Margaret Ogola

The prolific doctor-turned-author responsible for giving us The River and the Source, a scintillating novel that leaves readers in awe, left behind a legacy of hope through her compassion- based work to empower women and children. When cancer claimed Dr Margaret Ogola from the earth, a source of inspiration was silenced forever.

Her début offering, The River and the Source, took the world by storm. Ogola will be remembered as one of the finest writers and social critics of our time. Her well-told narrative earned itself a coveted place in the hearts of many a Form Four student when the Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development selected it twice as a set book for the Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE) examination. Published in 1994, the book won the 1995 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize (Best First Book – Africa). That same year the novel also won the Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature, a prize that recognises outstanding works by Kenyan authors.

The fact that The River and the Source, universally described as being extremely rich in content, has been translated into Spanish, Lithuanian and Italian, attests to its excellence. Ogola, a paediatrician by training, who deftly juggled the pen and the stethoscope, dedicated her life to working with the wretched of the earth, so to speak. HIV/Aids orphans, street children and other vulnerable groups, with whom she interacted on a day-to-day basis, had a special place in her heart as evidenced in her writings, where they triumph by over- coming insurmountable odds.

The doctor-turned-writer spent her life advocating for women’s rights and opposing their marginalisation. An unabashed pro-life advocate, Ogola championed the rights of unborn children, insisting from every platform she was given that they had a right to live. Jointly with former Kianda School Principal Margaret Roche, the doctor co-authored Cardinal Otunga: A Gift of Grace, a book on the life and times of former Archbishop of Nairobi Maurice Michael Cardinal Otunga, considered one of Kenya’s greatest religious leaders.

What is it about The River and the Source that makes it such an astounding read? That the novel places a spotlight on the lives and times of four generations of Kenyan women in a society undergoing rapid and profound metamorphosis is one explanation. The author manages to arrest the attention of her readers as she weaves the experiences of her characters into a yarn that draws you into their world.

Told with sharp insight, ease and finesse, the novel tackles various themes, including the liberation of women and the importance of acknowledging their rights as human beings; through the characters, it brings to the fore the possibility of women believing that they can be significant and successful in life without having to cling to men to define and validate their existence.

Ogola also wrote I Swear by Apollo, a sequel to The River and the Source. The novel addresses issues of medical practice and the challenges of a society that is full of contradicting influences. The novel highlights the lives of three children orphaned by HIV/Aids and how their aunt, a woman of great zeal and intellect, helps raise them. Not one to put her pen down, Ogola went on to write her third novel, Place of Destiny, which narrates the life of Amor, a strong woman and mother who battles cancer.

Poverty, one of the main themes of the book, is told through the life and times of a street child who eventually becomes a success in society. Place of Destiny tied with Marjorie Oludhe MacGoye’s “A Farm Called Kishinev” for the top perch in the 2007 Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature in the adult fiction category. The two authors shared the cash award for their novels. Place of Destiny is viewed as a semi-auto- biographical work, as the author battled with cancer for many years. She succumbed to the debilitating condition in 2011. Also in her basket of works is a handbook for parents titled Educating in Human Love. Co- authored with her husband George Ogola, the book is a sex education guide for parents. Ogola recognised and advocated for the irreplaceable role of parents and the family in educating and informing their children on matters of human sexuality.

Her last book, Mandate of the People, was published posthumously by Focus Publishers in 2013. The book is a study of Kenyan politics, exploring election candidates and the use of voter bribery and thuggery to win votes. Other dirty tricks employed by political aspirants, including tampering with nominations and visiting witchdoctors, are captured in the book. The writing of this work probably took its toll on an already frail Ogola. As if racing against time, Ogola wrote during whatever little spare time she could find out of her packed schedule as a full-time medical doctor and administrator. She confessed in an interview that she was a poor sleeper. Born in June 1958, the writer attended Thompson’s Falls and Alliance Girls’ High Schools. She studied at the University of Nairobi, graduating with a Bachelor in Medicine and Surgery in 1984. She acquired a Master of Medicine in Paediatrics in 990 from the same university and later, a Postgraduate Diploma in Planning and Management of Development Projects from the Catholic University of Eastern Africa (CUEA) in 2004.

Her qualifications saw the paediatrician work at various healthcare institutions in Kenya. With a deep-seated passion for vulnerable children affected by HIV/Aids, she served as Medical Director of Cottolengo Hospice for children orphaned by Aids from 1994 until her death. From 2004 to 2005, she also helped establish the SOS HIV/Aids clinic which serves women, men and children from Nairobi’s low income communities. The clinic offer treatment and counselling for people affected by HIV/Aids in Nairobi’s high-density neighbourhoods.

Ogola’s diploma from CUEA prepared her for the key administrative roles she undertook, including executive director of the Family Life Counselling Association of Kenya (1994-1998) and national executive secretary for Health and Family Life for the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops (1998 to 2002). Her work involved overseeing 400 healthcare facilities run by the Catholic Church in Kenya. In 2002, the doctor was appointed Kenya’s coordinator of the Hope for African Children Initiative (HACI). From 2009 to 2010, she served as Director of the Institute of Healthcare Management at Strathmore University’s Business School.

Ogola was known for her strong stance on issues of women’s empowerment. She was a strong advocate of women’s rights, which probably explains why all her novels portray women of indomitable spirit. In a speech read during the Fourth United Nations Conference on Women in Beijing, China, 1995, entitled The Dignity of the African Woman, Ogola described women’s empowerment as very dear to her heart. “The woman is the heart of the family, and the family is the cornerstone of society, therefore it is very fitting that we should be here seeking new ways enhance her wellbeing, natural talents and gifts,” she said.

On the right to equality, Ogola said: “The woman is a powerhouse of creativity, development and peace. Conflict between men and women is therefore unnecessary because a woman brings an equal and powerful complementarity to the human condition… Let us realise that men and women share one world. Equality must not be seen to deny anyone their rightful due.” Ogola was never one to shy away from talking about her distaste for contraceptives, abortion and her desire to protect the unborn.

“Iam distressed that there seems to be a conspiracy to keep women in the dark, especially the African woman, regarding the many dangerous side-effacts of contraceptives, some of which are irreversible and life-threatening. I especially abhor the experimentation and dumping of untested harmful drugs in Africa and other developing countries,” she said during her Beijing speech. She believed that conversations around human rights would only begin when it was recognised and understood that each individual was valuable by virtue of simply being conceived. “This includes the right to be born, as all of us have enjoyed. True justice should be for each human being, visible and invisible, young and old, disabled and able, to enjoy fully their right to life,” she further emphasised in her speech.

While receiving the Familias Award for Hu- man Service in Geneva, Switzerland,1 in 1999, Ogola passionately expressed her need to see humanity return to the days when the power to create life was treated as a sacred obligation. Her life was all about bettering the lives she was entrusted with. She interacted with the high and mighty as she spoke locally and internationally on the right to life and human rights. She cared for the poor, engaging with them and doing her best to ensure that they realised their potential, and instilled hope in them so that they, too, could become formidable forces in society. It is no wonder then, that after understanding her background, one can see where the inspiration for her writing came from. She wrote about women, about poverty, about HIV/Aids, about sexuality and about human rights. These things mattered to her. So she lived them and wrote about them.

That is the legacy she left.

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