Notes from the field: the village and the rainmaker troubled by climate change

Published on 12 February 2020

Grace Akello

Associate Professor in Medical Anthropology, Gulu University

Daniel Osinde

During our fieldwork in Uganda for the Pandemic Preparedness project, nowhere else have we found a stronger belief in diviners, rainmakers, and sorcery than among the agrarian communities in Kasese district. Among the Bakonzo people the combination of their strong belief in rainmakers and sunshine makers, and climate change, has given rise to much uncertainty in the past few years.

Whereas in the past it was argued that one only needed to invite a rainmaker, offer him presents (usually the head of a goat) and his/her outdoor ceremony will not be interrupted by any downpour, with seasonal weather changes this has proved futile. Villagers may need rain, and the rainmaker fails to make it, and when they need sunshine, the sunshine maker is unable to bring about good sunny weather.

Crops are drying up and the rainmaker is threatened with violence

That is how in early September 2019, a rainmaker, we will call Muhindo (not his real name) in Kasese district presented himself to the Police for protection. Youths in the village had threatened to lynch him due to a prolonged drought that is a great threat for this agrarian community and for which they believed he was responsible for. Crops were beginning to dry up and there was an impending threat of famine. The young people followed Muhindo and camped outside the police station, demanding that the Karambi Subcounty chief not release him until he had made rain.

The young people called for the police and other authorities at the sub-county to rescue them from this plight. And to rescue them, they argued, the authorities needed to detain the rainmaker until a downpour occurred.  People come from far and wide, including from the Mpondwe border town to consult with this rainmaker if they would like to conduct open-air business, that the rain should not interfere.

The people who visited Muhindo the most were sand miners, bricklayers and open-air small-scale businessmen.  They regularly pay Muhindo, or else as it is argued, trucks will get stuck in the soggy soils and streams which emerge and crisscross this sub-county during the rainy season. Muhindo, it was also argued, has lately become very boastful of his powers, particularly when inebriated.

The older people we interviewed, said that although they knew Muhindo’s kinship and how they had rainmaking powers, the older generation, including Muhindo’s father, were disciplined and self-controlled. “But Muhindo likes money. No rains will come until all villagers collect offertory and go to his home to request him for the rain”.

A week spent in jail while being taunted to make rain

The Officer in Charge of Security (OC) mentioned that the only way to restore calm was to arrest Muhindo and order him to rework his charms in order for the rains to come. The youths were happy with the steps taken. And so Muhindo spent an entire week in sub-county jail…all the while being taunted to make the rainfall. He responded that he was currently not strong enough. He blamed other rainmakers in the village that he said interfered with his powers. The OC said that three of the six other rainmakers Muhindo identified were arrested and brought to Karambi sub-county. None of them made rainfall.

The OC and the older men and women we interviewed disclosed a similar event in 2017. They said that the young people brought a lorry, and packed all Muhindo’s property and took him to the sub-county chief. They requested for him to be deported across the border to the Democratic Republic of Congo and that the village will be made free. The officers in charge at that time mentioned that it was irregular to excommunicate anyone in this way. So, they made the community resolve this issue in their own way. A storm followed and more than 50 percent of the village houses were razed down. Even the Uganda Red Cross was invited to the village in a humanitarian crisis capacity and they erected some tents where people lived until they were ready to rebuild their houses. At the time Muhindo said the storm was caused by his anger.

The OC noted that due to increasing maintenance costs for the arrested rainmakers, they were released unconditionally after one week. They were sent to the community after they promised that as soon as they went to their natural settings, it would indeed rain. A few weeks later, it rained. But it came with hailstorms, and wind, which again destroyed many crops.

How to ensure social harmony

Scenarios like this in the Karambi attract scrutiny concerning different public authorities and their roles in ensuring social harmony. While the OC mentioned that he did not have any charge against Muhindo, he recognised that his behavior was creating disorder in the community and therefore the cold cells served to deter such behaviour.  He also warned Muhindo to create rain for the youth as soon as possible. He noted however that he does not want to continue dealing with this issue of Muhindo because such matters are beyond his jurisdiction.

The Sub country chief on the other hand only expressed his amusement about the entire scenario. He mentioned that the community could be trying to come to terms with their misfortune and the impacts of climate change. Climate change affects all communities including the one in Karambi and the community is using one unscrupulous rainmaker as a scapegoat for their ills. The youth have stopped respecting him the way they used to respect his forefathers. Young people have even started to question rainmakers’ ability to make rain. For instance, if a rainmaker exists in Karambi, why must such a subcounty experience drought – a prolonged dry spell that makes it difficult to engage in farming, making food crops wither, smaller streams to dry off and exposing communities to hunger and starvation. This is in spite of their known preparedness measure of collecting offertory and presents for the rainmaker.

‘Muhindo is a stone that sharpens knives. But these days he is instead breaking them’

In a group discussion with older men they said, “Muhindo is a stone that sharpens knives. But these days he is instead breaking them”. It means power can become a curse. In this case, Muhindo has become a curse to the people in Karambi. He has become so common that instead of having power, the youth now have power over him. Everybody has power over him.

Grace Akello, Daniel Osinde and Moses Baluku are research partners for the Pandemic Preparedness Project, based in Uganda.

This blog is written as part of the Pandemic Preparedness Project.  A key aim of the project is to examine ‘preparedness from below’ – the understandings and practices of communities through which they anticipate and manage threats on a daily basis. This research will highlight the importance of local perspectives to disease response which have not been fully recognised and supported in global discourses so far. As part of this work we are conducting ethnographic fieldwork and this blog is part of a series of notes from the field, so you can keep updated with our work.

The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IDS.

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