When climate change makes gods redundant

02Sep 2019
The Guardian
When climate change makes gods redundant

THE year 2015 was a bad one for many residents of Olchoronyori village in Simanjiro District of Manyara Region. For many years the rainy season in the village used to begin by mid February but by the second week of March not a drop of rain had fallen to cool the parched soil in the village.

Communities use indigenous knowledge on forests to conduct weather forecast. File Photo


The tribal elders met to discuss the matter and decided to visit the tribal shrine in order to pray to the gods and ask for rain.

The gods did not heed to the prayers and the villagers braced for a year of water and food shortages. Eventually it rained. Scattered showers for the last two weeks of April were what made up for that year’s rainy season.

  “Things have changed. The gods no longer respond to prayers for rain offered by the elders,” says Robert Kunyae. “We now have to use traditional weather forecasting methods which sometimes also fail us,” he adds.

The village has now formed a weather forecasting group which uses indigenous knowledge to predict when the rainy season would start and so enable farmers and pastoralists to prepare for any eventuality, thanks to guidance from Tanzania Natural Resources Forum (TNRF) who is implementing the Ardhi Yetu Programme (AYP+) in the district.

The programme that is jointly implemented by TNRF and Haki Ardhi seeks to, among other things, promote land rights and ownership among community members, train communities to conserve the environment and help community members adapt to climate change using local knowledge and resources.

“AYP+ as implemented by TNRF in particular focuses on building the capacity of communities to be resilient and adaptive to climate change shocks.

This ranges from improving capacity of communities to understand the concept itself in their context and use both scientific and traditional ways of being resilient and adaptive,” explains Luhula Masalu the Coordinator of Land Programmes at TNR.

In building the capacity of communities the institution facilitated formation of Ward Adaptation and Planning Committees to assist communities in conducting participatory scenario planning to make better use of predicted rainfall and available water resources. Communities are also assisted to make and implement effective land use plans as well as manage rangelands.

The Olchoronyori  weather forecast group meets twice a month and conducts its forecast for the following 15 days using traditional indicators, after which they meet again to analyse the previous forecast for accuracy and consistency. 

In mid March this year the group conducted a weather forecast to determine when the rains would start. According to Kunyae who is the chairperson of the group, the forecast had indicated that the rainy season would have started in early April “But the season actually started on 24th April and ended in last week of May.

  Our indicators showed that the season was to last until end of June but a severe cold spell started in the beginning of June, driving away the rains.”

The teams use a number of factors to conduct weather forecasts. These include the position of particular stars in the sky, known as “Ngakwa” in Masai language. According to legend when the eight stars appear in the west on the position where the sun appears at 16hrs, then the rainy season will soon start.

Another indication that the rainy season is about to start is the blooming of the oltepes tree (known as mgunga in Kiswahili).

The full bloom of the tree’s white flowers is an indication to farmers to prepare their farms and pastoralists to bring back their livestock from other places where they had been taken for grazing during the dry season. Other signs include appearance of moisture on the top part of an anthill and the overnight bleating of goats and sheep.

The local weather forecast group in Loonderkes village in Simanjiro District has an additional indicator they use in conducting the forecast. “We also use indicators similar to the used in Olchoronyori because we have the same traditions and culture. However we also use a local bird, the Ormonguk.

When it chirps frequently then we know that it is a matter of weeks before the rainy season begins,” explains James Leshule, the secretary of the group. The bird is a local pigeon species.

In Zambia village of Kiteto District the weather forecast group uses mango trees to predict when the rainy season is likely to start. Miombo trees are also used in the forecast.

“Miombo trees shed off their leaves and new ones sprout. When these new leaves become dark green it is a sign that the rainy season is about to start. On the other hand when mango trees shed off flowers, it is also a sign that the rainy season will begin soon,” explains Rashidi Athumani Kiebi, a member of the weather forecast team.

Butterflies are an important item in forecasting the rainy season. According to some residents the insects in their various colours fly from east to west in April of every year.

“When butterflies begin their journey elders alert farmers to prepare their farms because the rainy season would soon begin. When these insects disappear, it usually means that it has started raining along the coast from Tanga to Mtwara. There would also be heavy rains in Kilindi district but little rain in Kiteto District,” explains Kiebi

Here too the night sky is put to good use when forecasting the seasons. A bright star locally known as Kilimila in Nguu language appears high in the sky from 21hrs towards the end of January or in February.

This is an indication that the rainy season is about to start. “In March the star takes the position of the midday sun, that is when the season is at its peak,” says Kiebi

However, sometimes the indicators have let down the elders and the public have nowhere to turn to for weather forecasts.

“There are instances when the indicators are simply not there. It is then we have to depend on experience from previous years and go to work on our farms but we suffer heavy losses from poor harvests,” explains Salum Juma.

“Weather forecasting is a complicated job; even the Tanzania Meteorological Authority sometimes gets it wrong,” he adds.

Weather forecasting using traditional indicators has, however, not spared communities from impacts of climate change. They still suffer from droughts and floods as well as desertification and reduced soil fertility. Land use plans have been implemented effectively but communities have also taken other measures.

“If there is no significant moisture on anthill tops, it means there would be very little or no rain at all. Under the circumstance pastoralists separate bulls from females in order to limit reproduction. There won’t be enough pasture for all the livestock if they are left to reproduce at will,” explains Moita Musa Lemalali, the chairman of Loolera village in Kiteto District.

A village assembly is also called in order to alert the public about the likely impacts so that people may buy food from elsewhere and stock it in their homes.

During the village assembly, people are also advised to sell part of their herds and use the money to buy enough food for their families.

“Over the years, villagers have effectively implemented land use plans by setting aside grazing areas that are only used during droughts,” explains Lemalali.

Perhaps the most important measure villages have taken is setting aside a common grazing area in order to ensure enough pasture for livestock and reduce conflicts.

The plan involves four villages; Amye, Loolera, Lembapuli and Lesoit, hence the ALOLLE plan, each of which has relinquished part of its land in order to form a common grazing ground. The villages also jointly manage the grazing land.

According to Lemalali, the decision to have a joint grazing land aims to curb invasion of rangelands by pastoralists from other areas. The initiative has also been supported by Kiteto District Council. “The goal is to acquire a joint Customary Certificate of Right of Occupancy for the area.

All the village chairpersons have signed the agreement to form this common grazing land so it has had the blessing of the public,” said Loolera Village chairman.

Indigenous knowledge has been vital in responding to environmental challenges including floods, droughts, disease and pest infestations, and their impacts o human life.

Many traditional societies have built up knowledge about environmental change and have developed elaborate strategies to recognize and cope with these changes. However, application of traditional knowledge systems in mitigation and adaptation to climate change has often been neglected.

Under the current situation where all sections of society reel under the impacts of climate change, traditional and indigenous knowledge can play an important role in helping communities cope with these impacts by using local resources.