Climate change: Lessons from oral narratives

Africa Climate Summit 2023. 

President William Ruto speaks at KICC, Nairobi on Monday, September 4, 2023 during the during the Africa Climate Summit 2023. 

Photo credit: Dennis Onsongo | Nation Media Group

Climate change. These are magic words. They evoke images of disaster. Of fires, raging storms, destructive seawaters. Of hunger. Death. Annihilation of humanity. These words are found in all kinds of places where ordinary people, government officials, businesspeople etc meet.

Climate change is everything these days. It can be business, or politics or business. Yet, it is primarily about the environment. But the problem is how we define the environment. Environment means different things to different people.

The just concluded African Climate Summit in Nairobi sees climate change as mostly affecting Africa when its causes are located elsewhere. African governments and the continent’s people see themselves as victims of uncontrolled industrialisation in Europe, America and Asia.

Africans argue that for suffering the consequences of other people’s actions, they need compensation or financial and technological assistance in order to deal with the rapid and destructive climatic changes. All these are fine arguments. But how are Africans implicated in this tragedy?

If uninhibited industrialisation and overconsumption in the other parts of the world have caused destruction of the planet, with Africa unfairly sharing in the consequences, how has Africa contributed to this tragedy? Don’t Africans dig up the earth to export minerals? Don’t Africans maintain industries that pollute the earth? Aren’t African policymakers, bureaucrats, politicians and industrialists still obsessed about Africa industrialising, in the same manner that Europe, America and Asia did decades ago? Aren’t Africans indulging in the same consumption impulses that have characterised capitalist societies in other parts of the world?

African nations today still produce policy plans that emphasize the need for industrialisation with little or no reference to how such progress will affect the environment and their citizens in the present and future.

Yes, there are environmental impact assessments. But such valuations are merely meant to satisfy official requirements for setting up a manufacturing plant, for instance, rather than for properly considering the relationship between the industry, its products, the neighbouring community and the environment.

Often, the environmental impact assessors don’t belong to the local community. They tend to select a few people, ask them complicated questions and write their report.

Yet, a conversation with the locals would reveal significant knowledge about the relationship between humans and the environs. Africans have always related to their environment cordially.

Trees and plants give food and medicine or clothing; weapons can be fashioned from trees and stones; shrubs and grass provide material for building shelter; water is sourced from rivers, lakes and oceans; mountains or valleys sheltered people from destructive weather elements or enemies; the soil supported crops; animals gave blood and meat for food, provided hides for clothing or could be companions in the case of dogs and cats; or could be used for transport, among others.

How people were expected to use and co-exist with nature was delivered to young people through stories, songs, sayings or riddles.

This education was delivered every day in one form or another. The medium is what today we call oral literature. There is no society in the world that doesn’t have oral literature. But for Africa, oral literature remains a key element of many societies.

Children are advised or warned through proverbs; riddles test mental agility; songs and dance are for entertainment but also carry the community’s history and philosophy; fables may celebrate a famous person in the community; myths could explain the origins and customs of the community, etc.

Thus, the myth of origin or fables of, say, the Kamba, would explain the relationship between the Kamba and their neighbours; what they thought of the hills and mountains in their land; how they used and preserved the waters of their springs and rivers; what forests, hills, mountains or trees were places of worship or sacred; when they could till their lands, plant and harvest; what rituals to perform in thanksgiving to the spirits and deities that had blessed them etc.

The oral stories educated all and sundry on how animals, plants or elements of the environment came to be; why they were the way they were; what some of them were meant to be or be used for; how all the elements were connected to each other, etc.

Let’s take the case of a river, a lake, an ocean or even a spring. These symbolised life because they were sources of water. Water quenched thirst. Water was used to prepare food or clean utensils or clothes. To bathe was not just to clean oneself; it was also to restore the body’s health. Water would be used to purify during some rituals – it is not surprising that to date, many religions use water for baptism.

Farmers depended on rainwater or irrigation for their crops. Thus, rituals would be performed to ask the gods or spirits to send rain. For instance, droughts were often seen as a punishment by the gods for an indiscretion by humans, which had caused an imbalance in the ‘natural’ arrangement between human beings, nature and the world or spirits.

Death of animals and crop failure could be attributed to desecration of sanctified spaces or even abuse of natural resources, such as cutting down of old trees which was believed to be the dwelling of spirits – ask the Kikuyu. You don’t just cut down a mugumo.

Such stories appear(ed) silly to people who had gone to formal schools. Who wants to listen to stories of the hyena and the hare or the hare and the tortoise? Why would anyone be bothered by tales of spirits dwelling in a grove? But such stories have guided men and women to live happily with wildlife (should we really be calling it so?) for centuries. Consequently, flora and fauna has been guarded by and in turn supported humanity.

Without oral tales, stories of what plants are medicinal, what plants are safe to eat, what animals are friendly or harmful to people, what seasons are likely to be fruitful to humanity and which ones might be destructive, what time to hunt and gather and what time to let nature restore itself, without such knowledge, humanity would have been extinct.

So, why is it that in these days when science and technology have made it easier to increase the produce of plants and animals, millions of human beings are still hungry? Why is it that with incredible technology, deserts still threaten to overwhelm humanity? Irrigation agriculture is a near miracle but it has hardly changed the way people produce food. Why?

Because all the technological innovations remain only accessible to a few people and communities. They are yet to be translated into oral stories, or should we say social media threads, that ordinary people can access every day.

Stories of the benefits of solar energy remain elite and inaccessible to ordinary folk. Even in Africa where solar energy would change the lives of millions of people overnight, stories about its miraculous capacity and benefits are yet to be created and disseminated. Water purification technology abounds in other parts of the world. But Africans continue to lack access to potable water. Why aren’t greenhouses producing food in Africa?

Probably Africa needs to go back into its memory to figure out how its people have lived with its wildlife? How have populations lived for centuries in the forests of Africa without destroying the environment until loggers and miners arrived in their neighbourhoods? What can we learn from desert dwellers? What can the stories of ancient fishermen tell us about conserving the waters and animal life in rivers, lakes and oceans? What stories from hunters and gatherers – and there are still thousands of them in this world – can teach us how to address climate change?

- The writer teaches literature at the University of Nairobi. [email protected]