New Internationalist

The Son of the Snow is Angry

Issue 378
Photo: Richard Taylor
BaKonzo men amid their alpine climate - and the diminishing glacier high up in the Rwenzori Mountains. Photo: Richard Taylor

Africa, according to current predictions, will be the continent most affected by climate change - a sad irony considering its nominal contribution to global greenhousegas emissions. For the BaKonzo - a people living within the Rwenzori Mountains that straddle the border between Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo - climate change has profound cultural as well as practical consequences.

The Rwenzori Mountains rise four kilometres above the surrounding East African plain. Through a combination of cold air and abundant precipitation, they have historically been home to extensive snowfields whose meltwaters supply a network of alpine rivers, lakes and wetlands that are a source of the River Nile.

For centuries glaciers on the Rwenzori’s summits protected the BaKonzo from being enslaved by neighbouring tribes and from tropical diseases like malaria. This unique cold and wet environment on the equator - a World Heritage Site - features spectacular flora such as giant heather and is a rich source of traditional medicines. Alpine riverflows sustain both agricultural production downstream and the generation of hydroelectric power.

But over the last century the area covered by glaciers has reduced by 84 per cent. If current trends persist, the glaciers will disappear within the next two decades.

Photo: Richard Taylor
The diminishing glacier high up in the Rwenzori Mountains. Photo: Richard Taylor

The BaKonzo also report declining crop yields and episodic famine as a result of reductions in rainfall, which include previously unknown periods of drought. Malaria has migrated into the highlands, suggesting a rise in air temperature that has enabled colonization by mosquitoes transmitting the disease.

In part, an abrupt reduction in East African precipitation during the late 19th century is responsible for observed deglaciation. However, lowland meteorological observations reveal a warming trend over the last half of the 20th century. In other words, the environmental problems facing the BaKonzo are the result of a changing climate.

Just how the material loss will affect BaKonzo culture and identity is uncertain. BaKonzo cosmology begins with the creator, Nyamuhanga, who made the snow, Nzururu. According to oral legend, Nzururu is the father of the spirits, Kitasamba and Nyabibuya, who are responsible for human life, its continuity and its welfare. Kitasamba, who lives in the glaciated mountain peaks, is a giant force who controls the natural environment and the lives of all BaKonzo. Locally, the BaKonzo attribute the loss of snow to a turning away from their traditional customs that has angered Kitasamba. They believe that deforestation driven by rapid population growth is also to blame.

Presently, there is a strong desire to halt deforestation and to reinstate the BaKonzo monarch, Omusinga, in order to revitalize traditional customs and please Kitasamba. Whether realization of these local ambitions - together with global efforts under the ratified Kyoto Protocol - will halt deglaciation and bring back the snow seems unlikely.

Richard Taylor, University College London

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