THE RIVERS – AND THEIR SOURCE
An essay of the female characters in The River and the Source
By Charles. O. Okoth
NB: This articles is the first in a series of others that explore the use of stronger female characters in the novel The River and the Source by Margaret A. Ogola. This first part focuses on Akoko Obanda.
Inasmuch as male readers complain about the book, pointing out its female chauvinistic aberrations, one must excuse the writer for her stylistic modus operandi. One aim of the book is to illustrate the native sagacity and initiative of African women, especially when there is no man in the picture. The author calls it the spirit of the undefeatable womanhood of Africa.
Thus it is a stylistic imperative for a man in a woman’s life to be conveniently removed, mainly by natural attrition e.g. that resulting from war, carelessly swallowed fish bones, disease, and the like.
I wish to examine the female characters, to see how effectively Dr. Ogola succeeds in painting a picture of a cognitive category that portrays essence and permanence.
The title, The River and The Source, is essentially a reference to women. A river is a source of water, which is very essential for livelihood. The author thus wishes to portray the view that without women, there would be no life. This is essentially factual; as someone once asked rhetorically: don’t they give us birth?
But the author’s concern is not just the biological consideration. It is something more deep rooted than that.
She is concerned about the unique abilities of women to not only sustain life, but to survive even if the odds are heavily stacked against them.
I will examine some key female characters to try and bring out this point.
For all intents and purposes, Akoko appears to be the Source of all the Rivers in the book.
The daughter of the great chief, Odero Gogni, she is born in the very first sentence in the book, as befits a source of all this. Even her first cry is very powerful, making the father think that she is a boy. That sets ground for a unique, powerful woman, full of strength and character.
The father alludes to the Source, by saying that a house without a daughter is like a spring without a source. And thus are we set to look upon her as the Source.
How does she justify that position as the book progresses?
- She is from a good family. ‘…Her antecedents are peerless….” (p. 21)
- Being beautiful in the ways of the tribe, she attracts admiration from all. She is thus a source of pride to her parents, and her people. She also inspires her age mates, who are wont to look upon her as a role model. “Everyone remarked that she would be a very determined person one day.” (p.14).
- She is hard-working. Even before marriage, she gains this reputation. Laziness was frowned upon in her community. She is a source of wealth to her father, who is paid a lot of cattle for her, due to the antecedents mentioned above.
- As a wife, she portrays a very positive character. She is obedient to her husband, and her mother-in-law.
- At her marital home, she works very hard, and gains a lot of property for her husband. In an essentially patriarchal society, she shows she can survive well, without depending on her husband for upkeep.
- Even though she has only three children, she is able to justify her position as an only wife by being a treasure to her husband, who doesn’t see the sense in marrying another wife. Akoko does this without using witchcraft, or threats. She is not jealous.
- When she loses her loved ones, she takes it very well. Though she regrets it, she is strong enough to realize that such things as death are a natural imperative. That shows a certain amount of pedigree on her part. She could be referred to as a ‘oner’. She is thus able to help her daughter Nyabera cope with the deaths of their loved ones; father, two brothers, and son.
- Her greatest strength is seen after her husband’s death. She has to reckon with the antipathies of her bother-in-law and mother-in-law. The bother-in-law not only usurps the chieftaincy, but takes all the cattle belonging to Akoko. But she does not give up. She decides to go to Kisumu and report the injustice to the colonial administrators, who conduct investigations and facilitate Akoko’s regaining of her wealth.
- After getting back her wealth, she takes the initiative to leave her matrimonial home and return to her own people in Yimbo. This shows a unique strength of character. A lesser woman would have stuck to her matrimonial home, to face the suffering from bad in-laws quietly, and probably die in poverty after all her property has been taken over.
- She excels herself even when she is at her father’s place, among very understanding relatives. She still prospers, and is able to reward her brothers with cattle.
- When her daughter very reasonably decides to go and stay with missionaries, to facilitate her gaining religion and education for her child and nephew, Akoko agrees with her and joins her at the mission. This results into education for Elizabeth and Owuor. As a result, the latter becomes a bishop, the former a successful teacher and parent.
- She succeeds in educating her grandchildren, looks after them, guides them; in effect, forms their character, for them to become successful in the future.
- She still manages to work hard, even at 50 seasons, and is able to create wealth at the mission, the place of her sojourn.
All these justify the claim that Akoko is indeed the source. If she had been otherwise, Nyabera, her daughter, would not have been what she became. She would not have been a woman of means and power, and her family would have been a non-entity. As the wise say, a (wo)man is not judged by the wealth they possess, but by the sort of family they bring up.
(Next essay: Nyabera and Elizabeth).
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 firstname.lastname@example.org