work of a group. And any philosopher who then falls on the group as the basic unit is missing the point of what real philosophy is. So that is another challenge that we hear. The reliance on communalism, the reliance on a community of people to be the agent of thought. I don't know that this is a very strong criticism because one could be relying on oral traditions but not need to go as far as saying that the agent acting is the community. Individuals who are part of that community might be acting on their own accord. So it is a challenge but one which is also easily met. I mean, 

I have to say I actually find the idea that a community could be the agent that produces a philosophy very interesting. It's not obvious to me that that couldn't be true. 

Yeah. Many of the African proverbs, many of the African stories, you're going to be hard pressed to find an author for them. What is usually said is these are the stories of our people. What people are these? It is the whole people. So it isn't nobody ever takes credit for the work that the community has done. So you're quite right in saying that this is an appealing idea. It just scares people who are wedded to individualism. The idea that the acting force is not individual, it is communal. It begins to sound socialist to some people and that may not be a good thing. 


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