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ASTRONOMY AND APARTHEID: THEBE MEDUPE REFLECTS ON A LIFE STUDYING THE STARS AND SPACE





Professor Thebe Medupe is a South African astronomer,

astrophysicist and researcher

 

 

 

 Curtis Abraham



FROM THE ARCHIVES




HOW DID YOU BECOME INTERESTED IN ASTRONOMY?

 

 

In 1986, Halley's Comet came to our part of the sky. It made big news and our school, Mmabatho High School in Mafikeng town, about 4 hours North West from Johannesburg, organized a week-long theme on astronomy where all the subjects taught at school covered astronomy. I remember in English class our teacher asking us to write essays about living in another planet! I enjoyed that, and was inspired to want to

know more about astronomy.

 

Later that year, I came across a book in our library on how to make a small telescope scope from materials that you can easily find at home. I followed the instructions and built myself a 2 inch refracting telescope from lenses I borrowed from the school and card-board boxes. I remember the first night I pointed my telescope to the moon, it was a chilly night, but I was so captivated that I never looked down!!! I started mapping the moon, and enjoyed looking at the moons of Jupiter and the phases of Venus. I read more and more about stars, galaxies etc. So, it was no surprise that when I went to the university I studied physics and applied mathematics and later astronomy.



I UNDERSTAND YOU WERE VERY CLOSE TO YOUR GRANDPARENTS. WHAT TYPE OF STORIES DID YOUR GRANDFATHER TELL YOU ABOUT THE STARS?

My grandfather used to tell me about an important star called Naka. Naka is quite bright and marks the beginning of winter. When people see it in the early mornings, they know that it is time for young boys to leave their mothers and fathers to attend initiation

schools. The reason that this star is called Naka is because in the past, whenever people used to watch it, they would blow cow horns to announce its first sighting, and there were celebrations in the village. I later learned that Naka is actually Canopus, our horn star. In the Setswana language, Naka is the horn star. We were also told the white line in the sky (Milky Way) is a place where a lightning bird rests.



DID YOUR GRANDFATHER'S CAMPFIRE TALES HELPED SPARK YOUR INTEREST IN ASTRONOMY?

       

 

I don’t think they directly lead to me being interested in astronomy because I heard these stories when I was quite young (before I was 7 years).What I could attribute to my grandparents, however, is the appreciation of the night sky. We used to sit outside,

around the fire and [marvel at] the night sky [while listening] to all kinds of stories, including ones about the stars. Unfortunately, these stories were not as extensive as the ones I heard from the San (Bushmen) of the Kalahari Desert. [Perhaps modernization has brought about a collective amnesia of these traditional folktales of black South Africans].



HOW DID YOU BECOME INVOLVED WITH THE COSMIC AFRICA DOCUMENTARY WITH ANN DRUYAN, CARL SAGAN’S WIDOW?

 

 

In 1998, I was approached by Cape Town film makers who wanted to write a documentary on the subject. Basically, because they had realized that the world does not know about it, but that it is something that needs to be told to the world. We were lucky to [enter into] a co-production deal with Cosmos Studio, a well-known American film company owned by [Ann Druyan]. Cosmos Studio provided substantial funding that enabled us to make Cosmic Africa. The film was released in 2002, and has been making rounds in South African theatres and in film festivals in the USA.

 

Basically, it’s a documentary about my journey as a young boy growing up in a village in South Africa and how I developed an interest in astronomy that led me

to build my first telescope at an age of 13. But the major part of the film is about my journey throughout Africa searching for Africa’s relation to the cosmos.



 

 


INITIALLY YOU THOUGHT YOUR PERSONAL STORY WAS NOT IMPORTANT ENOUGH TO BE THE FOCUS OF THE FILM 

 

 

The time when it was suggested that Cosmic Africa should focus on my personal background, I was still doing my PhD and therefore totally inexperienced and

unknown in the field of astronomy. Therefore, it was difficult for me to understand why the [general public] would be interested to know about an insignificant astronomer-to-be in Africa, when there are much more well achieved astronomers in the world. I really felt

inadequate for the job. However, the directors including Ann Druyan convinced me

with their messages of [encouragement]. They pointed out that the subject of the film was about an African finding out about himself. This eventually convinced me that I was the most relevant person for the job and I accepted grudgingly.

 

 

WHY WERE THE SAN BUSHMEN AND DOGON COMMUNITIES CHOSEN FOR THE DOCUMENTARY?

