The Death Motif in The River and The Source
A thematic essay
By Charles O. Okoth
Inarguably, death is one of the most powerful entities ever. It is also supremely emotive, due to its very nature: a phenomenon that changes the course of history by shutting its victims up forever. Even the bible designates it as such, referring to it variously as the Sting, Sword, Eternal Sleep, Wages of Sin, and a thesaurus of other equally frightening appellations.
Death in literature.
In literature, death is used for various purposes.
One is to portray the true nature of living things. Human characters must be seen to be normal; doing what human beings do. They have to eat, drink, sleep, love, be biologically functional, portray human emotions, and the like. They also have to be born, and to die, if the context so demands. A reader will then identify such characters in everyday life: drunkards, prostitutes, politicians lying away, gluttons, the pious, and the like. Such a reader will find the situations in the book real, as contrasted to surreal. (In saying this I exclude books about heroes who don’t die, like Ian Fleming’s James Bond, Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, and the like.)
Another reason writers kill off characters is to ‘humanize’ them. This notion must be viewed differently from the one given above. By it, I simply mean that a writer wants to bring a bad character down. That is why Chinua Achebe kills off M.A. Nanga in A Man of the People. The reader in this case exults due to such a death. It is like removing an eyesore from the scene.
A third reason is to play on the emotions of a reader. A writer may aim to stir up readers against an entity, e.g. the government. That can be done by making the government kill a very good man in the society, thus portraying it as callous. People will then sympathise with the victim, and hate the government. The victim becomes a martyr; a hero who died for a course.
But by the very nature of the death motif, it has to be used sparingly. There must be no overdose. The reader must not be fatigued by the frequency of deaths in a story.
What is the scenario in The River and The Source, vis-a-vis the subject of death; what I am calling here the Death Motif?
Let’s look at the deaths of the male characters.
Any reader will take note that male characters in the book die very easily. One is left wondering if the writer wanted to paint males as being so weak that their life expectancy is very low. It can even be said that open bias is shown against them.
Death of Odero Gogni
To illustrate: we have the sad case of Odero Gogni’s death. This is revealed only because Akoko, his daughter, wanted to name her child. A reader just has to gasp and ask, ‘when did that happen? What happened?’ after all, wasn’t Gogni the patriarch of Akoko’s family? Wasn’t he a famous chief? How can the author obliquely give the impression that the death of such a tribal colossus was inconsequential? She should have emphasized the tragedy of such a death. She should have told us how it went to change several events in the book; how it touched and affected various people. We should have been shown the picture of a whole community praying for the welfare and health of their sick patriarch. Gogni’s death should have emulated Mandela’s, with people praying outside his house. That is how a great leader should die; surrounded by love and well-wishers. Gogni died we don’t know how.
Death of Akoko’s sons.
Then there is the death of Akoko’s two sons. One foolishly goes off to fight in a war his people know nothing about. This is in spite of the fact that he was to be the next chief. This portrays him as some unreasonable, unrealistic character who ought to have known better. One is left saying: ‘just like a man to be so foolish’.
The other son, who would have been chief instead, dies very easily, just by carelessly swallowing a small fish born. Though such deaths happen, one wishes the man would have been more careful while eating fish.
Death of Chief Owour Kembo
Then Akoko’s husband, Owuor Kembo, dies when he is in middle age. Well, at least the author strikes him with illness, from which he is too weak to recover. He was a worthy man, and a great chief, but he dies anyway, probably to prepare the way for Akoko to show her fighting spirit when she is left a widow. The author wants to show that this Luo woman can beat the odds stacked against her, minus her husband. If Owuor Kembo would have lived, Akoko would have had to survive in his shadow. He has to die to bring out Akoko’s strength.
The other death that is treated so casually is that of Mark, the patriarch of the most progressive family in the book.
Mark married Akoko’s granddaughter, Elizabeth. They brought up a wonderful family. He was principled, and worked very hard to educate and sustain his family in all ways. Yet his death is only alluded to. We don’t even nurse him in sickness. We don’t weep for him. He is left lonely after his wife’s death, and we are only told that ‘…he was to follow her within the year….’ it could be a ploy to inform us that Mark could not survive without his wife, whose death and funeral are high profile phenomena, elaborately chronicled.
So much for the downplayed theme of the death of weakling men.
Now the women.
Start by noting that the women in the book are both the Rivers and the Source.
The symbolism of a river is a connotation of perpetuity. Rivers in Luo Nyanza rarely dry up, and the sources are permanent. Dr. Ogola (oh, how I wish she had lived to give an opinion!) wanted to create a notion of permanence. Save for Mark’s daughter, Becky, (ok, ‘Elizabeth’s daughter), the women live long, focussed lives, and die full of years and achievements. This tends to underline their strength, as contrasted to the men.
Akoko dies a very old woman, after achieving a lot. She had cattle without number, and gave good guidance to her charges. She fights with men and wins every single battle and skirmish. She actually dies in joy, after seeing her granddaughter’s husband-to-be.
Her daughter, Nyabera, also lives a long life. She dies after several spectacular achievements, including bringing up her two children and educating them. Okay, so one was the nephew; but both were like her children, since her brother died so long ago. Note that she dies after her daughter marries and gets many children, and her nephew becomes a whole bishop. Her sickness, death and funeral are fully told, so that when she dies, we heave a sigh, and get the opportunity to condole with the bereaved.
Nyabera’s daughter, Elizabeth’s death has already been alluded to. She is a woman who has achieved much. Her family is successful, what with children finishing various courses in the university and establishing a hospital; and many other things. The author prepares us for her death by showing us a satisfied woman watching her grandchildren sleeping all over the place, soon after a family function. She has left her husband sleeping and gone to look upon this spectacle. She nods is satisfaction. ‘I have done it, in this life,’ we can almost imagine her saying; ‘Lord, now latest thou thy servant depart in peace.’
The next day, she dies peacefully. An elaborate funeral is held, and the reader can’t help but marvel at the grandeur of it.
All in all, one tends to see the bias portrayed against male characters. One would have expected that some amount of equality would have been shown in death. But the author had to downplay it, lest some semblance of strength be attributed to men. I feel this was unfair and surrealistic. At least, the biblical ethic of death being the social equalizer should have been applied.
Charles Ohoth is a Principal Lecturer, teaching at Kingandole Secondary School, in Busia County. He is also the author of High Tide at Shibale, which won the CODE Burt’s Award for Literature in 2015. The book High Tide at Shibale can be acquired online at (https://www.books.magunga.com/store/high-tide-at-shibale-by-charles-o-okoth/) or contact him through email@example.com