Of local communities and disaster management

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IN Matabeleland North Province and elsewhere in the country, communities have been hard hit by floods that have have left thousands of families homeless as well as destroyed livestock and crops.
The weather phenomenon wreaking havoc seems to be still with us.
But how did yesteryear communities cope with these natural disasters?
Last week, I had the opportunity to visit the San Community of Tsholotsho in the Sipepa area, to find out how they coped with such natural disasters before colonisation and the topic of traditional knowledge systems that I have always written about in this paper came up as the elderly San narrated how they coped with such disasters.
According to the San, they had well-developed indigenous knowledge systems for environmental management and coping strategies, which made them more resilient to environmental changes.
This knowledge had, and still has, a high degree of acceptability among the San and BaTonga communities.
The knowledge enabled disaster prevention, preparedness, response and mitigation.
Indigenous knowledge, they said, if properly harnessed at national level, is a precious national resource that can facilitate the process of disaster prevention, preparedness and response.
Although there is increasing acknowledgement of the relevance of indigenous knowledge as an invaluable and under-used knowledge reservoir, which presents a powerful asset in environmental conservation and natural disaster management, more needs to be done.
According to the San elders, from time immemorial, natural disaster management has been deeply rooted in the use of indigenous knowledge to master and monitor weather and other natural systems and establish early warning pointers for their own benefit.
In the communities, resources such as land, water, animals and plants have their place within the sacredness of nature.
For instance, certain places had special spiritual significance and were used as places for rituals and sacrifices.
These places included sacred grooves, shrines, mountains and rivers.
These places were well conserved and protected by the community.
For the traditional San people of Matabeleland North, gods, spirits, shrines, ritual crops and animals, food items and cash crops are all inter-related.
According to the San, the application and use of traditional knowledge in environmental conservation and natural disaster management is lacking due to a number of factors such as interference by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in the management of the environment as well as the application of scientific concepts that often clash with the local traditions of communities and their traditional leadership.
For instance, in land-use conservation, shifting cultivation was a traditional practice in which land was never over-ploughed repeatedly season-after-season and year-after-year.
Land was left fallow and covered again with trees and other vegetation to enable it to accumulate manure (regenerate).
Mixed-crop cultivation practices enabled leguminous crops to restore nitrogen in the soil for other food plants and this helped in curbing soil erosion as well as the flooding of certain areas.
Knowledge of long or short rain seasons helped farmers to plan accordingly.
Traditional indigenous knowledge terminologies of types of soil and their reaction to water enabled farmers to use soils appropriately by planting the correct crops.
As for coping with changes in the weather, traditional knowledge of storm routes and wind patterns enabled people to devise disaster management strategies in advance by constructing types of shelter, wind break structures, walls made from poles and grass, and homestead fences.
The BaTonga also applied this knowledge effectively, knowing that the Zambezi River could flood the plains where they stayed.
They constructed stilted huts and granaries so that their crops were not affected by water logging.
They would stay in the stilted structures for the duration of the rain season while their livestock were driven to the mountains where young men would herd them.
Today because of the numerous damming projects and changes in river courses, hydrological disasters have become unmanageable when it starts raining.
Knowledge of local rain corridors enabled people to prepare for storms and floods.
The San knew that a prolonged drought was followed by heavy storms, thunder and lightening during the first few rains, so they prepared for imminent disaster.
A change in birds’ cries or the onset of their mating period indicated a change of season.
Floods were predicted from the height of birds’ nests near rivers, while moths and insect numbers signified drought.
A good example was a depletion of the emperor moth that transforms into the mopane worm in some areas in Matabeleland South.
Traditional knowledge dictated that communities gather enough worms to last them for the rain season.
The position of the sun and the cry of a specific bird or cicadas on trees near rivers also predicted onset of the rain season for farming, while the presence of certain plant species or tubers indicated a low water table.
These examples underscore the importance of harnessing indigenous knowledge not only as a precious national resource but also as a vital element in environmental conservation and natural disaster prevention, preparedness and response.
The study of traditional knowledge has been the purview of anthropologists and sociologists.
But there is need for broader application and use of this knowledge before it disappears.
It is, however, encouraging to note that the application of traditional methods to cope with environmental hazards is now being widely recognised.
Among the San and BaTonga, women play important roles during and after disasters.
In times of disasters, women ensured relief reached the appropriate persons and households.
They also helped with cooking and feeding at disaster shelters.
The role of traditional leadership and the active involvement of women in local governance was not underestimated or ignored.
Their involvement in the planning and implementation of disaster management ensured that local knowledge and culturally appropriate approaches were applied.
Despite the usefulness of indigenous knowledge systems, it has not been harnessed to fit into the current scientific framework for environmental conservation and natural disaster management in the country’s low-lying areas.
Traditionalists said in order to achieve this union, careful assessment and analysis are required to ensure that innate difficulties of blending traditional knowledge with scientific knowledge are addressed and that traditional value systems are upheld.
For instance, there is need for a toolkit for such communities to assess their vulnerability in times of natural disasters.
Several techniques to raise community awareness should be included in the toolkit, such as recording of seasonal rain patterns, social changes that impact lives and conditions, such as local hazards, construction material and design, vegetation, livestock, environmental changes, mapping of risk areas and sharing of knowledge between communities.
Traditional knowledge and disaster preparedness must also be included in the primary school curricula.

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