By Dr Tony Monda
FOR the people of southern Africa, rain is life. Its advent or privation dominates the land and the mindset of most of the people.
Pre-historic archaeology and Zimbabwean Rock Art are replete with examples of rain-supplication ceremonies, rain dances, rites and rituals, dating back over 40 000 years.
Indeed, many of these cave paintings probably date to the later Stone Age occupation, between 10 000-6 000 years ago.
The Njelele Shrine in the Matopo Hills, outside Bulawayo in Matabeleland South, associated with peace, life and regeneration, is a shrine dedicated to rain-supplication and a sanctuary to a rain-supplication spirit medium who, some Zimbabweans believe, has extraordinary powers to bring rains.
Attracting participants from far and wide, supplicants come from different parts of the country and the southern African region to perform cultural rituals, among them rain-supplication ceremonies, usually between August and September, in preparation for the coming of rains and a new agricultural season. Ritual, song, dance and supplication were the spiritual channels used to precipitate rain.
In her dissertation on indigenous dance forms, Dr Michelina Rudo Andreucci writes: “… In African indigenous thinking and agro-planning from the raising of the family to the building of a nation, food security is an necessary component for the survival of the species. Therefore, the agro-religious role of song and dance for food security cannot be overlooked….
… song and dance were part of the national and physical religious practice in order to ensure the ultimate survival of plant, animal and man.
Traditional dances are based on pastoral/agrarian belief systems that are misinterpreted as pagan worship by the West because of its colonial misconception…..
Dances are linked to the cycle of nature and the pattern of life of a people, normally determined by their environment. What people reap from the environment and whatever bounties that geographical space provides is celebrated in dance, music and performance….
…The agro-industrial cycle was determined by the seasons and was marked by specific dances. The more vigorous ones were carried out later in the day, towards evening, others at night, such as ‘Gumi Guru’, which is the agro-meteorological timeframe marked by the phases of the moon.
… ‘Gumi Guru’ marks the end of the cycle, and the beginning of a new rain season….”
Rain dances and other rituals have been used for centuries to induce or intensify rainfall in many societies throughout the world, including Europe, Africa and the Americas. Some indigenous Native-American people, for whom the rain dance is still an important part of the First Nation Native American consciousness, still perform the ritual today.
Both Native American men and women gather together in late August, usually a relatively dry period of the year, especially in the south-western US, to perform rain dancing rituals. I was privy to one of these spectacular rain dance performances in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and yes, the rains fell the following evening, with telling bolts of lightning and thunder!
Similar to the local dancers at Njelele who wear distinguishing head- dresses of mainly black ostrich feathers, with the two long white ostrich feathers resembling animal horns, the indigenous Native American wear special clothing and headdresses during the ceremonies.
The patterns on their clothing and the use of goat hair in the headdresses also have special significance. Both men and women participate in the annual rain dancing ceremonies, evidencing the importance of rain to the entire community.
The Pueblos who live in the dry, south-western regions and receive limited rainfall have a particularly intricate rain dance, since the little rainfall they do receive is essential for survival.
In Europe, examples of traditional rain dances include ceremonies known as ‘Paparuda’ and ‘Caloian’ in Romania.
The Ihanzu people of north-central Tanzania have conducted rain-supplication rites for over a century.
As with similar rites found across sub-Saharan Africa, these rites are replete with gender, sexual and fertility motifs.
Farmers in the US also attempt to induce rain during droughts through prayer.
These prayer rituals may differ in their specifics, but share a common concern of bringing rain through ritual and/or spiritual means; such as when in 2007, the then Governor of Georgia, Sonny Perdue, called for a public prayer service for rain.
Prayers for more rains are also a cross-cultural practice in regions where people keep traditional non-scriptural religions for when the rain season falls short of the usual amount of rain needed for growing crops.
Also according to Dr Andreucci’s thesis: “…The manifestation or failure of rains dominated the mindset of all indigenous people for centuries. In southern Africa, where uncertain rain seasons are the standard, dance rituals beseeching spiritual ancestors and gods to send the life-sustaining substance dominated the calendar….
Rain-asking ceremonies were a characteristic feature of all African societies… Experienced rain-askers had an elite status in their society, since they brought rain, and thus controlled the life and health of the community and the land….
The ceremonial ritual was the most common among indigenous people, especially in the drought-prone ecological regions where, during the dry summer months, they receive the least rainfall, coupled with poor soils, and would endure long spells of droughts.”
Today, rain-supplication methods to induce rain directly from clouds have developed with the science of meteorology. Rain-asking, however, is not seen as climate engineering, which seeks to alter climate, but a form of ‘weather modification’ that only seeks to change local weather patterns, usually to counter (-act) drought.
Cloud seeding, the modern method of artificially-inducing or increasing precipitation, is scientifically known as ‘pluviculture’. With the exception of four years, cloud seeding programmes have been carried out annually since 1980.
