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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction



White Teeth

by
Okot p'Bitek


general information | our review | links | about the author

To purchase White Teeth



Title: White Teeth
Author: Okot p'Bitek
Genre: Novel
Written: 1953 (Eng. 1989)
Length: 106 pages
Original in: Acholi
Availability: White Teeth - US
White Teeth - UK
White Teeth - Canada
  • Acholi title: Lak Tar Miyo Kinyero Wi Lobo (also just: Lak Tar )
  • Translated by the author and Lubwa P'chong
  • With a Foreword by Lubwa P'chong

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Our Assessment:

B- : unpolished but spirited

See our review for fuller assessment.




The complete review's Review:

       White Teeth is narrated by Okeca Ladwong, an Acoli of about the same age and somewhat similar background as the author (born 1931 in Gulu, in northern Unganda). It is his father, Ojoc Lapok, who is the 'White Teeth' of the title, White Teeth being his mwoc, described in the Glossary as:

short poems that an individual shouts at certain critical moments. During a quarrel, when a person is highly provoked, he shouts his mwoc and the fight begins at once, and during the fight he shouts his mwoc on hitting orr throwing down his opponent. (...) There are two kinds of mwoc, one which belongs to a particular individual alone, and the other which belongs to the chiefdom. Every Acoli male of tradition has his own mwoc, and some women do also have theirs. Mwoc usually arises from some funny incident.
       The narrator's mwoc is 'Atuk' (from Otuk ruk, which can be translated as "I am the one who knocks down the pot"), and the book begins with him invoking it, offering a verse challenge announcing his presence and background.
       His father died when he was still a child, but his father's white teeth have been passed down to him: it was his father's mwoc not because happiness or humour made people laugh, but because their white teeth forced them to -- and he suffers from the same fate, forced still to laugh despite the travails he endures (which is what he describes here). (The notion presumably loses something in translation, but one gets the general idea.)
       Okeca Ladwong tells his life story. It's no idyll, even in early youth; among the first experiences are of his time spent as a shepherd, tending his father's herd of thirty-five "fat, white Karamoja goats", and the fights with other herdsboys. Still, he's happy in this familiar environment, with its familiar rules and traditions. He also grows up in a time and place where it's not uncommon not to go to school; he remains illiterate.
       When his father dies, life gets somewhat tougher: his mother (and he) are handed over to one of the clan-elders, Obal-lim. He looks after his new father's cattle, but eventually wants to start his own family. He decides on a girl, but needs to raise an exorbitant sum of to pay the required bridewealth -- and his new father isn't inclined to help him out.
       Okeca Ladwong wants to prove his manhood and independence and worthiness, and so he sets out for the big city, Kampala, to work and make the money necessary to win his bride. For this true village boy, the big city is, of course, completely overwhelming. One of the first things that happens to him is that he gets arrested -- essentially for trying to cross the street. He spends a few days in jail but is eventually tried and acquitted, but the opportunities in Kampala are few and he sees no way of making the necessary fortune. In desperation he eventually signs on to work at a sugar plantation -- a miserable sentence:
     Like in the armed forcces, a person had to sign or thumb-print that he would work on the plantation for a specific number of years, and that before that period was over, he could not be allowed to leave the plantation.
       On top of it, the work there "was dehumanizing" -- and the pay is miserable. Okeca Ladwong endures, his one goal always in mind, but it takes ages to accumulate any money, and even when he does some is lost to his generosity and attempts to help others. (He is docked pay for his part in having helped a worker escape, for example.) Eventually he has enough and flees as well, desperate just to get home. Even that last trip is more arduous than it should be, with almost all his last belongings and what little money he has saved stolen along the way.
       White Teeth is a typical tale of a clash of cultures and values. Okeca Ladwong never wants to be a part of the big city life -- he does not seek escape, but rather wants to take advantage of the supposed opportunities it offers, and then retreat to his safe home (but with enough money to pay for a bride). The prominent place assigned to the mwoc is effective: when he invokes it in Kampala, ready to settle things as they do in his hometown, he becomes a comical figure. Similarly, elsewhere, the mwoc also falls on deaf ears: it has little meaning in these places -- and his inability to adapt to the ways in these other places makes it impossible for him to succeed. He is unprepared for the unfriendliness and corruption of these worlds, and even the roughness of his own world is a very different one.
       White Teeth is a very unpolished work. Much is rushed and skipped over, and much of the prose is rough. Still, the story is narrated in a spirited manner, and there are some sections -- the wooing of the women at market, his first impressions of Kampala (where: "Buildings covered hills and valleys like cassava mesh drying on rock"), and some of his disappointed summing-ups -- which are striking. Worthwhile for its picture of mid-twentieth century Africa, the gulf between country and city life, and some of its prose, White Teeth is a flawed but appealing short novel.

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Links:

White Teeth: Okot p'Bitek: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of books from and about Africa

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About the Author:

       Okot p'Bitek (1931-1982) was a leading literary figure in Uganda.

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© 2005-2010 the complete review

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