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Scientific Debate Centers On Giant Crack In Africa's Rift Valley

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: There are more volcanic eruptions in Hawaii, and then there is Kenya, where the earth seemed to crack open recently. NPR's Eyder Peralta investigated.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: The little town of Mai Mahiu, hot water in the Gikuyu language, sits on the floor of the Great Rift Valley. It's a place where the earth ripped open and left a valley defined by steep walls on either side. It's a sleepy town with lots of farmland and goats on the side of the road. Peter Meina (ph), who owns a little store on the side of the road, says this is also a strange little town.

PETER MEINA: If you think of a blowhole, the water will come out very hot and salty at the same time.

PERALTA: When he was a kid, he says, they used to spend weekends looking for holes that would spit out gases.

MEINA: We used to play there with those holes. When you dig sand and you put it, they don't go down, but it's pushed up.

PERALTA: Lately, Mai Mahiu has been the talk of Kenya because huge fissures have appeared across the landscape. This week, Meina says, a public toilet was swallowed up by the earth. He says the guy who was last in it heard something like water gushing below the surface. He jokes that maybe someday, they will wake up sunken in the middle of an ocean, but he will never leave Mai Mahiu.

MEINA: No. We are used to this place.


MEINA: We are used to this place.

PERALTA: Of course, I go in search of the sunken toilet. And what I find is a huge hole, maybe 40 feet across, and no sign of a toilet, just hanging pipes torn in half by the force of the earth. Winnie Kanobya (ph) is standing on the edge looking down, overcome by a little vertigo.

WINNIE KANOBYA: Scary, beautiful and amazing at the same time.

PERALTA: It's a reminder, she says, that this is exactly where, many millions of years from now, the African continent could split in two. At first, the cracks were being blamed on the geologic forces of two tectonic plates, East Africa moving away from the rest of the continent. But as soon as the government's principal secretary of mining, John Omenge, took a look at the cracks, he said the sudden movement of the tectonic plates had nothing to do with this.

JOHN OMENGE: What we have seen is water.

PERALTA: The prevailing theory is that these dramatic cracks formed over thousands of years. Tyrone Rooney, who studies the geology of the Great Rift Valley at Michigan State University, says you should think about them like those big sinkholes in Florida.

TYRONE ROONEY: The sinkhole, over thousands of years, developed slowly and slowly and slowly, and then there's soil over it. And it's when that soil collapses due to rain or other events is when you see the sinkhole.

PERALTA: He says that fear that people in my Mai Mahiu will wake up in the ocean overnight, that's just not the way geology works. These events are punctuated. They start and stop over millions of years.

ROONEY: These aren't runaway processes that once they get going, on a human scale, that they're going to continue going. That's not how it works.


PERALTA: As I find my way to one of the big cracks, it starts raining. It's a gash so deep, when I look down, I can't see a bottom. I meet Lamojum (ph), a herder who goes by one name. An interpreter helps me out.

LAMOJUM: (Through interpreter) There was heavy rain on Saturday. And when the rain was raining, there was some movement from under the earth.

PERALTA: And suddenly, the water that had flooded that field disappeared, and he says two of his cows were swallowed by that hole.

LAMOJUM: (Foreign language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: He has never seen the earth as bleeding so he doesn't know what he's supposed to do next.

PERALTA: It's scary, but maybe there's nothing to be done, he says, because this is an act of God. Eyder Peralta, NPR News, in Kenya's Great Rift Valley.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.