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Respect weatherman on El Niño, only Mightiest Prophet makes perfect predictions

Ngwata Francis is by far the most famous Kenyan weatherman. In those days when good ole KBC was the Baba na Mama TV, Ngwata regularly appeared on the screen to declare ngurumo za radi maeneo ya Kisii na Nyamira; vipindi vya jua na manyunyu nyanda za juu magharibi mwa Bonde la Ufa, and so on.

While Ngwata entertained viewers with his presentations and became a celeb, sort of, no one seemed to take his forecasts seriously. Politicians and many Kenyans laughed out loud that tomorrow’s weather usually turned out to be the exact opposite of Ngwata’s predictions. Which meant if Ngwata foretold vipindi vya jua mchana kutwa Nairobi, you carried your umbrella.

It now appears the Meteorological Department has never changed since Ngwata. For over a month since the weatherman announced El Niño rains would hit the country, the media has done a great job covering this story. National and county governments were doing everything to prepare for any eventualities, it was reported almost daily.

But when nobody saw the predicted heavy rains, social media exploded with mobs lynching the weatherman for inaccurate prediction. Conspiracy theories were peddled as well.

The Nation joined the fray, insinuating that government preparedness “could have been an orchestrated ploy by some officials to lay hands on public funds” (editorial, October 23, p.13). The paper provided no evidence to back this claim. If there are such “suspicions”, the job of good journalism is to investigate and establish the truth, not to spread rumours.

Besides, the emerging state of uncertainty once again raises questions on the ability of the [Meteorological Department] to make accurate weather forecasts,” the Nation said.

Yet the paper reported the same day that the El Niño prediction was made by other forecasters besides the Met. The regional organisation Igad’s Climate Prediction and Adaptation Centre made the same forecast, as did other agencies like the World Meteorological Organization and the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Only the Mightiest Prophet Owuor is supposedly capable of making exact, inerrant predictions. In the realms of science, natural events like weather patterns are continuously evolving, not static. Conditions may change suddenly and radically to produce results contrary to forecasts.

And, no, it is not just weather forecasts that can be off the mark sometimes.

We are a year from a hotly contested election where pollsters presumably using the latest scientific methods came up with predictions – dutifully accorded screaming headlines by the media – but which turned out to be far off when the results were announced.

The media never questioned the “accuracy” of those predictions, but some journalists appear to believe something as notoriously fickle as the weather should be forecasted with 100 per cent certainty.

Obviously, weather forecasting has moved on since Ngwata Francis. The Met must continue investing in better technology to deliver its mandate. But science doesn’t do miracles. Journalism understands this. Respect the weatherman.

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