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“I am convinced that climate change, and what we do about it, will define us, our era, and ultimately the global legacy we leave for future generations. Today, the time for doubt has passed”.  Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, 24 September 2007

All earlier geological epochs have resulted from natural processes, but the changes currently being experienced by the planetary ecosystem are anthropogenic—human-induced. Our over-reliance on fossil fuels and unsustainable economic practices have led to irreversible climate changes. The two significant causes of climate change are the excessive use of carbon-based energy sources that emit most greenhouse gases and a consumption model that outstrips the available resources.

While wealthy nations are the largest emitters of greenhouse gases, poor developing countries that cause the least emissions are the most affected by climate change. For instance, the African continent contributes the least to greenhouse gas emissions but is disproportionately affected by climatic changes. With 17 per cent of the global population, Africa contributes a paltry 2 to 3 per cent of CO2 while the US, with 4 per cent of the world’s population, generates 14 per cent of global CO2 emissions.

The changes in climate mainly manifest in the increase of the global temperature that has been rising since record keeping began in the 1880s, with 2016 and 2020 being the hottest years on record and 2011-2020 being the warmest decade. The change results in extreme events and increased frequency of natural hazards such as droughts, floods, storms, hurricanes and wildfires, often with catastrophic consequences for human life and livelihoods.

These climatic hazards pose existential threats to societies that directly rely on natural capital for their livelihoods. This is particularly the case for Africa, where the vast majority of the population depends for their livelihoods on activities that are primarily rainfall-dependent, such as rain-fed crop production and livestock rearing. These livelihood activities are highly susceptible to climate-related hazards and shocks, rendering rural households vulnerable to shifts and changes in the climate.

Climate change creates favourable conditions for the spread of diseases and the establishment of invasive alien species. For instance, areas previously not mosquito-prone due to low temperatures are now likely to become malaria zones. Since the populations in such areas lack immunity towards the disease, they are likely to be more susceptible than those who inhabit regions prone to malaria. Extreme weather patterns also cause an increase in resource-based conflicts and population displacement—the number of climate refugees is on the rise.

The response by governments—particularly those of rich nations—to address the underlying causes of climate change remain unsatisfactory. Forecasting and early warning systems remain poor in developing countries due to limited meteorological capacities, making it difficult to ascertain the extent and the impact of climate change. On the other hand, local communities rely on their indigenous knowledge and practice to makes forecasts and adapt to the changing climate.

Indigenous knowledge and climate change 

Indigenous communities are not victims of climate change; they are holders of vast intergenerational indigenous knowledge that is critical to climate change mitigation and adaptation. With advances in science, these local knowledge systems have been disregarded as they are perceived as not based on any scientific principles. In recent decades, however, there has been a realization that local communities have developed intricate knowledge systems that are used to forecast climatic events, plan resource use, and adapt to climatic changes. Climate change and resilience experts are calling for the integration of local knowledge systems with scientific know-how to develop sustainable responses to the challenges of climate change.

Indigenous communities are not victims of climate change; they are holders of vast intergenerational indigenous knowledge that is critical to climate change mitigation and adaptation.

Pastoralist communities have borne the brunt of climate change. In contrast, pastoralism has evolved to adapt to the changing climate; an increase in hazardous climatic effects often catches pastoralist communities on the back foot. However, their sustained livestock production systems within marginal environments is testimony that their knowledge systems and practices have somehow enabled them to navigate the vagaries of climatic hazards.

While the pastoralist communities of northern Kenya are of different ethnic backgrounds, the basic tenets of their local knowledge systems are similar and interlinked.

The Borana community is a Cushitic community that inhabits the rangelands of southern Ethiopia and northern Kenya. The Borana have a rich indigenous knowledge system that helps them make decisions within the highly variable environment in which they produce.

Holders of knowledge and its application

Knowledge holders and knowledge types are diverse and are used in a triangulating way to reduce the uncertainty associated with forecasting. The sources of the knowledge are also varied. They include observing the behaviour of livestock and wild animals and the observation of constellations, ultimately co-relating these observations over time and space using rich oral traditions.

Primary to the forecasting knowledge of the Borana is the detailed 12-month calendar that comprises twelve lunar months (Abraasa, Ammaji, Gurandhalaa, Bittateesa, Caamsa, Buufa, Wacabaji, Obora Gudda, Obara Diqqaa, Birraa, Ciqqaaqaa, Sadaasaa) with each month having 27 days (ayyana). The reckoning of the ayyana is based on a lunar cycle similar to that of the Mayan, Hindu and Chinese calendar. The custodians of this knowledge are called ayyaantu. They use a deep understanding of the constellations to keep track of the calendar days. The ayyaantu help with understanding seasonality and foretell the timing and intensity of rainfall occurrences based on the stars. Ayyaantu’s knowledge is hereditary—a father passes it on to a selected son who passes it on in the same fashion. Under certain circumstances, others from a non-ayyaantu family may also be trained by the ayyaantu. This ensures the passing down of knowledge in cases where a direct heir to the knowledge is lacking. For in-depth learning, a son’s only duty is to study during his father’s lifetime; an ayyaantu cannot disseminate the information.

