When I was growing up, I was a big fan of Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House on the Prairie series. In her book, The Long Winter, she talks about how her father noticed the thickness of the walls of a muskrat home, and how this suggested a very cold winter was on its way. She also wrote of an American Indian who came into town and warned Laura's "Pa" that seven months of blizzards were coming. Sure enough, a severe winter, lasting several months, bringing blizzard after blizzard, ensued.
Tuning Into the Voice of Nature
Relying on cues from our natural surroundings to determine, many weeks, even months ahead of time, what sort of weather is on its way is an unfamiliar concept to those of us used to relying on modern technology. With radars and satellites to help us determine weather patterns now, we forget that, once upon a time, the natural world told us what the weather would be doing later.
The art is not totally lost, however. Members of indigenous cultures often still know how to read signals from the natural world to predict the weather. Kenya's Nganyi Rainmakers are one example. The Nganyi are members of the Luhya Tribe that primarily lives in Western Kenya, and they have been traditional weather forecasters for local communities for nine generations.
Relying on natural cues, such as when vegetation flowers or drops its leaves, and how insects and animals behave, they have been able to advise fellow Kenyans, many who are subsistence farmers, with rainfall predictions. This has helped communities know the best time to prepare their land, and sow seeds for a good harvest.
The Voice of Climate Change Means Having to Learn a New Language
However, climate change has proved challenging for the Nganyi Rainmakers. As one of them states, changes in climate have happened so quickly, people are no longer sure what to plant on their farms. Traditional crops have struggled under drought and flood conditions, and the Rainmakers have found it difficult to accurately predict extreme weather that often arrives suddenly.
At the same time, modern technology lack credibility within the communities. And so a logical solution was born: let the two traditions, traditional and modern, inform each other. This marriage of ancient and modern resulted in the Nganyi Indigenous Knowledge Adaptation Project, and has brought the Rainmakers and the Kenya Meteorology Department together.
Each season, the create a "consensus forecast." The Nganyi are then able to use their longstanding reputation to disseminate the information and help their communities better prepare for the upcoming season. And the modern world is able to learn more about the Nganyi's traditional wisdom.
Marrying the Traditional and the Modern to Face Today's Climate Challenges
As a result of the project, the Nganyi Rainmaker's knowledge is being documented, and "The improved understanding of indigenous forecasting knowledge is being integrated into university curriculum on disaster risk management [that is] being developed at the Great Lakes University of Kisumu."
That their knowledge is being preserved, and incorporated into university curriculum is inspiring. It's a sign that some are waking up to the fact that indigenous knowledge has much to teach us about understanding the natural world.
As one Nganyi Rainmaker said, "Each part of nature is important for what we do. Everything has a role; if one thing goes, everything starts to go." Seeing the web of life so clearly, as opposed to seeing life divided and categorized into so many parts, is vital to remember as we attempt to move toward a sustainable future.
Check out this National Geographic article: The Key to Addressing Climate Change -Indigenous Knowledge