Climate Change in Africa: Personal Observations and Second Hand Narrations from a Returned US Peace Corps Volunteer

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Stephen at Mt. Kilimanjaro

Stephen at Mt. Kilimanjaro


After being accepted for admission to the Peace Corps in 2005, I took my leave-of-absence from IBM and boarded a plane for Africa. The pre-service orientation in Philadelphia was exciting. The 12 shots were, well, OK. The first leg of the trip from Philadelphia to Paris felt normal. The second leg of the trip on Air France from Paris to Bamako, Mali was long. The Sahara Desert is big. (It is the largest desert in the world, covering 9,100,000 square kilometers (km2)).i As we descended into the capital city of Bamako, the street lights had an eerie quality. It turned out that many of them were not street lights at all, but rather fires. The plane stopped at the terminal, the doors opened, and my world changed. I was introduced to 110 degree heat and a whole new way of living.

For the next two years, from September 2005 to September 2007, I experienced a life style much more similar to how 80 percent of the world’s population lives compared to what I was familiar with in the USA. Eating, hygiene, sleeping, and security all had to be relearned. Everything was very different than what I was used to. I later learned that the environment was also different compared to what my African friends had known only a short time ago. They think that many of these changes could be caused by climate change.

In this essay, I share several of my personal experiences related to climate in Mali and Kenya. In addition to my own story, I share the stories from two friends that I made in Africa; Tamba Traore in Mali, and Raphael Otiri in Kenya. Taken together, this will give you a sense of the climatic changes experienced in Mali and Kenya.

Before we start the story, however, here is some background information. The continent of Africa is 30,065,000 sq km (11,608,000 sq miles). That makes it the planet’s second largest continent, with 20.2% of earth’s land in (53) individual countries. The population: is 877,500,000 (2006) It contains the Nile River, the world’s longest, and the massive Sahara Desert, the world’s largest desert.ii In contrast, the land area of the USA is 9,161,923 sq km (3,537,436 sq miles) with a population of 303,824,646.iii

The country of Mali has 1.22 million sq km and a population of 12.3 million people. Mali is among the poorest countries in the world, with 65 percent of its land area desert or semi desert. Economic activity is largely confined to the riverine area irrigated by the Niger River. About 10 percent of the population is nomadic and some 80 percent of the labor force is engaged in farming and fishing.iv The Sahara Desert occupies the northern part of the continent, and surveys have shown that it is currently advancing at the rate of 5 to 6 km per year.v

My Village in Mali

After finishing three initial months of Peace Corps orientation, I was assigned to live and work in the village of Markala. It is a village of about 17,000 people, located about 40 kilometers north of Segou. Markala is just south of the Sahara Desert. I was the only white person there.

Most of the houses are made of mud, but newer structures are sometimes made of concrete blocks that are made onsite. There were a few strategically placed community wells that aid agencies had built. They had relatively recently been dug very deep to provide water. Some families had wells on their property. Periodically those families needed to have their wells dug deeper because they dried up. My assigned work location was a bank that distributes microfinance loans. “Microfinance offers poor people access to basic financial services such as loans, savings, money transfer services and microinsurance.”

During the first few weeks living in Markala, I noticed donkeys hauling carts of firewood everyday. I asked villagers about this. I was told that the men and donkeys travel one or two days away from the village to cut the wood, and one or two days back to the village to sell it. The donkeys travel all through the night, while the man sleeps on a sling mounted under the cart. Every so often, when the donkey, man and cart are on a main road at night, they will get hit by a big truck and killed. It used to be that wood was nearby the village. No longer is that true.

Rains could be heavy in July and August. During that rainy season, once every day or two the skies would get very black, winds would pick up, and torrential downpours would last from a few minutes to an hour or two. If I was caught outside during the heavy winds, I needed to put goggles over my eyes and a handkerchief over my nose and mouth to make it back home. After every rainy season the mud houses needed to be repaired due to the rain damage to the walls. The poorest of families could not afford the repairs. If repairs were not made several years in a row, their houses would collapse. Streets in the village were almost all dirt, and after the rains small catchments would create mini ponds. I could hear a cacophony of toads or frogs all night long. They were very loud!

