Herdsmen and farmers look for reasons for the drought in East Africa
Aa few years way back, before the great drought, Molu Golbowa looked into the belly of a goat and saw the impending disaster. Some of his neighbors listened and sold their animals while they could. Others scoffed at his predictions. The old ways were idolatry, said a local sheikh.
And then the rains failed for five seasons in a row. The plains of northern Kenya turned to dust, swept by a gusty wind. Animals fell dead from starvation and disease. What was the reason? “God knows,” said Huri Mahabolle, a shepherd who lost all but 14 of his 150 goats.
Only half of Africans have heard about climate change, according to surveys by Afrobarometer, a pollster. That’s not to say they don’t know it. The symptoms are everywhere. The drought in the Horn of Africa that started in 2020 and is only now reducing tens of thousands of lives.
But in Marsabit county, not many people talk about greenhouse gases. At a women’s group, Shuke Guyo suggests that God is punishing people for fighting over pasture and water. When the clans made peace this year, the rains returned. Only one of her friends, clutching a smartphone, sees carbon emissions as a more likely cause.
This is not politically charged climate skepticism, of the kind known in the West. Instead, the locals treat anthropogenic climate change as just one more possibility in a world where indigenous beliefs, Abrahamic religions and modern education coexist. Elders remember a time when they would pray to traditional gods and the rain would fall so fast that it would wash away the footprints that brought you there”. Rituals like this have been fading for decades under the influence of sinister preachers, some from as far away as Saudi Arabia or Ethiopia, who have introduced stricter forms of Islam and Christianity. Equally important in erasing the old ways are schools and the internet. Young people would rather read social media than the stars.
But these religions also offer supernatural explanations. In February William Ruto, the president of Kenya and an evangelical Christian, asked God to “send us the rain” in a national day of prayer against drought. There is nothing particularly African about this scene. One in ten Americans say climate change is not a real problem because God is in control.
Studies in various African countries find that people blame changing weather patterns on local deforestation, divine will or even, on the beautiful island of Zanzibar, the tragic sins of tourists foreign Farmers in northern Ghana, for example, indicate that traditional values are eroding: trees are being felled with abandon and people are no longer offering sacrifices to the ancestors and gods.
In Marsabit the locals listen for the radio weather forecast and for caller warnings, without fully trusting either. They complain that meteorologists expected another failed season in April, which instead brought enough rain. Among a group of elders who have gathered to play sadhek, a board game, there is talk that the relief is only temporary. They have heard from a man who can dream about the future. He says that conflict and drought will return. ■
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