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Learning from the Rainmakers

East African scientists court traditional knowledge for accurate weather predictions

As changes in weather continue to ravage farms and take a toll on food production across East Africa, scientists and meteorologists are turning to traditional rainmakers and weather forecasters to bolster the accuracy of weather predictions.

photo of Thomas Osore OmulakoPhoto by DFID – UK Department for International Development Thomas Osore Omulako, a rainmaker in Kenya's Nganyi community, on his maize farm.

The rainmakers have perfected the art of interpreting plant responses and animal behaviors to predict the weather. They observe when plant leaves curl, for example, or when flowers bloom. And they watch everything from the movements of certain birds, to bee migrations, to mating patterns of animals like antelopes, to the croaking of frogs, to predict the timing and intensity of rains and drought with high precision.

In Western Kenya, considered one of the country's breadbaskets, conventional forecasting using modern equipment has traditionally been frowned upon as too scholarly. Thousands of smallholder farmers have for years relied on the rainmakers from the Nganyi community, which is well-known for weather interpretation using Indigenous knowledge, to advise them about when and what to plant based on weather patterns. The weather predictions can be for a day, week, or even a month. In return for insight on the weather, farmers repay the rainmakers with the proceeds from their farms.

Traditionally, the rainmakers’ work has always been confined to the community level, receiving little or no recognition from scientists or the government. Rainmakers have at times even been ostracized as sorcerers.

That seems to be changing. Recent research has examined the important role of Indigenous knowledge in weather prediction, and how it can be applied to climate adaptations. And with unprecedented weather phenomena impacting Kenya, including El Niño and hailstorms, researchers there have sought the help of the Indigenous forecasters to create a hybrid weather intelligence system for the country.

Scientists from the Kenya Meteorological Department, the University of Nairobi, and Maseno University have now partnered with Nganyi rainmakers to blend Indigenous and conventional weather predicting models in a project dubbed "Climate Change Adaptation in Africa" and funded by Britain and Canada. The scientists conduct consultations with the rainmakers at a shrine forest, which the rainmakers have relied on for weather prediction for decades. It is a treasure trove of biodiversity, with 67 different tree species, and many birds, reptiles, and insects, and has been designated as a shine due to its importance to the community. Scientists have also set up a resource center near the forest where students and tourists can learn more about Indigenous forecasting.

“The forest shrines are very pivotal in providing key climatic intelligence for the local communities and we agree with that,” said Dr. Gilbert Ouma the lead researcher in the project and a lecturer at the Department of Meteorology at the University of Nairobi. “It is why we have set out to work with the Nganyi community to see how we can combine science and Indigenous forecasting so that we can come up with a more accurate model.”

A typical consultation between the rainmakers and the scientists involves each side presenting their weather predictions, and then comparing notes. “According to what we have gathered, we expect heavy rains between October and November which will then subside in mid-December before the rains stop around the second week of January,” Obedi Osore Nganyi, one of the traditional predictors, said during a research meeting held late last year. As he explained this by drawing imaginary rainfall curves in the air using his hands, the researchers from the Kenya Meteorological department nodded in agreement. Once the two sides agree on the forecast, as they did in this case, it is released to local radio stations, in public meetings, and through word of mouth.

“While we agree that traditional methods have their own limitations, we also believe that they have been very pivotal as early warning signs especially for local farmers, and this is why we are working with them, with a view to partnering and perfecting this,” Dr. Ouma added.

While meteorological forecasting focuses on wider areas of coverage, usually eight zones across Kenya, and can predict phenomena like El Niño or cyclones, Indigenous predictions focus on a smaller locality, usually a few villages. “But this local forecasting is important to us because it also helps us in [explaining] the meaning of science-based predictions to local people who need it most but who would not understand it if we explained it to them in scientific [terms],” Dr. Ouma said.

Naftali Wekesa, a small-scale cereal and horticultural farmer in Western Kenya has relied on the rainmakers to guide his farming journey for the last fifteen years. According to Wekesa, phenomenon like the heavy rains that were witnessed last year had been announced on the local radio beforehand, warning farmers to plant crops that could withstand a deluge. “So I decided to plant sorghum and cowpeas rather than corn and tomatoes, which I had prepared to,” he said, insisting that he has never gone wrong by trusting the rainmakers.  “True to their prediction, there was a heavy downpour that lasted three months.”

Monica Wanga, another farmer in Western Kenya, says she has perfected the art of interpreting key animal behaviors following years of listening to the rainmakers. She says, for example, that if she sees antelopes mating, especially after a long dry spell, then rains should be expected in less than a week. The animals don’t mate during hot seasons. “If clouds form on the eastern side of a hill, or I wake up and find no dew in the grass, then I hurriedly start preparing my farm because I know it is only a matter of time before the rains come. And they always come,” she said.

Weather predictions, and resulting interventions, are being touted by scientists like Dr. Ouma as key to insulating the most vulnerable in East Africa, the majority of whom are smallholder farmers, as weather vagaries takes a toll on farms. And they may become even more essential as climate change impacts the region’s already fragile food security situation.

According to a report on climate change and African agriculture, published by the African Climate Policy Centre, based on current trends, rising temperatures will take a steep toll on most of Africa’s staple crops. By 2050, according to the report, average production of African maize is expected to decrease by 22 percent. Sorghum production is expected to decrease by 17 percent, millet by 17 percent, groundnuts 18 percent, and cassava 8 percent.  

As climate change impacts local animals, plants, and ecosystem, which rainmakers rely on for weather predictions, it could also impact the accuracy of the predictions based on Indigenous knowledge. Dr. Musa Kumalu, a consultant on environment and climate change in Nairobi Kenya, believes that makes a marriage between conventional science and traditional weather forecasting all the more important for traditional rainmakers, farmers, and conventional scientists alike.

“Even as majority of the traditional weather forecasting systems continue being affected by changes in weather, certain aspects, like the ability of the rainmakers to tell the intensity and period of rain from the shape and color of the clouds or movement and intensity of winds, are great take aways for scientists,” he said. “We cannot afford to ignore such forecasting if we are to adapt to climate change.”

The scientists hope to replicate this project in other East African countries like Uganda and Rwanda, where vulnerable communities are staring at climate catastrophes similar to those of their Kenyan counterparts. 

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