The idea and function of rainmakers have been parodied into everyday English usage thanks to pop culture.
John Grisham’s 1995 book, The Rainmaker, contributes in large part to our current understanding of the term – a person who comes in when hope is out of the door and causes a windfall.
But from where the idea of rainmakers originate, in Africa and some Pacific cultures, rainmakers are expected to cause literal rainfalls. Sometimes, they are expected to postpone rains or, if possible, relocate where the showers may come down.
Their job is not scientific. But these spiritualists are believed to possess tricks and skills to force rainfall from the skies after they have interacted with the “other side”.
African rainmakers are quite common in agrarian and pastoralist cultures. They have been part of the African mystical narrative for as long as there have been sedentary life on the continent.
But even in these days of open-mindedness towards learning about cultures different from ours, African mysticism is a subject of scorn or contempt for many outside and sadly, within the continent.
It is how come the phenomenon of magic in Euro-American culture is thought harmless, well-meaning entertainment or just simply fanciful hobbyism.
African magic does not get the kid-gloves treatment. For most people, African magic is morally vicious even if you do not trust in the existence of spirits and a spirit-world.
Amid the dust of this European propaganda, we lose the importance of understanding African peoples – their psyche, their ethics and how they experience this world.
In Essays on the Land, Ecotheology, and Traditions in Africa, edited by Benjamin Ntreh and Mark Aidoo, arguments are made to encourage the reader’s understanding of how an African sees and interacts with the physical environment.
If we understand how a traditional African believer connects with the environment, we may sympathize with why there is a huge belief in rainmakers from western to southern Africa.
Among the Zulu, for instance, there is a saying: “He who brings rain, brings life”. For the Zulu and even other African peoples, the guarantor (and bringer) of life is ultimately a supreme deity – you may call it God.
But the people accept the place water has in their physical environment. It is what they drink, what they cook with, heal with and grow their crops with.
For them, water is life and that is more than symbolism. It is literal.
What we have come to learn from many anthropologists who have diligently studied African peoples is that traditional African believers do not make a conscious differentiation between what is physical and what is spiritual.
For these traditional believers, what happens in the physical is necessarily connected to the spiritual. Indeed, according to some interpretations, the physical is caused by the spiritual.
Before you think this is weird African thinking, you must know that this belief is not drastically different than the Western metaphysical philosophy of occasionalism, popularized by Nicolas Malebranche and George Berkeley.
What African peoples have is an intimate relationship between themselves and the physical. From this relationship, they theorize that there is an “unseen” reality that makes their existence and that relationship possible.
When rainmakers recite incantations, sacrifice goats and chickens, throw cowries into the air, go into frenzied dances and blow white powder into the atmosphere, they are communicating with “unseen” reality.
Rainmakers go before the supreme deity or other smaller deities with supplications: Grant us this rain so our crops will grow; hold up those rains so our abodes will not be flooded; send these rains elsewhere.
In the olden days, rainmakers were needed not simply for agrarian or pastoralist purposes but also as strategic military accomplices for times of war. After all, someone has to make sure opponents could be disturbed by torrential rains.
These days, unfortunately, rainmakers are usually for the show. They perform their magic for a fee and at events across sub-Saharan Africa.