Vulcanicity ~ Welcome to the hot zone

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I have long had a fearful fascination with volcanoes – probably ever since, as a young child in the 1950s, I saw a newsreel item of Mount Etna erupting. It seemed like a living nightmare. I remember especially the unstoppable flows of boiling lava that rolled over everything in their path.  Even in places where it had cooled I seem to remember people who walked on it found their shoes smouldering. It was perhaps my first apprehension of the fact that the earth could do things that mankind was incapable dealing with. I remember having a dream afterwards where the ground beneath my feet kept cracking open into ever widening fissures: my first anxiety dream perhaps.

With this in mind, you will understand how very deeply impressed I was when I first set eyes on Africa’s Great Rift Valley.

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NASA non-copyright image


Here, on the surface of the earth, we have a 4,000 mile chain of connected fissures that extends from Lebanon in the Middle East to Mozambique in south east Africa. It comprises the Jordan Rift Valley, Red Sea Rift and the East African Rift, which itself divides into eastern and western arms with Lake Victoria Nyanza in between. The entire system has been described as a world wonder, the biggest rupture in the planet’s land surface, and the only geological feature that can be seen clearly from the moon. The East African Rift of course includes the great ice-topped volcanoes of Kilimanjaro and Mount Kenya that are mere remnants of their formerly gargantuan fiery selves.

So however you look at it, moon- or otherwise, the Great Rift is definitely a case of EXTREME geology. All that seismic shunt and shift. And it is still happening and at this very moment. One day the Horn of Africa and littoral East Africa will be an island.


The East African Rift is thought to have begun to pull apart around 40 million years ago. Scientists surmise that the environmental changes associated with fissuring may have had a significant impact on the evolution of humankind. So far, very many of the earliest fossils of (potential) human ancestors have been found in the Rift – Olduvai Gorge, and in the vicinity of Lakes Baringo, Turkana and Omo. On the other hand, this could simply be a reflection of the  decades of systematic searching in these areas, instigated largely by the Leakey dynasty of palaeontologists. But whether a good case of careful looking or not, I’m still prepared to believe that humans could have evolved here.


The photograph at the start of this post is of the old volcano, Longonot. It lies in the Rift between Nairobi and Naivasha in Kenya. In the next shot you can see it from Lake Naivasha (hippo added for purposes of scale Smile). Part of this lake is also formed within a submerged crater.

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One key side effects of volcanic activity is highly fertile soil. In Kenya and Tanzania the Rift Valley floor supports the Serengeti grasslands that in turn are home to millions of herbivores, their following of big cat predators, and the whole wonderful species-rich eco-system. These plains also have long been the grazing grounds of the best known nomadic pastoralists on the planet, the Maasai.

2 Masai1

Before the British invaded East Africa in the late nineteenth century (intent on setting up the Imperial British East Africa Company) and concluded that any land not occupied by people at that point in time was EMPTY and thus FREELY AVAILABLE, the Maasai ranged over vast tracts of the Rift grassland system. It is believed that their ancestors moved out from the Horn of Africa about four thousand years ago. 

This means that the Maasai lived a life that suited them and apparently with little cost to the environment for 4,000 years before the British came along and herded them into a reserve where the land is least fertile and watered for human purposes, and otherwise known as the Maasai Mara. Europeans then set about destroying the plains’ wildlife on a breathtakingly ugly scale. The invaders, or their activities also became vectors for deadly disease – rinderpest that decimated native cattle, and smallpox and syphilis that took their toll on the human populations.

Rift Valley from Escarpment

Smallholder farms at Escarpment just north of Nairobi. Mount Longonot beyond.


Once the British had staked their claim in British East Africa, the Bantu farming communities that inhabited the higher hillside zones of Kenya were also enclosed in Reserves. The occupants could only leave to work for Europeans. The justification for creating reserves with designated boundaries (and they were quite large areas) was to protect tribal land holdings from the incoming white settlers.

African farmers, being the successful cultivators they had been for several millennia, were naturally inhabiting the best and most covetable land. So in this sense, the British administration had a point. The early settlers were British aristocrats like Lord Delamere and  the sons of the Earl of Enniskillen, and thus the kind of men who expected to own vast acreages and begin farming/ranching on an industrial/landed gentry scale.

Meanwhile from 1896-1902, and as a result of military paranoia of epic proportions, the British had built a very expensive 600-mile railway  from Mombasa to Lake Victoria. It was called the Lunatic Line even at the time of its building. But as the strategic objective receded in importance during the early 20th century, so the Colonial Office needed settlers – well-heeled, gentlemen of means who would grow produce for export and so help pay for the railway.


First page of Lord Cranworth’s A Colony in the Making: Or Sport and Profit in British East Africa, Macmillan 1912. A guidebook and general sales pitch to attract gentleman settlers. (Out of copyright).


