It is the highest point on the African continent and the tallest free-standing mountain in the world. There is no question of which side of the border between Kenya and Tanzania the majestic Mount Kilimanjaro has stood since 1890. The controversy, however, is about who really ‘owns’ it.
Last month, Tanzanian MP Anne Kilango-Malecela reignited a controversy when she asked that the Kenyan carrier, Kenya Airways, be warned against using images of Mount Kilimanjaro in its advertising. In her question, she emphasized that the mountain lies in Tanzania and is thus rightly owned by her country. She demanded that her government make a point of letting the Kenyans know that such infringement will not be tolerated.
Kilango-Malecela’s view and demands were, however, simplistic. In his response, Tanzania’s Attorney General noted that Tanzania has no patent on the mountain, and the mountain can also be viewed from Kenya. The iconic snow-capped mountain lies in Tanzania, at least physically, but it seems to be crafty Kenyan designers and marketers who have sold it as an East African icon. Kenyans make use of this by insisting that the mountain can best be seen from their side of the border. The advertisements never say it is in Kenyan, because that would be an outright lie. But they imply that it is, which is what the Same East MP was saying. A quick glance of the part of the Kenyan tourism chain that feeds off the mountain will show you that what they market are the views of the mountain, not the mountain itself.
It is a rather ingenious way of feeding off the proximity of the mountain to the shared border. Whenever the topic comes up, the Tanzanian side accuses the Kenyan one of ‘theft and copyright infringement’ while the Kenyans respond with ‘the mountain was on the Kenyan side in the first place.’ The latter response is based on a story most likely forwarded and popularised by Victorian satirists eager to make Queen Victoria look like a whimsical royal who gave her nephew a mountain on his birthday.
Only that story is a myth. The map of East Africa does show an interesting kink around Mount Kilimanjaro that conveniently puts the mountain in Tanzania territory. The small kink breaks the straight line that would have run from Lake Victoria all the way down to the shared coast line.
A book written by Scneppen Heinz Why Kilimanjaro is in Tanzania (1996) suggests that the Germans traded the mountain for Zanzibar which then stretched to the entire Kenyan coastline. The main item the crafty Britons gave the Germans was not Kilimanjaro but Helgoland, a small strategic island that is essential to Germany’s North Sea naval defences. Britain got dominion over the Zanzibar Sultanate. It was a small trade for Germany which was never as interested in colonial might as in its own self-preservation and naval power race with Britain. Without Mount Kilimanjaro and Helgoland, it seems, Kenya would never have had its coastline as the dominion over Zanzibar was the beginning of a process that ended in 1963 when Kenya got her 10-mile coastline.
Crafty tour operators and marketers on the Kenyan side often use the confusion about the true location of the mountain to attract tourists to their side of the border. It is almost the same scenario as the wildebeest migration, where the herds spend more time in the Serengeti than in the Maasai Mara, and yet the Kenyan side seems to make a greater fuss out of it. The Tanzanians do not like it, rightly so, but most of her neighbours see it in the greater light of her lagging behind in joining the East African dream. Where borders are becoming irrelevant as common visas and common customs union become a reality in the region, Tanzania appears as the smug sibling who sees the plate as skewed against her benefit. Yet for all the talk of the Coalition of the Willing, East Africa will never be a family without Tanzania.
The Mountain of Caravans is the epitome of the East African story of siblings tied together by more than just a common heritage. It is a story of bloodlines tied deeper than national borders could ever separate people, of mountains jutting towards a common destiny. As the fights break out in the comment sections of articles related to the ‘theft’, it becomes clear that the East African story is just as it always was, one of love and rivalry. Rivalry defined more by who is pulling more of the blanket to their side than who rightly owns the bed