'Maybe God is angry': Science, religion and tradition at forefront of climate change response


When farmers in many parts of southern Africa decide to plant their crops each year, they rely on generations of learned knowledge about seasons and the weather. Or they'll wait for the go-ahead from a traditional leader. Or they may believe that their fate lies in the hands of God. How, then, do extension officers work with local communities to spread the word about the latest seasonal forecasts, as temperatures across the region rise, rains are less predictable, and the seasons no longer arrive when they should? Farmers’ stories from Namibia and Botswana give some insights, writes LEONIE JOUBERT*

When the drought first swept the northern Namibian region of Omusati in 2013, people were going hungry, and it hit their livestock herds, too. France Tjilondelo’s (not his real name) says there wasn’t enough food for the family’s small herds of cattle and goats in that first year of drought.

Two years later, when agricultural extension officers were warning them to sell their animals because the drought still wasn’t about to break, some farmers preferred to wait on God, than rely on scientific forecasts. But since these animals are an important form of savings, not selling could put their investments at risk of starvation.

“We are waiting on what type of drought is God going to bring,” Tjilondelo told visitors to his village in 2017.

Extension officers faced a dilemma: how to convince farmers to take heed of the scientific climate forecasts for that season, when some preferred to hold on to their traditional views that drought was God’s work, that only God knew how long it would last for, or how much worse it would get.

“Maybe God is angry,” one farmer speculated.

This is what researchers from the University of Namibia (UNAM) and the University of Cape Town’s ASSAR (Adaptation at Scale in Semi-Arid Regions) research project found when they visited the area between 2015 and 2017, to test how vulnerable people here are to climate change, and how they respond during times of drought.

“This is a widely held belief in places like northern Namibia. Some farmers believe that things like rainfall cannot be predicted, because these are dependent on the will of God,” explains Angela Chappel, researcher with ASSAR, a research consortium working in semi-desert regions in Africa and India.

Namibia’s national meteorological services produces seasonal climate forecasts, which it circulates to farmers mostly through radio broadcasts which reach about 90% of the Namibian population.

But government officials have noticed that some farmers don’t respond to these forecasts. When researchers spoke with farmers to see how they made decisions about crop planting times or livestock herd management they found that some were influenced by a fatalism that comes with the belief that climate and weather are things beyond anyone’s control, and that the matter was in God’s hands.

Religious faith was one of the barriers which researchers found was contributing to why some Namibian farmers don’t embrace climate forecasts produced by the meteorological services. Another reason, though, was that many farmers preferred to stick with the farming approaches they knew and trusted.

Farmers told the ASSAR researchers that they usually plant their crops according to traditional calendar dates, between mid-December to mid-February, even if the scientific climate forecasts indicate that the rainfall that season will be earlier or later than normal and extension officers were warning to adapt their planting schedules accordingly.

These traditional forecasting methods aren’t unique to Namibia, and are practised widely in southern Africa. In Botswana, for example, ASSAR researcher Bonolo Mosime found that ‘farmers will keep an eye on flowering trees, the position of stars, and whether or not the clouds become ‘pregnant’, to decide how much rain will come that season and when to plant’.

Meanwhile, ASSAR’s Janet Selato found that the tradition of Letsema in Botswana means that farmers need to wait on the word of the village leader before they can plant or harvest, even if a seasonal forecast indicates that the rains will come earlier or later than normal.

Working with communities

Communities like France Tjilondelo’s are at the coalface of climate change: they’re subsisting in remote agriculture-dependent rural economies, in semi-arid parts of the subcontinent that are already drought stressed but nevertheless dependent on rain to support their crops and herds. Responding to forecasts which warn of delayed rains, or extended years of drought, can help farmers change the timing of when they plant, or switch to more drought-tolerant crop varieties. How to get communities to take heed of these forecasts?

“In Botswana, many farmers told us that the rain is controlled by God, and a few said that they don’t use the forecasts because they trust in God. In their view, rain is natural and made by God, so humans cannot say it won’t rain,” explains Selato who, together with Mosime, spoke with some 84 farmers in the Bobirwa district in eastern Botswana in July 2016.

Mosime found that some farmers believed that the ancestors controlled the rains and that they should just trust the ancestors. However, they also found examples of farmers who relied on both, the scientific forecasts and their own inherited knowledge of the environment.  One Botswana farmer told them that he trusted the meteorological service’s forecast, because he would also read the clouds, and his observations of the environment would confirm what the scientists were telling him about this season’s forecast, says Selato. The farmer said that the scientific forecasts and the traditional forecasts were often in agreement.  The solution, therefore, is not to replace forecasts that are based on traditional methods of observing the natural environment with seasonal climate forecasts that are based on modelling processes, but to find ways to integrate these forecasts into integrated knowledge systems, so that farmers can slowly adapt to changing conditions. The ACDI researchers argue that there is an opportunity here to work with traditional norms and religious beliefs, rather than against them, in order to help farmers become more flexible and resilient as the climate continues to warm and, in these parts, likely dry too.

“Participatory processes are needed to bring together local forecast information with national meteorological forecasts to provide more relevant forecasts that are tailored to local contexts.

Traditional and religious leaders can also act as knowledge brokers and champions to promote the uptake of climate smart agricultural practices,” explains ASSAR’s Dr Dian Spear.

If development agencies and governments communicate climate-smart practices in a way that reminds people they can take these measures as a way of protecting what is sacred, farmers might be more likely to include them in the way they manage their farms and herds.

*This article was funded by ASSAR (Adaptation at Scale in Semi-Arid Regions), a research consortium looking at climate change in semi-arid parts of Africa and India. This editorial is the 3rdpart of a 6 part series written by South African science writer and author Leonie Joubert

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