 

 

The primary goal was to film living societies that still depend on stars for their daily lives. And for that reason the Dogon were especially good because their culture has changed little in last few hundred years. This was the same with the [San] Bushmen, especially because they represent Africa's oldest people. The ancient Egyptian site in Nabta is quite special because it shows stone calendar circles that possibly predate any such known structure in the  world, therefore it is a matter of pride that our people were amongst the first to record their observations of the positions of sun on the ground.

 

 

TELL ME ABOUT THE DOGON AND THEIR ASTROMONY.

 

 

I was lucky enough to spend two nights alone with an interpreter in a Dogon village. I was amazed at their kindness to me and to one another in spite of [their lack of material wealth]. They have managed to successfully preserve their lifestyle and culture from outside influence and attack for many centuries. That alone was special for me. I also found an amazing similarity between many of their cultural believes with our people in South Africa. They believe in ancestral worship, the games they play, and some of their religious rituals (like appeasing your ancestors). What was striking also was how integral the stars were in their daily lives. And, from the film point of view, they were [the perfect example] of people who were environmentally aware including the [night] sky. They took pride in their customs and traditions, and saw the value in sharing their knowledge with us. It was clear that they saw our visit as an opportunity for cultural exchange and not a means for financial gain for them.

 

Although we did not hear many stories about the stars from them, they clearly used stars to predict the coming of the rainy seasons so that they can start planting and they had a lunar calendar system. Their month was subdivided into six weeks of five day duration. Each day was named after the village where a market was taking place. In the morning, when they wake up, they pray to the stars. Their diviners use stars (and other symbols) to divine etc.

 


 The Dogon of Mali

 


DOGON ASTRONOMY HAS CAUSED GREAT CONTROVERSY. SOME

EXPERTS BELIEVED THAT THEIR KNOWLEDGE OF SIRIUS AND

ITS COMPANION STAR IS INHERITED KNOWLEDGE FROM WESTERNERS WHILE OTHERS SAY THAT IT [IS FROM THEIR OWN KEEN OBSERVATIONS]. WHAT IS YOUR BELIEF?

 

 

Well, because it is a controversy, I was very relieved when we discovered that the people we interviewed apparently knew nothing about the Sirius mystery, otherwise I would have had to explain the controversy in the film. My honest answer is that I really do not know, and I am content with the answers I got from interviewing the Dogon themselves.

 

 

YOU ALSO MET SAN BUSHMEN HEALERS AND SHAMANS.WHAT WERE

THEY LIKE?

 

 

The [San] Bushmen are fantastic story tellers. They tell their stories in a very exciting and animated fashion. The main medicine man we met was a very approachable and friendly person. He looked after us during our stay. He was totally in touch with nature, and obviously knew a lot about the natural world. There is a scene in the movie where he is holding a scorpion on his hand and it is biting him. He was teaching his grandson not to play with scorpions. When we asked him why he was not bitten, he told us it is because he has dealings with the gods!

 

One of the stories he told us was about the stars alpha and gamma crucis and told the story in his way: "Long, long ago, before stars and meteors, the creator made the first fire. The

creator had two sons. Khanka and Khoma.  One day Khanka and Khoma went out hunting with a family of lions. But the treacherous lions ate the boys. In his anger and despair, the creator made a fire. He put the fire into a meteor, and disguised the meteor as eland horns. The creator called the meteor down; it was able to kill the lions. So the creator's heart was calmed. And there was fire for the people. And meteors in the sky."

 

You can see here that the two stars of the Southern Cross are related to the creation of fire and meteors.

 

 

WHAT DID YOU LEARN ABOUT HOW OTHER AFRICAN SOCIETIES VIEW THE

UNIVERSE?

 

 

The most interesting thing I learnt from the Bushmen and the Dogon is that they do not separate the heavens from the Earth as we sometimes do in the West. To them the earth is as much as part of the cosmos as a woman is part of the man. In fact, one great Dogon old man summarized this by saying, “The Earth and the sky are like man and woman. You cannot talk about one without the other” I also got a sense that these communities believed that things of the sky are a mystery of GOD and should not be tampered with.

 

 

WHAT DID THE NIGHT SKY MEAN FOR EARLY AFRICANS?

 

 

The night sky was a calendar to them. The night was also a time [for them] to imagine celestial figures in the sky, hence the many stories about the stars. And this is really the same way all the peoples of the world relate to the night sky. So I guess the main message of Cosmic Africa is that people are the same everywhere.



 

WHAT ARE SOME OF THE MOST MEMORABLE EXPERIENCES YOU HAD WHILE TRAVELLING AROUND AFRICA COLLECTING THESE STORIES?

