An Ode to River Yala

Most people can easily name five favourite destinations they would like to visit. However put out the question of a favourite river and many will draw a blank. Modern living does not offer much opportunity for meaningful interaction with rivers. In the cities they are practically open sewers. In the news, rivers are brought to our attention only after a devastating flood misfortune that results in scores of desperate villagers getting washed out. In school books, rivers are ranked by length, size, economic or historical significance. Alternatively they are romanticized and captured as beautiful snapshots of nature. I have a few those shots as mementos taken after gazing down at rush of water under a bridge or staring at the spectacle of a waterfall.

I developed a fascination for rivers early in life. After years of exploring several l decided l had a favourite river and the attachment has nothing do with some romantic boat cruise. I compare all rivers to the Mighty River Yala. It is not so mighty now, that I have seen the raging waters of the Nile and the sheer breath of the Mekong in South East Asia.  But river Yala embodies many happy memories. It’s a symbolic part of the place I call home. My ancestral roots are located in Sinaga valley of Siaya county in the Western part of Kenya. The river forms the natural boundary between two villages and our family home stretches down to the rugged and steep river bank.

Growing up, I do not recall hearing any intriguing tales of the Yala. No mythical heroines emerged from the waters to impart deep social lessons. There were no annual religious ceremonies that drew pilgrims from far and beyond. There were no gory ones either or a monster of Loch Ness proportions. Crocodile mishaps were unheard of. The closest I heard to scary was a tale my uncle kept telling. He was on his way home from the booze den across the valley one moonlit night. Halfway through the river, three guys in white plunged in after him shouting, ‘don’t leave us here’. We caught the drift and resisted the urge to swim during moonlight.

The headwaters of the Yala River rise from an altitude of 3000m in the Mau forest complex to drain in at about 1000m into Lake Victoria. The basin covers an area of 3280 km. With that much water flowing past, one would imagine thriving business along its banks. Commercial enterprise is glaring absent on our stretch of river. Perhaps the rapids only navigable by kayak act as a deterrent. Most villagers hardly seem to notice its existence. The only fishermen I ever see on its banks are solitary creatures who keep all their catch for themselves.

A good part of my youth was spent getting acquainted with the waters of the Yala. As teenagers it became the closet thing we had to an initiation rite. The ability to swim cross its rapids waters was akin to a rite of passage. We faced the fear of unknown force of nature and quickly learnt our limitations. Few dared and those who accomplished the feat enjoyed a level of respect that was sufficient motivation for the gallant effort. Boys were restricted to the shallow banks where they could splash away merrily. Men swam to the opposite bank. Swimming was all about practical purposes. Men swam when they wanted to cross the river or to wash soap off their bodies. They were really good swimmers whose reputations preceded them. They swam effortlessly and drew admiration.  No one really pulled any stunts. They simply crossed the rivers during the dreaded rainy season and that is how they earned their stripes. Swimming was a skill of necessity typically amounting to an opportunistic act to get to the other side for a party or for the sheer thrill of an adrenaline rush.

Swimming trunks were generally considered vanity objects as the garment did not aid your swimming in any fashion whatsoever. It also meant that when you got to the opposite bank, you would have to wait at least a half hour for the piece of clothing to dry. Advanced swimmers simply tied their clothes on top their heads with a vine and strived to get across without causing a splash. Nudity was accepted around rivers because no one took a bath with their clothes on. There was no voyeurism because nudity did not evoke the allure that it did in urban spaces. Women usually enjoyed first user rights and when a woman or girl got to the bank before you, one had to change sites. The river was a shared resource so exclusive spots were not in existence. Whatever little exclusivity that existed was enjoyed by hardcore swimmers who had ridden over the fear of the unpredictable current.

The only reason our parents even let us anywhere near the waters was because there were no wayward wild animals like hippos. However they were designated swimming spots. Nobody ventured into uncharted waters unless they were some crazy aspiring-survivor-series types. Rivers were viewed locally as a force that could be malevolent or benign all with total disregard for human sentiment. The rules of swimming in a fast flowing river were based on pure common sense, which thankful is still prevalent in the countryside. We learnt through experience that when the waters seemed calm, the lurking danger was the under current. It was erratic, unknown and perfectly camouflaged. One underestimated its power to one’s own peril. The sheer embarrassment of drowning while naked was too much to contemplate. Distinct boulders served as water marks to gauge depth, speed and water volume. Others were clearly acknowledged points of no return. As for stray wild life, we learnt that snakes generally mind their business if you mind yours and crabs hide from humans. Since there were no life guards it was widely understood that safety was a personal responsibility.

Rivers are always in a state of flux and only the uninitiated believe that they can step into the same river twice. But it was not until I encountered ‘sick’ rivers, abused by human activity and festering with waterborne diseases that I came to appreciate the great physical condition of river Yala. A key factor of Yala’s salvation was its remoteness. Its banks were sparsely populated and it did not flow past any densely populated areas.

Even so, in the wake of climate change warnings, I have come to have more concern for its well-being. Water wars are intensifying in the scramble for diminishing natural resources and pollution that is as a result of industrial activity is on the rise. Economic prosperity is the singular aspiration placing rivers purely as natural resources to be harnessed to exhaustion. The whole green fad follows a largely aesthetic oriented approach and has become a new gimmick for making profit off the bandwagon of sustainability and conservation.  Little is preached about the interrelatedness between people and the natural world. Contemporary living disregards the time tested lessons from indigenous societies worldwide who understood intrinsically that the survival of a community across generations was a function of living harmonious with the nature. They developed norms and customs that motivated the respect for the natural world as an act of gratitude.

