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Among the Greats

Growing up in Michigan, I was a lake enthusiast from a young age, and extremely proud that my home state was surrounded by North America’s most important inland bodies of water. These are, of course, the Great Lakes, so called because of their size – according to the 2020 National Geographic Atlas of the World, three of them make the list of the ten largest lakes in the world by area. I knew they were great in other ways as well: aside from their sheer beauty, the Great Lakes are important economically as shipping lanes and rich fishing grounds; they connect inland ports like Chicago and Detroit to the Atlantic via the St. Lawrence Seaway; and they provide drinking water for 10% of Americans and 30% of Canadians.

Map of Great Lakes, showing routes of travel and places of interest. Alfred D’A. McNevin, [1915]. Library of Congress Geography and Map Division.

Like other Michigan kids, I was taught to remember the names of the lakes by using the acronym HOMES:

Huron
Ontario
Michigan
Erie
Superior

I spent summers touring the lakes, having campfires on the beach, and visiting historic lighthouses – evidence of the lakes’ economic importance.

A map showing the outline of the Great Lakes with orange sunburst symbols marking the location of lighthouses along the coast.

A chart exhibiting the lighthouses of the lake coast of the United States of America. Map by Stephen Pleasonton, U.S. Department of Treasury, 1848. Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division.

It wasn’t until later in life that I learned about a sister region, thousands of miles away in East Africa: the African Great Lakes.

A topographic map of the African Great Lakes area.

East Africa. Smuts, 1918. Library of Congress Geography and Map Division.

While they’re sometimes numbered up to ten, there are seven lakes generally considered to make up the African Great Lakes: Turkana (called Lake Rudolf on the above map), Albert, Edward, Victoria, Kivu, Tanganyika, and Malawi (here called Lake Nyasa). Three of them – Victoria, Tanganyika, and Malawi – also make National Geographic’s list of largest lakes by area. And like the North American Great Lakes, they are of immense economic and environmental importance; as they were to historical colonial powers, they remain so to the modern East African nations.

19th-century map of the African Great Lakes region showing German and British colonial interests. Die Deutschen und Britischen Schutzgebiete und Interessenspharen in Aequatorial-Ost-Afrika: nach den Vereinbarungen vom Juni 1890. Map by Dietrich Reimer, 1890. Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division.

The two Great Lakes regions both straddle international boundaries. The United States-Canada border passes through four of the five North American lakes; only Lake Michigan is entirely within the United States. All seven of the East African Great Lakes are located along international borders, touching a collective total of ten countries: Mozambique, Malawi, Tanzania, Zambia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya, and Ethiopia. Lake Tanganyika is split between four countries, the most of any of the Great Lakes.

Plate from the 1976 US National Atlas showing the US-Canada border, marked with the thickest green/black line, passing through Lakes Superior, Huron, and part of Erie. The border also passes lengthwise through Lake Ontario, not shown on the map. National atlas: Northern Great Lakes States. U.S. Geological Survey, 1976. Library of Congress Geography and Map Division.

Detail of Africa showing the many international borders of the African Great Lakes region. Lakes Turkana, Edward, and Kivu do not appear on the map. Africa. U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, 2011. Library of Congress Geography and Map Division.

Both sets of lakes are home to prominent cities. Chicago, on the southern shore of Lake Michigan, is the largest city in the North American Great Lakes region; the metro area has a population of 9.6 million people. The Toronto (on Lake Ontario), Detroit (Lake Erie), Cleveland (also on Lake Erie), and Milwaukee (Lake Michigan) metro areas also have more than a million people each.

In East Africa, Kampala, Bujumbura, and Bukavu are the largest cities on any of the Great Lakes. Kampala’s metro area has 3 million people, and the city is Uganda’s national capital. Bujumbura is on the north shore of Lake Tanganyika. Still Burundi’s largest city, it ceased to be the capital in 2019. The city of Bukavu in the Democratic Republic of the Congo lies on the southern shore of Lake Kivu.

Detail of Entebbe, Uganda, Africa showing the city of Kampala on the north shore of Lake Victoria. Great Britain. War Office. General Staff. Geographical Section, 1911. World Digital Library. Original resource at: National Library of Uganda.

The city of Chicago. Currier & Ives, c1892. Library of Congress Geography and Map Division.

Hydrologically, the two Great Lakes regions are very different. The Great Lakes of North America, created by glaciers, form part of the same freshwater system which eventually reaches the Atlantic Ocean via the St. Lawrence River. By contrast, the African Great Lakes don’t all connect. The lakes are part of the East African Rift System, a boundary between tectonic plates where the earth’s crust has been slowly pulling apart for 22 million years. Water filled many of the valleys created by the rift, which also formed mountains – mostly volcanic – and these high ridges separate the lakes and outflowing rivers from each other.

The map below, created using data gathered by British explorers David Livingstone and Henry Morton Stanley, shows Lakes Victoria and Albert draining into the White Nile, which in turn flows into the Nile and on to the Mediterranean. Though not depicted on the map, Lake Edward is connected to Lake Albert via the Semliki River and also ultimately empties into the White Nile. The search for the sources of the Nile occupied much British attention during the second half of the 19th century; motivations evolved over time, from the desire to spread Christianity and put an end to the Arab slave trade, to the determination to maintain control over the source of Egypt’s profitable floodwaters during colonial rule.

Sketch map of the Nile sources and lake region of central Africa. T. Ellwood Zell, 1872. Library of Congress Geography and Map Division.

Lakes Kivu and Tanganyika drain into the Congo River, which discharges into the Atlantic. Lake Malawi forms part of the Zambezi River watershed, connecting ultimately to the Indian Ocean. Lake Turkana, while fed by the Omo, Turkwel, and Kerio Rivers, drains nowhere – it’s an endorheic basin, only losing water through evaporation. Over time, this has led to a buildup of minerals including salt and fluoride which make it less than ideal as a source of drinking water.

Salt, alkaline, or fresh, water is central to the two Great Lakes regions. Throughout history, people have relied on the lakes for fish, transportation, drinking water, and hydropower. I am pleased to be able to share these maps of such interesting and significant regions of the world.

A print of Niagara Falls with a rainbow crossing over the bottom of the waterfall.

Niagara Falls, where the Great Lakes leap to the sea, Travel by train. Poster by Fredric C. Madan, 1925. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

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