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Sunday, August 21, 2016

THE RIVER AND THE SOURCE by Margaret Ogola.



Celebrating womanhood the modern way

Most books on gender debate revolve around the axle of imbalance in the way men and women relate to one another, in their division of labour, including sharing the products of that labour, such as property, and these books further declare that whereas women are part of division of labour, there’s discrimination in distributing the fruits. This is what Margaret Ogola tackles in her works, especially the novel The River and the Source but adds a few tinges of the impacts of colonialism along these gender lines.

She bases her characters on theoretical framework and what we as a society have upheld from time immemorial. She delves deep into the mind concept of a woman (based on ideas) against the societal definition. And therefore, while the image of a woman is celebrated, that of man is trounced in the text, defeating the balance equation she set to address, because the typical men presented suffer greatly—as head of the family, commander, or dictator. This is the shortfall reflected in the text, against the perspective of gender equality (awareness) and mocks such a ‘lovely book on gender equality, just waiting to be read’ as one publisher poured it praises.

Ogola’s premise is the ageing tradition that most—if not all—societies in the world are patriarchal in nature, and culturally excludes women in important matters. Her Luo community is not different because in the private sphere, it not only restricts the woman to the family domain, where she devotes herself to family cooking and taking care of basic needs, but also in the public sphere, as demonstrated in Achebe’s things fall apart, the Ibo woman was not considered a decision maker. For example, when Mama Nwonna asks, ‘is he (the visitor) staying with us long?’ Her husband’s rhetoric reply, ‘when did you become an elder of Umuofia?’ says it all. This discrimination is present in all areas of her life—be it economic activities or in the politics. Patriarchy in Ogola’s Luo community is exemplified in the extreme Otieno’s bigotry, and it’s nothing short of chauvinism.

The text intends to address this imbalance by extolling Wandia, Becky, and Vera (her heroines) to the public sphere, against the basic idea that a woman belongs only at home. The three break this patriarchical tradition by multi-tasking—combining both domestic chores and scaling high in public affairs, all at the same time, a change due to the new circumstances, Becky as a flight attendant and Wandia as professor.


This rapid transformation is what Akoko, the main heroine, seems unable to comprehend. Ogola indicates that changes have become necessary and tracing Akoko’s lineage, she attempts to review a woman’s status from time immemorial, from socialisation and serious obstacles that curtailed the freedom of women, and which society needs to review again. She performs surgery to the traditional society with view of healing gender inequality.

But the quest is not ‘balanced’ objectively as gender perspective must deal with both men and women. There’s an imbalanced equation within the characters: ‘Female-feminine-feminist’ on one side, pitted against ‘Male-masculine-???’ on the other, and does not result in a healthy socialisation. Feminism as a political movement (and advocacy for women’s rights) bases certain principals and theories (at times not more than propaganda). She bends socialisation—being not a biological factor—towards the Marxist feminism direction whereas gender, at least according to Oxford Dictionary, should imply both man and woman. 

There are more opportunities for women to participate in bigger things of life so as to persuade society that a woman too, can do it. By combining roles, Wandia and Elizabeth for instance, fight for their own rights at different stages and levels, although Elizabeth’s son has problems only his daddy can ‘solve’, a hint to socialise feminist-leaning character the role first, as a parent, and two as a professional that cooperation between man and woman—combined efforts—is required, not feminist (woman centred) or male patriarchy. Matriarchy and patriarchy is a harmful cultural double-edged sword.

Does she remove discriminatory traditional practises and redeem her work from being insensitively harmful to gender balance? The answer is partly an affirmative, by creating opportunities and crises to force society to view property ownership as not forced by nature, but through awareness, education and/or religion, tolerance is possible. This is the part where both genders shout an affirmative aye to ‘Yes We Can!’ declaration.

Like Martin and Pamela in Marjorie Oludhe MacGoye’s Coming to Birth, there’s a sign of emerging understanding and amicable relations between the sexes. Mark abandons his wife only to feel so lonely, comes back to them and they negotiate to settle in the leafy part of town where their children train and later work. New values, norms, taboos, etc are born. Housework, previously female work is tested by inter-cultural influences—another kind of socialisation stimulated by new environment and a new woman emerges.

The boundary, she seems to say, of earning a living according to gender lines would fade as society progresses. We trace Akoko’s ancestry and see this juxtaposition of how Ogola handles history and gender politics—diffusing the boundary between gender perspective by combining tradition society and the contemporary sphere. Things have changed a lot since1902, when the East African Railway reached Kisumu.

Akoko sought to address certain traditional issues (through subtle language and style) to contemporary Nairobi, which is still preoccupied by these petty boundaries created over time. In her bid though, she overly amplifies and overrates the woman—the story’s plot starts from her grandmother (The Source) through her mother’s (The River) narration and seems to suggest it’s the story of the mothers—no fathers mentioned!

To give the devil his due, I’ll be quick to point out that I didn’t achieve a restructure of the text in my attempts to arrest the beauty of gender equality.
 

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