Otoniya Juliane Okot Bitek

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Otoniya Juliane Okot Bitek

The Weekly Pause (Humanity United)

grass[1] woven[2] into[3] language[4]






[1] woven into a mosquito’s nest for babies our grandmother told us mosquitoes have nests i should have thought to ask but i never questioned the fact from our grandmothers fingers twisting knowledge plaiting strands of grasses now you try she told each of us   & these days i still remember what kinds of grasses can make nests that need to be woven tightly because they taught us in school that mosquitoes sucked at our blood anopheles mosquitoes female mosquitoes never thinking we needed to hold on to our girl blood too because female anopheles mosquitoes needed ours to grow their babies so our grandmother taught us how to make nests & these days I hold strands of grasses in my fingers which have a thin memory of how to fold them   i still know to pick the cylindrical ones the ones with feathered tops that we cut off because they were not part of the nests but my brain holds on to my grandmother’s voice between languages & the texts that we read in school from which we learned to spell nest & nets so how was i to hear different because i still never read anywhere that acholi made mosquitoes nets to stop the mosquitoes from biting our babies & my fingers still don’t remember & books still don’t know
[2] baskets
[3] knowledge for those who don’t live between languages
[4] which then holds on to us     my fingers race through the keyboard but can’t remember the pattern of my grandmother’s mosquito nets



Video credit: Humanity United with thanks.


Otoniya Juliane Okot Bitek

glove1 we2 were the ones3 that didn’t fit4 so they5 were6 acquitted7 weren’t8 they9 while10 we11 got12 tossed13 back14 into the box15 got labelled16 stamped17 with18 date19 & time20 & forgotten21


2 department compartment

3 department compartment

4 department compartment

5 department compartment

6 department compartment

7 department compartment

8 department compartment

9 department compartment

10department compartment

11department compartment

12department compartment

13department compartment

14department compartment

15department compartment


17department compartment

18department compartment

19department compartment

20department compartment



gratitude1 because2 where are you from3 because4 wow you’ve been here for such a long time because5 so you must have come here as a child because you’re such a long way from your home because6 because7 where did you learn to speak english so good because8 I’m just curious because your accent is so charming because9 you don’t look or sound like you’re from here because I’ve never seen you before

1 because i must feel so lucky to live in this country
2 where am i from where am i from where am i really really from 3 magic i’m from clouds from anywhere of nowhere that could fit
within the limits of your imagination
4 i know what alienation sounds like i really do
5 right you didn’t hear what I said can i repeat myself I have such
a sing songy way of speaking
6 these are your concerns how far i am away from home
7 at the borders between nations our tongues are measured & this
time they let me in
8 i still know what alienation sounds like I hear it every day

9 so i cannot forget what alienation sounds like


Otoniya Juliane Okot Bitek

I hold my madness to my chest
after the dogs have gotten here

I hold my madness to my chest
because chest madness is silence everywhere else

God in the basement drunk
& it’s only just past noon
God in the basement in bits
& I’ve failed to put him back together

So if time won’t do?
Can we count words to remember the lives we lost on that day?

With what words?
With what stories can we tell
when we round off figures of people who lived their lives, or not;
madness just
madness just
madness across timelines
madness beyond graphs
madness beyond the clotheslines
lines & lines & lines & lines

except for the spot at the fence
where the neighbours haggle over who’s going to pay for what

What stories are there to tell in the presence of lovers
what of nature
what of annual cycles
what of wind & ocean rising to meet the stars?
What of the sun?

Yesterday you got out for the first time since last Monday
I told you to wear your madness around you like a cape
you refused
then you rushed back into the house
howling, splintering, gasping for breath

You’ve got to keep your madness to yourself
I’m telling
you just must
the dogs are coming
& the sun is not your friend
the dogs are coming
& the sun won’t be your friend

Superwoman cape
for Superwoman nothing

What words can rise up
collect itself like a hill or a mountain
on Monday morning on the way to work
same as it has always been:
we have nothing
we are nothing
time is nothing
& the mountains & hills will mock us until the end

So this is why I keep mine close to me
these are the end days

God in the basement in pieces
God toes scattered across the carpet
& God digits remain on the coffee table

Copyright © Juliane Okot Bitek. Originally published in EVENT Magazine (Issue 47.1, Spring/Summer 2018).

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Otoniya Juliane Okot Bitek


2014-08-04 15.47.32

On the other side of Saturday, she is shiny with desire

Today, not so much


Desire for what?

A clean house?

Well-behaved children?

A successful practice?

An unwavering hand at her back?


Saturdays leave much to be desired

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One day in the year


A bouquet of flowers



A small pinch


Ah, bwana, lakini wewe?

Let us not arouse the dead



2014-08-04 16.58.39


1. Your loveliness — for this there is no struggle

2. Your location on the east gate. No one is coming to acknowledge your presence

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4. There is nothing else but you



2014-08-02 20.54.12

Grace Lee Boggs on the period of transition:

“I’m very conscious of the sense of time.  How long will I live?  I’m very conscious of what time it is on the clock of the world.  As I have grown older, I think more in terms of centuries, whereas eight or nine years ago, I was only thinking about decades.”


It’s almost morning in the clock of the world

A chandelier in the living room swings gently on it’s own, remember?


