The first sentence of that awe-inspiring novel just caught my attention. I immediately knew it would talk about culture which is a sweetheart subject for me.
Let me start with the preliminaries; that novel was given to me by my father who strangely knew my literature taste. I say strangely because at the time we had never sat down to just talk about literature. But there is something within my consciousness which can not allow me to disappoint my father so I read the book.
I was fourteen years old and in form two when I first read the novel. I did not know much about character analyses, placement, themes or even uses of language then but somehow that novel grabbed my attention and from then onwards I would have this desperate desire to meet the author and just tell her she wrote a good book. I finally located her, booked an appointment with her but perhaps I took too long because she passed on just a few weeks prior.
The novel starts with the birth of a baby girl. This child is the fast girl child in the homestead of not just a chief but a great chief called Odero Gogni who had covered himself in considerable glory for siring twenty one sons. The naming rite worries everyone because no name suits her spirit and she cries for a very long time.
A name is eventually found for her but for the 'noise', she is nicknamed Akoko which means the noisy one. It is this name that sticks throughout the development of the novel.
Akoko grows both in age and stature and she is well trained in the ways of chik(the traditions and norms that govern the community). We are told she is physically strong and a beauty to behold so that by the time she reaches marriageable age, so many suitors are after her and the great chief capitalizes on this to assert himself. He is reluctant about giving his firstborn daughter just to any man.
Akoko finally gets married at 19 seasons to Chief Owour Kembo of Sakwa. They live happily and Akoko being the mikai(first wife of a chief), she is treated with a lot of respect. The fact that she hails from a chieftaincy also adds to the reverence that people accord her.
Things however do not go well when Akoko can not bear more than three children and her husband, chief Owour Kembo is reluctant about taking up another wife. Akoko is accused of so many evils among them juok(witchcraft) which annoys her and in the absence of her husband, she goes back to her people.
There is eventual reconciliation although there continues to exist friction between the extended family and Akoko especially between the mother-in-law and Akoko.
Of Akoko's three children; Obura, Nyabera and Owang' Sino, only Nyabera lives. Obura is lured by a friend who escapes with him in order to fight the first world war. Owang' Sino dies shortly after taking up his father's position as the chief(his father, chief Kembo became weakly after Obura's death and he died prematurely.)
The only direct male child in the late chief Kembo's lineage is an infant, borne to Owang' Sino and who cannot definitely lead the people.
The chieftainship therefore has to move to chief Kembo's brother. It is agreed that as soon as the infant is old enough to lead, he would be crowned chief. This part presents Otieno, Kembo's brother as a greedy man who cares not for his people and his main concern is his stomach.
Meanwhile, Nyabera gets married but there appears to be a problem. All the children she gives birth to die from one ailment or another. She is so demoralized and things get even worse when her husband dies. But her mother does not stop encouraging her especially being the only one who seems to care about her well-being. Nyabera remarries after sometime.
When it is time for young Owang' Sino to take over leadership, Otieno is not willing to let go and his grandmother not being one to take anything lying down, she seeks the aid of sirikal, a word she had heard when some people came to deliver the information that Obura had died in war.
That was how Akoko eventually broke the boundaries of her life and got to learn about the outside world. She for example learns about the new religion of hope for widows and oppressed like herself. It is also around this time that Nyabera gives birth to a child who lives and she is called Awiti which means picked from the road, something a kin to an abandoned child.
Having found the new religion, Akoko comes back and mentions it to her daughter Nyabera and together they move to the mission. They take along Awiti and young Owang' Sino.
At the mission, they find a lot of peace and they all begin to learn the new ways. After their studies and baptism, Akoko is named Veronica, Nyabera is named Mary, Owang' Sino is named Peter and Awiti is named Elizabeth. They live in their small house contentedly and their grandmother(Akoko) does not relent in her hardwork to ensure that there is enough food for all of them and even enough to take to church.
As they continue with their education(Elizabeth and Peter) their strengths are unveiled. Elizabeth turns out as a clever student and she is taken to the teachers training college and Peter discovers his 'calling' towards priesthood and he is taken to a seminary(the chieftaincy is now forgotten).
Elizabeth eventually gets married after her teacher training to Mark Sigu who was an ex-soldier. Unfortunately her grandmother passed on shortly before her christian wedding.
Mark and Elizabeth's marriage flourished with so many children. The first set of twins is Rebecca and Veronica, Aoro, Antony, then another set of twins Opiyo and Odongo and finally baby Mary.
The story here flows like that of any modern family with sibling rivalry, care for one another, folly, truancy, tricks, good memories, competition e.t.c. It is for example noted that Rebecca was so beautiful. Vera on the other side is said to have been a clever child right from the start. It is also mentioned that Becky and Vera were not very good friends and they at times exchanged bitter words. But in her will, Becky requested unity with Vera and goes on to leave the care of her two half caste children in her care.
Mary Nyabera also dies in her seventies and this almost breaks down Elizabeth who had learnt to depend on her mother after the death of her grandmother. She is buried honorably with Father Peter, her nephew presiding over the mass.
The story gets to its climax with the life of Elizabeth's children, some of who get married and lead happy lives. It was sad however because Becky, died prematurely due to HIV infection but leaves a legacy; two children Alicia and Johny and a lot of property. Vera on the other hand opts to join Opus Dei as a non-marrying member. Aoro who becomes a medical doctor marries another medical doctor from the ridge country of Kikuyu(Wandia Mugo) and together, they have four children.
Elizabeth also dies towards the end of the novel which marks the end of the three generation of women who hold the novel together.
This is a novel of tears, hopelessness, self pity and unexpectedly, a story of love, joy and renewal. People say it deserves to be read at a sitting but I think it deserves to be, if possible read within an interval of breathes...maybe five or ten. It looks like an ordinary story but into the construction of the novel went all the skill and sophistication of a master story teller. Between the covers, there is a grand new world in which you fit perfectly assuming whatever role.
Rest in peace Margarete and may perpetual light shine upon you. Maybe you were not supposed to die but who am I? It is just consoling to know that you left behind books, "I swear by Apollo" is equally a good read and thus, they will continue to tell us about your mind even into posterity. I know your soul lives on, Margarete...
"...but the dead have no use for the living, who eventually have to 'collect' themselves so that the business of life might somehow continue." "...to each person, an allotted lifespan is given, against which there is no appeal..." "...she was laid to rest beneath her favorite groove of purple bougainvillea, nearby was Becky's grave, as beautiful as she herself had been in this life..." The end.