The big question is whether we'll weather the weather


The expatriate comes from a country that has an unwavering belief in the power and accuracy – and occasional danger – of science.

Take meteorology, for example, a science that developed in great part because of the need to accurately plan agricultural activities from planting to harvesting, from shifting animals around the paddocks to slaughtering them.

Whole economies and hungry populations rely upon accurate forecasting over the days and months.

When some of us were growing up in the UK, meteorology and weather forecasting were still pretty inexact sciences. The acceptance was that ‘the weatherman’ might get things gloriously wrong, and indeed they did. I remember one famous day in the 1980s when Britain’s leading news-time weatherman came on air to say something like, ‘I hear that some people are saying that there will be a huge storm tomorrow. They’re wrong.’

After which, of course, a huge storm ravaged the UK and I personally walked to school that day with knife-like slate roofing tiles smashing on the ground all around me. One misstep and my skull might have been sliced in two like a mango.

But over the intervening decades, predictions have become much more accurate, not only over the period of a day or two but over longer periods of weeks, months and even years. Computer modelling and satellite imagery have seen simulations of weather patterns created that arguably possess more foresight than most deities.

Ask a meteorologist in the privileged ‘First World’ what the weather will be like on Christmas day, and he’ll tell you with utter confidence: ‘It’s going to be damned cold again!’

Gone are the days of predicting the coming of rain just by licking your finger and sticking it in the air to feel which way that grey rain cloud will travel, and in are the new days of asking Siri.

Indeed, perhaps Kenya’s chief meteorologist should have just asked Siri. Something like: ‘Hey, Siri, will there be El Nino this month?’ Or, ‘Hey, Siri, will my department confuse everyone and have to apologise?’

We of course have to remember how dependent Kenya is on agriculture, and how utterly dependent our agriculture is on rainfall rather than other forms of irrigation. Incorrect forecasting doesn’t just mean embarrassment for the forecasters – it can also mean economic ruin for individuals and the wider economy and insufficient food for thousands.

When we remember Michael Fish, the notorious British weatherman alluded to above, we do so with humour. When, in years to come, we remember incorrect Kenyan forecasts, there’s a danger that we’ll be remembering tragedy. There are rumours and truths surrounding how Kenyan government facilities are difficult to enter, and illegal to take photos in.

The official reason is probably that high-level secrets need protecting. But in the case of our meteorology department, such restrictions might exist to protect us from discovering that there’s one twiddling machine made of table tennis balls, and numerous folk standing with their wet fingers in the air, predicting cloud movement.

I hope you have an umbrella.



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