The River and the Source by Margaret Ogala

The River and the Source by Margaret Ogala

The River and the Source is available for only $8.99 on Kindle–I got it out from interlibrary loan.

I loved this story about four generations of a family in Kenya. It begins with the birth of a girl, Akoko Obanda, the daughter of a chief who marries a chief and has a rare monogamous marriage with him despite the urgings from all sides for him to take more wives. They love and respect each other and although they only have three children, their marriage works despite outside pressures.

Akoko is a strong, hard working woman, more, she’s a woman of deep character and it’s easy to love her. She survives tragedy after tragedy with fortitude and courage. She’s a mother– of two sons and a daughter– a grandmother who fights to protect her grandson’s inheritance, and a great-grandmother, a matriarch of a family.

She also becomes a woman of deep faith after her daughter is widowed and seeks out a Christian mission. Nyabera, baptized Maria, then brings her mother and her daughter and her nephew back with her to the mission, thus changing the course of the family’s fortune.

Although some readers on Goodreads think that Ogola makes her women strong at the expense of the men, I did not see that at all. Akoko’s father and husband are both great chiefs and men of character. I really loved her husband Owuor Kembo especially. He is a good man, a strong man, a likeable man. Yes, he dies early and her grief at his death is a hard blow for Akoko, but his strength is also a part of her strength and a part of what makes her who she is. And Akoko’s grandson Peter Owuro who becomes a priest and then a bishop; Awiti’s husband Mark Anthony Sigu, the soldier; and her son, the doctor, Aoro, are all very strong men and characters I very much admired.

I loved the way the Catholic faith was portrayed in the novel; there was a real depth and complexity. And I liked that it wasn’t overly simplistic. Nyabera/Maria’s conversion is tied to the Angelus, one of the first prayers she encounters at the mission:

The church was beautiful with coloured glass in the windows and a tall cross, which the teacher called the sign of Kristo, towering above it. There were bells in the steeple for Angelus– the prayer which the teacher said reminded man three times a day that God had chosen to be born of a woman just like us and had dwelt among us. It was being said in a strange language which she would later learn was called Latin– the old language which once united all Christendom.

Suddenly listening to all this Nyabera knew that she had made the right decision. She was filled with hope. She was only thirty and had been on the threshold of despair. It did not matter that she did not understand the language. Some feelings go beyond words.

Later this affirmation of the central teaching of Christianity would become her favourite prayer, her consolation and her source of strength. That God would deign to be a man! That He should choose to be born of a woman! A woman! One would think that He would have been chosen to be born of the unilateral efforts of a man; but no, a woman it was. Further, that he should dwell among us, just exactly like one of us! Eating, breathing, touching, loving, sorrowing, weeping! A man like other men!

Were [her tribal god] had been benevolent; but this God was a loving Father. It was the only explanation.

The novel also explores themes of forgiveness, reconciliation, and redemption. The characters are not flat and falling into sin is not the end. At the time of her conversion Nyabera knows precisely where her greatest temptation is going to be: she wants children, having lost several, her heart yearns for a child to fill her emptiness. And as both she and her mother predict, her struggle is with the Church’s teaching that marriage is between only one man and one woman– although she doesn’t disagree with the teaching per se, she knows that the lure of children will be her downfall if anything is. Sure enough, eventually she leaves the mission and goes back to live with a man she lived with before as a second wife when she hears that his first wife has died. She hopes, and she knows its unreasonably, that she can form “some kind of licit union”. But eventually he takes another wife, she has a child and that child dies too and she returns to the mission sorrowful and filled with shame. It is her mother, Akoko, who admonishes her for forgetting the forgiveness of Christ:

“Mother, I have sinned against God and I have failed you– I who led you to this place.”
“My child, you have sinned yes, but you have failed no one, least of all me. To tumble and fall is human, so human that God, almost despairing of our ever really understanding him, made himself human for our sake– that we may touch him, and hear him and know him. Go to the church and talk to him there. Have you not understood these things? Do you not comprehend the depths of his love and mercy?” Nyabera stumbled out and spent the night kneeling before the tabernacle. The priest coming in the church in the morning found her there. She staggered to her feet.

“Bless me father for I have sinned. It is two years now since my last confession. I wish to confess.” He went to his side of the screen and she to hers. After the absolution she came out to start her penance. She felt as if a load had been lifted off her shoulders.

If I can find any fault, it is that I wanted more. More details, more stories about the lives of the characters I’d come to love. The novel could easily have been twice as long and I would have been content. It’s not a highly polished novel, there aren’t a lot of high literary flourishes. But the simplicity of style works well with the story and feels like a strength rather than a weakness. I’d have liked a longer story and more details, but at the same time, there is something restrained about the book– perhaps it’s just as long as it needs to be.

The River and the Source is widely read in Kenya, from what I gather it’s a book that’s required for most people to read in school. In fact that’s how I heard about it, from a list of books that are most-read in various countries. I wanted to read something more about Africa since the children and I have been doing an unofficial African study and this novel was one I hadn’t heard of, that isn’t on the standard American lists, but perhaps should be. It portrays an Africa of deep faith, a spiritual place and one where family is of utmost importance.

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  • I just finished this book and it was wonderful. I picked it up after you discussed it on Raising the Betts. Thank you for the recommendation! It was so lovely to inhabit this part of the world with this interesting, strong, dynamic family and to experience with them how the changes in the rest of the world affected even these relatively isolated Kenyans. The interweaving of faith throughout was also particularly satisfying. Thanks for all you and Dom do and please continue to share what you are reading!