As temperatures spiked in Karachi this month, officials looked to the skies and mulled the possibility of cloud seeding — or ‘artificial rain’, wherein a mixture of chemicals is released in the air in order to change the amount or type of precipitation that falls from clouds — in order to quench the city’s thirst. The residents of the Kachho area of Dadu district in Sindh, however, didn’t look to the heavens for respite, turning, instead, to folk wisdom and superstition to relieve the drought-like conditions.
Children in remote villages in the district went door-to-door in groups of four, holding a cloth stretched between them as they collected grains and assorted food items from households in their villages. Once the collection was complete, the children gathered together and an orphan boy — sometimes even two or three — was brought out, his face blackened and a tao and kharki (an animal’s bell and pan) tied to his neck. “Black potter! Black potter! Give grain and water that rain may fall!” the children chant in their local Sindhi dialect.
The Kachho area of Dadu, located in the western area of Sindh province and bordering Balochistan, is a disaster-prone region. When there is rain, flash floods from the mighty Nai Gaj torrential stream sweep across the area. While the rain and floods bring bumper harvests and prosperity, the drought leaves a trail of withered trees, plants and herbs in its wake.
At that time, some people offer prayers for rain. Others take a black heifer or goat to the Nai Gaj and sacrifice the animal, letting its blood spill onto the riverbed. They believe this will pacify the angry spirits. Sometimes, orphans are tied to a tree with symbols hanging from around their necks; a fire is lit and male and female dolls are thrown into the blaze in a symbolic sacrifice.
Some villagers turn to their elders, asking them to predict the coming of the rains through a technique known as phall, wherein an older man or woman is believed to cast a magic spell. Some are popular for being able to ‘smell’ the coming of the rains, while others look to the stars and predict rainfall based on the movement of heavenly bodies. In Kachho and some other parts of Sindh, it is believed that a circle or ring around the moon is a sure indication of rain.
For social activist Mashooque Birhamani, the means of predicting rainfall may widely vary, but the root cause of droughts remains the same: “Due to ruthless deforestation in the area and the government’s indifference towards the environment, drought has become common in an area like Kachho,” he explains. “When development and prosperity is coupled with a desire to protect the environment, the work of rain ‘soothsayers’ will fade away.”
Former union council nazim Alhayar Khan Rodnani agrees with Birhamani. “There used to be a pond in one central village in the Kachho area which catered to the needs of humans, animals and birds here,” he recalls. “The pond was our lifeline, but with the arrival of water supply schemes — many of which stopped working in a few months — the villagers stopped caring for and cleaning the pond.”
A water-crisis has held Kachho in its grip for decades — according to some reports, only 20% of the cultivable land in Dadu has been used for farming. Farmers in Kachho wait for seasonal rains and hilly streams in order to cultivate their lands, as there is no permanent source of water here. And, with little to no aid from the government, it appears they may continue to turn to age-old practices and superstitions as they hold out hope for that elusive first drop of rain.
Gulsher Panhwer is a consultant and freelance columnist focusing on cultural and environmental issues.
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, July 5th, 2015.