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The Masai and Lake Magadi

Updated on March 12, 2015
Lake Magadi
Lake Magadi | Source

The Physical Geography of the Rift Valley in Southern Kenya

The physical characteristics of this part of the Rift Valley can best be understood if we divide it into three parts and look at each one in turn:

  1. The western side
  2. The eastern side
  3. The floor of the rift valley

1. The western side of the Rift Valley

The Nguruman Escarpment forms the western wall of the Rift in the Lake Magadi area, rising about 3,000’ (900 metres) from the valley floor to the top of the escarpment. Very severe faulting caused the steep escarpment to be formed. Originally the land surface was reasonably flat but movements in the underlaying volcanic rock caused great tension in the earth’s crust.

Eventually the strain became too great and the crust split along two parallel lines of fault. The floor sunk downwards and the sides were probably lifted up. In the region around the escarpment the total movement was about 900 metres.

When the crust split the liquid rock escaped at the surface as lava which spread over the nearby country-side, thus the Nguruman Escarpment is formed partly of crystalline basement rock and partly volcanic rock.

2. The eastern side of the Rift Valley

Whereas the Nguruman Escarpment was formed by one large fault, the eastern side is composed of several small escarpments, formed by several small faults. All of these faults are roughly parallel and the valley side slopes downwards in a series of steps from the height of the plateau to the floor of the Rift.

3. The floor of the Rift valley

This varies considerably in height from 5,400’ (1,645 metre) above sea level north of Suswa to only 2,000’ (610) at Lake Magadi. Also, the floor has been broken by small faults into ridges and troughs. The ridges were formed only a few thousand years ago and have not suffered very much from erosion. The troughs are filled with alluvium and were once the site of small lakes which have now dried up. In the wet season these troughs sometimes become waterlogged and may contain shallow lakes for a few weeks. Lake Magadi occupies one of these troughs.

Lake Magadi itself is extremely salty, because of hot springs around its shorelines
Lake Magadi itself is extremely salty, because of hot springs around its shorelines | Source

The Climate and Vegetation of the Rift Valley in Southern Kenya

The total rainfall is very low and Magadi, therefore, experiences a semi-desert climate. Because it is a semi-desert area, where rain rarely falls, you would expect the air to be wet, and you would be right. The degree of wetness is called the average relative humidity, which is only 32% in Magadi. The maximum possible figure is 100%, when the air is so wet, it is raining!

Because the air around Magadi contains very little moisture it is always trying to pick up, or evaporate, moisture from lakes, rivers and so on, which means that any rain that falls is rapidly evaporated and very little sinks into the soil. Therefore the vegetation must be adapted to growing in conditions of considerable dryness.

The vegetation is very dry savanna type and is a thorny scrub, mostly consisting of thorny acacias, bushes and rough grasses. Consequently, there is little vegetation to support the animals belonging to the Masai, who inhabit this area.

The Masai Pastoralists

Masai outside their manyatta
Masai outside their manyatta
The Masai women
The Masai women | Source

Their traditional way of life

The Masai are divided into ilishon or sections according to their geographical location. Within each section are a number of clans each clan consisting of several families.

The life of a Masai largely depends on whether he is a man or a woman. A young male will gradually pass through the stages of boy (olaiyoni), warrior (olmurani) or elder (olmorou). The boys are gathered into age groups and belong to either the Right Hand or Left Hand age group. They are responsible for protecting the village and guarding the cattle.

A girl grows up without having to pass through all the ceremonies that a boy has to undergo. As a wife she is responsible for building and maintaining the hut, she must fetch the firewood and water, milk the cows, look after the calves and care for the children. When the family is moving to another site she must load and unload the donkeys; sometimes she may travel to a trading center to buy beads, sugar, tobacco, ochre and maize meal. At other times she must clean and prepare the hides and skins and make skin clothes and bed covers, as well as making bead ornaments and neck laces. She is indeed busy!

Because the Masai are semi-nomadic their huts are only temporary. A frame is constructed on bend sticks and their spaces are filled grass and leaves; the whole circular hut is then plastered with a mixture of earth and cow dung. The inside of the house is divided into two – one room is for the warrior and the other is for the children and the old. The huts of 2-5 families are built close together in a a circle and surrounded by a fence on thorn bushes for protection.

The Masai are true pastoralist since they are totally dependent opon their herd of cattle, sheep and goats. Only during drought will they buy maize meal to supplement their diet. Their animals provide them with milk, meat and blood, but they are only killed if their meat is required for a special ceremony. Although the Masai will also eat roots, barks, wild fruits and drink honey beer, they will not eat the meat of wild animals, bird of fish.

