The Great Rift Valley
By Awake! correspondent in Kenya
IT IS a huge trench, a gouge in the earth’s surface so colossal that it can be seen from the surface of the moon! Stretching from the Jordan Valley in northern Israel all the way down to Mozambique—an awesome 4,000 miles [6,400 km]—it runs down much of the length of the African continent.
In 1893, Scottish geologist J. W. Gregory made the first detailed study of this natural wonder. Gregory discerned that the huge trench was formed, not by the erosion of water and wind, but “by the rock sinking in mass, while the adjacent land remained stationary.” (Compare Psalm 104:8.) He called this enormous crack in the earth’s surface the Great Rift Valley.
Scientists today still do not fully comprehend the subterranean forces that created this valley millenniums ago. Even so, one cannot help but be fascinated by the rich diversity that can be found within it. The African section of the Great Rift Valley, starting in Ethiopia, contains one of the most forbidding places on the earth’s surface, the Danakil Depression (also known as the Afar Triangle). This huge salt pan borders the Red Sea and is a desert covering 58,000 square miles [150,000 sq km]. Here the earth has sunk down to 400 feet [120 m] below sea level. Temperatures can rise to a blistering 130 degrees Fahrenheit [54°C.]. From there the rift rises into the Ethiopian highlands—a cool 6,000 feet [1,800 m] above sea level, with mountain peaks reaching as high as 14,000 feet [4,300 m]. Dense rain forests cover the slopes of these fertile highlands, feeding numerous rivers, such as the Blue Nile. Traveling south into its eastern branch, the rift continues to rise and fall in a dramatic fashion.
Strung along the length of the Great Rift Valley are volcanic peaks of various shapes and sizes as well as lesser rifts that branch off. In the western rift, volcanic movement has formed the Ruwenzori and Virunga mountain ranges that straddle the borders of Rwanda, Zaire, and Uganda. Some peaks still show signs of geothermal activity and, on occasion, belch out smoke and red-hot lava. Not far from the eastern rift, ancient volcanic peaks such as Kilimanjaro and Mount Kenya are so lofty that despite the intense equatorial sun, they are capped with snow. Hot springs bubbling forth steam and superheated water are also found throughout the length of the Rift Valley, testifying to the turmoil that still exists deep below the earth’s surface.
Further south, in Tanzania, a vast grassland plain borders the valley. It is called siringet in the Masai language, a word meaning “wide open space.” Better known as the Serengeti Plain, its abundant grasses sustain vast herds of game animals. It is here that the great wildebeest migration occurs—a truly spectacular event!
Lakes of the Rift
Along the eastern part of the Great Rift Valley in Africa is a series of lakes that are tainted with sodium carbonates. These chemicals have leached down from volcanic catchment areas or have entered the lakes through subterranean volcanic activity. Some lakes, such as Lake Turkana in northern Kenya, have a slight alkalinity. Surrounded by thousands of square miles of lonely desert bush, Lake Turkana sometimes takes on a beautiful jade-green color and is home to the largest crocodile population in the world. Lakes such as Lake Magadi of Kenya and Lake Natron in Tanzania are so saturated with salts that they form almost solid deposits of encrusted white soda. The cause? The absence of an outlet that would otherwise carry away the salts. Most of the water escapes through evaporation, leaving behind a high concentration of minerals. Few animals are able to survive in and around the bitter waters of the Rift Valley soda lakes. Notable exceptions, however, are the delicate pink flamingos that move from one soda lake to another, feeding on the microscopic algae that thrive in the caustic waters. Here flamingos congregate by the millions, forming a living sea of pink.
Another inhabitant that thrives in these otherwise deadly waters is a tiny fish called tilapia grahami. This alkaline-resistant fish is often found near underwater steam vents, where the water is so hot that it is uncomfortable to touch with the hand. Yet, there this tiny fish survives, feeding on the lake’s algae.
