The River and The Source by Margaret Ogola
Publisher: Focus Publishers
Genre: Literary / Feminist Fiction
Rating: 3/5 Stars
The River and The Source embraces the African woman’s spirit of welcoming change while taking on the challenges that come with it. It is an epic story that spans cultures; filled with laughter and tears. A book that gives a true and involving insight into the culture and aspirations of the Luo people – the land of Barack Obama’s father. (Source: Book blurb)
The best way to describe this book is ‘A book of its time that might not have aged well’. Ogola published this book in 1994, at a time where the Feminist Movement was gaining serious ground around the world, following the World Conferences on Women - Mexico (1975), Copenhagen (1980), Nairobi (1985) and Beijing (1995). There was a concerted global push for gender equality and women empowerment; and a need for stories that reflect female strength. Stories that feature women in positive light, securing their place in history and highlighting their contribution in shaping not only their family’s futures but the nation as well. In this regard, Ogola hit all the right spots.
The River and the Source begins with the birth of the girl child, Akoko, in around the late 1870s in Western Kenya, ‘30 seasons before the great snaking metal road of Jorochere, the white people, reached the bartering market of Kisuma’ – referencing the railway line that was completed in 1901. It follows the life of Akoko and the three generations of women that came after her. Akoko and her descendants confront societal and cultural changes from the introduction and conversion to western religion to colonization and shunning of certain cultural practices, migration and the AIDs scourge that ravaged the African continent in the 80s and 90s. We follow Akoko’s descendants as they draw strength from their progenitor in adapting to the new ways.
This is an important feminist novel and I understand why it has been adopted for school curriculum but a couple of issues led me to the conclusion that it may not have aged well. Akoko is portrayed in an unrealistic manner – she has no flaws and is described as beautiful, intelligent, compassionate and quite reasonable. There’s an expectation in the family to live up to her standards which I found quite overbearing considering how perfect Akoko was portrayed.
There’s also an overbearance on the reader to perceive the characters in a certain way. The characters are developed in a rather simplistic way and the author does not allow for independence of thought in coming to conclusions about them. They were simply either good or bad with no room for grayness. The fact that the book is told in a linear style and has no real conflict, made it quite uneventful. Everything just took on a natural progression an almost pre-determined ‘positive’ conclusion. For example, there didn’t seem to be any conflict between modernity and tradition - people just got on with it and unquestioningly adopted the new ways - religion, education etc. The conflicts in the family were also resolved in a ‘happily ever after’ ending type of way.
My biggest peeve about this book was I felt the book was not firmly anchored in history and to a large extent, Ogola painted colonialism as mostly a positive thing. It had such a ‘positive’ impact on the women - they could now leave their matrimonial homes and challenge men, they could go to school, get an education and focus on their careers, they were all on the periphery of the Independence struggle and most of the issues begun for the family post-independence.
I understand that this simplistic narrative is tailored for high school students and for that cohort, it seems perfect, but it does not augur well outside this school curriculum.