Monday, 27 September 2010
Letter from Butiama: The rainmakers
This is one of numerous articles I wrote for the Sunday News (Tanzania) column "Letter from Butiama" between 2005 and 2011. Publication date: 19th February 2006.
*************************************************After Mwalimu Julius Nyerere returned to Tanganyika from his studies, probably after graduating from Edinburgh University in July 1952, he paid a visit to Chief Mohamed Makongoro, an old friend of his father, Chief Nyerere Burito.
Mwalimu recounted that, during that visit to the Chief’s residence at the village of Ikizu, close to the village of Butiama, the Chief had also invited a group of tribal elders who, on receiving the good news that his friend’s son had returned to Tanganyika with a university education, spontaneously began a celebratory chant that lasted several minutes.
Before they completed their chant, and out of a clear sunny sky, a thunderstorm emerged and rain poured down for several minutes on the Chief and his guests. There are several people I can think of who could have told me the same story and I would have quietly remarked it was one of the more creative lies of the century. But I believed Mwalimu when he narrated what he witnessed, although he neither said he believed nor doubted that the rain was caused by the elders' chants.
Perhaps it was just an interesting coincidence. The former regional commissioner for Mara region, Ambassador Nimrod Lugoe on a recent visit to Butiama while speaking on the subject of rainfall patterns in Mara region said that, for one particular strip which incorporates Butiama and the nearby village of Buhemba, in any year, if it does not rain by 15th February then any previous rainfall shortages become even more pronounced. He spoke on February 14th 2006. On 15th February, after a long period of unpredictable and erratic rainfall, it rained at Butiama.
Ambassador Lugoe was most probably speaking from experience gained through the studying of rainfall patterns. In the past, that knowledge could transform him into someone with extraordinary abilities.
Chief Nyerere, who at the recommendation of his friend Chief Makongoro was appointed by the German colonialists in 1912 to lead his people, is said to have possessed skills for predicting future events. I don’t know whether the Germans considered those skills in their decision, but it is said that people trusted that he had extraordinary skills.
I am arguing that those elders had some knowledge that others did not possess. The factors of the incident – chanting elders, a sunny sky, and a thunderstorm - taken separately, are not exceptional. It is the sequence of events that culminates in a thunderstorm that is intriguing. If it was pure coincidence then those elders must have been remarkably fortunate to have invoked their rain chant only minutes before a sunny sky was transformed into a violent thunderstorm.
A suggestion of the possibility that these elders possessed some skills is not to profess a belief in extraordinary powers. It can simply mean admitting that the rational explanation to such an extraordinary event can, at times, be deliberately concealed in order to perpetuate the myth that the practitioners possess some extraordinary powers. Those mystical powers become a means of maintaining some authority on the rest of society.
When that mysticism is explained, the practitioner’s authority is usually undermined. I heard recently of a famous witchdoctor who, on the bench leading to his consulting room, planted an informer between each genuine client on the queue. The work of these agents, impersonating as patients, was to extract information on the problems facing the real patients. Having obtained the necessary information, the informer would enter ahead of the next in line and reveal this information to the witchdoctor.
As soon as the patient entered to see the famous witchdoctor he would be greeted with a long statement beginning with something like, “You are married with two wives, and have seven children. You are planning to travel next week with your second wife to visit your in-laws, who will take you to visit a man who claims to have powers to enrich people. And you want me to tell you whether Profesa Jua Kali really can make you rich? Have I covered what you want?”
Some seemingly extraordinary feats can be no more than the most basic tricks. However, there are some incidents that do not quite fit that categorisation. When hardened rationalists encounter occurrences that defy any normal order known to man, they usually clear their throats and make authoritative statements like, “Confidential conclusions are unlikely to be supported by a survey of all the known facts.” Which, in simple English and in reference to our example means, we cannot say for sure that rain can be charmed to fall in the Ikizu language. The previous quote is from the concluding remark on an article in the Encyclopaedia Britannica on parapsychological phenomenon or events that cannot be accounted for by natural law or knowledge.
I recently asked an elder at Butiama about the rainmaking tradition, and he seemed embarrassed to discuss the suggestion that humans can bring about rainfall, and it appears that few of those elders survive today. Today, we know from science that it is possible for humans to create rain. It is called ‘seeding for rain’, accomplished by dropping silver iodide crystals from airplanes. I believe it has to be extremely expensive because I imagine TANESCO, the national electricity supplier, would have already flown those planes all over the area whose rivers drain into Lake Mtera.