ZIMUNYA, Zimbabwe (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Under worryingly clear skies, men gathered amid sparse, drought-shrivelled trees at the edge of this remote village in eastern Zimbabwe to sing, whistle and ululate. They were calling the rain.
“We must go back to our traditions for solutions to these droughts,” said 80-year-old Nekias Mukwindidza.
His grandfather Tenzi (Lord) Chitowo was a revered rainmaker in the area as far back as the 1940s, and Mukwindidza is confident that reviving the abandoned custom could help relieve Zimbabwe’s worsening droughts.
“I know what I am talking about because I grew up taking part in these ceremonies,” he said. “And they could bring rainfall, back in the days."
But as rainmaking makes a comeback in parts of parched Zimbabwe, scientists warn that such traditions may prove a distraction from more effective ways to deal with drought.
Those include switching from the country’s thirsty staple, maize, to more drought-hardy crops like millet and sorghum, capturing and storing more rainwater, and changing farming practices to preserve moisture in the soil.
“We need to educate and train these village elders on the importance of... climate change adaptation measures like conservation agriculture and water harvesting,” said Lawrence Nyagwande, who heads Environment Africa, a non-governmental organization in Manicaland Province.
Renewed attention on rainmaking ceremonies as the way to solve the growing problem is deterring some farmers from making those changes to how they work, he said.
Even the backers of the rainmaking revival say the weather is nothing like they have seen before, with punishingly hot temperatures over much of the last decade and far more erratic rainfall. Mukwindidza said he believed the heat was a punishment from the gods for discarding traditional beliefs.
“For over a decade we had not been doing these ceremonies. As such our gods are angry with us,” he said.
The villagers had abandoned the ceremonies amid squabbles over who should lead them, he added. But facing a devastating lack of water, they have now set aside their differences, and a young community member is conducting the ceremonies.
Experts have linked Zimbabwe’s successive droughts, which have left millions in need of food aid, to climate change – but many village elders and traditional leaders are not yet convinced.
“If we go back to our traditional values and beliefs, things will change for the better,” Mukwindidza said. “We will get the rainfall."
He said villagers versed in traditional knowledge could tell whether the season was going to be good or not by observing signs, including scattered clouds in the sky, the direction of the wind and the state of trees in the area.
But many also now take into account advice from weather forecasters and other experts, he added.
“We complement this traditional knowledge with weather forecasts from the government experts,” he said. “We listen to the radio for such reports and we also follow advice from the agricultural extension officers.”
Henry Fusirayi Nzarayebani, another village elder who has spearheaded rainmaking ceremonies in the Zimunya area, said he was confident the ritual would bring better rainfall this year.
But there was a need for farmers to embrace good agricultural practices too, he said.
“We are also encouraging farmers to grow short season varieties, in case the rainfall might not be as good as we are anticipating,” he explained.
Denboy Nyamana, a traditional leader in Zimunya, said brutal drought over the last year had taken many local people by surprise.
“It is difficult to explain these droughts,” he admitted. The community used to have bumper harvests with plenty of rainfall to support good crops and pasture, he said.
“The rainfall is gone. The sun is scorching,” he said. “But the solution lies with us as traditional leaders. We must go back to our traditional values. And we must do that properly.”
Kudakwashe Manyanga, principal climate change researcher at Zimbabwe’s Ministry of Environment, Water and Climate, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation his ministry was now working on ways to coordinate research to take into account indigenous knowledge systems and to advise communities on how to deal with drought.
Reporting by Andrew Mambondiyani; editing by Laurie Goering; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, women's rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit news.trust.org/climate