 

 

[My] most memorable experiences were with the Dogon people. I have never in my life met people who are so materially poor and yet spiritually intact. It was a pleasure to talk to them, because it was clear that even if we came with our ultra-modern equipment and thinking, they only talked to us on their terms. They [told us] things they wanted to tell us

(not more), and at their own [leisure]. [I respected them for that]. Also, [their]

amazing friendliness and hospitality. I was also[struck by] how culturally close they were to us here in South Africa (even though they are on the other side of the African continent). Some of the games they play, the rituals they perform are strikingly similar to what we use to do in South Africa when I was young. Visiting the Dogon brought some great childhood memories for me.

 

[Once], I was [in the company of] two old men in one of the Dogon villages. [One of the men] told me about the positions and times of the rising of the Pleiades cluster in such detail that I was amazed when I checked what he said with the sky software on my laptop, [I found that he was spot on [with his observations]!! Obviously to these people, knowledge about the movement of the stars (Pleiades) is a matter of life and death!

 

 

SPEAKING OF LIFE AND DEATH, WHAT DIFFICULTIES, OR DANGERS DID YOU ENCOUNTER WHILE MAKING THE FILM?

 

 

Although I thoroughly enjoyed the Dogon, their [part of Mali] is quite difficult in which to live. The extreme temperatures (46 degrees Celsius in the morning) and dust [made life uncomfortable]. But their hospitality, and the fascination I had for these

beautiful people compensated for these [hardships].

 

Another difficulty was the way Dogon society is structured, which made it very time-consuming [at times] to find out the information [we needed]. There is a caste system whereby each member of the society has a [specific] role to play in the village. [For instance,]

a blacksmith cannot [comment] about music because that is not his [or her area of expertise]. So, when we first met the village elder and wanted direct answers about how connected they are to stars, he just told us to go and study how the villagers daily lives, then we will get our answer! Eventually, he was correct. But it meant we had to spend more time in their villages than we anticipated. Anyway, [it was] amazing to see such a well-organized and self-respecting [community like the Dogon].

 

 

HOW DID FILMING AN ECLIPSE IN NAMIBIA CAUSED SOME CONFLICT BETWEEN YOUR GROUP AND THE SAN BUSHMEN?

 

 

We planned to film the Bushmen around the time of the partial eclipse in June 2001. We were just interested in how they would react to the eclipse and whether they have stories about eclipses. We really wanted to get at their genuine reactions to "unpredictable" events such as a solar eclipse.

 

Unfortunately for us, we talked to them about eclipses a couple of days before the actual day of the eclipse. The Bushmen regard the eclipse as bad omen. On the day of the eclipse, they were quite unprepared for it, and were clearly alarmed that we had previously being

asking questions about the eclipse and today it's happening! "Something has eaten parts of the sun! How could this happen. It must be these film people, it must be Thebe and his telescope, which he was pointing to the sun," they said [among themselves].


We realize that we were in trouble, and at the least we owed them an explanation of what was going on. I explained to them that we cannot control cosmic events and that our telescope was just a fancy magnifier. It appears that they understood this, and all the tension was released with a dance in the evening. I actually believe that some of them internalized our scientific explanations of cosmic events. We were driving down from the village on our last day, and we asked the village leader what the sun/planets looked like in reality. He answered that they were round balls!



 

 


WAS THE JOURNEY PHYSICALLY CHALLENGING?

 

 

A little bit, but again, because it was a once in a life-time one for me, I felt very privileged to be able to experience all of that. The physical difficulties paled in comparison the amount of mental stimulation and the beauty of my continent and people.

 

The other main attraction was the fact that during the film and the journey I met experts in different academic field, we worked with historians, archaeologists, geologists, and the keepers of African knowledge, it was just such a great learning experience for me.

 

 

APART FROM THE TRADITIONAL STORIES, WHAT ELSE DID YOU LEARN

WHILE MAKING THE DOCUMENTARY?

 

 

In addition, the stories people used the moon and stars for calendric purpose. The Dogon, and Southern Africans for that matter, use a lunar calendar. Hence the length of their month is 30 days, 29.5 days to more exact, meaning each year their year is short of 11

days compared to the solar calendar. After three years this accumulates to 33 days or about a month and some societies would intercalate. For example, they added a13th month to their calendar. Also, we found that the Dogon have a 5 day long week and the name of each day was based on the name of a place where a market is taking place!

 

  

AND WHAT DID YOU LEARN ABOUT YOURSELF?

 

 

One of the things that became apparent was how scientific my world-view is! When one lives within the scientific world, you internalize the environment without realizing it, and I always thought I was an ordinary South African, but the disagreements I often had with the film-makers (who are artists) and others were often from [the perspective of] science versus the arts.

 

 

WHY ARE FILMS LIKE COSMIC AFRICA IMPORTANT?

