A mystery called climate change

How much do Malawians believe in the scientific explanation that climate change brings dry spells? Does this connection really make sense to them? Ephraim Nyondo explores.

Chididi village in T/A Malemia, Nsanje, is located in the hills, almost 50 km west of the boma. The village, with different others surrounding it, is guarded by chains of mountains well covered in green. There is hardly a bare spot within the mountains with sights of trees lying dry, carelessly cut.

The winds are calm and moist; the trees in the hills breathe a fresh breeze down to the people in the villages. When you are in Chididi, it is difficult to believe you are in Nsanje, a district defined by scorching heat. It is nice here.

The soils are dark, loamy and fertile.  With rivers that water the life running all year round, Chididi, according to locals, has always been the breadbasket of the district. Villages in the low-lying areas of Nsanje rely on maize from Chididi.

But this year, it is doubtful if the ‘breadbasket’ status will be maintained. Something strange and unprecedented has happened to the village and people are surprised.

Rains change pattern

People in Chididi are basically subsistence maize farmers who largely depend on the promise of good rains.

As such, a slight distortion to the rainfall pattern is suicide to their lives. Certainly, the suicide happened in the last three months of 2011 in the village.

Jasinawo Jasinawo, 79, is a local from the village whose precise and detailed understanding of rainfall pattern and history in the village is quite interesting.

“This village has always been blessed with rains.  That is why our harvests have always been encouraging. However, this does not suggest that there haven’t been moments where the rains had been erratic along the way,” says Jasinawo.

He continues: “We experienced a dry spell in 1949. It was time when people were constructing the Thodi road which connects us to the boma. Luckily, people received food and money which cushioned them from problem. We did not feel the consequence of the dry spell the most.”

Jasinawo continues that the dry spell followed again in 1975.

“The rains came. We received the first rains on 25 December but they did not last long. Our harvest was greatly affected. In 2002, the same thing happened. Food shortage was all over the village. We lived as destitutes. And it was terrible.”

But the dry spell that slapped the village the last three months of 2011 is one whose scale has eluded Jasinawo.

“I am equally shocked. Really shocked,” says Jasinawo during an interview in December when everybody in village couldn’t understand what had befallen them.

There was a big reason for the shock. One of the villagers, Jenaford Kamkoche, chips to substantiate; “Usually, we plant our maize in October, especially between 15th and 24th. But this year was different. Rains came in November. It was on 3rd November. Luckily it was just after we had received the maize crops and fertilisers. Then we planted and applied fertiliser,” says Kamkoche.

He adds: “The rains continued for some three days. The maize grew with promise. Green was all over. But after a week, the rains stopped. The dry spell had begun and you know the scorching heat in Nsanje. The maize started to wilt and wilt until it became yellow and lifeless. Now we are left without choice. We just have to uproot this, so that when chances come we can replant.”

It was not the uprooting of their wilted knee-high maize that baffled Jasinawo the most. There is something more.

“The dry spell we are experiencing has even dried up our rivers. This is quite extra-ordinary, something unprecedented. Look at Chididi River. It is a source of our life. We draw water for our domestic purposes from it. But now it has dried up. Women wake up early in the morning and travel long distances just to get water from distant rivers. This is strange,” he explains.

Is climate change the cause?

In event of every tragedy that befalls a village or a nation, the first step out of it is to seek its cause. What causes dry spells? Why should rains come like this?

Jasinawo looked quite perplexed with the question.  In fact, it took him some time to open his mouth and express a thought. It was one tough question.

“We hear it is the change of the climate. We just hear so. There are times dark clouds dent the skies and we all hope that here are the rains. Suddenly, winds begin to blow and scare the clouds home. No rains. Perhaps it’s really climate change,” he says.

He adds: “Our advisors from the boma and other NGOs have been coming teaching us about climate change. They say the problem of climate change is mostly the result of careless cutting down of trees.”

It is on careless cutting down of trees where Jasinawo becomes confused with the adage of climate. He struggles, just as so many, to connect how the two work.

“Look at our village,” he points to the mountain side, “we are well guarded by mountains that have thickets of green trees. We have been very protective of trees here. We rarely cut down trees here because we believe it’s where our ancestors live. So when they talk about careless cutting down of trees, which trees have we cut down?”

Jasinawo believes there must be something more to the dry spells than just cutting down of trees which causes climate change.

“We need to sit down as elders. There must be something behind this. We believe that nothing happens without a reason. But I really doubt if that reason is climate change alone. Perhaps it can, because we have been taught so. But…,” he broke into laughter fused with confusion.

How other locals respond

In most African communities, dry spells are spiritual issues. People do not regard them as a problem caused by the changing climate but the expression of the wrath of gods.

Among the Ngonde in Karonga, when a dry spell falls, people go to the shrine to plead forgiveness from the gods. The day before they go to the shrine, everybody is ordered not to light fire. It is day of common fasting for the rains.

In Balaka in Sub T/A Amidu’s area a dry spell prompts local leaders to call for a rain making ritual kachisi to appease the Gods with humility and sacrifices of maize flour and sweet beer (thobwa).



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