Meet Kenya’s new ‘weather forecasters’ in Nairobi slums

Kibera community leader Maurine Adisa in a training session. [Courtesy]

A group of young men huddle together next to a storm water drain in Kibra’s Lindi area, seemingly excited by a message from one of the men’s phone.

The text message is from ‘Weather Mtaani,’ a group of local volunteers who interpret weather forecasts received from the Kenya Meteorological Department before broadcasting them to the local community in order to avert disasters that occur during heavy rains.

As extreme weather events become more frequent and severe, millions of vulnerable people living in Nairobi's biggest such slums as Kibra, Mukuru, Mathare and Kangemi are hardest hit. Every year, deaths are reported in these areas as a result of intense flooding. 

Each week, the groups translate weekly weather forecasts, seasonal outlooks and warnings before sending them to other volunteers in the informal settlements. The latter then forward to tens of other youths until the whole community is reached.

Community radio

The youths also leverage on the power of community radio stations. Through regular invites, they can articulate climate change matters and what communities can do to avert ensuing upheavals. 

Some of the stations used to run the Weather Mtaani awareness programmes include Ghetto Radio, Pamoja FM in Kibra, Koch FM in Korogocho and Reuben FM in Mukuru.

James Kirika is one of the 24 youths interpreting the weather forecasts here in Kibra. Last year, he was among youths from the community who were trained by weather experts from the Meteorological Department on how to read and interpret weather maps and diagrams for the benefit of the community.

The 29-year-old sociology and economics graduate is now part of a well-coordinated team of community weather “forecasters” operating not only in in Kibra, but in Mukuru and Korogocho slums as well.

Kirika was born and brought up in Kibra’s Laini Saba and has seen the worst cases of the havoc brought about by unexpected weather conditions.

“Whenever it rains, homes and businesses flood. The situation is made worse since people here have built on top of storm water drains. I have seen people being swept away and others electrocuted by collapsed power cables. Last year, for example, a woman who was just preparing to travel upcountry for Christmas was electrocuted while in the bathroom. Some children playing near the river were swept away, never to be found,” says Kirika.

The teams’ training was coordinated by Daraja (Developing Risk Awareness through Joint Action), a project under the Weather and Climate Information Services for Africa (WISER) programme by the United Kingdom’s Met Office and the Department for International Development (DfID).

“The project’s pilot stage commenced in April 2019. Apart from the community weather champions we create awareness through children through wall murals depicting weather patterns in Kibra. There is also good localised collaboration between residents and the Kenya Met office through community forums. The community can ask as many questions about weather patterns, something that never used to happen before,” says Sabrina Ohler, project manager at Daraja.

The project was conceived to help access and enhance the use of relevant weather and climate information of residents living in the city’s informal settlements. It helps residents be more resilient and better prepared to take preventive measures in fighting the vagaries of climate change.

The UK Met office wanted a user-led approach to help individuals and communities utilise the information and break down the technical jargon associated with such reports. Among other things, the community reports should tell the amount of expected rain, duration and whether one needs to create storage system for the water.

According to UK’s deputy High Commissioner in Kenya Susie Kitchens, training the youths is one way of empowering them to help communities mitigate against the widespread effects of climate change.

“Extreme weather events are becoming more frequent, affecting the most vulnerable in the society the hardest. The UK government is committed to working in partnership with Kenya to empower youth activists in informal settlements build resilience against climate shocks. Daraja, the partnership programme between the UK and Kenyan Met offices, will also help communities plan better against climate-induced risks,” says Kitchens.

In addition, the UK government hopes the project will also help city authorities make informed decisions on extreme weather conditions in the informal settlements.

But the group is not all about forwarding such weather information. Medium-term weather reports are also used by the community to clean up and unclog the open drainage lines in readiness for floods. 

“We actively mobilise community members in regular cleaning exercises to ensure all the storm water drains are unclogged. Last week, the group had just finished the cleaning exercise when the rains came. They all appreciated the importance of such cleanup exercises and have become serious with unclogging the drainages,” says Kirika.

Like prophets who adapt their message to suit prevailing circumstances, the youths cannot avoid talking about Covid-19 pandemic and they have also been using their platforms to raise awareness on good hygiene practices.

In fact, some, like Kirika, have already lost their main sources of livelihood due to the pandemic.

“I was an administrator in a local ECD school. Now I work on small contracts like supplying household items. However, I am a community leader who is still expected to give guidance to vulnerable ones, including keeping them from harm’s way,” he says.

The programme is being implemented in several countries in the region, including Tanzania, Uganda, Somalia and South Sudan.