Rainmaking Rituals in the Era of Climate Change: A Spatial Approach
Amal Bourhrous, Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI)
This essay analyzes the rainmaking ritual of talghnja, commonly practiced by local communities in North Africa when rain fails to come. It is a procession that temporarily inhabits public space through movement, symbols, and the enactment of the Amazigh myth of tislit n’Anzar (the bride of Anzar – literally, the bride of the rain). The essay relies on Henri Lefebvre’s conceptualization of “lived space” to understand how the habitation of space through the ceremonial procession of talghnja makes myth burst into public space and become visible in it as a concrete, albeit ephemeral, expression of collective memory and a shared imaginary. In times of mounting uncertainty due to water scarcity, unreliable rainfall and risks and challenges related to climate change, performing rainmaking rituals is arguably more than just a manifestation of local tradition and folklore. It is a political act precisely in its apolitical form, in the hopes and demands enclosed in it, but also in the dimension of vulnerability and helplessness that the appeal to supernatural intervention reveals.
Rainmaking rituals have long been practiced in the Maghreb when rainfall is scarce or irregular, but in the era of climate change these rituals assume renewed meaning with arguably political significance. Climate change constitutes a major threat for North African countries and societies. Extreme weather events such as scorching temperatures, persistent droughts, and floods, have become more and more frequent. In Morocco, for example, the year 2022 witnessed one of the worst droughts in four decades, with water in dams and reservoirs dropping to the lowest levels in many years. A recent World Bank report described the situation in Morocco as one of “structural water stress” (The World Bank, 2022), and the worsening water crisis has prompted the Moroccan authorities to mandate rationing.
In contrast to such political and technical responses, some rural communities have turned to traditional rainmaking rituals known as talghnja (which in Amazigh means wooden spoon) to cope with drought spells and unreliable rainfall. The practice of talghnja is most commonly practiced in Morocco and Algeria but is also found in Tunisia. It consists of a ceremony of rogations and prayers for rain that enacts the Amazigh myth of tislit n’Anzar (the bride of Anzar—literally the bride of the rain). When confronted with extreme weather conditions and natural disasters, resorting to rituals and traditional practices is not surprising. People often turn to traditional practices informed by indigenous knowledge and religion that constitute their society’s collective imaginary to deal with climate uncertainties (Nyawo, 2017).
Situated at the intersection of ethnography and environmental politics, this essay adopts a spatial approach to highlight the symbolic and political dimensions of a seemingly apolitical ritual practice. While rainmaking rituals such as talghnja are sometimes discounted as mere folklore, this essay argues that their eruption into public space is more than just a manifestation of local tradition, especially in times of mounting uncertainty due to climate risks and challenges. Performing rainmaking rituals can be viewed as political acts precisely in their apolitical form since they crystallize and make visible the hopes, needs, and demands of individuals and communities and reveal levels of fragility, vulnerability, and despair so high that people turn to supernatural and divine powers to seek relief. By focusing on the spatial dimension of rainmaking rituals, this essay attempts to capture the perceptions and understandings of space and the physical environment—the messages communicated, the identities revealed, and the collective imaginaries mobilized—that unfold and are given concrete form in public space at the moment of ritual performance.
The essay first describes the ritual of talghnja practiced in Morocco and elsewhere in North Africa. Next, it uses a spatial lens inspired by Henri Lefebvre’s conceptualization of “lived space” to understand how the appropriation of space through the ceremonial procession of talghnja makes myth burst into public space and become visible in it as a concrete, albeit ephemeral, expression of collective memory and a shared imaginary. Finally, the essay explores the political implications of the eruption of rainmaking rituals into public space.
Talghnja and Anzar: Living Traces of Ancient Berber Practices and Beliefs
The very existence of an Amazigh mythology and cosmogony is a contested question (Benamara, 2022). The Berberologist Henri Basset (1920), for example, insisted that Berbers possessed no myth, only rite (Abrous and Chaker, 2004). For others, however, the practices and rituals still performed today constitute traces of old belief systems that predate the coming of Islam and other monotheistic religions. Given the oral nature of Berber culture, settling this debate is not possible, as oral accounts remain the only way to access Berbers’ experience of the world. The ritual of talghnja is said to be connected to the myth of tislit n’Anzar, the bride of Anzar. A presentation of this myth is provided by Henri Genevois (1978) based on accounts collected among the Ait Ziki in Kabylia, Algeria. In his book Mots et choses berbères, Emile Laoust (1920) offers one of the earliest and most detailed descriptions of the ritual of talghnja in Morocco. These early accounts and texts about the myth of tislit n’Anzar and the ritual of talghnja were part of a body of ethnographic studies associated with colonial rule in North Africa, and the knowledge produced admittedly bears the Orientalist marks of the colonial project. However, as they are some of the only written and detailed accounts available, they can be a useful resource when complemented with more recent scholarship and ethnographic observations.