The observations of occurrences in each ayyana  over the years are kept in memory and used to forecast climatic conditions. A significant observation is, for example, the sighting of the new moon, which is used to determine the performance of the upcoming rainy season. Also, at the start of a rainy season, the ayyana on which it begins is an indication of the general performance of the rains. For example, it is believed that if the onset of the rains is on basaa days (basaa durra and basaa balloo), it is expected to be good. It is also on basaa days that sacrifices and prayers for rain—goromti rooba; she-goat sacrifice—are normally conducted.

Usually, the information gathered from the readings of the constellations and its interpretation is disseminated during public gatherings. Based on this system, the Borana ayyaantus have perceived changes in the climate through a decrease in the length of the rainy season since the 1960s.

The observations of occurrences in each ayyana  over the years are kept in memory and used to forecast climatic conditions.

Each ayyana is associated with either good or bad omens and for this reason, beyond forecasting the weather, an important function of the ayyaantu is to determine the dates on which important ceremonies should take place such that they occur during the days associated with good omens. For instance, on the day a child is born, particularly a boy child, the parents immediately consult the ayyaantu to know the omens associated with that day.

The solar systems and climate forecasting

The interpretation of the constellation of stars is a means of counting the calendar days and a major climate forecasting system. The interpretations are made based on the timings of the rising for some of the stars, their colour, and the alignment of the constellations with the moon. The main stars observed include Lamaii (Beta Triangulum), Buusan (Pleiades), Sorsa (Aldebarran), Algajima (Bellatrix), Arba (Central Orion), Walla (Saiph) and Basaa (Sirius).

The interpretation of the stars is done in relation to the traditional months and the respective days of the month, called ayyana. How a specific star aligns with the moon on successive nights is carefully observed and used to forecast rainfall or the severity of the dry season. For instance, if the lamii (Beta Triangulum) stars are aligned with the moon on the 14th of Biraa, the 11th of Ciqaa, the 9th of Sadaasaa, the 7th of Abraasaa, the 5th of Ammaji, and the 3rd of Gurandhala, then it is interpreted that the dry season that follows will be normal with limited negative impacts on people and livestock. This example illustrates the complexity of the knowledge system and intricate observations that can only be memorised by the individuals trained as ayyaantu. This knowledge is a reserve for a few, which gives the holders a revered status in the community.

The sun and moon are also used in weather forecasting. The degree of tilt of the new moon towards the north or south depending on the month provides an indication of how the rainy season will perform. When a ring forms around the moon and the sun, it is associated with the occurrence of heavy rains.

Livestock and wild animals

The Borana observe the behaviour of cattle closely to determine whether the season ahead will be good or bad. For instance, some of the indications of poor conditions ahead include observations such as when the cattle are reluctant to go out to graze or to return to the kraal; lead cattle refusing to take up the role of leading the livestock to graze; cattle sleeping close to each other in the kraal and at times defecating while lying down; cattle licking each other around the throat; and female cows constantly worried and looking out for their calves even after suckling them.

Following slaughter, livestock is also a source of information particularly through the “reading” of the entrails (uusa) by specialists called uuchu. The reading of entrails is also an art that sons learn from their fathers while others learn by following experienced uuchu. The marks in the entrails are observed and used to foretell rainfall. Often, several uuchu observe the same entrails and each provide their observations. The interpretation can differ which leads to interesting arguments that demonstrate the variations in the interpretation.

The Borana observe the behaviour of cattle closely to determine whether the season ahead will be good or bad.

The specific sounds of certain birds, frogs, hyenas, and foxes are also used as rainfall indicators. When the ground squirrel digs out the soil, and the ant constructs its mound during the late afternoon in the dry season instead of doing so at night, this indicates that the rainy season is about to begin.

The information from these various sources is triangulated and further references are made to the knowledge of oral historians (jarsa argaa dhageeti) who have the ability reckon the cyclic occurrences of climatic events.

The foregoing is an attempt to show the various age-old sources of information used by pastoralist communities to enable them to make decisions within the highly variable environment in which they produce. Sustaining livestock production in this environment requires a high degree of livestock mobility, which in turn requires reliable forecasting and good information on the availability of resources. It is a knowledge system that has evolved to fulfil these constant needs for information on which to base decisions.

Opportunities for knowledge integration for informed decisions 

The current climate change situation calls for close collaboration between local actors and global decision-makers. The depth of knowledge that the pastoralist communities possess provides an opportunity for its integration with scientific observations for improved adaptation by these vulnerable communities.

There is currently an increased appreciation of the knowledge held by local indigenous communities within scientific circles. The local knowledge system has been developed over time and passed on across generations, and it has better local applicability and acceptability. Integrating the practical aspects of this local knowledge with scientifically generated knowledge will bridge the divide between knowledge systems and increase the acceptability of climate forecasting information.

Poor investment in equipment and lack of adequate human resources leads to lack of reliable information for planning and decision-making. In Kenya currently, the meteorological department is the primary source of climate information. By bringing the two systems of local and scientific knowledge together, there are areas of complementarity that can improve resilience planning in the country.