Lessons from a Gumbaru geography class

Studying anything can be interesting if there are no exams at the end of the day

In Summary

• A free geography class at Baraza Media Lab was more fun than high school's

Silhouette of a teacher leading a class on geography
Silhouette of a teacher leading a class on geography

I can vividly remember the shock on my face during admission day back in high school, when I was told to choose two technical subjects in addition to the nine compulsory languages (mathematics, two languages, three sciences and three humanities). How did they expect a puny little 13-year-old kid like me, fresh from popping his first pimple, to study all these subjects?

The panelists: Christine, Mohammed and Albert
The panelists: Christine, Mohammed and Albert

The sudden transition from six subjects in primary school to double that in high school caught me by surprise. I mean, they had taught us that the changes that come with adolescence include broadening of shoulders, but there was no mention of broadening of one’s frontal brain. What, then, was this? In that moment of trepidation, I ended up choosing the hardest of those technical subjects, which I later came to realise are studied as university courses, yet here I was, doing them as mere high school subjects.

At the end of the first year, to my relief, the teachers told us that we have the chance to drop three of those subjects, excluding mathematics, the two languages and the three sciences. The reason why our school didn’t allow us to drop any of the three sciences is because we were men, and men are naturally supposed to be engineers. Therefore, science had to be drilled into our heads. For that reason, I ended up dropping, among two other subjects, geography.

My reason for dropping geography was because it was loaded with so much content that it wasn’t easy to cram. In addition to that, everything in geography was factual. Therefore, in case you didn’t know the answer to a question in the exam, then guessing wasn’t an option. History was the opposite, and was interesting because it had so much story za jaba, and so I pursued it with zeal. That’s why, even at this moment, I can write my history with succinct detail.


I got flashbacks of this whole experience the other day, when one Mohammed (@KenyanGeography on Twitter) decided to hold a free geography class at Baraza Media Lab. The class was titled: East Africa through Maps. And the particular topic for this class was: How the geography of the Rift Valley has shaped life in Eastern Africa throughout human history’. Therefore, we were to learn, first and foremost, the process of the formation of the Rift Valley, then move on to how the Rift Valley itself has influenced the economics, demographics, geopolitics and the culture of the people living in and around it.

Just from the look of it, it sounded real exciting. I mean, I’ve never thought of the Rift Valley in this way, that it might have influenced certain people in whatever ways. Yes, I do follow some ethnographers on Twitter, who preach to me daily how Bantus may be different from Nilotes for whatever reason, but I have never sat down and pondered over any of it.

All I think about when I hear the mention of the Rift Valley is the Viewpoint on the Mai Mahiu Escarpment, where those of us travelling on Route A104 or B3 stop to take a photo of the view. 

Anyway, I got to the event at 6pm, and the event started in concurrence with my entrance (turns out I was the VIP Guest all along). The panelists were Mohammed, who was the teacher for the day, and alongside him were Christine, the moderator, and Albert, an assistant. In line with the title of the event, there were screens around the venue to enable us to see all the maps being discussed. Around me were 25 other older people, and so it truly felt like a Gumbaru class. After watching that Gumbaru show on KBC for years, I can’t believe I was now re-enacting it in real life.

Illustration of a teacher leading a class on geography
Illustration of a teacher leading a class on geography


It was only fair that the event starts with a discussion on the formation of the Rift Valley. Mohammed explained how a million years ago, we experienced a thermal bulge. What this means is that the Earth heated up from below and created an uplift. In our case, we had two uplifts: the Ethiopian Dome and the East African Dome (in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania & Malawi). These two uplifted areas experienced faulting, since as the earth lifts up, it stretches and forms cracks. Through those cracks/fault lines, we got the formation of the Rift Valley.

The fun facts Mohammed dished out included that the Rift Valley is the longest geographic trench, being 7,000km long, spanning from Lebanon in Asia to Mozambique in Africa (passing through nine countries in total). The Rift Valley also passes through the Easternmost point in Africa, which is Cape Guardafui in Somalia.

Among the lakes on the Rift Valley are Lake Kivu and Lake Tanganyika. Lake Tanganyika is the second-deepest freshwater lake in the world (after Lake Baikal in Siberia), and it is so deep (1,400m) that it contains a higher volume of water than Lake Victoria, which happens to be very wide (spanning three countries) but very shallow (80m deep). Lake Tanganyika is so deep that the water in it is stratified in layers. Every 150m, there is a different layer of water that does not mix with the one above or below it. Due to these stratifications, the lake is said to contain ‘fossil water’ (water that has remained undisturbed for millennia) hence oxygen does not exist in the parts below 200m. This has limited the fish and other bacteria to only the upper layers of the lake.

I’m sure if he had posed some of these facts as questions, I would have answered them with ease, since despite me not pursuing geography, I still perused through the atlas in my free time. Anyway, they mentioned that we’ll have a trivia session next time, so let me hold my Trojan horses.


Next up, Mohammed discussed the early history of man around the Rift Valley. East Africa is regarded as the cradle of mankind, since most of the fossils have been found here (Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania, Nariokotome in Turkana and Olorgesaillie near Lake Magadi).

Well, it seems the Great Rift Valley was a natural migratory corridor, stretching thousands of kilometres across the continent. Since it was a large trench with escarpments bounding people in both sides, it was easy for people to traverse on it from north to south. Early civilisations in Africa ended up being formed on the highlands of the Rift Valley, such as Ancient Egypt, Kush and Axum.

The migration of the Kenyan communities also birthed the dichotomy of the Nilotes based on where they settled. The Highland Nilotes, who are the Kalenjins, settled on the highlands of the Rift Valley, while the Plain Nilotes, such as the Maasai, Turkana, Samburu and Iteso, settled on the plains of the Rift Valley.

Despite the Rift Valley being a trench, the floor isn’t flat. The area around Lake Nakuru and Lake Naivasha is the highest, at 2,000m above sea level, while the rest of the Rift Valley, northwards to Lake Turkana (300m above sea level) and southwards to Lake Magadi (600m above sea level), decreases in height. This is a very fun fact, and explains why some parts on the floor are fertile, while the rest are not.

Since the Rift Valley in Kenya has escarpments on both sides, one passes through the highlands, the floor and the highlands once again when travelling from Nairobi to Kisumu on Route A104. The exact points where the changes in altitude occur have turned out to be blackspots, such as Kinungi in Nakuru and Salgaa. Thanks to engineering measures, however, the accidents have reduced.

The class wound down with a Q&A session from the students, before concluding with a ‘Did You Know?’ session, where Mohammed and Albert competed in telling us geographical facts till either surrendered. I can’t tell who won, but I left the class very enlightened, I must say. It turns out that studying anything can be interesting as long as there are no exams at the end of the day. If you want to know about the next class or any other updates, you can follow ‘KenyanGeography’ across social media.

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