Patti McGill Peterson Center for International and Intercultural Studies
"If you can look up into the night sky and recognize what lies above you can never, no matter where your travels take you, feel lonely or lost again." These words, spoken by astronomy Professor Aileen O'Donoghue, came to mind as I stared out the window on January 14th, 2010 at the unfamiliar dark sky stretching eastwards toward Jomo Kenyatta International Airport and a semester-long journey of becoming familiar with East African skies.
Through the generosity of the CIIS Office and the Giltz Family Fund I received a Travel Enrichment grant that allowed me to conduct a semester-long research project observing the night sky in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda and engaging in conversations with East Africans in hopes of gaining a better understanding of the role the celestial heavens plays in the everyday livelihoods of different communities.
Every chance I had I would grab my binoculars and field guide and head out into an open field and look up into skies virtually free of light pollution. From January to June I spent nights in the Meru country side, a-top boulders in Tanzania's Yaeda valley, along the Nile River familiarizing myself with the Southern sky. Seeing the Big Dipper hanging upside down for the first time above the roof of my rural home stay house was unreal. The excitement that came with spotting the Southern Hemisphere-specific Large Magellenic Cloud, the Jewel Box Nebulae, and the infamous Southern Cross made all the early 3am mornings and mosquito bites worth the wait. Having the opportunity to share my joy and knowledge of the night sky with other students on my program and new friends I met along the way was extremely gratifying.
Wherever the semester would take us I would ask people about the stars. On a trip to Tanzania we spent a week living along side the Hadza, one of the last hunter-gatherer communities in Africa, learning about their way of life. Through translators I asked a group of men about the stars. When my questions got translated huge smiles spread across their faces and they all looked up at the sky (still daytime) and pointed at things, discussing in Hadza, their native language. One of the men started gesturing directly above his head and making three marks with his fingers and saying "Misebe." Orion's belt! I knew it before the translation came through (Orion is directly overhead in East Africa). In Hadza stars are called Ntsapehe, and moon is Seta.
In an interview with a farmer who lived on the outskirts of the Amboseli National park he explained how important the stars are in providing light during the night when he has to stay up to guard his crops from wildlife. In Kikamba, the language of his tribe, star is ndata and moon is mwei. During a visit to a Maasai cultural boma I spoke with a young member of the community who explained that in his culture it is the belief that stars are God's eyes watching his people. Shooting starts signify someone's death so when you see one you must cover your eyes. Traditionally when the Seven Sisters, the Pleiades, are rising it signifies to the Maasai that the rainy season is beginning. In Maa star is keleken and moon is alapa.
My only set-back came at the end of my semester. My final observations, bringing together everything I had learned throughout the semester, were to take place during a four-day trek up Mt. Elgon in Northeastern Uganda in the hopes of capturing a 360-degree view of the night sky. The hike itself was incredible, however, being as it was the start of the rainy season, the sky was perpetually thick with dark clouds making observations impossible. While this was a huge disappointment it didn't detract from the overall purpose of my research.
As I boarded the plane at the end of June, homeward bound, I looked up from the tarmac into a night sky that held all the familiar faces that I had come to know throughout my semester in East Africa.
* The spelling of names in Hadza, Kikamba, and Maa are subject to error