According to the myth, as recorded by Genevois, Anzar, the god of rain, fell in love with a beautiful girl who used to bathe in a river and wanted to marry her. Yet each time Anzar came down from the sky and approached the girl, she withdrew from him. When Anzar finally managed to declare his passion, the girl refused his proposal for fear of what people would say. Angry, Anzar suddenly disappeared taking with him all the water of the river. Breaking into tears, the girl stripped off her clothes and implored Anzar to come back. Immediately, lightning struck, and Anzar embraced the girl. Water started to flow again in the river, and the earth turned green (Genevois, 1978).
The ritual of talghnja has long been practiced before the sowing season, with many variations across regions and communities (Gélard, 2006). The ritual consists of dressing a wooden spoon as a doll representing a bride and parading it through the streets. The procession is composed mainly of women and children who pray and sing to invoke the rain. As the procession progresses, alms and donations are collected for the preparation of a communal meal while the doll is sprayed with water. At the end of the ceremony, the doll is often dismantled or destroyed. The ritual of talghnja is fraught with meaning and symbolism. Some interpretations note, for example, the ritual’s sexual references, as suggested by the use of a wooden spoon to symbolize the bride whose body is to receive the life-giving water of Anzar, in the same way that rain fertilizes and gives life to the earth (Camps and Chaker, 1989).
Most of the contemporary ritual performances are a mixture of Berber myth and Islamic discursive elements, as the chants and prayers are usually addressed to Allah and the communal meal is meant to be an act of sadaqa, Islamic charity. In some instances, the Islamization of the ritual can also be seen in the parading of the doll around marabouts and shrines of saints to seek their baraka, or divine blessing (Hamouda, 2016). An important discursive element is a supplication for God to have mercy “for the sake of children and the mute [animals],” both often considered as symbols of innocence and vulnerability. In short, ritual performances of talghnja join together a variety of religious, spiritual, and symbolic elements and representations. Questions about the coherence of these representations, the extent to which participants are aware of the origins, meanings, and CLIMATE CHANGE AND ENVIRONMENTAL POLITICS IN AFRICA 22 connotations of the ritual, and whether it is based on fact or fiction are not what is important here. What matters is that the ritual practice is part of people’s collective memory, transmitted through generations as stories “one tells in order to orient oneself in the world” (Assmann, 2011, p. 59).
Inhabiting Space Through Ritual Practice
Ritual is a way of inhabiting and appropriating space. Space is often understood as simply the physical environment that contains human activities and social relations. This static view makes a sharp distinction between the physical environment on the one hand and human activity on the other, with very little attention to the interactions between them. More dynamic understandings of space focus on the relational and mutually constitutive nature of space and the social relations it supports by examining how space is constructed and formed through social practices and interactions (Massey, 2005). As Massey (2005) puts it, “if time unfolds as change then space unfolds as interaction” (p. 61). Understanding space as something constructed through interaction reveals how it can be produced in different ways and with multiple, coexisting, layers of meaning that allow for different modalities of inhabiting and appropriating it.
This approach highlights the different kinds of social spaces that are produced and actualized during ritual practice and performance. Henri Lefebvre’s theorization of social space as a triad of perceived, conceived, and lived space is a useful analytical tool for understanding how rituals not only take place in a particular physical space but also produce and disclose different spaces constituted through superimposed meanings and symbols. According to Lefebvre, while perceived space refers to the “materialized, directly sensible and perceivable” space (Rogers, 2002, p. 29) and conceived space refers to the ideas, representations, and discourses deployed to conceptualize a certain space, lived space is “space as directly lived through its associated images and symbols, and hence the space of ‘inhabitants’ and ‘users’… the space which the imagination seeks to change and appropriate. It overlays physical space, making symbolic use of its objects” (Lefebvre, 1991, p. 39). As the domain of lived experience, lived space is inseparable from perceived and conceived space, but it focuses attention on people’s experience as they engage in a spatial event, including ritual performance.
