East Africa

Africa’s Great Lakes Region and Nyiragongo’s Curse

I am a child of the mountains, at once hopelessly enamoured by their beauty and intimidated by their silent, motionless and brooding majesty. It is a love affair that was ignited long before I knew what those big forested mounds that surrounded my childhood homes were called. 

 

I saw some great mountains before the umbilical cord fell off my belly button. What I saw in those early days of my life is hidden in that misty period we call infancy. However, the memories from my early to late childhood overflow with beautiful images of journeys and other adventures up and down the mountains in various parts of Kigyezi – walking on my bare feet.  

 

I have seen many beautiful mountains in different parts of the world. I have been awed by the grandeur and confidence of many mountain ranges. Some, like the Maluti Mountains of Lesotho, the Wicklow Mountains of Ireland and the Rocky Mountians of Western Canada are part of my identity as a sojourner in these foreign lands that were home for years at a time. 

 

However, Ibirunga (or Birunga), the Kinyarwanda word for the eight volcanic mountains of the Western Rift Valley, enjoy a special place of honour in my heart. (The Europeans, unable to distinguish the soft “b” from “v”, corrupted the word to “Virunga” and many Africans parroted the error.)

 

Numerous encounters with some of the Birunga have not dimmed my joy of beholding them, and of imagining the secrets they have kept for millennia, and the contempt in which they hold humanity.    

 

Stand high up in the hills above Gisoro, and you behold Muhabura (not Muhavura), The Guide,  scantily dressed, rather modern in her ways, staring down at a schizophrenic people, remembering the futile endeavours of those who have come before, and smiling at the folly of our self-absorbed generation. 

 

Muhabura, perhaps the most majestic of the eight, knows who has killed who, who has stolen what and who is deceiving whom. But like all great monarchs, she lets things pass without comment, maintaining a silence of experience, confident that this too shall pass, a small footnote in the long story of humanity. 

 

Next is Gahinga – short, forested, almost missable in her location between the giant Muhabura and the menacing Sabyinyo, yet better known than most Ibirunga because of her famous national park that bears her name. Years ago, Gahinga’s forests were home to elephants and buffaloes. Human greed and ignorance changed that.

 

Then there is Sabyinyo, the meeting point of the frontiers of the European invaders who haphazardly fashioned countries out of nearly incompatible communities. It is easily my favourite mountain in the range. She appears shy, covered by dense forest, permanently baring her five teeth, threatening and ready to bite the fool who dares her.  Sabyinyo, along with Muhabura and Gahinga, form the traditional Group One of Ibirunga. 

 

Group Two consists of Bisoke (Bishokye), Karisimbi and Mikeno (Mikyeno). Bisoke (mutilated to “Visoke” by our European friends), with its truncated cone that houses the largest crater lake in the range, is one we treat with great care. She is an active volcano, though on sabbatical, lulling our short-sighted species into mistaking her silence since her last eruption in 1957 to be a sign of retirement. 

 

Bisoke reminds me of a mass of silent citizens whom the arrogant ruler torments and despises for years until they erupt. Rulers in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Sudan have learnt that lesson the hard way.

 

Karisimbi, the tallest of the eight is nearly always “snow-covered.” This elegant “place of amasimbi” (white shell) is unique for not having a crater. Its “snow” is said to be an accumulation of hailstones that the mountain frequently captures from the heavens. She has been rather quiet for a while, its last eruption, believed to have occurred about 8050 BCE. Karisimbi is, therefore, considered dormant, not extinct. She reminded us of her power when she let loose a destructive landslide in 2010 that killed at least 50 and left many more homeless in Kibiriga, Congo. Human-mediated environmental degradation was probably partially responsible for Karisimbi’s temper tantrum.

 

Mikeno (Mikyeno), whose name has a rather unflattering reference to poverty or curses in Rukiga (and other languages in the area), is distinguished by its denuded and very steep top that resembles a sharp indented tooth. She and Sabyinyo are reported to be the oldest Birunga, up to 4.6 million years old. 

 

Group Three consists of the youth league in the group – Nyiragongo and Nyamuragira – which came into being only 20,000 years ago. These two are young and fearsome, highly active in their Volcanic Power Movement, and capable of putting on spectacular red-coloured displays of devastating eruptions that leave death and destruction in their wake. 

 

Nyamuragira, reputed to be Africa’s most active volcano, has belched its tongues of fire more than forty times in the last 130 years. Her most recent display of fiery power in November 2011 was said to have been its largest eruption in more than 100 years. 

 

Nyiragongo, with her triple cone and thick forests, is perhaps the most dangerous in the range. She is literally located on the outskirts of Goma in the Congo Free State. Her recent eruptions have been spectacularly deadly, with more expected in the years ahead. 

 

Her anger is explained by a story that invites us to rethink our foolish ways. Legend has it that Gongo, a demon that once inhabited Ibirunga, decapitated his mother and threw her head into Lake Kivu. Nyiragongo, the headless mother of Gongo, has since periodically belched fire to demonstrate her rage and will not stop until she is reunited with her head. 

 

People who know these things tell us that Nyiragongo’s Curse is not limited to periodic volcanic eruptions of the two youthful mountains.  They say that the consequences of her Curse include the political lava beds upon which the celebrated economic achievements of some of the countries in her neighbourhood are built. 

 

Nyiragongo is a headless woman mourning the loss of hope for her children – hundreds of millions of them – who are held hostage by rulers that continue to decapitate their people’s rights and freedoms and the robberies by self-styled pastors who are sucking the last bit of marrow from their hapless worshippers.

 

The volcanic eruptions of Nyamuragira and Nyiragongo may well go on holiday, or even retirement, like their six older sisters. However, as long some of the rulers and their courtiers in the Great Lakes Region continue in the tradition of Gongo – decapitating constitutions for personal gain; igniting wars and chaos because of private arguments; robbing their impoverished people and sharing the loot with men and women from other continents; and turning their lands into armed camps of intolerant militias – the political and social eruptions will keep sweeping all in their wake. 

 

Meanwhile, the eight volcanoes with keep their eyes focused on a region they inhabited many centuries before we were born. Our foolish pride in our mortal skins will continue to be a source of amusement for these beautiful mountains. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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