If Einstein was right, and a problem cannot be solved using the mindset that created it, perhaps we should be discussing our climate troubles with people who do not share the mindset of the industrial machine… As we made our way to the house of the old rainmaker in Botswana, we grew excited at the thought of an untapped network of professionals who might know the medicine for climate change. We arrived, greeted and soon learned the rainmakers had long since given up making rain. When we asked why, the old man laughed as if it was obvious. “Nobody actually makes rain. Rain simply comes when the land is right.” He stared out at the sandy paths between concrete block houses. “And it is not right.” By Niall Campbell and Nicola Robbins
“Why is the land not right?”
“Because nobody is being taught to keep things right.”
“And why is that?”
“Because initiation is finished here.”
Rainmaking it seems is not about magic; it is not a technology. Rain simply comes when things are right. In systems jargon, rain is an emergent property of a community living in balance. But what has it got to do with initiation? This question led to another journey to meet with initiation doctors in the heartlands of Limpopo Province, one of the few places where large scale initiations are still held.
Traditional initiation involved the learning of environmental law. Initiates were taken into a transformative experience, profound enough to develop a sense of personal and individual responsibility to the group and the larger web of life upon which it depends. Newly initiated and uninitiated youth were responsible for clearing the countryside of litter and dry bones, for covering exposed tree stumps and distributing rain charms across the land.
Environmental knowledge was acquired by reciting chants—experiential wisdom passed down through the ages that prompted human action towards accordance with the natural law: which trees may be cut, at which times and where; what to do in times of drought; the laws of river banks, wetlands and springs; the laws of hills and sacred forests; how fire may be used, and where and when.
Women’s chants reveal which trees may be gathered for wood, or where to cut thatching grass so that wetlands are not undermined. If these laws are not learned and followed, the old rainmaker had explained, there is little point to rainmaking for it will just bring male rain: a thunderous downpour that scours the land destroying human endeavours in a bid to restore the natural balance. Unlike their modern-day financial namesakes, African rainmakers did not seek ‘bigger, better, more’ rain. They worked with the idea of balance, because only balance brought the soft fertile drizzle of female rain.
Male rain, we realized, is an old African term for weather not conducive to human happiness, the kind we see increasingly on the news. Our conversation had entered the chill of night and we prodded another log into the fire.
“But people just cut trees all over the place. If you are doing initiation, why are they still doing that?”
The initiation doctor looked rueful.
“Because initiation is all about politics these days,” he said. In the old days, one chief sent all the boys of the village, political loyalties were unambiguous and the process could focus on the greater system of nature. Now where it has not been destroyed, it seems this powerful social process plays an increasingly political role. “Besides people no longer live off the land; becoming an adult is no longer about learning to live with nature. Nature belongs to the government now.”
Since colonial times responsibility for nature has been steadily removed from communities and placed in the hands of Conservation Commissioners or government departments. Communal practices and institutions that existed to keep the balance and conserve the environment have been lost or abandoned. The last log had burnt out; two skinny dogs sidled closer to the embers having exhausted their search for scraps.
Tomorrow morning, bulldozers would be back to continue clearing the adjacent forest, crushing boulders for gravel for a new road. The old people will watch and silently remember the depth of value of what is being lost. A culture that instilled in the youth a neverforgotten sense of respect for eldership, community and the celebration of nature that gave it life. The old rainmaker would have agreed with Einstein: we will not solve the dilemma of climate change with technology. But as we scramble forward into uncertainty, the tragedy of what we leave behind and the lessons it may hold for our future livelihood, have barely occurred to us.
An earlier version of this article was first published in Mind//shift, October 2008.