Astronomy in Africa- News and Updates

Map showing the core and remote locations for SKA in Africa. Credit: SKA South Africa

The major news of the week is the final decision on the SKA site, which will include both the African and Australian continents, the two regions competing for the bid. In making the decision, South Africa was chosen as the “preferred” site, hosting a greater proportion of the dishes. Design and pre-construction will begin in 2013, with the first phase of SKA being available for research in 2020. SKA South Africa’s Justin Jones has responded to the news by answering questions on the significance of the decision and the impact it will bear on South Africa and the African continent at large.


Guest Voices- Dance & Our Cosmic Story

Our guest post this week is by Rujeko Dumbutshena, a Zimbabwean dancer and artist who teaches courses on neo traditional African movement.

Silkscreen by Rujeko Dumbutshena

I believe African dance is a reflection of our humanity—and therefore of our cosmic story. I have been teaching dances that, in their context, many years ago, were used for celebrating and mourning the natural cycles of life.  Because the uses of traditional African dance seem endless, I have always found ease in applying movement to story.

When starting to work on concepts for a performance for the African Cosmos exhibit with my friends and fellow Zimbabwean artists Mavhu Farai Hargrove and Farai Malianga, it became clear that I was about to draw inspiration from a part of my culture that I knew little about. You would think that my non-tradition upbringing, Christian education system and training in classical ballet, would render my cultural stories irretrievable, but working on the Jenaguru performance for the African cosmology exhibit has forced me to bring those stories back to life and closer to home.

When we first sat down together we managed to achieve a common ground with our individual understanding of our fundamental cultural worldview.  God is not in heaven so there is no need to direct our prayers to the sky, our ancestors replace others deities and gods and luckily for us, our creation story has been handed down to us to draw inspiration from despite our distance from home. African dance has kept me connected to the age old ways we have been paying homage to the natural order of our universe and therefore I begin to find ease in finding movement that reflect our cosmic story.

At first, the most familiar associations came to mind: stars as female beauty, the Sun brings the joy of gathering together, while the full moon compels us to dance in courtship.  I no longer feel at a total loss—I will start with Mhande, a rain dance which makes me realize that although we may look upward to the sky for rain, the dance itself emphasizes our connection to the earth. When we are compelled to reach up to the sky it is only because our feet were firmly planted on the ground.

Pounding Mhande rhythms continuously, while singing and drumming, if done for long enough, will open a portal that gives us a chance to commune with our ancestors and gives them a chance to carry our prayers to God so that he/she, in turn, may give us rain.

Where there are no gods to worship, no heaven to look up to, transcendence comes from moving your being in song, music and dance to a point where our physical reality becomes a spiritual one reflected in our cosmos and the stories it tells showing us that we are never far from home.


Astronomy in Africa- News and Updates

SpaceX launch on Tuesday, May 22. Credit: Ken Kremer/

Guest Voices: Shona Creation Story

Our guest post this week is by Mavhu F.W. Hargrove, a first generation Zimbabwean American who writes and teaches in Washington, DC.   

Your Angels Our Ancestors– Rujeko Dumbutshena

I had always thought of the skies as having significant influence on African cultures other than my own, and so had never thought of my own people’s connection to astronomy until I was asked by Rujeko Dumbutshena, a dancer, visual artist and a friend from childhood to write some poetry specifically for the African Cosmos: Stellar Arts exhibition.

Rujeko brought me, a writer, and Farai Malianga, a musician and composer, together so the three of us could use our different art forms to tell a story. We decided to begin the piece with an African creation story.  I grew up in suburban Zimbabwe of the eighties and nineties, and know some Shona stories– but because I am from a Christian household, I had never read or been told a creation myth outside of Adam and Eve.  I toyed with the idea of writing a Dogon creation myth, but I did not feel that I knew enough about them.  The Yoruba were my next option as it was easy to find many versions of their creation stories that directly link the heavens and the earth.

These were the obvious options, but with all three of us being not only Zimbabwean but Shona, it did not make much sense to tell a story that was not our own.  I was able to find various versions of this Shona creation story:

God created Mwedzi (the moon) in a deep pool of water.  The moon begged to be allowed to live on land.  Once on land, Mwedzi was lonely, so God sent Hweva (Morningstar) down to become his wife but warned that after two years he would have to return her to the sky.  Hweva stayed with Mwedzi and gave birth to all the vegetation on earth.  After two years, a reluctant Mwedzi sent her back to the sky. 

