Red Cross/Red Crescent Climate Centre Internship Program :: Center for Science and Technology Policy Research

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notes from the field

These field notes are personal views and do not necessarily reflect the views of Red Cross/Red Crescent Climate Centre

Drew Zackary

Blog Post 4
August 15, 2014

Walking through the swampy land near his rice garden Okello stopped turned to me and said,
“ Listen.  You hear now?  Its calling ‘bunyy puuuuur!’ That is the Otat-Kot. When we hear this bird sing, it tells us it is time to plant seeds because the rains will start soon”

I had been annoying Okello with my questions about his methods of forecasting and decision making all morning. Langi farmers have nearly a dozen birds whose appearance, physically seen, or induced though songs heard at specific times, is linked with the changing seasons. I didn’t come here to do ornithology, but my hand was forced because when I asked about forecasting in Otuke the farmers wanted to take me on long slogs through muddy landscapes pointing out multiple types of trees and speaking about birds.  This is sort of a hindrance for me as a person. I quickly discovered I have a natural gift for mis-hearing bird songs.  Once I was told “no, that’s a baby goat”. The bird songs all sounded unique if given a moment of auditory isolation, for sure, but they made a wall of chirping within a larger, dizzying soundscape.

When Okello told me to be quiet and listen I stopped moving. I strained my ears, and within the cacophony of buzzing insects, the wind turning the leaves on shea nut trees, the soft creaking of the maize stems, the belching frogs and the ever present indescribable green noise of the African bush, I think I heard the Otat-Kot  tell me it was time to begin planting seeds. I said “…there!” and Okello nodded. I felt a small sense of triumph.  I was not ready to be a Langi farmer, but I had just learned how to know a small piece of the environment from one, in his own world, in his own field.  Knowledge gained not from a survey, or an interview in a closed room, but learned from walking the landscape with a man who lives in a world very unlike my own.  This is both the beauty and strength of field work in the social sciences.  It is also the most singularly justifiable gift that the PfR internship offers graduate students.  Opportunities to embody places and understand how worlds are made and problems are narrated, at the local level, are invaluable for us future scholars interested in climate change.


Farmer in Ollilim, Otuke, shows what color of green a type of bird is that comes 2 weeks before rain season starts. I needed training in differentiating greens.

The reason I was walking across so much land asking these questions was that my method for investigating my question was evolving.  One of my tasks this summer has been investigating the ways in which PfR’s Early Warning/Early Action (EW/EA) system is being used by local communities to take disaster risk reducing actions to increase resilience.  The PfR partners in each project area facilitate the EW/EA system. Basically, the philosophy behind EW/EA is to get reliable forecast information to local people, institutions, and aid structures before a disaster occurs, thus lowering the morbidity and mortality of these events. As the PfR partner Red Cross states in one of its guiding documents, EW/EA means; “Rountinely taking humanitarian action before a disaster or health emergency happens, making full use of scientific information on all timescales.”(#1) [See the next footnote for more references to open access reports on EW/EA.(#2)

The PfR partners in both Otuke and Napak were using an EW/EA “matrix” to integrate traditional forecasting knowledge within scientific forecasts. The matrix is filled in during focus groups in the project communities. When the scientific forecast is given to communities, at 3-month intervals, the matrix is then used to discuss decisions and actions to be taken.   Its easier to explain by showing it.  Below is a sample of the EW/EA matrix from Anyalima parish, Ogor sub-county, Otuke. My intrepid driver, Jasper, translated it from Luo. I also carried a print out of a matrix from Olilim sub-county in English.  All of the EW/EA matrices in Otuke were nearly identical.   I only include one thing here due to space constraints, but these matrices take up five pages when both seasons and all signs and actions are included.

“ EW/EA Matrix for Amunga Parish-Olilim sub-county. 2012”








Wet season with increased rain

Appearance of  birds: Arum, Ibanga


Water logging of gardens, destruction of crops

Establish water catchments, tarps for vegetables

Funds, tauralpins, garden tools

Households, community, NGO’s


I carried a sheet of paper with the translated matrix with me into the field, as well as the 2012 one from Olilim. The original, stayed with the local community leader.  My goal was to interview people about traditional signs, figure out how they made decisions based on this, and ask how they used the scientific forecast.  I then would follow up and ask about the actions taken based on the forecast.  Like most research agendas, I got pleasantly stuck on the first steps.  Multiple names for similar phenomena abounded.  Birds, I found, had two names at times. There were disagreements between people in spate interviews about how much time before or after a season certain events occurred, such as the flowering of a species of tree.  On top of this, there was no English equivalent for many animal and plant names.  I made an attempt to triangulate a solution. The following method is specific to Otuke only, different, but very similar methods were used in Karamoja.


The author on a transect walk across a farmers land

First I would take the traditional names for the animals, plants and other signs and just ask everyone I could “what is this in English”. This step was very useful because the two PfR staff in Otuke, Alfred and Robert both knew about 25% of the signs that I needed.  If they did not know, I asked its color, shape, size from other farmers and took note.  The second thing I did was use a very obscure book I had downloaded prior to leaving for Uganda.  “ The Lango, a Nilotic tribe of Uganda” was written in 1923 by a British colonial civil servant.  That man, J.H Driberg, lived in the Lango region for seven years.  He became fluent in their language and wrote one of those old school ethnographies that contains hundreds of pages of minutely detailed descriptions of marriage, kinship, economic structures, sexual practices, farming, religion and everything else.  Most fascinating for me were two things he included: 1. A dictionary and grammer guide for Langi, and 2. His own recorded weather information specific to the region decades before any official weather was collected. (no time to get into the second one, but lets just say it maps interestingly over contemporary seasonal calendars elicited this summer)

So, I would look up hard to find words, and discover that something I thought was a pigeon was really a hornbill.  The third way I tackled this problem was to take screenshots of pictures of Ugandan birds I thought they might be talking about from Wikipedia pages back at the PfR field office, then the next day show them to local people and say, for instance “Is this the ‘otat-kot”?  Sometimes it worked, and got a positive nod.  In Karamoja, things were similar, with striking differences.