More specifically, lived space allows us to see how practices such as movements, activities, gestures, incantations and chants, as well as the mobilization of specific symbols, delineate and produce a particular “ritual space” in which specific narratives, collective imaginaries, and even entire cosmologies, are articulated and given life. Ritual is place-making. It imbues a particular space with meaning, thereby demarcating it and setting it apart from other spaces, whether permanently (as in the creation of a designated sacred space) or fleetingly (as in the use of profane spaces for performing ceremonies, celebrations, and ritual processions). At the same time, rituals make spatially visible the subjectivities and the identities of the participants. In other words, ritual practice produces space, organizes it according to symbols and representations that evoke specific worldviews as well as communicate specific messages about those who take part in ritual performance.
Taking Place: Rainmaking Rituals in the Era of Climate Change
In a context largely dominated by orthodox Islamic beliefs and practices, the eruption of the rainmaking ritual of talghnja every now and then in public space represents an appropriation of space in which existing socio-cultural representations and perceptions symbolically transform it, even if only momentarily, into the space of myth and ancient beliefs. For the duration of the ritual, public space becomes inhabited by mythical Berber characters and divinities. In space thus transformed, the ritual performance is a way to placate and cajole the weather, anthropomorphized as Anzar, by offering him his beloved bride, with the hope of triggering rainfall that will produce fertile soil and land. As a spatial event, ritual performances enacting the myth of tislit n’Anzar seem briefly to decenter orthodox Islamic beliefs and practices, including the Islamic prayer of istisqa, which is also performed—usually in mosques and prayer halls CLIMATE CHANGE AND ENVIRONMENTAL POLITICS IN AFRICA 23 and by order of established religious authorities—to invoke rain in times of drought. The moment of ritual thus illuminates the multiple layers of beliefs, ideas and worldviews that can coexist in the culture of a society, shaping people’s perceptions of space and mediating their relationships with the physical environment. These public ritual moments show that talghnja is an important part of rainmaking traditions in the Maghreb, and that orthodox Islamic beliefs are a layer that covers a multitude of other beliefs and representations—including Berber ones—that are part of people’s collective memory and continue to be transmitted through generations.
In present-day performances of talghnja, ritual participants, largely unwittingly, blend together fragments of Berber myth with Islamic elements and references, blurring the boundaries between center and periphery and the lines between orthodox and unorthodox practices. This illustrates the fundamentally eclectic character of culture but also of lived space, which is “full of contradictions and seeming opposites” and dissolves sharp dichotomies and binary distinctions between center and periphery, between time and space, between nature and culture, between orthodox and unorthodox, between sacred and profane (Rogers, 2002, p. 37). Viewed from the perspective of lived space, the performance of the rainmaking ritual of talghnja ceases to appear as some kind of anomaly or as an occurrence that has little connection with and relevance for modern life beyond its folkloric (and aesthetic) character. Rather, it begins to appear as a particular way of inhabiting space that discloses already existing symbolic structures and shared imaginaries that constitute a sociocultural substratum that also informs how space is experienced. At the same time, the ritual conveys specific messages about people’s relationship with their environment in times of water scarcity and unreliable rainfall that have broader resonance in a context of global concerns about climate change.
An essential component of talghnja is the habitation and appropriation of space through processional movement. According to Janusek (2016), “to process is to move with others in an orchestrated, synchronized manner toward a common destination. Procession is a communal, structured, and directed sociospatial performance” (p. 4). In processions, participants’ way of inhabiting space is defined by their collective performance, their shared intention and purpose, and their shared beliefs, while the element of spectacle and theatricality produces a sensory and emotional experience of space. Focusing particularly on religious processions, Gaël Rideau (2019) shows that what is at work is a dialectic relationship between meaning, emotions, religion, and space. In a similar vein, participants in the ritual procession enacting the Berber myth of tislit n’Anzar are part of a sensory experience shaped by prayers, chants, music, and so forth. A range of emotions both constitute and emanate from the rainmaking procession, including despair, vulnerability, and anxiety but also hope, piety, and faith that prayers will be answered by a merciful god.