Even though rivers have a self cleansing system there is a limit to how much abuse they can take. When we kill our rivers, the ripple effect destroys plant and animal life in our lakes, oceans and ultimately ourselves. So, if there is a river that inspires you, do a little more than singing an ode. Make it your duty to keep as pristine as possible so that those who come after you may enjoy the same bountiful gifts of Mother Nature.




Oyunga Pala is a Kenyan writer, curator and editor. This blog examines the texture of everyday Kenyan and African life and the challenges of modernity and disillusion. The writings commonly feature the struggle of the Kenyan male to maintain integrity in contemporary society.


  1. I know my favorite river…Chepkoilel. It doesn’t flow as free and fast as it used to but it is still there…

  2. A large percentage of of what you assert happens to be suprisingly accurate and that makes me ponder why I hadn’t looked at this in this light before. This article really did switch the light on for me personally as far as this specific topic goes.

  3. Adhiambo-Evening

    I love River Yala, though I only have one memory of it. Thanks for the photograph.

    • Karibu Adhiambo. It is a beautiful river, still clean and pristine and we hope it stays that way.

  4. Oyunga
    quite inspiring. Just looking at the two great rivers of Siaya County and how we can harness them sustainably for our people. But just like most Jo Nam, you never explored why your ancestors of yore followed the Nile ( Luo) making settlements in the Land that the rivers divide ( Isaiha 18).

    Next time you think of Yala, ask this fundamental question, why did they Luo aora.


    • I suppose the ancestors were looking for the great god of Nile, “Lhapi” hence ” Pi” for water.

      According to S. Santandrea, “The Luo are by far the nearest in ‘royal’ traditions to the greathomonymous tribe of the Nile. They too, maintain that their chiefs are (or rather were) possessed of adivine power, inherited from their great ancestors” (Stefano Santandrea, 1968, p.48). In other words, the Luo believed in a supernatural authority through whom their kings ruled. For example, the great god of the Nile was known as ‘Hapi’ (Wallis Budge, 1994, p, cxxiii). The Luos are familiar with this divinity whomthey refer to as, ‘Lhapi’. The word, ‘Pi’ in Luo means water. ‘Lha’ or ‘La’ is a singular prefix. Thus Lhapimeans ‘of water’. The Lango Luos would simply omit the ‘L’ and call it Hapi. The Nile was described as“…. the type of life giving waters out of the midst of which sprang the gods and all created things” (E.A.Wallis Budge: cxxiii). In a reference to Lhapi, an Acholi historian wrote.

      • Thanks for providing the link ‘OP’ It has served as a valuable historical resource base re: the Luo

  5. I am a lady who is in awe of your well articulated piece of writing..keep writing am forever your audience …wow

    @OP…Thank you

  6. The Thimk was deliberate;it was a big joke from Mad Magazine,long long ago.

  7. I’m impressed, I must say. Really rarely do I encounter a blog that’s both educative and entertaining, and let me tell you, you have hit the nail on the head. Your idea is outstanding; the issue is something that not enough people are speaking intelligently about. I am very happy that I stumbled across this in my search for something relating to this.

  8. Hi, I’ve been a participant around your blog for a few months. I love this article and your entire site! Looking forward to reading more!

  9. Job Onyango

    River Yala, brings back childhood memories……great stuff bro

  10. River yala (ahono-gem) where i had my first swimming lessons,, good old memories!

  11. I love the article. Can someone give me a detailed course of the river from the source(Mau) to Lake Victoria. I mean the major places it passes through in the 3 provinces it traverses. Thanx Pala.

    • Patriciah

      Hallo there Bro Oluoko. Has anyone been kind enough to give you a detailed course of the river Yala like you requested? And could you please forward the same to me? Have been desiring to have the same info for some time now. Thanks.

  12. Patriciah

    Beautiful. Cool. Inspiring. I just love it. This is one article I will read over and over again. Could you be having a map of the Yala River – from beginning to end, with its meanders and all? Please, please forward to me. Will appreciate.

    • Thanks for dropping by Patriciah. I am still looking for that course map and when I get it, I will make some noise about it on this blog. keep looking out.

  13. Was looking for information about River Yala and am glad this is where I have landed. Where I come from, we have a local name for it which is ‘Olukose’.I come from Kakamega a place called khwisero. I can assure you that the river is still intact. I travel home at least thrice a year and our cattle still water at the river. River Yala has not lost its might. Thank you so much for the wonderful piece. Whish you had more photos, but thank you so much.

    • Thanks Ray,

      Great to know the Yala still runs strong. I know the khwisero area, so I should pay a visit and see what it looks like upstream. The river has stories for days. I would love to hear the Kakamega version.

      Thanks for dropping by.

  14. I am planning for a walk along the river in a month’s time. Who is willing to join?

  15. Good piece. I’m currently living within Sinaga green valley,Ruga. Though not a native(I am from Asembo),I occasionally find time and stand next to main bridge on the Luanda-Siaya highway. From this point I normally enjoy looking at the waters of this spectacular geographical feature snake its way downstream. It’s soothing especially in the evenings. Long live River Yala.

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