Because cattle, sheep and goats are so useful to him, it is the ambition of every Masai to own great herd; the more the animal he possess the greater his power and prestige and the more wives he can buy. Consequently the herds are often too large for the amount of vegetation and water that is available so that soil erosion and starvation occur during drought. Each family needs between 60 to 70 animals to provide it with its subsistence requirements and sell in order to buy goods and to pay for school fees and taxes.

The herd are concentrated near the remaining areas of water during the dry season, especially around the permanent swamps south of Olorgesaille. This concentration causes trampling and destruction of vegetation around the water holes, which makes erosion more likely. During the wet seasons, however, surface water is more plentiful and the herd spread widely over the valley floor, which gives the trampled grass time to recover.

Freedom - is a Masai paddling in the hot springs at Lake Magadi, Kenya, with a young lad (not Masai) in tow. He's showing him the safest places to stand
Freedom - is a Masai paddling in the hot springs at Lake Magadi, Kenya, with a young lad (not Masai) in tow. He's showing him the safest places to stand | Source

The Lake Magadi Soda Industry

Formerly known as Magadi Soda Company, TCM has been a part of Tata Chemicals since 2005. Established in 1911, TCM has been producing soda ash at Lake Magadi
Formerly known as Magadi Soda Company, TCM has been a part of Tata Chemicals since 2005. Established in 1911, TCM has been producing soda ash at Lake Magadi | Source
Soda Ash train, Lake Magadi, Kajiado County
Soda Ash train, Lake Magadi, Kajiado County | Source
The lake was also used in the movie The Constant Gardener in the last scene
The lake was also used in the movie The Constant Gardener in the last scene | Source

The Formation of Soda

As we already know, from an earlier part of this article, Lake Magadi occupies one the troughs that are found on the floor of the Rift Valley. It is thought that this trough has been occupied by several lakes during its history and Lake Magadi is only the latest of them.

Around the lake are found lake silts and clays which are inter-bedded with volcanic ash. The lake itself is formed of beds of trona (the deposits from which soda ash is obtained) mixed with beds of clay to a depth of about 50 metres.

The way this trona is formed is rather complicated: firstly, rainfall soaks into the soda-rich volcanic rocks of this part of the Rift Valley removing, or leaching, the soda. This alkaline water then sinks down through the soil and accumulates beneath the low lying basin occupied by Lake Magadi.

Secondly, beneath the basin this alkaline water is heated by hot lava and rises to the surface through hot springs. This water may be as hot as 85 degrees. Because this alkaline water cannot escape from the Magadi Basin, it accumulates and the hot dry climate ensure that the water is rapidly evaporated leaving the trona crystals behind as a deposit. The trona is probably being deposited at a faster rate than it is being mined.

The main trona deposit is about 20 kilometers long nearly 3 kilometers wide. It is estimated to contains at-least 100 million tones of soda.

The Future of Masai and Lake Magadi

1. The prevention of overstocking and the improvement of ranching

An average Masai herd is composed of 57% cows, 6% bulls, 11% bullocks and 26% calves, and in the 1970s there were about 10 hectares of poor pasture for each animal. Recently the herd have been getting larger and the competition for space bigger, as more settlements arise.

The greater number of animals which, in turn, has caused overgrazing and damage to pasture. Despite many efforts by the government to change this way of life, all may have led to much hitherto. The only way to prevent this is to encourage the Masai to sell their animals. But how do you do this?

  1. The authorities could compulsorily remove some of the animals belonging to each Masai and sell them on their behalf - this would obviously unpopular!

  2. Masailand could be divided into individually owned ranches which would be easier to administer, but could be very difficult to develop. in this system a rancher would be encouraged to keep his herd small enough to avoid deterioration of land. But there is a problem that the Masai are not interested in land, they only care about their cattle.

  3. An alternative system would be to produce beef from co-operatives grazing based on traditional family units. This would raise the family income without taking away other needs like milk, meat, blood, skins and dung.

2. A booming future for Lake Magadi

Lake Magadi contains Kenya's largest mineral deposits and the production of both soda and salt is being increased. The soda industry is exceedingly competitive so that expansion in new markets may be slow. Salt, on the other hand, has a more promising future, since further expansion into other African countries is possible.


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    • Itegi29457 profile image

      Sam 3 years ago from Kenya

      Great read, the Masai never seem to change, always with their animals and donning their trademark 'checked' regalia! it is a fascinating culture