In addition to revealing the multiple sociocultural frames that inform people’s complex relationship with their milieu, looking through the spatial lens reveals how the emotions engendered by that relationship appear and take place in public space through processional movement. In other words, the uncertainties and anxieties that people experience in times of drought and climate insecurity go from invisible to visible. It is as if ritual participants carved out and claimed a space for expressing their worries and concerns about the impact of extreme weather conditions on their livelihoods. If, as Janusek (2016) argues, “ritual is first and foremost, a mode of paying attention” (p. 7), this materialization in space is important since it draws attention to the hardships of communities affected by drought and unreliable rainfall.
Although traditional rainmaking rituals such as talghnja are quite different from strategies of adaptation and mitigation connected with the global discourse on climate change, they are of great importance for two reasons. First, while appearing to be a mere manifestation of folklore and tradition, they represent an immediate mechanism of stress relief for communities confronted with insecurity caused by climate uncertainty. Second, rainmaking rituals can be viewed as political acts precisely in their apolitical form. In performing the CLIMATE CHANGE AND ENVIRONMENTAL POLITICS IN AFRICA 24 ritual, participants do not turn to the state for help and support in accessing critical water resources. Water scarcity is here not seen primarily as a matter of water management policies and is not primarily connected to failures of policies to enhance resilience and adaptation to climate change.4 Rather, the rainmaking ritual conveys a sense of fragility and helplessness that are so high that people appeal directly to divine and supernatural powers. As Hémond and Goloubinoff (2002) put it, “when the rains arrive late or fall too irregularly, the harvest is compromised, which generates great anxiety among the population. Only a deep, regular and ritualized relationship with the supernatural beings responsible for the elements can overcome this uncertainty” (p. 254). Even when water scarcity and droughts are perceived to be connected to climate change, many communities have very few expectations from the state and official authorities when it comes to climate risk management. In this sense, rainmaking rituals are not intended as political acts, as they are directed not at the state but at the supernatural and the divine.
In times of mounting climate-related risks and challenges, however, these rainmaking rituals nonetheless signify politically, since—by inhabiting and transforming public space—they make visible and draw attention to the hardships connected to drought and unreliable rainfall. Hannah Arendt famously described public space as the “realm of appearances,” linking the concept of the political to appearance and publicly coming into view. While the talghnja ritual does not easily fit Arendt’s description of the political as action and speech— indeed, it is not at all meant to be political—there is still a sense in which the ritual is political in an eminently Arendtian way. While participants may view it as an apolitical act, it nonetheless signifies politically as a particular acting in concert that makes the participants and their vulnerability and helplessness appear in public space, where “whatever appears in this brilliantly illuminated space is thereby pushed to the center of common concern” (Canovan, 1985, p. 618).
One can even see the ritual procession performed in talghnja as an unintended political demonstration signaling the hardships and anxieties connected to these climate risks. Evans (2016) notes this similarity between processions and protests, arguing that “today processions are often politically motivated, such as protests or demonstrations against economic inequality, climate change, or government policy. Nonetheless, they are communal rites and generate solidarity” (p. iv). While rainmaking rituals first and foremost are an expression of the insecurity and hardship suffered in times of drought and unreliable rainfall and constitute a coping mechanism for affected communities, they are also an indicator of vulnerability in an era of climate change (Shaffer, 2017) and can at the same time be viewed as an unintended but important political act in a context of global concerns about climate change.
Using a spatial approach, this essay has explored the significance of rainmaking rituals in the era of climate change by analyzing the North African performance of talghnja enacting the Berber myth of tislit n’Anzar. Rituals produce and transform space by mobilizing symbols, representations, and worldviews, thus revealing while also contributing to people’s multi-layered experience of space. In times of climate uncertainty, performing rainmaking rituals is a way for people to connect with the environment they inhabit and to manage their relationship with the earth by invoking the graces of the sky and conjuring the supernatural powers that control them. Making use of Lefebvre’s notion of “lived space,” this essay shows how looking at the practice of talghnja through a spatial lens reveals the wider implications of a seemingly isolated event in public space. Adopting a spatial approach illuminates how symbolic structures form coexisting sociocultural layers that shape how space is experienced. This approach also shows how the spatial event of ritual performance makes visible the vulnerability and sense of insecurity of communities confronted with drought and scarce rainfall and how this is politically relevant in times of mounting concerns about climate-related risks and challenges.