Thus, in the wake of the adventure-aristocrats came retired military men, among them individuals who were variously set on nation-building, knocking the natives into shape and, in the process, getting rich from flax, ostrich feathers and coffee. The country’s fine shooting and fishing were definite lures, and made much of in the publicity brochures sent out from British East Africa. Other attractions included the notion of plentiful cheap farm labour and house servants, and thus the preservation of social status that was already well on the wane for the middle classes back in Blighty.

napier grass on the Rift

But now we come to the rub. Or in fact two rubs. Firstly, when the monsoon winds are blowing in the right direction, Kenya has the most benign climate imaginable,  providing two rainy seasons, and thus two and sometimes three growing seasons for some crops. The elevated plateau of Central Province in particular, and its Aberdares highlands are rarely too hot. The beauty of the great forests suggested Scotland or Wales rather than Africa to the newcomers. They set about building mini-baronial lodges and laying out English lawns and rose beds.

But then comes the other rub. The soil. As I’ve said, volcanic soils are very fertile, but they are also very fragile. Wholesale clearance of trees and bush will quickly create desert. The late, great Kenyan environmentalist, Wangari Maathai, has maintained that felling deeply rooting forest trees ultimately leads to desertification for a whole range of reasons. 

The forests not only attract rain but the trees shelter, stabilize and feed the soil (many tropical species fix nitrogen). Most importantly, she pointed out, the deep roots open up underground aquifers to water the land.

Traditional farmers of course made gardens within the forest rather than large fields. They cleared trees certainly, but they did not clear all trees. Some had sacred meaning, like the wild fig, and were protected. Others were valued for cropping purposes – for animal fodder, medicine, bee forage etc.

When the old colonials set out for Africa on a cash-cropping spree, full of the notions that they knew best how to farm, they singularly failed to understand that indigenous peoples, far from being ‘undeveloped’, had very good reasons for doing things the way they did them. Their objectives were more about living well than getting rich.

Pre-colonial accounts by explorers and missionaries show that the Bantu peoples were very successful farmers. They planned their planting to take into account the possible vagaries of climate. For instance, drought resistant millet might be the mainstay crop, and cultivated on the  drier soils in their territory. Squashes and beans would be grown near stream beds, and water-hungry maize would be the risk crop,  planted on a river bank on the off chance that seasonal floods would be small enough not to wash the crop away, but good enough to provide a bonus to the annual harvest.

Kikuyu farmer and sugar cane

The other important contingency depended on kinship and clan ties. As the Bantu communities moved out across the African continent over many centuries, pioneering into new territories as population growth or failing soil fertility dictated, networks of clan relationships became extended over quite large territories. If drought, disease or invaders struck, people would take their possessions and seek refuge with distant relatives until the threat had passed.

Pastoralists like the Maasai also relied on being able to move over large distances to secure grazing for their herds in times of drought. But once people were confined to reserves, bound by European constructs of land ownership, they could not move. Land in the Native Reserves where people farmed thus became overcrowded, degraded and overgrazed. Under colonial rule Africans were not allowed to acquire fresh land. This was one of the chief reasons for the uprising in 1950s Kenya when the Land and Freedom Army (dubbed Mau Mau) went to war against British rule.

Then there were the colonial agriculture officers trying to dictate the way the people on the Reserves grew their crops, pressing for mono-culture rather than the traditional way of mixing crops which helps to fool insect pests and utilizes advantages of companion planting.

As we left Kenya in 2000 I was interested to learn that some European agricultural aid project was actually advocating that smallholder farmers (which means most Kenyans) should use ‘kitchen-garden’ planting techniques to reduce crop pest damage and/or the need for pesticides. It had only taken a hundred years for outsiders to teach Africans what they had known all along, but doubtless been told to forget in the interim because their methods were considered primitive.

Sometimes the hypocrisy of rich world tinkering is enough to make this particular writer’s blood boil up in seismic fury.  Time to cool down with a view of snow-topped Kilimanjaro. Who’d have thought it: ice on a volcano. When in the 1840s German explorers and missionaries, Johann Ludwig Krapf and Johannes Rebmann, out exploring from their Mombasa mission, claimed to have seen snow-capped mountains at the Equator, no one back home believed them. Thought they were barking. There’s a lot, we outside Africa do not know about this vast, extraordinary continent even though its nations provide us with so many of our essential raw materials, fairly and otherwise; mostly otherwise…

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copyright 2014 Tish Farrell


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24 thoughts on “Vulcanicity ~ Welcome to the hot zone

  1. As this tale developed and shifted from geology to colonialism I had a feeling what was coming and began grinding my teeth.
    I suspect you write like this on purpose!
    It is interesting that over dinner this evening we were discussing how colonial powers carved up Africa with a map and a pencil.
    I feel shame over what the ‘White Man’ has done across the globe.
    A disturbing but engrossing read, as always Tish.
    Your blog is a pleasure to visit.

