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Indigenous knowledge meets science

For generations, the Nganyi people of western Kenya have served as rainmakers, helping local communities decide when best to prepare their land and sow their seeds. By observing subtle changes in nature that would be unnoticeable to most people - in air currents, the flowering and shedding of leaves of certain trees, the behaviour of ants, bird songs, even the croaking of frogs and toads - they have been able to interpret weather patterns and provide valuable advice.

But even the Nganyi have been flummoxed by climate change and the alternating cycles of droughts and floods it is inflicting.

“Climate change has come on so fast. People don’t know how to adapt or what to plant,” says Obedi Osore, a traditional Nganyi weatherman. “Our traditional crops are disappearing because they cannot handle the new conditions.

“We need new strategies to handle climate change.”

A British-Canadian project is doing just that. Launched last year, it aims to combine indigenous knowledge with modern science to build up climate change intelligence and disseminate it more widely in a community whose existence depends almost exclusively on farming.

Before the project, the credibility of the Nganyi, part of the Luhya community in far western Kenya, was being undermined both by the more extreme weather as well as by their lack of access to the satellites and computer systems used by official forecasters. “Predicting intense weather is hard because it happens so suddenly,” says Thomas Osare, another traditional forecaster. “We cannot usually know in time for people to really prepare.”

Government meteorologists, meanwhile, were struggling to be heard or believed. Now, each season they meet the traditional weathermen and together produce a consensus forecast. Once agreed, the Nganyi relay it back to the villagers – through ceremonies, public meetings and person to person, established methods of communication in communities where many cannot read or write.

“It brings me great joy because I know I am doing something useful,” says Mr Onunga, a Nganyi community elder involved in the project. “I think the two sciences are equally valid. We are marrying our energies to help people better.”

The meteorologists are also pleased with the collaboration.

“The results have been surprisingly good – the community concurred that the forecast was accurate,” says Gilbert Ouma, a University of Nairobi lecturer. “Another major breakthrough is the dissemination aspect. We have been able to deliver the message in practical, usable terms – not so much meteorological terms.”

Dr Ouma is leader of a project supported through Climate Change Adaptation in Africa (CCAA), a research and capacity development programme, backed by the UK’s Department for International Development and Canada's International Development Research Centre. At the time of its launch in 2006, it was the single largest research and capacity building initiative focusing on adaptation in Africa. Currently supporting some 46 research projects across the continent, 11 of them in Kenya, it aims to benefit the poorest and most vulnerable individuals.

It is hard to overstate the threat that global warming presents to countries in sub-Saharan Africa such as Kenya. Increasingly harsh weather conditions are compounding the difficulties of communities that are often already struggling with extreme poverty.

Africa is both the continent the least responsible for climate change as well as the one with the fewest resources to combat it. The African Union estimates that the carbon emissions of Africa’s 1 billion people are equivalent to those of Texas’s 30 million.

A report published by the International Food Policy Research Institute in September concluded that, on present patterns, the number of malnourished children in sub-Saharan Africa will jump from 33 million in 2000 to 52 million in 2050, with more than half of the increase caused by climate change.

While much of the focus in the industrialised economies has been on limiting future global warming through emissions cuts and energy efficiency, for many developing countries helping communities already affected by climate change, such as those in western Kenya, is a more immediate priority.

Professor Laban Ogallo, leader of the Nganyi project, says: “Poverty reduction is clearly related to managing the extreme weather of the region.”

“Through this project, we hope to learn what it is that we can share together to live today and to adapt to tomorrow.”