Why life won’t be the same for flood-hit Katesh town residents

A section of the river that carried stones, logs and thick mud that caused extensive damage in various areas of the small town of Katesh and nearby villages.  PHOTO | STATE HOUSE

What you need to know:

  • Katesh residents may not have experienced a similar catastrophe as last week, but they are likely psychologically prepared.

Arusha. Katesh, the headquarters of Hanang District, Manyara Region, has since time immemorial been associated with prosperity.

In the local vernacular, it connotes “a white landing” being on the slopes of the imposing Hanang mountain.

Before it was populated, likely at the turn of the 19th century, the town’s current site may have been a grassland of some sort.

There is scant information on how the town, or rather the settlement in the heart of traditional pastoralists’ land, evolved after colonisation.

However, according to elders, it took until the 1920’s when it came into being, initially as a cattle auction post before transforming into a township.

Elders who spoke to The Citizen at different times in the past said it did not exist as a settlement during German colonial rule.

Much of what is now Hanang district was then administered from Kondoa but would later be put under the Mbulu fortress.

Katesh gained prominence in the 1930s largely on three fronts, one of which was a major cattle auction.

The British colonial rulers made it a major centre for the administration of the pastoralist tribes, specifically the Barbaig, by then deemed to be hostile.

It had one of the three fully fledged police stations in the entire Arusha region (and Manyara) other than those found at Arusha and Mbulu towns. At Katesh, it was set up to tame the tribal wars.

Due to its livestock industry, Katesh had a fully operational veterinary centre. The first school was opened in the late 1940s.

After independence, the township was the divisional headquarters of the then-Barbaig division (now Hanang district) under Mbulu district. However, for much of the 1960s until the 1980s, Katesh remained a small, dusty township on the Arusha-Singida highway.

In those years, the economy of the town was partly boosted by the opening of huge wheat farms at Bassotu Plains under a giant project supported by Canada.

It was not until 1985 that it attained the status of district headquarters after the creation of Hanang district, initially within the Arusha region and later Manyara (in 2002).

While residents of Katesh may not have experienced a catastrophe similar to the events of last week, there is reason to believe that they were psychologically prepared.

This preparedness can be attributed to the town’s proximity to Mt Hanang, a dormant volcano in the Rift Valley, and the occasional earth tremors associated with such geological formations.

It is not uncommon for the town to be subjected to flash floods at the peak of the rainy season from streams originating from the mountain. One of the tragedies still in the memory of many is the April 7th, 1964 earthquake, which razed down several houses in the town, including all the primary school buildings.

Elders who witnessed the destruction at that time said they feared Mt Hanang would complicate matters, being a volcanic mountain.

There is no contention; the catastrophic mudslides and flash floods that killed more than 80 people in Katesh and Gendabi villages may have been the worst.

But according to residents of the area, similar tragedies may have occurred in the past, although not of such magnitude.

“I hear there was a disaster like this a long time ago,” said Simon Gidameyesh, a resident of the critically affected Jarodom village.

He said, however, that the casualties may have been low because there were few people around the place. That could have been 100 years ago.

At Jarodom, 13 to 15 deaths were reported, including schoolchildren who drowned following the early morning flash floods.

He said it may take some time before the residents of Katesh forget the tragedy, which has also shocked the nation.

Several families, including those of the bereaved and the survivors, will be forced to move out of a valley where a flooded stream swept homes.

The government has already announced that residents of the area will have to be relocated to safer places.

Mr Gidameyesh added that flash floods and other calamities on Mt. Hanang may have occurred on cycles. He said his family’s homes survived the killer floods because they had settled on an elevated area within the mountain slopes.

At Jarodom and the entire Katesh, the homes that were swept away, leading to deaths, were those located much closer to the natural streams.

Julius Gidabuday said that although life was slowly returning to normal at Katesh, it would take time before it stabilised.

“Traffic is flowing normally on the Babati-Singida road, and some shops have reopened,” he said from Katesh yesterday.

However, he said some feeder roads in town were still blocked by mud and that it may take time before they are cleared.

Alfredo Shahanga, who coordinated rescue efforts at Jarodom, lauded the government’s decision to relocate people to safer places.

“The announcement by the government to move people to safer places is commendable,” he told The Citizen on the phone.

He said most of the casualties in Katesh and its environs occurred closer to the natural water paths from the mountain. Experts said parts of Katesh town should have to be re-planned to ensure residential homes are not built within the natural waterways.