Rediscovering African starlore

17 November 2003

Africa’s traditions, legends and stories about the sky are set to reach a world audience with the release of Cosmic Africa, a feature-length documentary on African-based skylore, astronomy and cosmology from pre-historical times to the space age.

Cosmic Africa covers 10 African countries – Egypt, South Africa, Swaziland, Mozambique, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Ghana and Mali – recording the astonishing personal odyssey of Thebe Medupe as he journeys into Africa’s astronomical past, unveiling the deep connection humans have with the cosmos.

Medupe, of the South African Astronomical Observatory and the University of North West, worked with filmmakers Craig and Damon Foster – known for the award-winning The Great Dance – project originator Anne Rogers and co-worker Carina Rubin of Aland Pictures to produce a panorama of Africa’s mythic and practical interaction with the cosmos.

Cosmic Africa had its world premiere in Cape Town on 30 October, and opened on South Africa’s Cinema Nouveau circuit on November 14.

An African’s journey
Medupe grew up in a poor village outside Mmabatho in North West province without electricity, lights or television, where he sat near the fire under the African sky, listening to the elders telling traditional Setswana stories. But his family sacrificed to send him to a modern high school in Mmabatho, where Western science and mathematics captured his imagination.

Halley’s Comet inspired Medupe to build a crude telescope with a cardboard tube and lenses donated by a school laboratory technician. On an unforgettable chilly, windy night, he pointed his telescope at the moon and found himself looking at mountains, plains and craters on another world.

What disturbed Medupe in his last year of high school and afterward was that so many of his friends believed that the African way of life was inferior, that learning Western ideas meant that Africa had little to offer.

Later, after winning the regional Science Olympiad, studying at the University of Cape Town and in Denmark, and becoming a researcher at the SA Astronomical Observatory, Medupe’s interest in Africa’s heritage led him to join the Cosmic Africa project in exploring the ways that the lives of Africans intersect with the heavens.

African skies, African people
Anyone who has been stunned by a star-filled Karoo night will have no trouble seeing why Africans paid attention to the sky, and made it part of their story.

People who lived close to the earth and the changing seasons, Africans naturally used the stars, the sun and the moon to keep track of time and times: the time to plant, the time to hunt, the time for ritual to renew the ties between people and nature.

Africans told stories about the sky, and saw giraffes, lions and zebras among the stars as naturally as people elsewhere saw bears and horses. It was also in Africa that the pyramids and the far more ancient Nabta stones in the Sahara Desert were painstakingly aligned with the heavens, tying the cosmos and man together.

To sample the richness of African traditions and achievements, Medupe and the filmmakers travelled around South Africa and to Mali, Egypt and Namibia, learning from local people and sharing modern perspectives.

Backing and prospects
Initial seed money for a promotional video came from the South African departments of arts, culture, science and technology.

Backing from American-based Cosmos Studios – best known for Carl Sagan’s documentary series Cosmos – made it possible for Anne Rogers and Carina Rubin to begin a research journey stretching from Namibia through the deserts and crocodile-infested lakes of northern Kenya, the cliff dwellings of the Dogon of Mali, and the steamy coast and jungles of Ghana, to people’s earliest astronomical monuments in the Egyptian Sahara.

Solid interest from possible distributors suggests that Cosmic Africa will soon be introducing audiences worldwide to Africa’s ancient perspectives on the cosmos.

Source: South African Astronomical Observatory

Using SAinfo material Want to use this article in your publication or on your website?
See: Using SAinfo material