News from Northern Kenya field trip | Adverse Camber

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From Left: Storytellers Mara Menzies and John Namai interview Obed Tuyumvire, an entrepreneur (right) at the Lokiriama Peace Accord Commemoration in Lokiriama village, Turkana County, Kenya. Looking on is Turkana County Meteorological Services Director Francis Muinda.

News from Northern Kenya field trip

Thu 13th Oct 2022

Adverse Camber, Engagement, Projects, Storytelling

A team of storytellers and meteorologists collaborating on a joint British Council-funded project, Storying Our Future; climate resilience through indigenous knowledge, has recently returned from a ten-day journey through Northern Kenya, where they were investigating how indigenous and traditional knowledge (ITK) is helping communities to adapt to climate change. The project, a collaboration between Adverse Camber Productions and ICPAC ((Intergovernmental Authority on Development Climate Prediction and Applications Centre), aims to develop the role of storytellers in dialogue and advocacy for those most affected by the climate crisis.

Storytellers John Mukeni Namai (Kenya) and Mara Menzies (Kenya/UK) travelled with ICPAC scientists and community engagement experts Calistus Wachana and film maker Edwin Kiplagat. The project is co-led by Linda Ogallo of ICPAC, and Naomi Wilds, Hannah McDowall and Cath Heinemeyer for Adverse Camber.

It was the first time that an ICPAC team had traveled with storytellers. Calistus Wachana observed that this “brought a different perspective. It brought some thoughts for me about how the learning is passed around. In communities we used to have some form of platforms and methods for passing information to different generations. How is it being interfered with, either through religion or education? It provoked some kind of sense, from the climate science side, to think about what kind of model we can put in place to support communities’ traditional knowledge, to conserve and integrate them.”

The role of storytellers in facilitating real listening and knowledge sharing is only one of the questions the project wants to investigate, however. At present artists including storytellers, theatremakers and filmmakers in the Global North seem to be grappling with increasing intensity with questions of what our artforms can contribute to climate justice. What role can storytelling play in energising a community that is generationally fragmented and where, in the words of one elder, ‘God seems to have moved further away’? What narrative of place and community could provide the container for cross-generational collaboration and adaptation? And how can storytellers use their gift to convey emotionally compelling perspectives from the Global South to audiences in the Global North, and contribute to emerging social movements offering alternatives to the current broken system? The questions are gaining focus for us, though the answers are only starting to emerge. 

This trip followed on the heels of a rich collaboration between the same team and South Sudanese journalist Joseph Ngor Deng, whose close study of the fascinating practice of South Sudanese traditional ‘Rainmakers’ enabled a comparison of the two regions.

Rainmaking is a hereditary role involving predicting or even influencing the weather through ritual and close attunement to nature. Joseph Ngor Deng shared his learning about how Rainmakers interpret marks on animals’ entrails, the movements of wildlife, the timing of leaf unfurling and the behaviour of livestock. Their power to predict the climate has for many generations enabled farmers and pastoralists to make vital decisions about when to plant or where to graze. This is particularly crucial in a national context where governments don’t consider climate a security issue or a priority, meaning that scientific weather forecasts are inaccessible, underfunded and often not specific enough to help farmers make decisions. Rainmakers hold tremendous power in South Sudan in particular, not only within their own communities but in national politics, organising ceremonies attended by thousands. But as the climate becomes ever more volatile and communities struggle to adapt, rainmakers too are increasingly feeling the need to collaborate with scientific meteorology.

Similarly in Northern Kenya, it was clear to the team that communities have had to take action to adapt to climate change since the 1970s and 80s. In every region the team visited, they were told that droughts which used to occur every five years now come every two years, or perhaps every year. People were keenly aware of the link between unpredictable rains and growing conflict between communities: the team attended the annual Peace Accord Festival, which has been held on the border between Kenya and Uganda since 1973 to uphold peaceful sharing of scarce pastures. In this thoughtful audio diary entry made just before the Peace Accord Festival , John Mukeni Namai passes on women’s and young people’s stories of how climate change is placing further strain on their already challenging lives.

And meanwhile so many other facets of life, from education to mass media, are also developing rapidly and challenging traditional culture, often bringing intergenerational conflict. Mara Menzies said, “It’s a community that’s on the cusp of such change. They are grappling with traditions, the older way of life, and modernisation, religion. One elder expressed a feeling that God had moved further away, when he used to be very close. Another said he felt the Turkana were cursed. In stories there is usually a way to remove a curse, but there wasn’t that, so I felt there was a need for a new narrative before hope is lost.”

The storytellers heard from many people they interviewed that the pastoralist way of life was fundamental to their identity. People are tied at the roots to the land they and their ancestors have known so intimately, and livestock is both their livelihood and their wealth. The impact of droughts can test this to the limit, however. Women in particular told stories of the heavy burden they bear as their husbands travel further and further afield looking for pasture, and of the lengths they were going to so that their children could get a formal education and a different job.

The team discovered how closely meteorologists and holders of indigenous and traditional knowledge (ITK) are already collaborating in some areas. A meteorologist in the West Pokot region participates in regular ITK ceremonies with a group of 300 chiefs and builds their ITK into regular forecasting. In a further blending of traditional and technological, this network then uses WhatsApp to share these forecasts to communities across the region with very limited access to media. 

The stories and learning from the project will be shared in different formats for different audiences over the coming months: a documentary for policymakers in East Africa, a podcast for audiences in the Global North (edited by Chris Gregory), and radio programmes in both English and Dinka languages for South Sudanese audiences. We will hold workshops for storytellers (in all senses of the word), journalists and climate activists to explore how we can contribute to new narratives of solidarity and mutual learning. We would be delighted to hear from any potential collaborators interested in co-hosting conversations with us.

Blog post written by one of the UK project leads, Cath Heinemeyer

Storying our Futures: climate resilience through indigenous knowledge is funded by the British Council’s International Collaboration Grants, which are designed to support UK and overseas organisations to collaborate on international arts projects.

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