Mwedzi became lonely again, so God sent him Venekatsvimborume (Eveningstar) and again told him that she must return to the sky after two years.  Venekatsvimborume stayed with Moon.  She gave birth, first to herbivores and birds and then to boys and girls.  After two years God asked the Mwedzi to return her.  Mwedzi refused.  On the next day Venekatsvimborume gave birth to lions, scorpions and other predators.

The Shona creation story made immediate sense to me.  The Shona have a deep reverence for natural bodies of water -man is created in a deep pool of water.  Dzivaguru is one of the praise names used for the creator and the literal translation of the word is “deep pool of water.”  Dzivaguru is also the name of one of Zimbabwe’s most important shrines. 

So I now had our story and characters, and only needed a place to imagine as the “set” of the poetry.  We all felt the oldest place in our history, Great Zimbabwe– a former capital city that existed in the 12th -14th centuries– would be the perfect setting for a creation story.  I came across a news article that spoke of the monoliths at Great Zimbabwe lining up with Orion at sunrise on the shortest day of the year.  It all came together for my purposes- a man waiting for the return of his loved one would spend his time building structures that celebrated the time of her return.

Orion reaches out to the pyramids

Venus whispers through the houses of stone

Where mwedzi the moon waited patiently, marking day and night

Great Zimbabwe was a regular vacation spot for my family. Even if we contemporary Zimbabweans have forgotten the original meanings behind the structures of Great Zimbabwe, there is still a sense of being connected to something universal and much larger than yourself when you are there.

Monuments ruined

Lost in our amnesia

Stars still light our shrines

My inner feminist did not allow for me to write something in which the female characters are only referenced by their relationship to men.  I wanted to let Hweva and Venekatsvimborume tell me who they were.  So I looked up the morning star and the evening star and found that they are not stars at all but the planet Venus, the Roman goddess of love, appearing at different times of day.  Morning star and evening star were the same woman, the first woman, doing what women still try to do, balance the happiness of their families with their own needs and goals.

The forest haired boy mourns Morningstar silently

But his father calls for her return

moon lit

She returns

 As Eveningstar

The forest haired boy mourns Morningstar silently

 Earth bound to her husband’s voice his mother marks night and day.


Her sons, predators

Nature’s executioners

Granting death, with grace.

Creation stories help us to further understand ourselves, our relationships to each other and our place in the universe. As I continue to work on our performance piece, and watch Rujeko and Farai working with the music and choreography I am gaining a new awareness of myself.  My creation story reminded me that there is no real separation between our past and our present. There is no separation between us and our ancestors and our deities, we just reflect each other like the moon in a pool of water.

Astronomy in Africa- News and Updates

Hartebeesthoek Radio Astronomy Observatory in South Africa. Credit: Thunyiwe Mohaule / HartRAO

Astronomy in Africa- News and Updates

Satellite in Kuntunse to be converted for radio astronomy Credit: SKA Africa

  • Last week, Ghana launched a Space Science and Technology Centre in Kuntunse to develop projects and programs in the field of astronomy, astrophysics, and more. The South African Department of Science and Technology and Vodafone have supported the establishment of this center and the development of the Ghana Radio Astronomy Project, which would collect data through the Kuntunse station as part of a network of antennas around the world.

Celestial Folklore

Our guest post this week has been canceled, so we thought we would share two condensed versions of African folklore that explore the origins of the sun, moon, and stars.

This Yoruba tale is adapted from Mike Omoleye’s Great Tales of the Yoruba.

Imola and the Moon

There was a young girl named Imola who was preparing to marry her beloved boyfriend. According to custom, before a girl could be married, a pot of walnuts would be cooked overnight and shared with the relatives of the would-be groom. If the walnuts were bad, unhappiness would plague the marriage.  The jealous second wife of Imola’s father burned the walnuts in secret overnight; when Imola discovered this, she climbed up toward the heavens in search of good walnuts and became the moon. Her suitor then followed her up into the sky and became the North Star.

This tale from Ghana is adapted from Emmanuel Asihene’s Traditional Folktales of Ghana.

Ananse and the Sun

Ananse the spider and his son Ntikuma went out in search of food, when suddenly they were captured by a dragon and put into a cave with other people and animals held as prisoners. Ananse devised a plan with the prisoners to create a ladder out of the bones of previous prey in order to escape through a secret hole once the dragon left the cave. As the prisoners climbed the completed ladder, the dragon returned to the cave. When Ananse was almost at the top, he cut the ladder under his feet, which caused the angry dragon to fall to his death. Out of admiration, the animals changed Ananse into the sun, Ntikuma into the moon, and they themselves into the stars.

Do you know any stories of the moon, sun, and stars?

Astronomy in Africa- News and Updates

Hartebeesthoek Radio Astronomy Observatory; Credit: M Gaylard / HartRAO