Mt. Meru

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Status: In Progress  |  Genre: Memoir  |  House: Footsteps, yarns and little fibs

Mt. Meru was a dominant feature of the landscape in which I worked, and in all of nature, it connected to everyday life.

Mt. Meru

For seven years we were lucky enough to live on the slopes of Mt. Meru… Tanzania’s Mt. Meru, not the one in Kenya. At 4562 metres it’s the fifth largest mountain on the African continent, but is dwarfed by its near sister, Mt. Kilimanjaro. From summit to summit they are only sixty nine kilometres apart, which explains why on many days out in the field, we could see both mountains. However, Kilimanjaro is a shy lass, she covers herself with cloud most of the time, and like sisters, Kilimanjaro gets all the attention, yet Meru can be seen most of the time, from Arusha, the city to the south with suburbs that reach up the bottom slopes of the mountain. Although only three degrees south of the equator, there’s sometimes snow on Meru, but never very much.

Locals told me that Meru’s an extinct volcano, which, in the usual Swahili way is an under-statement, because the last eruption was in 1910, albeit a minor one, so I’d describe it as being dormant. From Arusha, the mountain has the classical shape of a conical volcano, but from the general Ngarenanyuki area, the conical shape was lost 8600 years ago when part of the summit collapsed… what caused the collapse isn’t identified, but as a vent, the main mountain wasn’t alone because there are other, much smaller vents nearby.

If you look on Google maps, and it is worth a look, a good part of the summit has no vegetation, and then there is the green belt around the mountain, which is tropical rainforest, thriving there because the elevation makes it cooler, and the trees transpire, a link in the cycle of precipitation. Lower down the slope, there’s less vegetation, but soils are rich, providing the opportunity for growing produce both for commercial and subsistence farmers alike. There are zones ideal for growing vegetables and some area suited for coffee. In the evenings, cooler air travels down the mountain as warm air from the surrounding plains rises.

To the southwest is Engorora, where there’s a large deposit of volcanic ash. Volcanic ash is much like coke if you’ve ever seen it… coke is the residue after coal has been burnt to extract gas… but of course, gasworks are out of favour these days. Anyway, the quarry when I used to buy the volcanic ash… marram, was all hand worked, providing employment to local youths, it was hard and dangerous work, and I suspect nowadays, either the quarry has been closed or the resource has been decimated by heavy machinery. I have no information. The trucks that were loaded by hand were standard blue A5 Bedford-copies with a capacity of perhaps 6 cubic metres. Mostly the material was used in yards and roading, a cheaper option than gravel. My modest use was to hold sawdust and seeds in place while I watered my pots with a watering can.

At Sakina, on the road to Nairobi, there was a crater, perhaps 200 metres across. Far down on the floor of the crater people were knapping basalt, the people looked to be the size of pinheads so the crater was quite deep. They were breaking the rock down with hammers to make gravel for various construction projects, and the same type of trucks were constantly taking gravel from there, again loaded by hand. They also made larger rocks to pack into the foundations of houses before a concrete floor was laid. I was never able to find out if the people were working a lava deposit or if it was a vent that had been plugged with lava, but it is nevertheless likely to be related to the volcano system in some way. I never used the lava material, I found the crater when I was looking for fire bricks while we were building Mama Upendo’s house… and I was more than surprised to find them!

Further out from Arusha, on the Nairobi road, heading north, beyond Oldonyosambu, someone found a deposit of pumice, which is likely to have been spewed out of Mt. Meru. From what I understood, the outcrop was found while we were there and began to be mined quite extensively. It was pearly white and of course light. It was this material that the concrete blocks were made for Mama Upendo’s house. The block’s light weight allowed us to put more on the truck than standard blocks, which was a cost saving. The blocks were hand made in Arusha using a steel box with a hinged tamper to pack the mix, they were good blocks, of standard size, so easy to build with. It was the first time Samson, the fundi, had used light blocks and he was happy with the result.

To the south of the mountain, around Makumira, the volcanic soils were rich and deep. We used to dig it to make our nursery potting mix and we didn’t reach the bottom of it, but further up the hill, the soil was thinner, resting on top of a layer of basalt. The local secondary school illegally quarried the basalt for a building project, but with nobody to stand up for the few householders nearby, the quarrying caused damage by working too close to private property. As always, it was the people at the bottom of the food chain who lack power and representation that were disadvantaged.

There are always curious anomalies in geology. Higher up the mountain from Makumira, on the property of Samson, the fundi (builder), the man I worked with on several projects, there was a seam of water-eroded quartz among coarse sand, suitable for making concrete. The seam was narrow and went straight down making it, in my opinion, very dangerous to mine, so I never bought any of it… even six feet down, should there be a collapse or even a single stone falling, the person down there, he would likely not survive. People took grave risks to earn a meal.

Our house at Makumira was two storied, which allowed us to feel the many earthquakes that most of the locals didn’t notice. It seemed the belly of the mountain was trying to digest something, and I was assuring myself that it wouldn’t turn to vomit. I discussed the earthquakes with an old resident of Sakina, and she told me that recently, nearby her shamba, sulphurous steam was coming out of the ground, so together we went to have a look. Within the banana plantation there were cracks in the ground, two or three metres long and up to 20 centimetres wide and sure enough, the was thermal steam coming out of them. Not under pressure, just wafting up like smoke. Nothing has come of it, because we’re talking eighteen years ago now. But there’s no doubt, the mountain is alive.

Rainforests store water and it’s slowly released down the mountain in small rivers and out of springs, but the water has a high fluoride content and some of the water sources have other toxic salts. Some of the water isn’t fit for human consumption, and the fluoride, instead of what your toothpaste might say, causes teeth to become brown-stained. While the teeth are sound, from a distance they look badly rotten. Nowadays my fingernails grow quickly and I’ve had no dental work since I returned. I was carrying out water projects in the area, so of course we had to be careful where we took the water from. We rehabilitated one well which gave perhaps the best water, but even after our work, it only gave seven twenty litre buckets a day, but the locals had a good supply of drinking water.

To the north of the mountain and beyond the rainforest, farming is a challenge for the subsistence farmers. It is a rainshadow area, so even the two rainy seasons are unreliable. When there is sufficient rain the crops grow well and are abundant, but dust is the norm. I’ve seen half-grown crops wither and die through a lack of moisture. Following the dying of crops comes food shortage, kids were going as long as five days without food, and to break the cycle, a banana mixed with warm water was the only meal they had.  During dry periods, fine dust seeped easily into our vehicle so wafted even more easily into homes and schools, causing chest complaints, boils, ringworm and jigger infections. The usual footwear is sandals, the common type we call jandals, so the skin, especially on the legs and feet dries out, making Vaseline type applications important to avoid skin cracks.

On the world stage Mt. Meru is of little account, but it dominates the lives of the people and animals living there. Some of my footsteps remain there and a bit of my heart too.

 

 


Submitted: May 14, 2021

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