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IN a poem entitled “Return the Bridewealth,” Okot p’Bitek, an Oxford-trained anthropologist turned poet and novelist, offers a treatment of “shame” by focusing on three earthen mounds in a rural Acholi setting in northern Uganda (Okot p’Bitek, 1971). The mounds are graves that contain the remains of three dead grandchildren who lie buried in the compound as a permanent rebuke to an old man and an old woman—the two grandparents. The mounds have not been attended to by the love of a caring mother because she has eloped with her lover, a soldier. Consequently , “some labikha weeds and obiya grasses are growing on the mounds.” When a man, apparently the father of the children, asks his own old wrinkled father a question he considers urgent, the old man, now supported by creaky and brittle old bones that keep him from carrying out a wish to bend down to pluck the weeds himself, does not respond with words but with a sign of profound anguish: “only two large clotting tears crawl down his wrinkled cheeks” (124-129). In a much pruned and policed rage, the old man uses his walking stick, which is “oily with age and smooth like the long teeth of an old elephant” to hit each mound in a violent act of counting, an arithmetical mourning: “And with the bony-dry staff he strikes the mound: One! Two! Three!” The nameless (Karenga, 1989) narrator in the song (nameless presumably because shame has eaten away his name)1 had asked the old man a flippant question, one loaded with a selfish and childish preoccupation with erotic aspirations: “Father, I say to him, / Father, gather the bridewealth so that I may marry the girl of my bosom!” Like a child he assumes that bridewealth SOCIAL RESEARCH, Vol. 70, No. 4 (Winter 2003) A Narrative on “Shame” OKELLO OCULI (probably in the form of a large number of livestock) is a resource the old man can summon with a tap of his stick. Like a spoiled child, he ignores the pain felt by the old man of previous bridewealth now buried in graves that rebuke him daily. The old man probably also cries because of his son’s show of foolishness and failure to keep his wife, who has left him for an illicit affair with a soldier. This soldier shamelessly uses his better-fed physique, money, and a gun he carries about with his finger on the trigger to lure away the father’s daughter-in-law and bring death to his homestead. Three out of the five children she had given birth to are already dead and buried, presumably because she abandoned her maternal duties. When the son and jilted husband catch the soldier-lover and his wife in the act of kissing in a public spot, he does not exhibit the tradition-prescribed show of manhood and refrains from physically attacking the solider and raising an alarm over the profaning of communal morality. Like a coward, he remains cold, silent; unable to assume responsibility for defending marriage as a technology that ensures the health, survival, and continuity of his part of the human species. Instead, he is as limp as the soldier-lover, who is furious at having his amorous exploits interrupted by a wimp who is unable to challenge him to a fight. He struts past him, provocatively and contemptuously touching the husband with his gun’s butt. The husband is also increasingly isolated from the web of other filial obligations. He tells his former wife that he cannot find her father to demand the return of his bridewealth; when she tells him that her mother has died he remains silent, presumably unaffected , thereby desecrating the sacred status of a woman whose daughter has given his clan children, both boys and girls: “The woman says, My mother is dead! / I am silent!” He has metamorphosed into an emotionally and morally barren and naked wizard , wandering outside the fabric of a communal economy of emotions and moral nutrition. 1278 SOCIAL RESEARCH The shame that now cloaks him as a cowardly figure without a socially prescribed manhood—as a husband who must use his martial...


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pp. 1277-1296
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