Climate change and Africa: "The gods are angry" - what is happening to nature in Uganda

Most visible is the accelerated loss of the ice fields, which have shrunk from 6,5 square kilometers in 1906 to less than one square kilometer in 2003 and could disappear completely before the end of the decade.

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Disclaimer: The translations are mostly done through AI translator and might not be 100% accurate
Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

Ronah Masika remembers a time when she could still see the snowy peaks of Mount Rwenzori, a UNESCO World Heritage Site on the border between Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The view was magnificent every time she traveled from Kasese's hometown to Uganda's capital, Kampala - and that wasn't even that long ago.

But she can't see even a hint of ice now, because the glacier is retreating.

And that's not the only change.

Masika recalls that her grandmother grew beans to feed the family and that they would always last until the next crop was ready for harvest.

"But that doesn't happen anymore. You have it one month, the next it's gone," says Masika, who grows corn, beans, peanuts, soybeans, cassava and bananas.

"Now it is difficult for me and other people to feed ourselves from what we grow at home, because everything is destroyed by floods or drought. It's either too dry or too rainy."

"It's quite a disturbing feeling, when you start thinking about how the next generations will survive this terrible situation."

Bad weather conditions

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Climate change affects the Rwenzori mountain in different ways.

Most visible is the accelerated loss of the ice fields, which have shrunk from 6,5 square kilometers in 1906 to less than one square kilometer in 2003 and could disappear completely before the end of the decade.

In 2012, wildfires reached an altitude of 4.000 meters, which was unimaginable in the past, destroying vegetation that controls the flow of rivers downstream.

Since then, communities living in the foothills of Rwenzori have experienced some of the worst flooding the area has ever seen, combined with a pattern of less frequent but more extensive rainfall.

Kisa Kasif/ CCFU

In May last year, five local rivers overflowed their levees after heavy rains.

The water rushed down the mountain with a heavy groan, destroying houses, schools along the way and razing the entire town of Kalembe to the ground.

About 25.000 houses were destroyed, and 173.000 people were affected.

And while science may be able to explain these events, the local Bakonzo culture has another way of framing them - according to their belief, all this is happening because the gods are angry.

"Snow Place"

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"The Bakonzo people are very closely connected to snow and water," says Simon Musasizi, program manager of the Cross-Cultural Foundation of Uganda (CCFU).

"They believe that their god Kithasamba lives in the snow and that the snow is actually the frozen sperm of the god."

The name Rwenzori comes from "rve nzururu", which means "place of snow" in the Bakonza language.

30 gods related to different natural resources live on the mountain, according to Bakonza cosmology.

But deforestation, rapid population growth and the use of weapons in hunting on the sacred mountain are eroding people's attitude towards them.

Kisa Kasif/CCFU

During last year's floods, the water submerged the hot springs and washed away the vegetation around the waterfall, which is used as a place for rituals. Since then, spiritual leaders have not been able to perform these rituals.

The mouth of the rivers, which the Bakonzo worship and also has a ritual role, has eroded or filled with silt.

In parts of the rivers, the water level has risen, making them more prone to flooding.

Destruction of vegetation has weakened levees in many areas.

All this threatens centuries-old rituals such as the purification of reefs and rivers, which usually end at estuaries, where a ritual broom handle is thrown into the water.

"It's likely that many of these rituals will be gradually thinned out or will no longer be held, because everything is changing," says Mousasizi.

Endangered cultural heritage

Kisa Kasif/CCFU

The Bakonzo community consists of about a million people who live on both sides of the border between Uganda and DR Congo, and their culture was already threatened by the spread of Christianity and Islam.

The threat that comes as a result of climate change would mean further loss of this irreplaceable wealth.

"The consequences of climate change are particularly acute in the tropics," says Richard Taylor, a geographer at University College London (UCL) and corresponding author of the African branch of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

"One or two degrees of warming at the equator has a much greater impact on climate and water than one or two degrees of warming in London, Paris or New York."

The intensification of the weather patterns observed at Mount Rwenzori is also occurring throughout the tropics.

Droughts have become more frequent in the Amboseli and Serengeti regions of Kenya and Tanzania, affecting the livelihoods of local Maasai groups.

The ice is also retreating from Mount Kenya and Mount Kilimanjaro.

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Further afield, traditional rituals in the Andes, in South America, are affected by the early retreat of the morning mist.

And the loss of cultural biodiversity in Puncak Jaja in the Indonesian province of Papua, the last tropical glaciers in the Western Pacific Warm Pool, threatens to threaten the centuries-old practices of indigenous groups.

Professor Taylor, who was one of the leaders of expeditions from 2003 to 2007 to measure changes in the Rwenzori glaciers, says the loss of ice fields in the tropics is a warning signal of global warming.

"Tropical mountain glaciers have less variable regimes of mass gain and loss than mid-elevation glaciers such as the European mountains.

As a result, changes in glaciers in the tropics offer clearer, more definitive signals of climate change."

Relying on community knowledge

Restoring and protecting areas affected by climate change is key to preserving cultural heritage as well.

After approving emergency funding to Uganda following last year's floods, UNESCO has partnered with the Chinese and Ugandan governments to rebuild five footbridges that were swept away by the flood.

These structures were key transport links for access to schools, biodiversity areas and tourist attractions.

CCFU Uganda is also working on cultural heritage sites threatened by climate change in the area, with funding from the British Council and the British Government.

Most of the work is focused on increasing vegetation around the sites to improve natural flood protection, relying on community knowledge.

Musasizi says they agreed with the community which trees to plant to best strengthen the river banks, including bamboo and native trees.

Kisa Kasif/CCFU

Masika, who works on the project as a liaison with the community, says that the community has already provided solutions to some of its problems.

"For example, they know what type of vegetation should be planted at what height of the mountain. They know which is strong enough to be planted along the river and to stop the floods."

"They know that they should plant along the banks of the river because it is food for the water god. And when the water god is pleased, he does not cause floods.

Unfortunately, that vegetation is no longer planted along rivers, so their explanation is that now the water god is angry."

"There is no new concept here: climate change is understood in this culture and they have some suggestions that could help mitigate the situation."

Lessons are shared with other institutions working to protect cultural heritage from climate change, mainly in East and North Africa and the Middle East.

The project has already found a link between Uganda and Zanzibar, where rising sea levels threaten Stone Town, a UNESCO cultural heritage site considered an outstanding example of coastal Swahili trading towns in East Africa.

It will be presented as a case study during the United Nations Climate Change Conference COP-26 in Glasgow in November.

A spiritual revelation

Finding solutions that highlight the close connection between Bakonzo culture and the natural environment came as a surprise to Masika, who grew up in a Christian household where it was little talked about.

Now her favorite places are the hot springs of Embuga and Rvagimba, which the Bazonko believe have physical and spiritual healing powers, especially for skin diseases.

"When we started this project, my whole skin itched. But every time I visited the spring, I would find time to bathe in the water," she says.

"It's so hot when you sit there you feel like you're burning. Then you cross over to the river, which is right next to the hot spring, and the water is so cold you feel like you're freezing."

"By the time you leave, your body is already so light that you feel like you're floating, and I haven't had an itch since."

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