Science, traditional beliefs at odds in fight against climate change

He lived with his grandfather who was a rainmaker back in the 1940s and in his teens he participated in rainmaking ceremonies.

And today Nekias Mukwindidza (85), a villager from Zimunya in Mutare district, is still persuaded that solutions to recurring droughts bedeviling most parts of Manicaland province can be determined by spirit mediums.

Climate change triggers some of the most polarised debates, with some saying that it is all just hot air. But for many rural communities it is more of lack of knowledge than cynicism.

“We can talk of scientific precautions, but the solution to these recurrent droughts cannot be found in science. Our solutions lie with our spirit mediums not scientists,” Mukwindidza declared during an interview recently.

Break these curses

“I have firsthand experience of rainmaking ceremonies as I lived with my grandfather who was a spirit medium and rainmaker in Zimunya area in the 1940s. Local people used to consult him when there was a drought and he could bring rainfall even when there was no sign of rainfall. And of course evil people could cause droughts using supernatural powers and the spirit mediums had the powers to break these curses,” he added with nostalgia of the rainmaking ceremonies.

His sentiments, though at variance with contemporary science, are shared by many people of the older generation in Zimunya area, with rainmaking ceremonies still a widespread practice before the onset of every summer season.

And with the area experiencing recurring droughts since 1992, many people have been accused of causing the devastating droughts through the use of magical powers. Crops and livestock have been wiped out by these droughts, with many people surviving on food hand-outs from western donors.

Two snakes

One such unlucky villager to be accused of using magical powers to cause drought was Abisha Matimbe who was hauled before Chief Zimunya’s traditional court a few years ago after his niece Tsitsi alleged that she and his uncle used two snakes – a python and a cobra- to stop the rains from falling during the 2009/10 farming season. The accusation torched wild rumours in Zimunya, with some people with fertile senses of wit and exaggeration extravagantly claiming that the Zimbabwe National Parks and Wildlife Authority had tried to capture the snakes but the python could not fit in a 30-ton truck.

Matimbe’s neighbours in Bvirindi Village about 65 kilometres south east of Mutare claimed he kept the snakes in his small plot at the confluence of Odzi and Mpudzi rivers. Matimbe however insisted he had no snakes neither had he had powers to stop the rains.

People hate me

At the height of the allegations, Matimbe took this journalist on an inch by inch excursion of his plot which like any fields at that time in the area had wilting crops but no snake could be found.

“People hate me because I am a good farmer, that’s all. I don’t have any snakes, which I’m using to stop the rains. Look, my crops have also been affected by the dry spell. I also need the rains just like anyone else,” Matimbe said. Sadly, however, unconfirmed reports this year say Matimbe died of distress related to the accusations and was reported to have lost his marbles too.

Unsettling and sad as it may be, Matimbe’s story highlights widespread lack of information regarding climate change among rural communities, not only in Zimunya but across the whole country.

Evil people

A village elder, Timothy Zimunya (72) said: “Some evil people just want to be worshipped; some just want to see people suffering and cause droughts. When the rains does not come we used to consult our spirit mediums who could give us direction and in most cases these spirit mediums would break the curse by the evil people and it would start to rain. But today we no longer have reliable spirit mediums”.

Another villager, Tongesai Marandure expressed doubt over the new breed of spirit mediums saying they were phony. He gave a case of a spirit medium consulted over the recurring droughts and claimed that a conservation farming programme initiated by an NGO in some parts of Mutare district had angered the gods resulting in the droughts.

“But it was just a bad farming season. The NGOs might come up with new crops against the backdrop of droughts but the communities need to be educated first. In some areas it is taboo to grow crops like millet and I don’t know how these people can be convinced. We need to embrace new farming methods to survive the recurring droughts – but policy makers need to take into consideration various beliefs and traditions,” Marandure said

Experts explain

Whereas all eyes were on Matimbe over recurring droughts in Zimunya, climate change experts had a different explanation to the devastating droughts in the 2009/10 farming season. The head of the Climate Change office in Zimbabwe, Washington Zhakata, told journalists at the time that the poor rainfall in the Zimbabwe during that season was a result of the El-Niño phenomenon.

“The El-Nino conditions are experienced in the Pacific Ocean but have serious implications on the weathers patterns in Zimbabwe. Under El-Nino conditions, 70 percent chances are of drought in Zimbabwe,” Zhakata said. He added that the country had been experiencing poor harvests since 1992 due to climate change-induced droughts. “We had a serious drought in 1992/93. Since then we have never had a good farming season in the entire country. We are advising farmers to embrace new farming methods and plant short season varieties to mitigate the effects of climate change,” Zhakata said.

An expert on climate change adaption and mitigation strategies, Lawrence Nyagwande said there was need for farmers to diversify into beekeeping as an alternative to growing crops.

Lucrative venture

“With proper government support beekeeping can be a lucrative venture. Beekeepers don’t harvest honey only, but they can also harvest pollen. From my recent experiences in China, pollen can be harvested and bring a lot of money to farmers as it has a ready international market. Honey products can be used to treat various diseases hence the need for government support in research and production of these products. Tablets from propolis can used to treat blood pressure, diabetes and ulcers among others,” said Nyagwande, who is also the head of Environment Africa in Manicaland province.

Nyagwande added that there was need for the government and NGOs to involve the youths in their climate change initiatives so that they can be used as conduits to penetrate rural communities.

“As Environment Africa, we have managed to infiltrate rural communities through involving youths in these communities and if the programme is a success it will be easy to bring in the conservative elders aboard. This has been very successful in our programmes,” he said.

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Post published in: Environment
  • Donette Read Kruger

    Everyone knows that once all our very sacred wetlands/vleis/swamps are all sold off to commercial multinationals and drained to build on, there will be even less rain now than ever. These potholes of the world are Nature’s own into which the land floods, and then is drained through all the debris of leaves and grass etc., down to the water-table beneath to provide us with clean drinking water. No doubt Nekias’ Zimunya Grandfather used one of these sacred wetlands for his prayers, because that is what they are. Sacred.