With 107m people, 5m refugees, EA region is one of the most densely populated on earth

Cyclists drawn from East Africa Community member States arrive in Nakuru on August 15, 2021, during the fourth edition of the Great Africa Cycling Safari. [Harun Wathari, Standard]

The East African Rift System also called the Great Rift Valley was formed millions of years ago.

One of the "two fingers" like fork at the tip of the Red Sea where Suez Canal begins is the tip of Gulf of Aqaba which goes to the Jordan Valley to the north. The Red Sea separates the Arabian Plate and African Plate. It was formed as a result of volcanicity that followed tectonic movements.

To the south of where The Red Sea meets the Gulf of Aden is the Afar Triple Junction. This is where the East African Rift (EAR) system turns into Africa. It is also the point where Arabian, Nubian and Somali plates converge or rather spread out from as it is a divergent boundary. The African plate which is sometimes called the Nubian plate has most of the continent. The smaller Somali plate carries the Horn of Africa or the larger Eastern Africa Region.

The EAR splits into two to the south of Ethiopia where the Gregory Rift cuts Kenya into two from Lake Turkana southwards while the Western Rift also called Albertine Rift goes through South Sudan to West Uganda. The Western Rift forms the boundary between Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and Tanzania and DRC. It also marks the border between Zambia and Tanzania.

To the south of Tanzania at the shores of Lake Malawi the Gregory Rift and Albertine Rift meet then go south to Mozambique where it fades off into a plain. The Great Rift Valley is dotted by many volcanoes. The ten highest points in Africa are found in this region with Kilimanjaro being the highest, others are Mt. Kenya, Mt. Stanley, Mt. Speke, Mt. Emin, Mt. Meru, Mt. Semien and Mt. Kirisimbi. The only country with volcanic mountains outside of this area is Cameroun.

Mount Kilimanjaro peak, May 20, 2022. [Elvis Ogina, Standard]

The highlands around the Rift Valley and the basins within led to the region being called The Great Lakes Region. The largest lake is Lake Victoria which came about when volcanicity that led to the Rift Valley raised land around it that led to rivers draining into its basin is the second largest freshwater lake in the world by area. Lake Tanganyika is the world's second freshwater lake in depth and volume. The others are Lake Turkana, Malawi, Kivu and Albert.

The lakes of the Great Lakes region drain their water into the Nile, River Congo and Zambezi. Some people refer to Lake Victoria, Lake Albert, and Lake Edward as the Great Lakes, as they are the only three that empty into the White Nile. There is a long standing dispute on where the source of Nile is. Lake Rukwa and Lake Mweru near Lake Tanganyika are bigger than Lake Kivu and Lake Edward but for some reason they are always ignored when discussing Great lakes.

The region around Albertine Rift has very many small fresh water lakes like Lake Bunyonyi and Lake George. Saline lakes are mostly found in the Kenyan and Tanzanian regions of the Gregory Rift Valley. These have no outlets making the waters of the lakes saline; lake Turkana, the world's largest desert lake, Nakuru, Elementaita, Baringo, Bogoria abnd Magadi in Kenya. Eyasi, Manyara and Natron in Tanzania, Assal in Djibouti, Basaka, Abbe and Chew Bahir in Ethiopia among others.

Officially only four countries make up the Great Lakes Region: the Democratic Republic of Congo (D.R.C.), Burundi, Rwanda, and Uganda. The African Great Lake region is often used informally to refer to the four countries as well as northwestern Kenya and Tanzania. In a wider sense it extends to the all of Kenya and Tanzania but excludes Zambia, Malawi, Mozambique and Ethiopia. These countries share a border with at least one Great Lakes country.

Tourists enjoying the hot springs in Lake Magadi's, Great Rift Valley, Kenya. Lake Magadi is the southernmost lake in the Kenyan Rift Valley, north of Tanzania's Lake Natron. [iStockphoto]

The region is one of the most densely populated areas of the world. It has an estimated population of 107 people. The volcanic activities that gave it this unique feature made the soils rich and weather good for farming. Despite being on the equator where it should be warm and dry, it's relatively high altitude gives it a rather temperate climate. This minimises diseases making the area good for livestock.

Kiswahili is the most spoken language in the African Great Lakes region. Uganda recently made it compulsory in schools while it's a national language in Kenya and Tanzania. It is also an official language in Rwanda, Burundi and DRC.

The region was of great interest to Europeans who were interested in finding the source of the Nile. These led explorers to the region and they were followed by missionaries and then colonialists. This contact with outsiders led to epidemics and wars which killed up to sixty per cent of people and livestock. The region regained its pre-colonial population in the 1950s.

This interest from Europeans who like the weather in the area led them to believe in the potential of the region after independence in the 1960s. This turned out to be wrong as except for Kenya and Tanzania, the region has been marred by civil war and violence. This has left many of the people in the region to be among the poorest in Africa despite the abundant natural resources in the region.

As of December 2021, the greater region that has come to be known as The East, Horn of Africa and the Great Lakes (EHAGL) region is home to about 4.93 million refugees and asylum seekers. This is due to wars in Ethiopia, Somalia, DRC and South Sudan. The region accounts for 67 per cent of refugees on the African continent and 20 per cent of refugees worldwide.

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