In order to perform my work well, I needed to continually advance my capacity in the French language. Therefore, I went to the local high school and sought out a tutor. Someone who taught English and was a native French speaker would be the ideal tutor for me. That is how I met Tamba Traore. He turned out not only to be my French tutor, but also became my good friend.

We often had my French lessons at Tamba’s house. One of his two wives would bring a small table into the concession, the dirt open area where most family activities took place. (Moslem men can have up to four wives.) We got chairs, even though many people sat on the ground. During my lessons, Tamba shared his memories of local history. Here is a summary of Tamba’s historical perspective on climate changes.



Tamba’s Story

In 1960, Mali was known as the breadbasket of West Africa. Weather patterns were regular and predictable, like the stars. The storks’ presence announced the coming of the cool season, which lasted 5 or 6 months. Children welcomed the storks with songs. Rains came in the summer. Farmers could sow seeds on the 19th of August and expect a good harvest. One could harvest peanuts 12 times in the same season. Animals had water all year. Vegetation was very dense.

In 1973 a large dry spell came.vii It decimated livestock. Rural people began to cut wood to earn a living. This caused increased deforestation. Plants and animals were seriously affected. Crops were greatly reduced. Hunters became just carriers of guns. Streams dried out. Fishermen became unemployed. Houses were built in the old stream beds. Then the least precipitation inundated the inhabitants of these houses. The water would become polluted for drinking. Famine caused thousands of young people to flee their family villages. The government did not have money to try to alleviate all of these impacts. The environment degraded dangerously.

Markala is a striking example. The village had a reputation for the production of fish. Today, most fish sold in the village are imported from Senegal. The fishing season was 3 months; now it is not more than 2 or 3 weeks. The Niger River cannot respond to the demand. The cost of a donkey cart full of firewood, roughly 3m3, was $4 in 1985 and now it is $12. The cool season is not as long as it once was. In 2007, a very hot season killed all of the mosquitoes in the neighboring village called Niono (pronounced Nee-oh no). It had been known as a kingdom for mosquitoes. All of the radios talked about this event.

Another neighboring village is named “Thien” (pronounced ‘tee-yen’). There, the milk cow used to be very important in the village. The population needed it for survival. Citizens could earn a living 12 months of the year without having to leave the village. Thien was self supporting and exported its surplus of food to neighboring villages and cities. It was not necessary to fertilize the soil because it was very fertile and produced many cabbages, eggplants, tomatoes, cucumbers, melons, salads, onions, and potatoes. In nearby markets, the products brought by truck from Thien were without equal for their quality and taste. With money from the sale of food, villagers paid for livestock (cattle and sheep) and poultry. There was also money for clothes, and dowries for marriages. All their needs were met. Then came high temperatures. Rains became rare, surface water disappeared so the farmers had to use underground water. Cattle became thin. Food in the fields dried up. Many people left the village. Some people in the village starved. Adjacent markets lost quality food.

Tamba says that the environment has become unrecognizable. He attributes these changes to climate change, which he thinks is a real menace for all of humanity.

Travel to Kenya

Many Peace Corps volunteers return home to the US one or more times during their two terms of service. I decided to immerse myself in Africa. I did not return home. Rather, I wanted to learn about animals in Africa. I discovered that there are no significant numbers of wild animals in West Africa, where Mali is. Those animals were largely killed off during the 1960s and ’70s. Wild animals in large enough quantities to attract tourists occur in eastern and southern Africa. Yet I did not want to go as a tourist. I had been in Africa for 1.5 years already. So I searched for an alternative way of learning about wild African animals, and found a research safari. I boarded a plane and headed to Kenya, in eastern Africa.

Mt. Kilimanjaro

Mt. Kilimanjaro

The objective of this research safari was to learn more about elephant ‰ÛÒ human interactions near the base of Mt. Kilimanjaro. There, elephants and members of the Massai tribe come into regular conflict as additional villages are built. Everyday, under the direction of a nationally certified wildlife researcher, we drove the Land Rover into savannah corridors that the elephants used. We were the only vehicle given a permit to do this. Regular tourist vehicles could not go to the same locations because there was a concern about disturbing the elephants too much. Once in the field, we plotted the GPS coordinates of groups of elephants moving within the corridor. By doing this over time, the wildlife researcher would learn more about elephant movements, and then propose measures to mitigate the negative interactions with humans.

