Kilimanjaro rising behind the Chyulu Hills, Ukambani, Kenya. Photo taken from the Mombasa Highway during the December short rains.
Mount Kenya from the plane window, looking over the European-owned wheat farms of Laikipia
It is one of history’s bizarre anecdotes, that one of these two old volcanoes was once given away as a birthday present. But before I reveal how this happened, please take a look at the map. Head for the centre.
Here you will see that Tanzania’s Kilimanjaro and Kenya’s Mount Kenya lie pretty much on the same north-south axis, albeit a couple of hundred miles apart. In an earlier post about Denys Finch Hatton’s burial place in the Ngong Hills (to the left of Nairobi on the map) I quoted Karen Blixen’s description of how one sunset, she and Denys had witnessed a simultaneous sighting of Kilimanjaro and Mount Kenya. This must have been something to see, for these mountains can be frustratingly elusive when it comes to showing themselves. One moment you can be looking them full in the face; the next they have dissolved into a clear blue sky as if they were never there. You blink and wonder how this could have possibly happen. It is doubtless a quantum physics thing, but in the absence of more scientific explanations, the phenomenon anyway seems quite mystical. It is not surprising, then, that local people have long regarded these mountains as sacred places that may, from time to time, be visited by the Creator.
But to return to the mountainous birthday gift.
If you look again at the map you will see how the border between Kenya and Tanzania makes a sudden kink to encompass Kilimanjaro. This daft piece of map-making is testimony of a tussle in colonial expansionism (Britain versus Germany) and the kind of queenly megalomania that thought it perfectly reasonable to take possession of someone else’s mountain and then make a gift of it to a fellow monarch, a personage whom she rather despised even though he was a close relative.
I’m sure you will have guessed by now that we are talking of Queen Victoria and Kaiser Wilhelm. One can only presume that someone who also called herself the Empress of India would think nothing of the sharing out of stolen mountains. I dare say she thought it made up for the fact that she had bagged the territories now known as Kenya and Uganda when Wilhelm had wanted them too. Perhaps she also thought that giving Wilhelm the taller of the two would also help to placate him. If she had stopped to consider the fact that Kilimanjaro was only a dormant volcano, she might have had second thoughts. It was altogether too ominous a gift.
In the end the whole land-grabbing deal was ratified in the Heligoland Treaty of 1890, and the map-makers then duly drew a line straight through the middle of Maasai territory coupled with the requisite detour round Kilimanjaro. They called one side British East Africa, and the other German East Africa. Meanwhile the locals, who comprised very many different ethnic communities, were largely unaware how far they had been scrambled, or indeed scrobbled, to borrow a term of dastardly rapine from John Masefield and The Box of Delights. They were soon to find out. On the British side it began with the setting up of forts along the proposed line of rail for the Uganda Railway. This 600-mile line from Mombasa to Lake Victoria would be the means by which the Empress of India would get her troops (mainly Indian ones) swiftly to the source of the Nile. Why she would ever need to do this will have to wait for another post. Suffice it to say that this project was substantially dafter than the giving of mountains as birthday presents. Even at the time people thought so. In Britain they called it the Lunatic Line. In East Africa the invaded called it the Iron Snake.
Glimpse of Kilimanjaro on the flight from Zanzibar to Mombasa
© 2016 Tish Farrell