Otoniya Okot Bitek bears witness in Shadbolt Fellowship
By Geoff Gilliard
Otoniya Okot Bitek is a poet in the tradition of the Acholi from northern Uganda.
Acholi poets, painters, singers and dancers bring people together through their art which usually involves social commentary.
“The poet in the Acholi tradition, is not just someone who says the flower is beautiful because it's beautiful, but gathers people to think and talk about whatever it is they're doing and what’s happening around them,” she says. “For me, as an Acholi poet, the poem is the container, the space and opportunity for people to gather in community.”
Okot Bitek began writing when she was very young to win the attention of her father, an internationally recognized poet who was exiled from Uganda when he drew the ire of the government.
After her childhood writing spurt, Okot Bitek put down her pen until she neared the end of her 20s when she began composing poems about the circumstances she found herself in: geographical, historical, gender identity, space and politics.
In 2014, she was inspired by a photo posted on social media by Kenyan-American artist Wangechi Mutu in memory of the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide when an estimated 800,000 people were massacred over a period of about 100 days.
“I was always pained by the war in Northern Uganda and the Rwandan genocide. What does it mean to know something and not be able to articulate how you feel about it?” she says. “It was suddenly 20 years since the genocide and I thought, I haven’t even written a single word about this.”
In the summer of 2014, Okot Bitek wrote a poem every day for 100 days reflecting on the meaning of memory, and posting them online in tandem with Mutu’s images. The poems were published in print in 100 Days and went on to garner several writing prize nominations. 100 Days won the 2017 Glenna Luschei prize for African poetry and was the 2017 INDIEFAB Book of the Year.
Although Okot Bitek still shares much of her work online, her most recent poetry collection, Gauntlet, was published in 2019 as a chapbook by Nomados Press.
“Being an Acholi poet is not necessarily safe work,” Okot Bitek says. “Although being a poet in Vancouver, in general, is a harmless way of being. To call myself a poet here, I think generally means people will leave me alone and they won't expect much of me.”
This isn’t to say that she doesn’t take her role as a poet seriously. As the Black Lives Matter movements within the U.S. and Canada have demonstrated, the complexities and dangers of lived Black experience persist, and Okot Bitek sees it as her responsibility to bear witness to what is happening around her.
“I think it's my responsibility to respond, to not just turn a blind eye,” she says. “I'm doing my part to say we're connected. There's a solidarity in this. I want us all to know that we’re not going through whatever it is by ourself. We are part of a wider community. We know and we understand.”
During her Shadbolt Fellowship, Okot Bitek is collaborating with artist and poet, Chantal Gibson from SFU’s School of Interactive Arts and Technology on un/settled, a literary art exhibition that centres Black womanhood while reminding us that amidst global uncertainty there are stories to be told and communities to be celebrated. un/settled, on display at the Belzburg Library in Harbour Centre, speaks to both the life-halting pandemic and the seemingly endless violence visited upon racialized bodies. It also speaks to the constant reminder that racialized people are not imagined to be settled.
Okot Bitek hopes to have a final reading before the end of April when her Fellowship comes to an end.