During my work with David Muchuri, the wildlife researcher, I learned that adult elephants need 300-600 pounds of food and about 50 gallons of water a day. Even within his young lifetime, David has noticed reduced snow at the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaroviii, the highest point in Africa. The snow melt provides the tremendous amount of water that the elephants need. By the year 2030, he said, the snow is expected to be completely melted. If there is no snow, there will be no water for the elephants. David did not know of a likely positive outcome, although he and his fellow researchers continue to search alternatives for the elephants.

On the way back to Nairobi from the safari, I noticed a vast expanse of ramshackle huts. I asked the researcher what that was. He said “Kibera, the second largest slum in Africa”. I said that I wanted to go there. He had never before had a client asking him to go into the slum, but he agreed to help me. With his help, and the knowledge that I had gained during my Peace Corps training, I proceeded to make my way into the slum. Following protocols, I met the chief. He asked me why I wanted to enter Kibera. I responded that I wanted to learn about the needs of small business people. He agreed to let me enter, and he assigned an elder named Zachary to accompany me. It would not have been safe for me to enter on my own.

Zachary introduced me to a small businessman named Raphael Owino Otiri. Raphael had started a self-help group to benefit widows and orphans by making and selling jewelry made out of cow bones discarded from restaurants in Nairobi. I began helping Raphael to find outlets for his jewelry in the USA. Now I work with churches and civic organizations to sell Kibera Bone Jewelry. Proceeds of all sales directly benefit widows and orphans in Kibera. To this day, Raphael and I are friends.

I asked Raphael to tell me what he notices about climate changes. Here is what he told me.

The author with Raphael and family

The author with Raphael and family

Raphael’s Story

For the last 15 years, climate has changed drastically. We have not yet received enough rainfall. The most affected areas are the Eastern Coast, North Eastern, Nyanza and part of Central and Rift Valley provinces.

This climate change has affected millions of people in our country because there is no food in the provinces. Many people have turned to wild fruits and even eating wild tree leaves. Since most people in these arid and semi arid areas depend mostly on livestock as their main source of livelihood, they are migrating to other areas looking for pasture for the livestock. In the process of migration, conflicts arise with neighboring communities. The primary conflict is for the valuable commodity, water.

While this is happening, people continue to prepare their farms. The rains will come, but not right on time. This leads people to uproot crops from the farms just to live. In the rural area where I come from there is no water for people or animals to drink. Millions of people from rural areas depend on rain water which flows in small rivers in those areas. They fetch water daily from these rivers for their use and for the domestic animals. Domestic animals, wild animals and wild birds die because of drought. Small rivers running across cities and towns are heavily polluted with wastes from the factories, residential and slum areas.

The climate change in my country has caused children not to go to school because of hunger and some schools end up being closed due to lack of attendance. When it does rain, we have heavy floods which cause a lot of destruction to people and property. People evacuate to high grounds. As this happens the farms that were prepared are swept away, Animals and sometimes people are killed. This makes the food shortage worse and spreads diseases such as diarrhea, cholera, typhoid and other water born diseases.

This is what I can tell you now, but there is more damage caused by climate change in my country, Kenya.


My Peace Corps experience in Africa profoundly changed my life. It gave me a deep appreciation of ancient cultures, of kindness transcending poverty, and of poverty previously unimaginable to me. I also got a sense of the significant possible consequences of future changes in climate that might affect my friends. These feelings and knowledge want to make me work all the harder to moderate these impacts. You may contact me at

Work Cited





v DECARP, 1976b. SDEC and Rehabilitation Programme. Summary presentation Prepared jointly by The General Adm. for Natural Resources, Min. of Agr. Food and Natural Resources and The Agr. Res. Council, National Council for Res. in coll. with UNEP, UNDP and FAO, 21 pp.


vii “Under What Conditions Does Land-cover Change Impact Regional Climate?”, Y. XUE1 and M.J. FENNESSY2, 1. Department of Geography, University of California, Los Angeles, CA90095‰ÛÒ1524, U.S.A., 2 Center for Ocean-Land-Atmosphere Studies, Calverton, MD 20705‰ÛÒ3106, U.S.A.

viii, Images courtesy Jim Williams, NASA GSFC Scientific Visualization Studio, and the Landsat 7 Science Team