Oldonyo Lengai
Mt Oldonyo Lengai (file picture)

In the past the community living at the foot of Oldonyo Lengai defied government orders to evacuate after the mountain erupted.

They argued that they could not move out because they had lived there for generations and had grown used to the volcanic ash from "the mountain of God" in northern Tanzania. But nine months after it continued to emit smoke into the sky and spewing molten rocks on its slopes, many of the defiant people are now moving out without being asked to.

Reports from the area, one of the most inhospitable terrains in Tanzania, indicates that many families have been moving out for their own safety. The remote area is well-known throughout Tanzania for its high temperatures despite being sheltered by the mountain.

Hot lava

Government authorities in Ngorongoro district in Arusha region, which borders Kenya, have confirmed that many families are now moving away to settle in other areas a safe distance from the active volcano.

Ngorongoro MP Saning'o ole Telele told reporters last weekend that up to 5,000 people may have moved out of the area for fear of being affected by the volcanic ash and hot lava.

Those who have fled include villagers who had lived around Oldonyo Lengai for many years. They are reported to have moved with their livestock. Many of them have resettled in Ebwati, Nainokanoka, Ekipisu and Malambo villages in Ngorongoro district and Silalei and Mto-wa-Mbu villages in neighbouring Monduli district.

Others have gone to Gelai, Gelaibombwa na Chumvini which are a safe distance from the smoking mountain and east of Lake Natron, a few kilometres from the Kenyan border and just south of Lake Magadi.Those who have fled did so fearing the effects of the mountain emissions would have on their health as it has not stopped spewing smoke since last July.


According to the Ngorongoro MP, who was born near Oldonyo Lengai, the revered mountain in the bed of the Great Rift Valley "has not behaved the way it used to".

"This is the first time for many years that we have seen the mountain spewing ash and lava continuously for such long time," he said.

The eruption of the mountain, believed to have been triggered by a series of earthquakes that hit northern Tanzanian and parts of Kenya, is a natural phenomenon but has led to a human crisis. Food shortages have been reported among the nomadic pastoralists in the area. Many families have been displaced and are supported by relatives in villages where they are seeking refuge. Other families are facing hunger because many men have abandoned their homesteads to seek jobs in towns and trading centres.

The district authorities say at least 20,000 tons of food are needed to feed the displaced families and other victims of drought.

The mountain and the adjacent Lake Natron are about 250 kilometres north west of Arusha. The displacement due to volcanic eruption has come at a particularly unfavourable time. Oldonyo Lengai area and the entire Maasailand is reeling under a prolonged dry spell. The Tanzania government has all along taken remedial since the crisis began last year but problems persist.

First it advised people to keep away from the mountain especially at the height of the earthquakes and when it started erupting from July last year.

Disaster management

Several teams of officials, including those responsible for disaster management under the Prime Minister's office, have visited the area on numerous occasions trying to assess the situation.

Those advised to keep away included tourists attracted to the only active volcano in East Africa.

Initially, the government's plea for the locals to be wary of the mountain were largely ignored; nobody bought the idea especially the traditional livestock keepers who live there.

Those who spoke to journalists during the first days of the volcanic eruptions, played down dangers posed by the volcanic activity, maintaining that the phenomenon was common and that they were used to it.

Those who opposed what they called "alarmist" calls criticised the authorities of making statements that, in their opinion, scared away tourists .The tourism industry supports a handful of people in the Ngorongoro area.

Just days after the government issued the alert, a tour guide who was taking tourists to the top of the mountain was severely burnt by the hot magma.

A few weeks later, it was the turn of the pastoralists. Their livestock were affected by volcanic ash and dust. Some of the animals are reported to have fallen sick while others died.

For the pastoralists, that was enough to get them to move out of the area in search of greener pastures for their animals.

As if that was not enough, towards the end of last year there were reports of people suffering from the adverse effects of volcanic ash and who spent many sleepless nights - thanks to a series of earth tremors.

The 2,951-metre high mountain, one of the highest in Tanzania, simply refused to stop emitting smoke and lava - a phenomenon rarely experienced before.

Only two weeks ago, two high level Tanzanian government delegations visited the area to get first hand information about the situation.

One team was led by the minister of state in the Vice President's Office responsible for Environment, Dr Batilda Buriani and another by Mr Phillip Marmo, the minister of state in the Prime Minister's Office (Parliamentary Affairs).

Upon return to Arusha, Dr Buriani, who took over the environment portfolio during the recent Cabinet reshuffle, admitted that the situation on Oldonyo Lengai was disturbing.

This was the first time the mountain was emitting smoke and hot lava continuously over a prolonged period. The last time it did so was in 1966 and 1967 but lasted for only six months.

"Experts must establish why the mountain behaved this way unlike in the past," Dr Buriani said after spending the entire day near the mountain and Lake Natron, whose highly alkaline water is attributed to ash spewed from Oldonyo Lengai.

The minister witnessed for herself the mountain emitting smoke and lava and was told the phenomenon followed an eruption which released gas and ash into the sky.

Besides the current one, the last major eruption on Oldonyo Lengai was reported in August 1966.

Images of the erupting mountain were recorded by local and international media and broadcast around the world, especially to science institutions. Since then there has not been an eruption of such magnitude, although notable ones were recorded in 1983, 1993, 2002 and 2006. But these did not last long.

However, some experts say that much as there has not been a major eruption, a series of earth tremors and continuous smoke and lava for such long period cannot be ignored.

Dr Buriani agreed with the experts' advice that scientists should be sent to Oldonyo Lengai to study the impact of volcanic ash emissions from the mountain. The 1996 and 1967 incidents, according to accounts, followed a major eruption which sent local residents fleeing in their hundreds. That eruption was the strongest to be recorded in the area in recent decades and killed wildlife and livestock. "Smoke emission from the mountain lasted for only six months in 1966/67.

This is not the case now. Since July last year, this has happened almost continuously," she said. During her day visit to the area, the minister was told that domestic animals were adversely affected by the volcanic dust and some had died after licking it.

"As government, we are yet to establish the impact of volcanic eruptions around Oldonyo Lengai and its impact to livestock and people," she later said. According to her, the matter would be dealt by the Disaster Management Unit under Prime Minister's Office and the Geology Survey of Tanzania.

Traditional rituals

The "Mountain of God", where the Maasai used to perform traditional rituals, became hostile to members of the community last July when it started emitting hot lava and smoke from its vents following a series of earth tremors.

Until then, the mountain and Lake Natron used to attract about 8,000 tourists annually. These included scientists interested in studying the landscapes and how they were formed.

No casualties have been reported but people living in the area have complained of chest pains and persistent coughs due to exposure to toxic materials emitted by the mountain.