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Defusing Africa's Killer Lakes

In a remote region of Cameroon, an international team of scientists takes extraordinary steps to prevent the recurrence of a deadly natural disaster

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ON THE NIGHT OF THE APOCALYPSE, Ephriam Che was in his mud-brick house on a cliff above Nyos, a crater lake in the volcanic highlands of northwest Cameroon. A half-moon lit the water and the hills and valleys beyond. Around 9 p.m., Che, a subsistence farmer with four children, heard a rumbling that sounded like a rockslide. Then a strange white mist rose from the lake. He told his children that it looked as if rain were on the way and went to bed, feeling ill.

Down below, near the lake's shore, Halima Suley, a cowherd, and her four children had retired for the night. She also heard the rumbling; it sounded, she would recall, like "the shouting of many voices." Agreat wind roared through her extended family's small compound of thatched huts, and she promptly passed out—"like a dead person," she says.

At first light, Che headed downhill. Nyos, normally crystal blue, had turned a dull red. When he reached the lake's sole outlet, a waterfall cascading down from a low spot in the shore, he found the falls to be, uncharacteristically, dry. At this moment he noticed the silence; even the usual morning chorus of songbirds and insects was absent. So frightened his knees were shaking, he ran farther along the lake. Then he heard shrieking. It was Suley, who, in a frenzy of grief and horror, had torn off her clothing. "Ephriam!" she cried. "Come here! Why are these people lying here? Why won't they move again?"

Che tried to look away: scattered about lay the bodies of Suley's children, 31 other members of her family and their 400 cattle. Suley kept trying to shake her lifeless father awake. "On that day there were no flies on the dead," says Che. The flies were dead too.

He ran on downhill, to the village of Lower Nyos. There, nearly every one of the village's 1,000 residents was dead, including his parents, siblings, uncles and aunts. "I myself, I was crying, crying, crying," he says. It was August 21, 1986—the end of the world, or so Che believed at the time.

All told, some 1,800 people perished at LakeNyos. Many of the victims were found right where they'd normally be around 9 o'clock at night, suggesting they died on the spot. Bodies lay near cooking fires, clustered in doorways and in bed. Some people who had lain unconscious for more than a day finally awoke, saw their family members lying dead and then committed suicide.

Within days scientists from around the world converged on Nyos. At first, they assumed the long-dormant volcano under its crater had erupted, spewing out some kind of deadly fumes. Over months and years, however, the researchers uncovered a monstrous, far more insidious geologic disaster—one thought to exist only in myth. Even worse, they realized, the catastrophe could recur, at Nyos and at least one additional lake nearby. Since then, a small band of dedicated scientists has returned here repeatedly in an attempt to head off tragedy. Their methods, remarkably low-tech and inexpensive, may very well work. "We are anxious to protect the people there," says Gregory Tanyileke, a Cameroonian hydrologist who coordinates experts from Japan, the United States and Europe.

It took menearly 24 hours to fly from New York, via Paris, to Yaoundé, Cameroon's sprawling capital. There I met photographer Louise Gubb, but this was just the start of our journey. Most people in Cameroon, a poor equatorial country the size of California, are subsistence farmers, cultivating yams, beans and other staples by hand. In a nation with 200 or more ethnic groups, languages change every few miles. Islam, Christianity and animist cults mix and recombine in peaceful confusion.

After a 12-hour overland journey northwest from Yaoundé, we took the road to LakeNyos, a washed-out dirt track winding through forested hills and passable only in a four-wheel drive vehicle. Electric power lines peter out at the dusty market town of Wum, 18 miles from the lake. As one approaches Nyos, grass grows in the road, indicating that few travelers come this way. After a final, mile-long climb through thinning bush, one emerges into an airy amphitheater of high cliffs carved into fantastical shapes surrounding the lake. At its north end, the crater's rim cants downward to a natural spillway, the waterfall Che found running dry that terrible morning. The lake is small, roughly half a square mile in area, now once again blue and tranquil. Black fishing eagles soar under a perfect sky. "Nyos," in the regional Mmen language, means "good," but in Itangikom, a related tongue, it means "to crush."

Local mythology suggests that people around Nyos have long been aware that the lake harbored destruction. Indeed, Cameroonian myths reserve a special category for lakes, which are said to be the homes of ancestors and spirits and sometimes a source of death. According to legends documented by anthropologist Eugenia Shanklin of the College of New Jersey, in Ewing, a lake may rise, sink, explode or even change locations. Certain ethnic groups decree that houses near lakes be erected on high ground, perhaps, in the collective memory, as a defense against disaster. Che's people, the Bafmen, have lived here for hundreds of years and followed that tradition: they settled Upper Nyos. About 60 years ago, other groups began moving into the area, and they did not necessarily follow long-standing custom. Suley and her family, for instance, who are Muslims (Che is Christian), are Fulani; they settled on Nyos' lower slopes. By the 1980s, the population near the lake was several thousand and growing fast. Even some Bafmen relocated down there.

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