by Karabo Rantwane
Every now and then, a question that comes to mind is how do Africans perceive the stars, and the universe? A liberating thought that comes to mind then is that the universe is large and knowing that we are not just an integral part of this unfathomable cosmic ocean, but this unfathomable cosmic ocean lives within us. As Carl Sagan would say: “We are made of Star Stuff. We are a way for the universe to know itself.” Is this perhaps the cosmic perspective from an African point of view?
Enter Ancient Kenya and Ancient Egypt. The Turkana ethnic group, which is a group of people from the Turkana region of modern-day Kenya built the famous Namoratunga II, otherwise known as the Kalokol Pillar Site. This is an astronomical site in Kenya and was built in 300 BC by the Turkana people. At this site, stone structures were built in such a way as to align them to 7 key start systems. These star systems were: Sirius, Orion, Saiph, Aldebaran, Bellatrix, the Pleiades and Triangulum. Remember Sirius? This is the brightest star in our night sky. But what is the cosmic perspective from the Turkana people? The word Namoratunga by the way translates into “People of stone”. The alignment of these stones marked the rising positions of bright stars and the Turkana people kept track of these.
In Ancient Egypt, these Africans were just as keen on observing the stars as their Kenyan counterparts, with their view of the cosmos documented into “diagonal star tables”. These diagonal star tables were used by the Egyptians to track time and they date back as far as 2000 BC. These diagonal star tables comprised of 40 columns with each column representing a 10-day period and each column associated with a particular star. This was a very important practice for the Egyptians as they could fix the dates for specific festival and ceremonies. They called the star Sirius, ‘the sharp one’ and kept records of the Orion Constellation too. In addition to these, they were aware of planets such as Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. The pyramids were of paramount importance too in their quest for astronomical knowledge, using them as alignment to stars.
I intentionally used these two nations to get an insight into the cosmic perspective from an African point of view because they are credited with being some of the early pioneers of Astronomy. It does not end there either, some of the darkest regions in the world to soak in the beauty of the universe can be found in Africa. Think of the Namib Desert in Namibia, the Okavango Delta, and Makgadikgadi Pans in Botswana. All these sites are prime destinations for planetary and stellar observations and this is made possible by the dark skies they offer.
For a more advanced look of the cosmos, one can look into the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT) found in Sutherland, South Africa and the HESS Telescope in Namibia. To brag a little, SALT is the largest single optic telescope in the Southern Hemisphere. The thing about the universe is that it offers you a chance to take it in, in many ways. A radio look of the universe can be offered by the Meerkat Telescope and . This is a radio telescope found in South Africa and is well in its quest for enhancing our understanding of deep continuum and leading research in pulsar timing and transient searches. Probably the hottest topic in
Radio Astronomy in current times is the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), and South Africa is one of the nations making part of this ground-breaking project.
It is therefore evident that a cosmic perspective from an African point of view is one that seeks belonging and an attempt to try and understand oneself, with this in conjunction with a pursuit to trying to understand the universe as a whole. I therefore believe that Africa will make a phenomenal hub of astronomical research and observations.