The Great Lakes of Africa are a series of lakes in and around the Great Rift Valley. They include Lake Victoria, the second largest freshwater lake in the world in terms of surface area, and Lake Tanganyika, the world’s second largest in volume as well as the second deepest. Despite their beauty, the Great Lakes also rank as one of the world’s most endangered water systems.
The term “Great Lakes” in the African context is a rather loose one. Unlike their North American counterparts, the three largest lakes have a host of middle-sized and small lakes nearby, though the small ones would be considered very substantial in many countries of the world. There is no accepted size criterion for “Great Lake.”
Contrary to early European explorers’ assumptions that one lake was the source of the Nile River, it is now accepted that glaciers in the Ruwezori Mountains and more than one lake and river feed the Nile’s waters. Burundi claims to be the site of the springs that flow into the Kagera River, the largest of the several rivers that feed into Lake Victoria before the water exits the lake at Ripon Falls as the Victoria Nile. But a smaller system of rivers drains the Virungas and Ruwenzori mountains and the land between them and empties into Lake Albert, where the water joins with the Victoria Nile and then flows north as the White Nile.
The African Great Lakes region consists of countries that surround the African Great Lakes. It comprises Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda.
The Bantu Swahili language is the most commonly spoken language in the African Great Lakes region. It also serves as a national or official language of four nations in the region: Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Due to the high population density of an estimated 107 million people, and the agricultural surplus in the region, the area became organized into a number of small states. The most powerful of these monarchies were Buganda, Bunyoro, Rwanda, and Burundi. Unusual for sub-Saharan Africa, the traditional borders were largely maintained by the colonial powers.
Being the long sought after source of the Nile, the region had long been of interest to Europeans. The first Europeans to arrive in the region in any numbers were missionaries who had limited success in converting the locals, but did open the region to later colonization. The increased contact with the rest of the world led to a series of devastating epidemics affecting both humans and livestock. While seen as a region with great potential after independence, the region has in recent decades been marred by civil war and conflict, from which only Tanzania has escaped. According to the UNHCR, Tanzania hosted the most Congolese refugees of the region. The worst affected areas have been left in great poverty.
The highlands are relatively cool, with average temperatures of 17–19˚C and abundant rainfall. Major drainage basins include those of the Congo-Zaire, Nile, and Zambezi rivers, which drain into the Atlantic Ocean, Mediterranean Sea, and Indian Ocean, respectively.
Forests are dominant in the lowlands of the Congo-Zaire Basin, while grasslands and savannas are most common in the southern and eastern highlands. Temperatures in the lowlands average about 95 °F (about 35 °C). Around Lake Turkana, the climate is hot and very dry. A short rainy season in October is followed by a longer one from April to May.
The Western Rift Valley lakes are freshwater and home to an extraordinary number of endemic species. More than 1,500 cichlid fish species live in the lakes, as well as other fish families. The lakes are also important habitats for a number of amphibian species. Nile crocodiles are numerous. Mammals include elephants, gorillas and hippopotamus.
The Lake Turkana area is home to hundreds of species of birds endemic to Kenya. The flamingo wades in its shallows. The East African rift system also serves as a flyway for migrating birds, bringing in hundreds more. The birds are essentially supported by plankton masses in the lake, which also feed the fish there.
Vegetation ranges from rainforest to savanna grasses. In some lakes, rapidly growing invasive plants, like the surface-choking water hyacinth and shore-clogging papyrus, are problems. Water hyacinth have thus far affected only Lake Victoria.
The lakes are divided between three different catchments (river basins), and a number have no exit. The following, in order of size from largest to smallest, are included on most lists of the African Great Lakes: