Saturday, February 20, 2016

Nganyi: The tiny forest in Kenya that predicts the weather

By Isaiah Esipisu

Nganyi forest shrine provides forecasts as accurate as those predicted through scientific equipment, and has been a valuable resource to the Bunyore community for generations. But now, climate change is threatening the forest shrine, along with other forests in East Africa.

  • "Rainmakers" in the Bunyore community observe the flora and fauna in the Nganyi forest shrine to predict weather conditions. These predictions have proved as accurate as forecasts made through scientific equipment.
  • Institutions throughout Kenya are protecting and learning from Nganyi forest, and a radio station has been established to broadcast its forecasts to the greater community.
  • But global warming has shifted East Africa's climate, drying out croplands and threatening the region's little remaining forestland – including the Nganyi forest shrine.
The Nganyi forest shrine in Esibila village, in Western Kenya may not appear on any geographical map as an important icon. But the forest, which lies on just one acre of land, has pristine biodiversity that has helped the local Bunyore community predict weather conditions for generations. Now, this culturally important forest is being threatened by climate change.

The Bunyore community is located in Kenya’s Vihiga County, which is one of the most densely populated regions in the country with an estimated 123,347 households living on 531 square kilometers of land, according to the Commission on Revenue Allocation. Its economy is largely driven by small-scale farming of crops and livestock.

Boniface Omena Omulako is one of the traditional weatherman referred to as “rainmakers” from the Nganyi community, which dates back several generations and is part of the larger Bunyore community. 

According to Omulako, the small forest has 67 known plant species, and is home reptiles, birds and insects that help in weather forecasting. The forest also has some of the oldest trees in Vihiga County.

A forest that can predict the weather
The Nganyi forest tract has been designated a shrine because of its importance to the community.

“Generally, we observe budding, flowering or shedding of leaves of specific plant species, we listen to croaking of frogs, we listen to chirping of birds, as well, we observe behaviors of local insects and animals to predict climatic and weather conditions,” said Omulako. He added that these observations have helped his community prepare for droughts and floods, and determine when to plant their crops.

Amuchama Emitundo, one of the rainmakers from the extended Nganyi community, told Mongabay that 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 that long rains are approaching. And the vice versa symbolizes dry season,” Emitundo said.

“Birds are very important creatures when it comes to sensing natural conditions,” Emitundo continued. “Indeed, many people in this community still rely on crowing of roosters to tell the time between 3 and 6 a.m.

For shorter predictions, traditional weathermen observe insects in the morning and the temperature of the dew on grasses. “We have many other things we observe before advising the community on the next step of action,” he said.

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 Bunyore 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 acceptable scientifically and by the local community.

“This was a very important discovery, and therefore there is an urgent need to protect the forest shrine, and preserve the indigenous knowledge,” said Dr. Gilbert Ouma, a researcher and lecturer at the University if Nairobi, and one of the editors of the report.

The report’s findings even prompted the Kenya Meteorological Department to commit resources to build a resource center, a community radio station and a weather station near the shrine. The Kenya Intellectual Property Institute (KIPI) and the National Museum have also involved themselves to ensure protection of the shrine and its community ownership.

Member of Parliament Dr. Wilbur Ottichilo has also pledged to protect the forest. Last year, he led community members in the planting of indigenous trees inside the shrine as a way of replenishing it.
“We will keep planting more trees with guidance from the Nganyi people to ensure that we protect the biodiversity that has been part of us for generations,” said the legislator.

Broadcasting the forest’s forecasts to the community
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, many projects are in the works to help people in the Bunyore community access the information their forest and their meteorological station are providing.
The Kenya Meteorological Department has built and equipped a resource center, which will eventually have a library, a climate information center, and a community computer center; it already has a broadcasting community radio station. The Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), an eight-country African trade bloc, supported the project.

“This will be our center for excellence where researchers, students and tourists will be meeting to learn about weather forecasting and cultural values for the Bunyore community,” said Peter Mulwale, the Nganyi Community Radio Station Chief Executive Officer.

According to local weathermen, the community radio station, which broadcasts in the local Olunyole dialect, has simplified distribution of the forecasts.

“Before we got this radio station, the only way we could disseminate the forecast results was through the word of mouth, through funerals, churches, chief’s meetings among other local means,” Omulako said.”But with the station within our disposal, it has become so easy to reach out to the masses.”

Less than two years after it went on air, “Nganyi RANET Community Radio,” locally known as “Anyole Radio” because it targets the Bunyore community who call themselves “Anyole” has become a valuable asset to the community, where many people keep glued on their radio sets listening to different programs, while other access the signal via mobile phones.

“We have made it our duty to give weather information based on the integrated result from the indigenous rainmakers and the Meteorological department every hour,” Mulwale told Mongabay.
The station focuses mainly on climate-related issues, market information, agriculture and emerging technologies.

The station also invites traditional forecasters at least three times a week for a call-in session, so that listeners can ask questions about the prevailing weather conditions.

“This radio station is very important for our survival as smallholder farmers,” said Monica Namale, a smallholder farmer from Essong’olo village in Buyore. “If it were not for the station’s warning that the prevailing rainfall is not suitable for planting maize, I would have already wasted my seed and fertilizer,” she said, referring to the ongoing El Nino rains in the country.

“In a program just two days ago, the radio advised us to use the prevailing rainfall to plant vegetables and related fast maturing crops because it is going to be very dry in the month of March,” she narrated.

According to Dr. Ouma, 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,” he told Mongabay.

To spread the lessons of the tree shrine to an even wider audience, the Great Lakes University of Kisumu has integrated the Nganyi indigenous forecasting knowledge into its curriculum on disaster risk management. Dr. Ouma has also written a book in collaboration with other scientists. It presents a case study of the Nganyi people, showing how the local, indigenous knowledge can be used to improve early warning systems to enhance community resilience to the impacts of climate change.

“The Nganyi community rainmakers have a lot of information about the forest shrine, and general understanding of weather and climatic conditions, which has for years been passed from one generation to another in an oral form,” said Dr. Ouma. “But in this digital era, we decided to document some of it so that it can benefit many more interested people who have not been able to visit the community,” he said.

A changing climate
Residents say that rainfall patterns have changed drastically in recent times, which has made planting preparation more difficult and is also affecting the Nganyi forest shrine. Global warming appears to be to blame, shifting the climate and drying out equatorial Africa.

“In my youthful days, my mother always soaked non-hybridized maize seeds as from April 22 each year, knowing that long rains would begin between April 25 and 27,” said Sheldon Mandu, a 71 year old smallholder farmer from Ebusakami village in Vihiga County. Such non-hybridized seeds are usually soaked as a quality control measure, so that healthy ones can germinate before they are planted. This helps the farmers to avoid planting unhealthy seeds.

But now, Mandu says, it has become nearly impossible to predict when long rainfall seasons are likely to begin.

Scientists attribute this change to global warming, which is changing atmospheric water cycles in Africa and around the world. This, in turn, is having big impacts on communities that rely on stable weather patterns for their livelihoods.

A report by the Alliance for Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) underscores that rapid and uncertain changes in precipitation and temperature patterns in sub-Saharan Africa threaten food production and increase the vulnerability of smallholder farmers, which can result in food price shocks and increased rural poverty.

One way to adapt to the situation, according to Dr. Ouma, is to arm farmers and other rural residents with weather information, such as how Anyole Radio is providing forecasts to the Bunyore community.
“Giving accurate and timely early warning information to guide farming activities is an important strategy for climate change adaptation in Africa, because many communities run rain-fed agriculture based economies,” Ouma said.

The same changing conditions that are responsible for Kenya’s now-fluctuant climate may also be shrinking the Nganyi shrine, affecting the forest’s rich biodiversity that provides vital signs for forecasting.

“It is unfortunate that the plant population in this shrine is reducing, forcing some insects, birds and reptiles to flee. This is not good for our community,” said Emitundo said.

In the same vein, villagers are forbidden from using any plant material from the shrine, in the belief doing so will provoke the anger of the gods associated with rain-making.

“If anyone harvests a piece of wood, dry or fresh from the shrine, it provokes the gods, whose result is heavy hailstorms that destroy crops, houses and property,” Emitundo told Mongabay.

As a result, people who live near the shrine keep watch to ensure that nobody picks anything from the forest. However, elders and traditional medicine men are allowed to gather herbs from the forest as long as they do not uproot any tree or a shrub.

Because of this stringent community protection, trees that fell within the shrine years ago are slowly decomposing untouched – despite the area’s dense human population and high demand for firewood and timber.

The community is also replanting trees that have been lost to changing weather patterns.
“We have been protecting it for years, but the harsh climatic conditions are unforgiving,” Emitundo said. “So we just have to keep replanting some of the important trees and shrubs so that we do not lose the biodiversity within.”

Article published by Morgan Erickson-Davis (Mongabay) on February 19, 2016.

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