A young boy holds his radio, Tepeth Parish, Karamoja
“The night sky is split by ario.(#3) (When there are many stars to (east) then there will be more rain. When they are more kide (west)then the dry season is here” – Karamojong elder (#4)

The impromptu conversation John Boscoe and I had started with a group of five elders under the shade of a desert date tree had now become animated as men interrupted each other and pointed in every direction.  I had been asking about ways they forecast the seasons and asked “Is there anything there that forecasts seasons?”  The intial answers came quickly and their content was a bit suprising.  It turned out that, possibly, unlike the Langi, the Karimojong have more celestial signs than animal signs for weather forecasting. (#5) I was inundated for half an hour with very difficult to translate signs from the heavens that signaled everything from wet/dry seasonal shifts, increased violence, bad omens for cattle raiding, and increase in harvests. 

It was there scribbling ferociously in the shade as Boscoe translated, that I began to realize that there are many more worlds of informational triage I had no way of generalizing about between field sites.  Of course, differing cultures have different ways naming the phenomenon of weather and the objects and creatures in the environment.  It doesn’t take an anthropology graduate student to figure that out. But the problem then became knowing that the type and time frames for forecasting signs differed across categories as well as cultural groups.  The Langi I had spoke with only had a few celestial signs; a star Etop that moved on the horizon, streaks of light in the morning before rain, and bright blazing red sunshine at dawn during the dry season (#6).   It, no pun intended, dawned on me that there was a very complex web of relationships across large categories of “nature” that my Western mind had delineated, but the Karamojong elders had not. But there is, like with the goat issue, a much bigger and important question for development and climate change mitigation projects, as well as academically.  What does this do to forecast information that comes from the outside of cultural knowledge institutions, such as the elders in Karamojong, or the local households and political structures of the Langi?

Unfortunately for the reader, I humbly submit, I don’t know with any certainty the answer to that question.  But I am sure it’s an important part of designing and utilizing an EW/EA system.  Let me briefly unpack why. Take the example of the institution of Atukot with the Karamojong.  Briefly, the atukot is a group of people with a similar task, they do not have to be kin or the same gender.  However, they are divided, usually, into age sets.  You can be in an atukot for goat keeping, or one for young men who raid.  What’s key here is that there is one atukot above all.  The council of elders, who make decisions about how the other groups can act and generally how the rules of daily conflicts are constrained and negotiated.  This supreme atukot is all male.

Once again elders try to explain to me the subtleties of green by finding an analogue in vegetation to show me in identifying bird types. This time in Karimoja

Yes, yes, …..why is this important to EW/EA and the use of the matrix?  This is because sightings of traditional signs are filtered through this atukot and decisions are made about how each elder should advise his community.  So, when designing a matrix for decision-making, awareness of these complex systems is necessary in order to facilitate risk-reducing actions.


The elders, I was told, use radio forecasts and the disseminated forecasts from PfR in discussions about seasonal events.  However, all information is, for lack of a better metaphor, filtered-mixed, into a larger cosmological and age-set elder system.  For instance, in one community the rain had not been coming as needed.  At this point the elders sent a request to a ngimurok ( a kind of weather foreteller ). This man, not necessarily an elder, then advises back to the community the specific action to take.  In this instance they were to sacrifice one black bull.  At a PfR meeting, they stated they had done this.  ALSO this is not a ‘males only’ world of weather and environmental knowledge.  I was told that the women go to certain springs and sing songs to the gods alone. No men are allowed, and only the women can perform this.  Apparently, while I was in Napak, this also had occurred in the community that sacrificed the bull. 

These are interesting case studies because, due to delay by the governmental meteorological authority, the forecast had not been disseminated yet in Otuke, or Napak.  So during interviews, observation and casual discussion I was able to get a hint at how people make forecasting decisions without the EW/EA system functioning.  This type of information is valuable, not just academically, but pragmatically for NGO community workers who want to effectively disseminate forecast information and sensitize these communities about climate change.  In my next post I say goodbye to Uganda and discuss the knotty problem of conservation and climate change aware governance. 

Raphael and Cristine, PfR staff in Karamoja, Tepeth Parish, Disaster Risk Reduction Center, built by PfR.

1.“ Early warning>Early action” (2008) IFRC
2. “World Disasters Report: focus on early warning, early action” (2009) IFRC
“Community early warning systems: guiding principles” (2013) IFRC
3. I think I know what this split is. The milky way basically is north-south ish here, thus dividing the sky into east/west.  I also pointed at it one night and a Karamojong said “ario”.
4. I also have an off the cuff theory about this.  Rains come from the east with the wind. So, as clouds gather to the east, they may be covering stars at night.
5.  Caveat:  With such a short time spent in each field site it is impossible to know if there were many more traditional celestial signs among the Langi.  Perhaps, one could hazard a guess that in the past there were many ways of knowing the environment that have been lost. This could likely be due to many factors, including the killing of so many elders during the Kony years, and the inability for me to reach large groups of elders in Otuke, compared to Napak.
6. Perhaps from increased dust in the air during drought?