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When the gods visited “badlands”


Last evening’s  much -hyped up (justifiably so) solar eclipse happened across ‘Europe, America and Africa’. I caught the action online-switching between BBC and the Kenyan TV channels NTV and  KTN. But I must confess,  NTV and KTN provided better coverage than BBC whose coverage was not only too bad but was accompanied by an unbearable sound track. After flipping between channels, I settled on NTV.

The coverage went well until they repeatedly started talking of Sibiloi National Park (from where the coverage was taking place) as being in Turkana County, which was incorrect.  Despite Turkana and Marsabit counties bordering each other, there’s a huge natural boundary in the shape of the world’s largest desert lake, the Lake Turkana. The lake and the Sibiloi National park are part of the Lake Turkana National parks listed on the UNESCO world heritage sites. The Ignorance about Northern Kenya by the rest of Kenyans and the media is inexcusable but that is beside the point.

Northern Uganda, Southern Ethiopia and Somalia happened to be on the direct path of the eclipse. The border area between Northern Kenya, Northern Uganda and South Sudan has come to be known as the ‘arc of crisis’. The Solar eclipse therefore travelled along this arc of crisis. Sibiloi National park in Marsabit County was packed with tourists and the media who were all too excited to catch a glimpse of the precious 18-30 seconds of the total eclipse.

Astronomy in Northern Kenya

“Those who study the stars have God for a teacher “ Tycho Brahe, 17th century Danish astronomer.

In Northern Kenya (Ethno) astronomy is big. According to cosmologies of many Cushitic and Nilo-Hamitic groups that straddle the Kenya-Ethiopia borders; the Omo-river-L. Turkana basin; also known as the ‘Omotic cultures’, the earth is the seat of man and the skies that of the gods. Ethnoastronomy is the line of communication between these two universes and is a useful determinant of the ritual calendar.  As such, within the Boran community there are ‘professional’ timekeepers-known as the ‘ayantu’. The Ayantu will tell you the auspiciousness or lack thereof of days. There are appropriate days for naming children –after particular days of the week or the character (ayaan) of those days. For example, Arbe is the name of a girl born on Wednesday and Jaldessa, the name of a boy born on the day that had the ‘character of a monkey’. If a child is born on what the Ayantu deems as an inauspicious day, it is named after another day or the Ayaana (character) of a different day in order to confuse the malicious spirits. In a way, the Boran almost appears as a ‘‘time-obsessed’’ society; nearly nothing could be performed in traditional Borana context without engaging a time/calendar specialist.

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The previous total solar eclipse (1973) proved to a major timeline in the Boran folklore. Many old men speak of ‘gaaf athun thot’– the time when the sun died.  Boran is just one of the groups in the North for whom astronomy is a daily activity, there are many others, for example, the camel herding Gabra of the Chalbi desert.

The Scientific and traditional Astronomers?

The coverage of the #solar eclipse spurred a cottage industry. Some ‘scientific’ astronomers in the TV studio in Nairobi provided us with analysis embellished with live coverage in Sibiloi in Marsabit county. But the germane question is, why didn’t the media speak with “traditional” astronomer- The Ayantus in the region, who are much more well versed with the subject because they live in an open “lab”-with a great view of the galaxy and  are constantly commune with nature upon which they base their entire livelihood.

Even with such a rich ethno-astronomical tradition, there is not a single astronomy base/research institute in Northern Kenya, which is either an indication of Kenya’s lack of interest in Space Science or interest in the region. The latter sounds more like it; NASA was here some eight years ago.  This event has proved, yet again, the tourism and research potential of this often-neglected area of the country.

 Conflict: Marsabit County’s’ Achilles’ heels?

Despite the above-mentioned tourism potential, conflict, especially  the ethnic clashes )with the border town of Moyale as the epicenter) that rocked the area after the 2013 elections, could be the main undoing of one of the poorest counties in the country. It looks like the County government will be quelling perennial clashes most of the time rather than concentrating on how to move the county forward from the economic damnation that has been a key feature since the colonial times.

The victimhood mentality and ‘deliberate marginalization by the colonial and successive post-colonial governments’ explanation will no longer hold in post-devolution era. Any poor economic performance by the County can  only be explained through the failure of the County government, and if the county government will spend its time and resources pre-occupied with fighting incessant insecurity, then failure is inevitable.On the flip side, if the political leaders get their acts together and concentrate on development rather than firefighting, there is undoubtedly a good chance for economic growth of Marsabit county through the full exploitation of such tourism potentials.

Hassan Kochore is a Research Assistant at the National Museums of Kenya and he’s currently at Oxford University studying MSc in African studies. These are his views. You can follow Hassan on twitter @hassankochore

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One thought on “When the gods visited “badlands”

  1. Jerry Machio says:

    ” But the germane question is, why didn’t the media speak with “traditional” astronomer- The Ayantus in the region, who are much more well versed with the subject because they live in an open “lab”-with a great view of the galaxy and are constantly commune with nature upon which they base their entire livelihood.”

    Important point you brought there wish the media foreign and international could showcase the cultural insights of the eclipse. Of course we all know the scientific facts about eclipse but that is the westernised view. How about the Borana teach us how he views the eclipse? What can he tell us about the heavens?

    Ps.
    I have an Ethiopian Oromo friend called Ayana does the name mean character (Ayaana)?

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