    Oh, and I loved the line about adding the Hippo and scale. That at least brought a smile. 🙂

    1. Sorry for the teeth wear and tear, Ark. I was probably grinding my own, and indeed cut out a few paras as I was heading for an eruption. Of course we cannot undo what was done exactly, but I’m always hopeful that we might be more thoughtful about how we move forward. I suppose more than anything I was spurred on by UK racist attitudes to present-day migrants from Africa. Before we show them the door, we might at least ask what part our own nations have played and are continuing to play to cause people to leave their homes like this. It is not down to corrupt regimes alone. Someone is paying them and empowering them. Also the rich world is very good at being in denial about how it makes its loot. Colonialism never really went away. It simply submerged and/or presents with new insider players. Also added AK47s into the mix. It just comes down to natural resources at the end of the day. Always has. But we still have the chance to trade fairly, and to put pressure on multi-national corporations to pay their taxes both at home and abroad.

    1. Well, you know this story, Tiny, in all its various permutations. I just think we in the rich world should remember where our wealth continues to come from, and who pays the cost.

  2. Up in the middle of the night, after a difficult day… unable to sleep… perhaps because of the irony and paradox that is so integral in human life… and found comfort in your love for Africa, even though the tale included injustice and sorrow. I’m reminded of a Margaret Mead quote that stayed with me more than half a century… ‘happy people don’t write history’. Thanks for a bit of history… and another look at a very beautiful part of this world.

    1. I’m glad you found some repose here, Shimon. That’s an interesting quote from Margaret Mead. I shall need to ponder on it. Though thanks for the reminder. She’s someone I always mean to get back to. Hope you’re feeling better today, and the difficulties do not seem so difficult.

    1. What is truly wonderful and amazing, Peter, is how African peoples have transcended so much of the abuse visited upon them over 4 centuries. What spirit, and courage, and dignity. It is easy for the world beyond Africa to forget this when the robber elites take all the ‘limelight’. I know you find so much of your home situation frustrating and infuriating – who wouldn’t?

      1. Sure, I do. Especially the politics. Sometimes I wonder ask why we had to do it the Western way. It doesn’t seem to be working well in most of the continent. Giving us a foul name.

      2. And that I agree on too. From what I have read, and although I don’t quite understand exactly how they worked, some traditional Kenyan systems of governance where the clans were divided into two and each had an elders’ council which rotated every seven years seems to be far more transparent and democratic than anything we came up with in the West. Land ownership by elite groups is a problem in the UK (created by the same people who created it in Kenya). The interesting thing is most people in the UK do not realise it, or that high property prices, or congested living is down to the fact that an elite owns most of the country’s land.

      3. This thing about a handful of people owning the almost the whole country is everywhere then. I see some Americans complaining about it on Facebook everyday. The traditional African societies, you say. I think they were good things before the colonial “error”. Afterwards, there didn’t seem to be any chance of going back. The first African leaders themselves had been poisoned against their own culture and people. When they took over governance, they had no novel ways of dealing with their subjects but in such ways as they had witnessed and learnt from the foreigners. People like Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel Moi, for instance, continued to plunder resources for themselves while suppressing rebellion in the ways learnt from the colonialists. And I read something about the Cold War era which was about the time most African countries were becoming “independent” from Europe. If the West had abandoned Africa completely, communists, China and the USSR, especially the latter, would have taken control of the continent, something the West would not let happen.

        Anyway, after all is said and done, I think saving the human being is an imponderable task indeed. It is just about impossible. Even God renounced the Israelites after struggling to save them for ages. I don’t think the problem with the world is a particular race or tribe. I think it is the human being. It is us.

      4. ‘It is us’ – Yes, I agree, Peter. But the big thing to learn for a lot of people is that us = everyone, all together on this planet trying to make the best of things for everyone, and not just for ‘me and mine’.

      5. You voice my thoughts, my friend. “Me”, “Mine, “I” –I have been thinking those are the three most dangerous words on this planet. They mark the beginning of ruin. They cut out love, obliterate it, expunge it. Then we become hollow, thinking we’re rich, powerful, but, in essence, only skeletons, shells. Carcasses.

  3. Israel is so tiny that no matter where you live in the country, you are never far from the rift. There are ruins of cities all up and down the Jordan Valley, Some are cities destroyed by earthquakes before they were ever inhabited. Ruins of never-occupied palaces are my favorite. Hubris. Everyone KNOWS it’s a huge active fault. You can’t miss it, but they build there anyway.

    1. Yes, it’s interesting why human beings go into denial in areas of such very active geology. I like the notion of never occupied palaces and nature’s methods of comeuppance.

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