 

 

It’s important because it makes African children aware that our ancestors, like everyone else on Earth, were very keen observers of the [night] sky. [What this does is to demystify science] and bringing it closer to our people. In Apartheid South Africa, it was a common belief amongst the whites that Africans have always been dependent on them, and that we were incapable of harnessing nature, whether it was on the ground or up in the sky, for our own survival. A film like Cosmic Africa clearly shows traditional societies basing their lives on observations of movements of stars. Our calendar systems were based on observing the moon and the stars, and our complex societies were dependent on these calendars.

 

Cosmic Africa aims to use African history to instil pride in our youth so they see that science and astronomy in particular, belongs to them, and that it’s okay for them to make careers in science. I think the film is also an eye-opener for the rest of the world to see how intertwined human lives and culture was to the night sky. Astromony belongs to all of humanity.

 

 

RESEARCH PAPERS ABOUT THE COSMIC BELIEFS OF AFRICAN SOCIETIES WERE HOUSED AT THE UNIVERSITY OF CAPE TOWN LIBRARY SINCE THE EARLY PART OF THE 20TH CENTURY. WHY DO YOU THINK IT TOOK SO LONG FOR THESE TO GET INTO THE

PUBLIC DOMAIN? 

 

 

I honestly believe it was part of the effort of the old regime to deny Black South Africans knowledge of their past.. [Apartheid limited] our aspirations in life. We were not meant to imagine ourselves involved in careers that would advance our intellectual, economic and spiritual well being. [White South Africans knew very well that our history and culture

could be used as part of a collective self-esteem, a source of pride], then they could no longer control us, and Apartheid would no longer be sustainable.

 

 

 I'VE HEARD THAT THE FILM MOVED SOME AFRICAN-AMERICANS TO TEARS.

     


I think the film probably reminded them of their [historical and cultural] link to Africa. [Perhaps] they saw the potential of how history can be used to [potentially] heal the wounds of today. Some mentioned how much they identified with MY quest to reconcile my career with my African heritage. The film starts with my quest and the my visit to various African villages and ends with me teaching school children how make telescopes and using these to point at the moon. This is one of the most [positive] and emotional parts of the film. It gives hope that we can use our heritage to solve the current problem that prevails in Africa, the Americas and in the Caribbean; "How do we attract Black kids into science and technology careers?"



DO YOU CONSIDER YOURSELF A ROLE MODEL OF SORTS?

 


In a sense I do. This is because when you are the first person in a strange field of study, there are many challenges that a person experiences, and you feel obliged to make sure that those coming after you will not experience the same kind of difficulties you did.


One of the things that really touched me, was the inherent believe amongst the Western astronomers that Black people are somehow different from the rest of humanity in that they have no interest in astronomy. That was a typical response when they were asked why there aren't more Blacks in astronomy. So, I took it upon myself to prove this stereotyping wrong by going to my hometown university to attempt to develop

astronomy

 

 

THE SOUTH AFRICA ASTRONOMICAL OBSERVATORY (SAAO) IS PLAYING A  MAJOR ROLE IN BRINGING ASTRONOMY TO BLACK SOUTH AFRICANS ISN’T IT?

 


Yes, I am very glad to say that SAAO and a consortium of South African universities and astronomy institutes have formed a Masters program called the National Astrophysics and Space Science Program currently hosted at the university of Cape Town. The idea is to pool research and teaching resources of South Africa together to train our young people (from South Africa and throughout the continent) to increase the size of the astronomy community in South Africa and the continent.


I am proud to say that I am part of this endeavour [by teaching] an MSc course on stellar

structure. Every year, each astronomer comes for a month to give intensive courses on various topics of astronomy and space science.


The number of students recruited is increasing every year, and I think in the next five years, you will see a significant number of Black South African astronomers, and a couple of years later we will be able to manage our astronomy institutes and facilities. I am particularly glad to see this happening because the South African government has put a lot of investment (financial and otherwise) into astronomy research in a form of the construction of the 10-metre class telescope called SALT, and the bidding for a large international radio array telescope called SKA [South Africa and Australia are currently co-hosts of the project ]. And it is fitting that eventually these facilities and projects should be run by South Africans themselves. I am also proud that we are involving our African brothers and sisters in the spirit of NEPAD and the “African Renaissance”.

 


WHY ARE YOU PLANNING TO COMPILE A DATABASE OF TRADITIONAL AFRICAN ASTRONOMY?

 


So that we avoid the current sad situation were the people with information about African indigenous knowledge systems [such as astronomical observations] are dying out and we are running the risk of losing all of that wisdom.

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