For nine generations, millions of people across western Kenya have trusted one family of traditional rainmakers to predict local rain patterns. The Nganyi forest shrine in Western Kenya may not pop up on any geographical map as a salient icon. But the forest, which lies on just an acre of land, has a flawless diverseness that has helped the family predict weather conditions for their communities for generations. Now, this culturally important forest is being threatened by climate change.
Boniface Omena is one of the traditional weathermen referred to as “rainmakers” from the Nganyi community who are part of the larger Bunyore community of Western Kenya. He inherited the role to head the group of traditional rainmakers from his father who passed on a few years back.
“Having this knowledge is an honor. It is very important. It helps people know when to prepare the land when to sow their seeds, and because of us, they can work and always have a good harvest. It brings me great joy, because I know I am doing something useful.” Says Boniface
Sworn to secrecy, The Nganyi rainmakers are able to forecast rainfall based on subtle things in the natural world that most people would never notice or look for.
“To predict weather conditions, we observe budding, flowering, or shedding of leaves of specific indigenous trees species. We listen to the croaking of frogs and the chirping of birds. And we observe behaviors of insects and animals,” Boniface says.
These observations have helped his community prepare for droughts and floods, and determine when to plant their crops.
Fellow rainmaker Obedi Osore says for a long-time forecast, they observe migration patterns of birds and insects.
“If you see a colony of bees migrating from downstream to the upper land, it clearly means long rains are approaching. And the vice versa symbolizes dry season,” Obedi says.
Birds are very important creatures when it comes to sensing natural conditions for the community. Indeed, many people in this community still rely on the crowing of roosters to tell the time between 3 am and 6 am. For shorter predictions, the Nganyi rainmakers observe insects in the morning and the temperature of the dew on grasses.
The community is predominantly made up of subsistent farmers living on small plots of land in an increasingly hostile climate. The place is densely populated, and the families incidentally are large. The loyalty and dependency by the community on the forecasts made by the Nganyi Rainmakers have seen them capture the attention of other communities living around Lake Victoria.
Amuchama Emitundo – a member of Nganyi rainmakers says, “Many people across Western Kenya use our forecasts. The knowledge is used in various provinces around Lake Victoria, and I’d say four to five million people rely on it for their farming.”
Over the years, rainfall patterns have changed drastically. Africa is among the regions that are most vulnerable to climate change due to its high dependency on rain-fed agriculture and lack of adapting strategies. Global warming appears to be to blame, shifting the climate and drying out equatorial Africa. In Kenya, rainfall trends show mixed signals with some locations indicating increasing trends in recent years, while majority do not show any significant trends.
This has made planting preparation more difficult and is also affecting the Nganyi forest shrine. The rainmakers’ predictions have become vague as a result
“Climate change has come so fast; the world has changed. It’s harder to make good predictions.” “we are destroying the natural vegetation, and runoff is degrading the soil. People don’t know how to adapt, or what to plant in their farms. Sometimes we have no food because of the harsh weather; Our traditional crops are disappearing because they can’t handle the new conditions. We need new strategies to handle the climate change issue.” Says Obedi – one of the rainmakers
The task entrusted to the rainmakers is experiencing heavy tides as a result of climate change. On the other hand, Government meteorologists in Kenya have satellites and other technologies to better forecast extreme weather in time, but they lack credibility in the community network where the Nganyi rainmakers have built up over hundreds of years.
“We’ve had adverse climate effects. Prolonged droughts and prolonged rains causing floods, and that really affect the economic activities of the communities” David Onala – Kenya scientific meteorologist who works with the Nganyi community.
The Nganyi forest shrine isn’t just important to local communities. International scientists have also taken notice, following a 2012 report that found blending traditional weather predictions with modern science may provide a more accurate forecast.
For their report, researchers with the Climate Change Adaption in Africa (CCAA) program – a collaboration between international organizations and Kenyan scientists – recorded data from a meteorological weather station near the Nganyi community for two seasons. They then compared its results with predictions made by indigenous forecasters who use the forest shrine as their main tool.
They found that both forecasts were correct. Because of this, the researchers recommended the use of both meteorological data and indigenous knowledge should be combined to form accurate predictions that are accepted scientifically and by the local community
Through the Nganyi indigenous knowledge adaptation project, the native weathermen and the government’s modern meteorologists are working together.
“We are embracing the IK (Indigenous Knowledge) and integrating it with modern science because we have been trying to reach the communities and when we issue our forecasts which is modern science, most of the people still depend on their local traditional forecasters.” David Onala – Kenya Meteorological Department
Since the adaptation of the Nganyi indigenous knowledge, The Kenyan government has established a resource center at the Nganyi community. Equipped with a library, a climate information center, and a community radio station that broadcasts in the local dialect and covering an area of approximately 30 km all round, and a modern scientific weather station that is managed by the government.
The Nganyi forecasters and the Government meteorologists meet occasionally to discuss the predictions and come up with a consensus before releasing an official forecast to the public. Once the forecasts are made, government agencies issue advisories for each region to help people take the proper precautionary measures
According to Dr. Gilbert Ouma – a researcher and lecturer at the University if Nairobi, and one of the editors of the (CCAA) report, the traditional forecasters provide more location-specific weather information, while the meteorological forecast lends a general picture. “From the scientific data, we can tell the weather condition in a particular region on a wider scale, while the traditional forecasters are able to narrow down to a smaller radius and give accurate and specific predictions for the local area,”
Getting an accurate weather forecast is important. But a forecast doesn’t have much use unless it is given to the people who need it. To that end, the community radio station helps the inhabitants of the area access the information their forest and their meteorological station are providing.
“I think the two “sciences” are equally legitimate. When we went to a meeting with the Kenya Meteorological Department, our predictions were basically the same. We all want to help people grow food, so instead of competing and arguing, we are marrying our energies to help people live better.” – Boniface Omena (Nganyi rainmaker)