A pale sky

A tired night

An almost morning in the clock of the world

The earth itches in yet another spot

The first sign the the cold season is over — earthworms wriggle out

The first sign that the cold season will never be over — Grace Lee Boggs is gone







Otoniya Juliane Okot Bitek

Tuesdays like elephants, like laughter, like skin. Tuesdays like elements of nature, like commitment, like fire. Tuesdays like forewords, like bridesmaids, like flowers, like coffee at eleven, like lotion that wears out with the afternoon sun. Tuesdays like opportunity. Tuesdays like relationships. Tuesdays like references, like printers, like home.The Hail Mary Project


Otoniya Juliane Okot Bitek

2014-08-02 20.25.13


forgive me, Jasmine

the foolishness with which I speak




the world might heave

& swallow itself

but your arms about me are strong


2014-08-04 16.58.39


when the instructions were given for jericho

we lined up, we of the margins

we lined up to sing & pray like everyone else

but they pointed at us & called us infidel

& called infidelity from our lyrics

& told us to go


so further & further out from the wall

of Jericho from the columns of song

from the layers & layers of prayer

& the centre where a golden god waited for freedom


we heard: not you infidel

not you with your infidelity

not you with that kind of soul beside you


so further & further

further & further until we turned our backs

to the centre & from the wall

& headed back home

2014-08-04 15.47.32


we headed for ethiopia

i to look for anu

you for aoife of the marvellous thighs


we walked a dark night

you held my hand

reminded me to look for the white line on the road


to listen for the direction of the river babble

2014-08-02 20.54.12


we walked in the dark

away from the margins

away from the walls of jericho


so the stars dimmed

& enveloped us into a darkness

with hard edges & a soft centre

2014-08-03 11.18.32


watch for traffic

remember the road line

stick to our stories

hold hands, hold hands


so we forgot about jericho

because we had each other

& a cabin that waited


Otoniya Juliane Okot Bitek

2014-08-04 16.58.39


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trees line the street like widows waiting for a coffin

where were we when mokolekwa died?

i might have been painting likely not

i might have been loving or cracking hearts for dinner

i might have been walking home or stuck in traffic

or on the bus

or waiting for time

or waiting for time

mokelekwa was dying

mokelekwa was dead

the boulevard remains lined

trees like widows waiting for the body

where were we when molelekwa was dying?

i might have been doing dishes complaining

loving life or hating everything

mololekwa was dying he was dead

where were we?

where were we?

Where were we

when molelekwa was dying?

With their straight backed trunks

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the coffin is on the way



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drank in your music as i marked papers

felt that much



more alive

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where was i split apart by his notes


remember, damn it




i want you back but i have to contend

i want you back even as i have you


i have your smile i have your words


i want you back i never had you

i want you back i won’t ever have the music

that died with you

where was i when molelekwa died?



The trees are still in lines

that insist beyond the boulevards

we were waiting even when we didn’t know

we couldn’t have known

we were waiting a decade

before piano tickles & after


before we understood that the horns

would precede your last walk home



where were we when molelekwa died?

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i longed for music

i longed for you, molelekwa

not knowing & not knowing

on the way home

on the bus

in traffic

longing for this music



or not painting

complaining all the time


& still longing

other widows line the street

the way they always do

they wait backs straight heads bowed

to receive molelekwa & his love


Otoniya Juliane Okot Bitek

2014-08-03 11.18.32


When weren’t they my hands


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I see you, man

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Having an animated conversation


My head in my hands but I see you


When weren’t those hands mine?


To help preserve old knowledge, you know?

Because only your money can help save them

Us them us them us them us


I see you, man

Having an animated conversation

Now your first fingers under your chin

Your head tilted back

Your thumb is the trigger

My head in my hands


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Shall I help you pull the trigger, man?


2014-08-04 16.58.39


We’ve fallen into story

& inside story this is all there is

This is all there is this is all there is

This is all



We fall

We fall


Into being

Brightness into flight


This is all there is this

Is all there is this is


What they wanted us to be

Coming into becoming

Into being

Who are we who are we who are

We again?


2014-08-02 20.54.12


You kissed me on the threshold


You wanted to show

Your wife to

See you wanted my husband

To see you

Kiss me on the threshold you

Wanted me to see

Love you wanted to show your wife

Love you wanted to show my husband

Love you wanted to


2014-08-02 20.25.13


I almost saw you today

Almost you sitting in a chair ahead of me

Intent on the presentation

& I on almost you


& then almost you turned

& almost you wasn’t you at all

But just the back of your head nape shoulder

& the memory of my hands on you




& now you’re a tiger snarling

& now you’re a memory

Now you’re an ache

Now goosebumps

&  all I can feel is you

The Mundane, Sublime and Fantastical: 165 New poems (136-140)

Otoniya Juliane Okot Bitek




my thighs & I

judge is already there


so he can be announced

& stood up for


we arrive, my thighs & I

judge with his red eyes glinting

i can’t yet tell whether he remembers

where we were last night


we arrive, my thighs & I

the courthouse is awash in excitement

the evidence is apparent


a rabid dog

a fan


we’re late, my thighs & I

late because you you said

we were only 8 minutes to squamish

& you know it took a lot longer than that

2014-08-02 20.25.13



the jury of my peers

the peers of my thighs

the jury to decide our fate




we stand there, my thighs & I


from a judge who’s eyes glint


that may be a memory

2014-08-02 20.54.12


the gavel

a rabid dog

a fan

the collar of a priest

a sweaty palm


a quiver



if we’re pronounced guilty today

2014-08-02 20.25.13


my thighs & I are accused

of adjusting the truth


adjusting the truth?

yes, adjusting the truth

to fit the time we needed

to get to squamish


(you know exactly what i mean

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& we were late)


& now we stand convicted

for this


but adjusting the truth

is no lie

the lie may be a fiction

but fiction is no lie



she’s on her knees

as if caught in the grip of religion

muttering, muttering


the way it did last tuesday


she’s on her knees again

like she’s

in the presence of a mighty one

her hands over her face

you can’t hear if she she repeats

amen, amen, amen


on her knees


& the lord won’t forgive her

as if he ever has