Only a few of the eastern rift lakes have fresh water. Lake Naivasha, in Kenya, is one. It sits 6,135 feet [1,870 m] above sea level, and its crystal waters provide shelter for varieties of fish as well as basking herds of hippos. All along the shores are lush green beds of papyrus and aquatic plant life, which accommodate over 400 different species of colorful birds. Set against the backdrop of yellow acacia trees and the surrounding mountain ranges, Lake Naivasha is most beautiful to behold.
Amid the rift-valley system lies the second-largest body of fresh water in the world, Lake Victoria. Its waters lap the shores of Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania, and it is one of the sources of the Nile River. Farther south, the waters of Lake Tanganyika plunge to a depth of 4,710 feet [1,440 m]. This is the second-deepest lake in the world.
Animals of Great Variety
The East African Rift Valley supports a wide variety of wildlife. Buffalo, giraffes, rhinoceroses, and elephants are some of the large mammals that roam freely in the rift’s wild, boundless expanse. In the dry waterless regions, zebras, oryx, and ostriches can be seen. Graceful antelope leap high in the air as they race across the grasslands. Spotted cats like the leopard and the cheetah hunt on the open plains, and the roar of the majestic lion can often be heard in the hours of darkness. High in the Virunga mountain range, the rare mountain gorilla dwells. Far below on the rift floor, troops of baboons move slowly across the rough terrain, searching for insects, seeds, and scorpions. Soaring high in the air, powerful eagles and vultures with enormous wingspans ride thermals, or currents of hot air. Colorful touracos, barbets, hornbills, and parrots inhabit lowland thorn scrub. Lizards of all shapes, sizes, and colors scurry about hurriedly, as if their feet were on fire.
Nomads of the Rift
The East African Rift Valley is home to many semidesert tribes that are both pastoral and nomadic. They are a rugged people who walk with the loping stride that is characteristic of the African nomad. In areas where rainfall is scarce, whole villages often pick up and move in search of new pasturage for their livestock. Without passports or visas, they move freely across the unmarked borders of countries and seem indifferent to outside progress and other ways of life. In these remote areas, life moves at a slow pace. Time is measured by the rising and setting of the sun. A man’s wealth is determined by the number of camels, goats, cows, or sheep that he owns or by the number of children in his household.
Homes are simply, but ingeniously, constructed. Tree branches are bent and tied together to form a dome-shaped structure. The outside surface is then covered with woven grass, the skins of animals, or mud mixed with cow dung. Such homes often contain a cooking fire, a small enclosure for domestic animals, and a bed that may be no more than a piece of animal skin. Fire from the hearth fills the home with smoke, keeping the interior free of flies and mosquitoes. Often a village or family group will construct their small dome huts in a circle surrounded at the perimeter by impenetrable thorn branches, to protect their livestock from wild animals at night.
Throughout the length and breadth of the Great Rift Valley are found a diversity of people with distinct facial features, languages, and customs, varying according to their tribes and geographic location. Religious beliefs also vary greatly. Some have embraced Islam; others, nominal Christianity. Many are superstitious and inclined to attribute anything they cannot understand to supernatural forces. In recent years many of the remote areas have been opened up to outside influence through programs that provide education and medical care.
Not surprisingly, Jehovah’s Witnesses are also making efforts to contact these rugged nomads. The Witnesses hope to acquaint them with the Bible’s promise of a time when no one will have to eke out an existence from parched land. Says the Bible: “The wilderness and the waterless region will exult, and the desert plain will be joyful and blossom as the saffron.” (Isaiah 35:1) In the meantime, the Great Rift Valley remains as a monument to the creative diversity of the Maker of all things, Jehovah God.
[Map on page 14]
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Gulf of Aden
Mountain High Maps® Copyright © 1995 Digital Wisdom, Inc.
[Picture on page 15]
On the Serengeti Plain, a truly spectacular event occurs—the great wildebeest migration
Below: © Index Stock Photography and John Dominis, 1989
[Picture on page 16, 17]
Flamingos congregate by the millions, forming a living sea of pink
[Pictures on page 16, 17]
Jehovah’s Witnesses share the Bible’s message with the people of the Rift Valley