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Inside ‘The River and The Source’: Why literature students should master set texts

Inside ‘The River and The Source’: Why literature students should master set texts

As you prepare for your exams, you need more than just the set text.

It is important for you to have background information about the author.

This is because authors are greatly influenced by their everyday experiences as well as the values, norms and challenges facing their communities.

That is why it is said that literature is a reflection of the society.

The late Margaret Ogola was born in 1958 in Asembo Bay in Nyanza region. Her father was a civil servant who, together with his wife, instilled the spirit of hard work, determination, resilience and love of education in their children. These are among the values that feature prominently in her work.

Apart from The River and The Source, Dr Ogola also wrote I Swear by Apollo,A Place of Destiny and Mandate of the People. She also co-authored Educating in Human Love with her husband.

Dr Ogola was married to George Ogola and they have four children and two foster children. She was an advisor to the Kenyan Catholic bishops on issues of family health and a member of the opus dei. She succumbed to cancer in September, 2011 at the age of 53.

The River and The Source, her best known novel, is a story about an African woman, how her society views and treats her and the milestones she has reached in emancipating herself from oppressive and discriminative practices. The book’s physical setting is Nyanza in the western part of Kenya. However, the setting later shifts to Nakuru, Murang’a and Nairobi as the story develops.

The story cuts across the pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial period. The social setting focuses mainly on the Luo and partly the Kikuyu communities.

Apart from the place of women in the society, the book also addresses issues such as social change, family ties and their importance as well as leadership and empowerment through education.

The author brings out these issues through the use of stylistic devices such as vivid description, foreshadowing and dialogue among others. The novel has a straightforward plot that is easy to follow. It is also rich in vocabulary, which is important in building students’ mastery of the English language.

The plot can be divided into four episodes revolving around four women who represent the four generations in the novel. They are Akoko, Nyabera, Awiti and Wandia.

The novel starts with the birth of Akoko, who is not only born to a great chief who already had seven sons, but also as the first daughter. The girl is named Adoyo, after the season in which she was born, Obanda, after her recently dead uncle, Akelo after her step grandmother and Akoko because she is noisy.


Akoko’s physical growth is slow but she makes up for her lack of height with intelligence. Indeed, determination is the hallmark of her entire life. She amazes the entire household by sitting without support by four months, cruising around with support and pattering away on her own feet at seven months. At ten months, she stuns everybody, including her father, by uttering not one word but two — dwaro mara, which means ‘want mine’. This, she screamed at her brother who had taken away something she was playing with (pg14). This unique characteristics are a pointer to her future exploits.

Akoko flourishes into a beautiful girl and by her 17th birthday, many spies from prospective suitors are sent to her home and the reports were unanimous — a young woman with impeccable antecedents who could be expected, not only to nurture children, but also to build a real home. These characteristics attract Chief Owour Kembo, who wins Akoko’s father’s heart after rejecting 12 suitors. Marriage negotiations are done in accordance with tradition during which Akoko portrays unique traits of courage and confidence. This courage will be seen later when she dares her brother-in-law, Otieno, who confronts her.

Akoko settles in her matrimonial home and gets her first child, Obura, the wise one who was also called Kembo, after the late chief. After three and a half years, she gives birth to her second child, Nyabera, the good one. According to tradition, children are a sign of wealth and for Nyar Asembo, the rate at which Akoko was getting them was too slow. She intervenes and asks the council of jodongo (elders) to meet and advise her son to get another wife. Akoko’s mother-in-law even once accused her of bewitching her son.

Akoko wakes the entire village and confronts her mother-in-law and Otieno and later leaves for her father’s home. The dispute is later resolved through the council

of jodongo and Akoko goes back to her matrimonial home after Owuor takes a goat to his mother-in-law to appease her. After her return, Akoko conceives again and gives birth to Owang Sino, who is named after a famous warrior.

Akoko’s family is happy until change comes within the land. Rumors about the white man are in the air and Obura’s curiosity takes better of him and one day he disappears from home to go and work for the white man. He is one of the victims who die in battle, highlighting the negative effects of change. Nyabera is affected greatly and Akoko’s strong character is seen in the way she is able deal with pain and suffering, and calm her daughter. After the death of Obura, the chief ails and dies and Owang Sino has to get married immediately so that he can take up chieftaincy. Akoko is able to deal with all this loss and is resilient enough to continue with life.

Owang Sino sits on the chief’s stool for a very short time after which he chokes to death on a meal of fish and ugali, leaving the chieftaincy in the hands of Otieno because his son is only two years old and, therefore, cannot sit on the stool until he is of age.

Otieno takes over the stool with glee and arrogance, appropriates his brother’s wealth and tries to grab Akoko’s. She decides to seek justice from sirkal, the new government. Otieno is made to return what he had grabbed and is forcefully removed from the chief’s stool. It is after this that Akoko returns to her father’s home — a migogo (a widow). She later joins her daughter at Aluor to start a new life after encouraging her to seek a new life. She embraces the new religion and encourages Nyabera to let her daughter go to college. She also allows Peter to join the priesthood. She later presides over Elizabeth’s marriage and dies peacefully sure that the river will continue in Elizabeth.

Nyabera represents the next generation, being the only surviving child of Akoko. She gets married to Okumu, who could barely raise the bride price and goes to her new home with a sizeable herd of cattle, sheep and goats. Nyabera gets children and loses all of them apart from one girl, Awiti. She also loses her husband, which causes her a lot of pain. She seeks a new way in the new religion, where she finds solace. However, her desire to have more children makes her go back to Ogoma Kwach, who had inherited her when her husband died. They got two children, who later died. It was at this point that she went back to Aluor, settled down and adopted the new way of life fully.

Elizabeth Awiti is the woman in the next generation. At her birth, a ritual is performed to confuse the evil spirit to ensure she survives, which she sure does. Akoko’s spirit of hard work and determination, and her clarity of vision are clearly evident in Awiti, who excels in school despite the negative attitude her people have towards education and new ways.

According to her people, a girl who is educated is an object of derision rather than desire. This does not stop her, though, thanks to her grandmother’s mentorship. She pursues her education up to college and becomes a teacher. Awiti gets married to Mark Sigu, and they get their share of family problems such as miscarriage, her taking too long to conceive, Mark’s infidelity and children’s indiscipline. However, both endeavour to build a strong household which is founded on strong values.

The last generation is represented by Wandia, Aoro’s wife. She is portrayed as daring, hardworking and a go-getter who is not intimidated by the males who dominate her anatomy class. She is daring enough to propose to Aoro and they get married. By this time women are empowered and can compete favourably with men even in careers that are seen to be male-dominated, like medicine and engineering.

Students are encouraged to read the book as many times as possible to master the content and be in a position to give enough illustrations in any essay.

The writer is a teacher at Alliance Girls High School.

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