Society Challenged: A Prostitute's Bravado in Okot p'Bitek's "Song of Malaya"
Nwachukwu-Agbada, J. O. J., Kola
Okot p' Bitek, the East African poet before his death in 1982--was able to publish among other works, four long 'songs' and a collection of his native Acoli love poems which he translated into English under the title, The Horn of My Love. However, of his songs, the most compelling and contemptuous of our kind of moral sense of propriety is "Song of Malaya." It is an ethical tour de force and a challenge to the moribund nature of our present society. For the first time, and to the amazement of the functionalist sociologist in particular and all those who subscribe to the supremacy of society over the individual in general, a single character and, for that matter, a prostitute--engages society in a moral combat and apparently is victorious.
The protagonist of the long poem, "The Malaya", is a prostitute, who, in a fit of exasperation against the hypocrisy and cant of our modern African society, lashes out at all of its segments like a rebelling confidante. She not only attacks everybody but is able in the end to fling our entrails to the dust. The result is a work of vengeance on a society that loves nakedness in darkness, but at dawn hurriedly puts on a multiple--perforated cloak over its unholy body.
Everywhere the prostitute is often openly despised, very readily condemned as having a high nuisance value to society, but ironically she is patronized by the very people that brazenly decry her activities. Except in places like Nevada, towns where prostitution is a legitimate occupation; and Terre Haute, Indiana, where in 1969, the mayor and the police chief apparently supported prostitution because the availability of these courtesans led to a situation in which there were "no cases of rape the previous year" (1). Most governments do everything in their power to eliminate "this one pest", (to use the very words of "The Malaya"). However, in practice, the Malaya's clientele is a large one: the sailor, the "reprieved murderer", the "drunken" Sikhs, the "sweating" engineer, the "schoolboy" lover, teachers, chieftains, factory workers ... are her customers. Because of the copiousness of those that patronize her trade, she is morally armed to defy this society which enjoys the game of ostriches. As Professor Egudu points out in his article (2), instead of being softened by "social conscience, she ("the malaya") is hardened and emboldened and brazened by it; and instead of being 'hounded by prudes', she conscripts them and all other men into her ship of slaves." In other words, she is not among those women who would like an attachment to a man on the basis of the resultant instrumentality; instead she is the type that would flout or disregard "conventional beliefs concerning the proper role and position of the female sex." (3)
The sponsors of her trade--as already mentioned--are very expansive. The "prisoner and detainee/about to be released", she already senses, has "granaries full/to overflow." (4) She wants to find out from the "drunken Sikhs", and other group members of her clientele, whether their wives know about them. She descends on the "skinny Indian vegetarian" whose wife breeds" like a rat "(p. 129). She lists her other customers, such as bus drivers, taxi -men, shop assistants and party demagogues. She assures the politicians of a period of respite right in her bosom, and goes on to detect redness on the face of the "leader of the people."
She turns her attention to housewives with whom she shares their husbands and asks them: "When will you learn/To be grateful to me?" This is because she relieves the wives of part of their obligation to their husbands--that of ensuring the sexual satisfaction of their men. She satirizes those housewives that swallow "lizard eggs/To prevent pregnancy" (p, 151) and wonders, in addition, whether their "wild screams and childish sobs" are in any way "sweet music in the ears of our men". She does not stop here. She blasts the Big chief, the black bishop, the teacher, her own brother and society at large. …