Experiments in cloud seeding have been undertaken since the early 20th Century and used since the 1940s to alter the structure of clouds by ‘seeding’/dispersing substances into the air to potentially increase or alter rainfall; usually to mitigate agricultural drought, but also to increase reservoir irrigation water, water supply capacity or to increase water levels for power generation.
During th Vietnam War (circa 1960s-1970s), the US military mounted ‘Operation Popeye’ — a rain-supplication
operation for the intensification of rains over Vietnam in order to slow Vietnamese activity, especially military means of transportation, in the region.
Currently there is debate concerning the efficacy of cloud seeding, with some citing evidence of cloud seeding leading to increased precipitation on the ground as highly misleading.
Since Zimbabwe is situated on a high plateau, it is blessed with a pleasant sub-tropical climate. Daytime temperatures hover around 35o degrees Celsius during the hottest months and winter temperatures rarely go below 13° degrees Celcius in most areas.
The climate is marked by distinctive dry and wet (rain) seasons; the rain season usually being from November to March, with the dry (winter) season from April to October.
December, January and February are usually the peak months of the rainy period. However, according to some SADC experts on climate, the rain season for 2018 could extend into May.
With an average annual rainfall of 400mm in the Zambezi Valley to about 700mm on the Plateau, cloud seeding operations to enhance agricultural production is not uncommon.
Given that drought means less than 70 percent of normal rainfall countrywide, research into rainfall augmentation in Zimbabwe began in 1968, following the training of local personal by the Commonwealth Scientific and Research organisation in Australia.
Cloud seeding in Zimbabwe requires flying a small airplane to sow the clouds with compounds such as dry ice, silver iodide and salt powder — according to the clouds’ different physical properties — in order to induce rain or increase natural precipitation, which according to some experts, can increase rainfall by 20-30 percent.
As for instance, during the 2001-2002 summer cropping season, Zimbabwe received up to 20 percent of its rainfall from cloud seeding operations.
The climate in Zimbabwe is strongly influenced by prevailing wind systems that include the south-easterlies, the Congo air mass, the north-easterlies and the Inter-Continental Tropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ). The presence of large water bodies such as Lake Malawi, Kariba and Cahora Bassa in Mozambique also play a role in modifying weather conditions in the country.
In Zimbabwean ontology (traditional knowledge), elders had studied the similarity in migration patterns between the ITCZ and the stork (shuramurove/shuramatope), the bird that harkens the arrival of the rains in Zimbabwe. Scientific evidence of the ornithological migration patterns of this bird justifies the reason for its name — rainbird (shuramurove/shuramatope).
Failure of the ITCZ to reach Zimbabwe is usually the main cause of drought. Besides the recent droughts experienced in Zimbabwe, the worst drought years in the country, pre-independence, were: 1911-1916; 1921-1924; 1946-1947; 1967-1968; 1972-1973.
Due to climate changes experienced throughout the world in recent decades, weather patterns have been changing and Zimbabwe has continued to face agricultural crop failures due to persistent weather challenges.
Despite a mid-season review by the Southern Africa Regional Climate Outlook Forum (SARCOF) in December 2017 predicting normal to above-normal rainfall for 2017/2018 and projecting the end of May as the end of the rainfall season, “The entire southern region hasn’t had good rainfall as anticipated in the forecast. The Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone is not pregnant with rain as usual. The situation looks gloomy and pathetic,” according to a meteorological spokesman.
Although about 75 percent of Zimbabwe received normal rainfall between November 2017 and January 3 2018; areas from Mashonaland West Province, Mashonaland Central Province (Mazowe through to Mvurwi, Guruve and Mount Darwin), much of the Midlands Province (stretching from Kwekwe through Mberengwa to Zvishavane), much of northern Masvingo Province and south of Manicaland Province (Chimanimani to Chisumbanje) received less than usual rains this season.
The Meteorological Services Department (MSD) was due to commence its cloud seeding programme on December 18 2017, but delayed due to logistical issues and poor/unconducive weather conditions.
Minister of Finance Patrick Chinamasa had budgeted US$500 000 for the cloud seeding programme which started on January 10, using two new aircraft. It initially covered Matabeleland North, South and Midlands provinces, was to continue countrywide, but eventually had a negative effect on the whole region with several reports of flooding and waterlogged livestock dying of diseases.
Could it be that Zimbabwe’s Meteorological Services Department’s ‘Popeye operation’ backfired and had serious implications and detrimental effects on the national cattle herd and the Government’s Command Livestock Programme?
Dr Tony Monda holds a PhD in Art Theory and Philosophy and a DBA (Doctorate in Business Administration) and post-colonial heritage studies. He is a writer, lecturer, musician, art critic, practicing artist and corporate image consultant. He is also a specialist art consultant, post-colonial scholar, Zimbabwean socio-economic analyst and researcher. E-mail: tonym.MONDA@gmail.com