The River and the Source was the winner of the Commonwealth Writers Prize (Best First Book – Africa), as well as and the Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature, in 1995. It is a sweeping story following the lives of three generations of women, from Akoko, born into a traditional Luo community, to her grandchild Awiti, whose children live into the late twentieth century.
Akoko is the only daughter of a great chief, and is so loved by one of her suitors that he agrees to pay thirty head of cattle as her bride price, a staggering sum at the time. She is happily married, and has children, described rather sweetly as being “clothed in nothing but the love of Were, god of the rising sun, and a string of beads.” When her husband dies, however, his family tries to steal her wealth. She has never seen a white person, but has heard rumors of a new government, so walks five days, further than anyone in her community has ever gone, to plead for help. The District Commissioner investigates, and her wealth is returned. She has, however, to leave her husband’s village. Her daughter Nyabera, now an adult, is also widowed, and also persecuted by her husband’s family. She has heard of a new religion, the god of which particularly loves widows and orphans. She travels to the Catholic mission, and is absorbed by that faith. Her mother Akoko, and only surviving child, Awiti, join her there. Awiti is very intelligent, and is one of only two girls to be awarded scholarships to a teaching college. She marries well, and has seven children, whose lives in twentieth century Kenya span every profession from air-hostessing to hematology, and events from AIDS to American scholarships.
Many authors when writing of pre-colonial Africa are tempted to idealise both the people and cultures of that time. This is not so with Ogala, who writes of traditional Luo life both charmingly, and believably. I was struck by the way in which she managed to create both traditional and modern Kenya fully, accurately, and perhaps most importantly, without judgement. She is even-handed in her depiction of the positive and negative aspects of the various cultures the characters navigate, and is refreshingly free of criticism of their choices. Here, for example, is her description of what the women pack for the life-changing journey to the mission: “sleeping skins, a meal of ugali cooked in sour milk to eat on the way, and as the only reminder of the old way of life, a pot of ghee.” This is “not much,” she says simply, because “ it is folly to weigh oneself down, either mentally of physically when moving from on life to another.”
Ogala has a clear and unpretentious narrative voice, which makes the story very engaging. She also has a uniquely Kenyan turn of phrase. She describes turncoat politicians, for example, as having “turned from goats to guardians of the vegetable patch.” There is also much that is wise in the book. Here for example, is one of Awiti’s children, with her boyfriend:
“Vera knew that lack of money was not leprosy and that one could be just as happy eating a packet of chips on a bench in Uhuru Park as when eating an expensive meal at the Inter-Continental with a man whose eyes followed every pretty face that came by.”
This is not perhaps a perfect novel. Occasionally the writing is not as sophisticated as it might be, so the reader gets a little overwhelmed by names – there are many, many, children in this book – and by characters who appear only very briefly. This can become confusing. However, Ogala is to be very much commended for in The River and the Source, creating an engaging and moving portrait of one family across two centuries of Kenyan history.
Editor’s Note: Margaret Ogola sadly passed away in September 2011. May her soul rest in peace.
Sarah Norman is a Zimbabwean who splits her time between Harare and Nairobi. She documents her reading life in the blog White Whale (www.booksof2010.blogspot.com)