Science, radio and myths collide in Zimbabwe

Many rural communities in Zimbabwe think people have powers to harness lightning to kill their enemies. A community-run radio station is stopping the spread of misinformation – using texts

After some moments of hesitation, Leonard Madanhire, a small-scale farmer in Mutare, eastern Zimbabwe revealed how a lightning bolt shockingly killed a fellow farmer and his wife a couple of years ago.

The deceased farmer and his wife, Madanhire alleged, had stolen some valuable items from another man in the nearby city of Mutare in eastern Zimbabwe.

“A night after stealing the goods, the farmer and his wife were struck by a lightning bolt while sleeping in their grass thatched hut at their farm. They were burned beyond recognition,” Madanhire said.

And he added with a chuckle: “I’m not trying to convince you here but do you think it was a coincidence that after stealing from this man the duo was struck by lightning? Or the man whose property the two stole had something to do with their deaths?”

Leonard Madanhire, a farmer in Mutare, eastern Zimbabwe | Photo By Andrew Mambondiyani

Even David Mutambirwa, the founder of Mhakwe Heritage Foundation Trust, an organisation which researches and documents heritage and cultural preservation in Zimbabwe, concurred with Madanhire.

“Though we lack documented records to substantiate our innovations, lighting has been and is still a tool to address vengeance. The ‘man made’ lightning can only strike the target, when there is a reasonable offence committed to the aggrieved party,” Mutambirwa explained.

Though it’s hard to prove, many people mostly in rural communities in Zimbabwe remain convinced that there are people with powers to harness lightning to kill other people.

Farmers in Mutare, Zimbabwe work in the open exposing themselves to lightning | Photo by Andrew Mambondiyani

Every rainy season, which normally lasts for about five months, lightning kills between 90 and 120 people and an equally high number of livestock across the country. In early February 2021, Dawie Jourbert, a prominent farmer in Zimbabwe’s Chipinge district, lost 25 Brahman cattle worth more than US$15 000 to a single lightning bolt.

Coincidentally, Zimbabwe holds the Guinness Book of World Record for the highest number of people killed by a single lightning bolt. The incident, where 21 people were shockingly killed by a single bolt of lightning, occurred on 23 December 1975 at Chinamasa, a small rural community in the Eastern Highlands in Manicaland province.

Clouds like these can bring lightning in Mutare, Zimbabwe- Photo by Andrew Mambondiyani

Even with this high death rate from lightning, many Zimbabweans like Madanhire widely believe that “natural” lightning does not kill people but people kill other people using lightning.

And weird as it sounds, Mutare Museum in Mutare city has on display what is perceived to be the ingredients for “making” lightning. The lightning “creation” paraphernalia was reportedly surrendered to the museum by a family from Nyanga, a district north-east of Zimbabwe after the death of the owner.

Lightning paraphernalia in the culture section of Mutare Museum

Many visitors to the museum are both intrigued and shocked by this stuff but whether the objects can create lightning or not remains a mystery.

As the annual human and livestock carnage from lightning continue unabated, there has emerged a serious clash between science and myths about lightning among many people in Zimbabwe.

When science and myths collide in the highly superstitious communities in some parts of the country in most cases myths triumph over science, oftentimes with a high price on the lives of local people. Because of the myths, some people are not taking necessary safety measures as advised by experts to minimise chances of being killed or maimed by lightning.

Experts argue that farmers and livestock herders in Zimbabwe and many other African countries work mostly in the open thereby exposing themselves to lightning.

A normal rainfall in Mutare, Zimbabwe | Photo by Andrew Mambondiyani

And the Meteorological Service Department of Zimbabwe deputy director for weather forecasting, Linia Gopo said the country lies in the tropics; because of its high average elevation, it experiences subtropical weather.

“The bulk of the rainfall over Zimbabwe during the summer rainfall season is mostly convectional type of rainfall; it results from moisture in the atmosphere and heat, which leads to cloud development. The type of clouds that are formed through convective activity are mostly cumulus or heaped clouds, the cumulus clouds can further grow into cumulonimbus clouds,” she said.

And cumulonimbus clouds, Gopo said, are indicative of thunderstorms and even if there were not too many of these clouds and with their presence in the atmosphere, thunder and lightning are bound to occur.

“Heat storms usually occur in Zimbabwe during the summer rainfall season and these storms are as a result of heat and moisture with no defined weather system. It is usually heat storms that occur when the moisture in the atmosphere is not abundant that result in dry thunderstorms; a thunderstorm that produces thunder and lightning, but most or all of its precipitation evaporates before reaching the ground. So, yes without many clouds and much rainfall in an area lightning and thunder can occur as long as there are cumulonimbus clouds,” Gopo said.

A message from Kumakomo Community Radio Station

Every year, mostly during the rainy season, the Meteorological Service Department of Zimbabwe and the country’s Civil Protection Department embark on massive campaigns – using radio, TV, print and social media –  on safety precautions during thunderstorms. Educational campaigns related to lightning and severe storms normally start around November of each year when the rainy season in Zimbabwe starts. 

Gopo advised that when thunder roars its best for people to be indoors: “If you are inside of the house do not wash dishes or take a bath during a storm, unplug all electrical appliances and make use of lightning conductors.

If outdoors, Gopo warns never take shelter under a tree during the storm, avoid being the tallest object in an open space, shelter inside a big solid building or a car with the windows rolled up and avoid using an umbrella. “Raincoats do not offer insulation against strikes.”

However, to support campaigns by the Meteorological Service Department of Zimbabwe and Civil Protection Department on the dangers of lightning, Kumakomo Community Radio Station Initiative has a bulk SMS platform to educate people about lightning and other severe weather issues.The phone numbers are obtained through the Zimbabwe Association of Community Radio Stations (ZACRAS). 

Nandi Tariro Marange, a volunteer and musician who does jingles at Kumakomo Community Radio Station

“We can generate and send even weekly messages, so far we are sending out SMS to 3,500 phone numbers,” said Trevor Mtisi, Kumakomo Community Radio Station Initiative Coordinator. 

Kumakomo Community Radio is a community initiative that provides an alternative media voice for the Mutare community. “It is for the community, run by community volunteers,” said Mtisi. Besides the bulk SMS platform, which has been embraced by many people – particularly those with limited access to the Internet – the community radio also shares the same information through its website, WhatsApp and Facebook pages. And these campaigns are gaining traction among some local people. 

“It’s time as farmers we should accept the science behind lightning. Let’s follow what experts are saying. I have now learned not to go into the open fields during thunderstorms and not to take shelter under a tall tree. Simple precautions can save lives,” said Takaendesa Makichi, a small-scale farmer in Zimunya, an area outside the city of Mutare.

What’s so good about this?

Misinformation is one of the biggest challenges we are facing right now. Radio remains an important mass medium across Africa when it comes to combating this. As one of the most powerful supporting and cheap technologies for non-formal education, community radio is synonymous with development. And that’s where it comes in here. When SMS and social media messaging is received from a trusted voice, it can debunk myths and minimise the spread of wicked rumours.

Meet the writer

Andrew Mambondiyani is a freelance journalist based in Zimbabwe who has written for BBC, VICE News, The Daily Beast, YES! Magazine and ZAM Magazine among others. Follow: @mambondiyan.

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