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CHANGING CLIMATE, CHANGING LIVES

Glorious vision in Kenya's sky melts away

Mt. Kenya's ice cap was so stunning that some began revering it as God's home. But most of the shining glacier has now disappeared, robbing communities of water and leading to a crisis of faith.

November 10, 2009|Edmund Sanders

MURANGA, KENYA — From a tree-shaded plateau facing Mt. Kenya, the worshipers gaze anxiously at its melting ice cap and wonder: Is God dead?

For 7 million Kenyans who rely on the runoff of Africa's second-highest peak to survive, evaporating springs and dry riverbeds are making life harder. In the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, reduced melts have contributed to rolling blackouts when rivers fed by the mountain are unable to run hydroelectric plants.

But for those Kenyans who still practice tribal religions and revere Mt. Kenya as the home of God, the environmental alterations mean more than a threat to their livelihood. For them, the melting ice and other changes on their mountain have triggered a crisis of faith.

"This is where our God lives and it is being destroyed," said Mwangi Njorge, 95, one of those mostly older Kenyans who continue to make sacrifices to the deity they believe resides on Mt. Kenya. He worries that the disappearing ice is a sign of God's fury. "God is very angry, and if things don't change, I fear he might abandon us forever."

The scientific community is divided over the causes of melting ice caps in Africa. But many experts believe the retreating snow on Mt. Kenya is one of the continent's clearest examples of climate change and global warming.

The 17,057-foot mountain, located along the equator, has lost 92% of its glacier cover over the last 100 years, and experts predict the ice will disappear by 2050. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned in a 2007 report that countries such as Kenya will bear a huge burden of the fallout from rising temperatures, and specifically pointed to the vulnerability of mountain environments such as Mt. Kenya's.

The stories of Mt. Kenya's worshipers put a human face on a brewing standoff between developed countries, which are blamed for contributing to most of the world's climate change through carbon emissions and other pollution, and developing regions, such as Africa, which is seeking $67 billion a year in compensation for the economic and social costs.

Worshipers of Mt. Kenya have already incorporated the melting ice into their oral traditions, said Jeffrey Fadiman, a San Jose State University professor who spent months on the majestic landmark collecting the oral histories of local tribes.

"Elders see the glacier melting as a punishment for younger people abandoning and violating their traditions," Fadiman said.

It's no surprise that Kenya's earliest settlers revered the mountain. Shrouded in mist and covered year-round with a blinding carpet of snow, Mt. Kenya inspired awe and legend from every tribe that laid eyes on it. Locals dubbed it Kirinyaga, or "mountain of brightness," because of the brilliant white peaks.

Scholars date the oral traditions surrounding Mt. Kenya back as far as 500 years, when tribes such as the Kikuyu and Meru arrived in the region. Life and worship centered on the mountain. They prayed facing Mt. Kenya and oriented their homes toward the peak. Sacrificial animals were positioned to face the mountain before slaughter.

Over the years, the extinct volcano has remained at the center of the country's history. Mau Mau rebels hid in its forests during the fight for independence from British colonialists. Jomo Kenyatta, Kenya's first president, titled his autobiography "Facing Mt. Kenya."

"It was so white, so beautiful, you could see it from everywhere," Njorge said.

When he was a boy, said retired Catholic priest Joaquim Gitonga, 76, everyone here in the village of Muranga marveled at the mysterious source of Mt. Kenya's white tips. Living on the equator, no one in the village had any concept of ice or snow, so they assumed the brilliant white peaks were a sign of the mountain's divine nature.

Today, Mt. Kenya hardly inspires the same wonder, old-timers say.

"Look at it," said Njorge, glancing toward the mountain through afternoon haze. "So brown and barren. It's an ugly picture."

Gitonga, who was converted by Christian missionaries as a boy, said the receding glaciers could be the final blow to Mt. Kenya's worshipers, whose numbers are already dwindling amid the spread of Christianity, secularism and increased access to education.

"The customs are slowly dying," he said.

Global warming is widely believed to be contributing to Mt. Kenya's melting ice. But part of the mountain's environmental transformation is brought on by local activities, experts say.

Lush green forests have been chopped down. Development has taken a toll, from marijuana farms and cattle-grazing to tourism.

Environmental activist Fredrick Njau said logging, paper production, charcoal-making and other commercial exploitation ran amok during the presidency of Daniel Arap Moi, when government leaders gave their friends and allies a free hand in profiting from Kenya's forests.

"The government really shot itself in the foot," said Njau, project coordinator for the Nairobi-based Green Belt Movement.

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