Sample essay questions and how to tackle them in an examination

Friday November 3 2017

Witi Ihimaera’s The Whale Rider. PHOTO| FILE|

Witi Ihimaera’s The Whale Rider. PHOTO| FILE| NATION MEDIA GROUP 


Essays based on the set texts usually revolve around the three main areas that are usually analysed in the set texts.

These are themes, styles and characters. However, students should correctly interpret the question, establish its demands and plan their essay by identifying the points before writing it.

This article will tackle three questions from three set texts, two of which were published in the previous articles.


1. “Some traditional practices are retrogressive.” Write an essay to show the validity of this statement drawing your illustrations from The River and the Source.

Some of the things that people engage in as a community do not add any value to their lives. If anything, they only stop them from moving forward and progressing. In The River and the Source, various traditions are portrayed as uncivilised.

Wife inheritance (tero) is one of the one of the traditional practices by the community in the novel. When one’s husband dies, she is supposed to be inherited by a close relative of the dead man. The inheritor has no real rights over the woman, his job is siring children to maintain the dead man’s name and keep the widow from wandering from one man to another.

The children he sires do not belong to him and therefore is under no obligation to provide for them; his duty was to his own wife and in reality, instead of being protected the window is left in a sort of limbo (page 99). The practice only leaves the widow with a burden of more children with no one to take care of them.

Polygamy is another tradition that is retrogressive. According to tradition, a man is expected to marry as many wives as possible and have many children. Monogamy was an frowned upon and every man worth his salt tried to marry at least two wives (page 30-31).

This tradition gives a leeway to people like Otieno to marry as many wives as possible.

Otieno is described as weak man who seemed to have a knack for marrying one shiftless wife after another but still desired Akoko, his brother’s wife, who seemed to get younger every year (page 47).

To make matters worse, he was not able to take care of them and he depends on his brother Owuor. The wives and the children in a polygamous marriage end up suffering if the man is not able to provide for them.

Another tradition that is retrogressive is traditional marriage, where a girl had no say as to who they get married to.

It is the duty of her father to decide who should marry her. Akoko’s father turns away 12 suitors because he had not only set his mind on her being married by a chief but also as a mikai, a first wife.

This makes Akoko frustrated to a point of believing that Were had not created a husband for her. Love was not a factor and a girl is likely to be saddled with a husband she does not love.

Hereditary chieftaincy is yet another tradition that denied other able leaders an opportunity to lead and at times made a bad leader stay in power. When Owuor Kembo dies and there is no mature male to take over chieftaincy, Otieno, his younger brother, takes over and sits on the chief’s stool with glee and arrogance, dispensing over with the venerated council of jodongo, making the people suffer under his poor leadership.

From the above illustrations, it is evident that some traditions are not worth practicing because they are retrogressive.


2. “Dictatorship by leaders has led to disillusionment among citizens.” Write an essay to show the truth of this statement with reference to Betrayal in the City by Francis Imbuga.

The leader of Kafira rules with an iron fist and this has caused disappointment and hopelessness among the citizens who had waited for independence with a lot of optimism.

Doga and Nina is a disappointed couple and they have no hope of recovering. When their son is gunned down during the students’ protest, they are denied a chance to perform the shaving ceremony according to their tradition. Boss orders Mulili and Jere (soldiers) to go and stop the ceremony ‘in the interest of peace’ and to avoid more bloodshed.

Doga says that they buried their hope the day Adika was gunned down. Nina accuses the dictatorial regime of robbing them of all their hope and leaving them in darkness and says that their hope is buried in Adika’s grave.

Disillusionment is further seen when citizens are denied freedom of expression. Mosese expresses his opinion during Adika’s burial and pays dearly for it by being imprisoned for possessing opium, which was planted in his car by one of the government officials. In prison, he tells Jere that it is better when they waited because there is nothing to look forward to.

He says “…We have killed our past and are busy killing our future.” This shows how disappointed and hopeless he is and he does not foresee any hope for the country.

The citizens had hoped that independence would bring with it fruits that will improve their living standards by providing employment, but to their disappointment, the government brings expatriates to work in the country. When the students protest against it, they are brutalised by the police and some, like Adika, are shot dead. This leaves them in a state of hopelessness.

Those who work for the government are also disappointed.  Jere, one of the government officials witnesses the injustices that the masses are subjected to when he is sent to go and stop the shaving ceremony and decides to join them in fighting for their rights. He says “….I looked in that woman’s eyes and I saw the futility of calling ourselves citizens of Kafira.” His decision costs him imprisonment.

It is evident that all the hope that the citizens had before independent has been replaced by disappointment and hopelessness.


3. “Even in a patriarchal society, women can succeed.” Write an essay validating this statement with illustrations from Witi Ihimaera’s The Whale Rider.

Some communities are male dominated and do not believe that women can achieve anything. However, women have proved them wrong by doing great things.

Nani Flowers is one of the women who have played a significant role in the novel. When Kahu is born, Koro Apirana, the chief of the tribe is disappointed because he is expecting a male child and says he will have nothing to do with her. He even opposes the idea of her being named after the ancestor of the tribe and refuses to bury her birth cord in Whangara. Nani Flowers takes it upon herself to ensure that the girl is named after their ancestor, Paikea and also buries her birth cord in Whangara.  By doing this, she connects Kahu to her ancestors who protect her and she became the whale rider, just like the ancestor she is named after. 

Kahu is despised by her great grandfather simply because she is a girl. Despite this attitude from her grandfather, she extremely loves him and has a keen interest in Maori culture which drives her to sneak into the cultural classes that were only meant for boys because they were sacred. Koro would growl at her and chase her away but she kept eavesdropping and she overheard more than they thought. In school, she is the leader of the cultural group and reads a speech in Maori language which had won the East coast primary contest and recites the genealogy of their tribe. She retrieves the curved stone from deep see when all the boys had failed and rides and coaxes the bull whale back to sea, saving the community.

Muriwai is another woman who succeeded in a patriarchal society. She saved a canoe and her chieftainly brothers who were on board. The brothers  had gone to investigate the land at Whakatane when the sea began to rise and she chanted a prayer asking the gods  to give her the right and open the way for her to take charge. She cried…. “Now I shall make myself a man….”  She then called out to the crew and ordered them to start paddling quickly and the canoe was saved in the nick of time.       


The above points clearly prove that women can succeed in a patriarchal society.


The writer is a teacher at Alliance Girls High School. [email protected]



The Saturday Nation is publishing reviews and analyses of the KSCE English set books. This will help students, especially Form Four candidates as they prepare for their exams. The series is aimed at helping them to develop a critical and analytical approach to reading.  Students will also be  exposed to questions that will prepare them to better appreciate literature. These will also guide them on how to approach the questions. The best answers will be published in the Saturday Nation. Send correspondence to [email protected]