We pull over after passing a
simple set of dwellings in northeastern Zimbabwe. We are here
to view to Total Eclipse of the sun, which will magically occur
in the late afternoon of the Winter Solstice, June 21, 2001.
We've driven north from the capital city of Harare perhaps 225
km to Mount Darwin, and then east to the small rural village
of Rushinga. The group we're with have previously been granted
permission to observe here on a remote dirt and weed airstrip
located across from the modest clinic and school that were the
recipients of some small contributions from our Astronomy Magazine
tour. This tiny hamlet happens to be on the center line of the
eclipse, and from the look of things our three Blue Arrow tour
buses (holding approximately 120 astronomer-adventurer types)
could be the biggest thing the residents of Rushinga have ever
After some unloading, milling about and eventually setting up
(all the high-technology equipment among the small family farms
and locals here seems very odd and misplaced) we're off as a
group across the tar and up 100 meters to the school and clinic.
We have been asked to visit and peruse what our modest contributions
As we approach a group of what appears to be middle-school girls
begin a program of singing and performance. A quick estimate
of attendance puts the group at perhaps 300 locals from the
surrounding hills and farmland.
The preschool children (well-dressed and absolutely well-behaved
-- and I have an idea that this is always the case -- not just
for visitors) are to the right and flanked by older children.
In front, and with the brightly-painted clinic as a backdrop,
are the singers -- led by an elegant black gentleman in his
60's dressed impeccably in a gray suit. After a few songs and
dances the boys take the stage, all dressed similarly in white
shirts and blue trousers. This is obviously an important event,
and apparently we are the honored guests.
After the performances we witness the local dignitaries' thank-you
speeches (very sincerely delivered and positive in tone) and
a local politician (member of the Zimbabwean Parliament) delivering
the standard verbose politico stuff (albeit not excruciatingly
long) concluding with the suggestion that return visits to observe
additional eclipses might be in order; he obviously unaware
that Total Solar Eclipses are absolutely site and time/date
specific. This concept has not escaped the consciousness of
the schoolchildren, teachers, headmaster or clinic staff, however;
amazingly this basic astronomical tenet is only misunderstood
by the local politico!
is difficult to articulate how honored Cheryl and I (and,
I'm sure the rest of the observing group) feel; we're, of
course, no one special -- but we are treated so wonderfully.
It is difficult to articulate
how honored Cheryl and I (and, I'm sure the rest of the observing
group) feel; we're, of course, no one special -- but we are
treated so wonderfully.
The last speaker, an articulate and formally dressed women in
her 50's, first thanks us both collectively and individually
for our gifts (Cheryl presents blow-bubbles to the primary school
teacher -- I give a previous eclipse photograph to the school
and science teacher) and then suggests that we might converse
with one another and tour the facilities. Cheryl speaks with
the primary school teacher, I with Moses, the science teacher;
they also happen to be married. We exchange pleasantries (and
addresses). Moses is also the headmaster of another primary
school as well as the science teacher for the entire district.
I inquire about the secondary graduation rate; Moses notes "the
people are rather poor here, and typically cannot afford secondary
school." "Most of the children do receive a primary education,
however" he continued. The cost per semester for primary school
is Z$ 300-400 (equivalent to US$ 6-8 at the official government
exchange, but realistically more like US$ 3-4 at the most recent
private devalued rate. "And for secondary school, it is much
more expensive, so many Zimbabwean children cannot participate."
We learn that the rate for one semester of secondary school
is ~ Z$1000-1200, or US$ 10-12. So for what amounts to a restaurant
tip or perhaps 2 beers at an American baseball game, Zimbabwean
children may very well not be able to avail themselves to a
secondary education. Meanwhile, President Robert Mugabe's storm
troopers roam the countryside, exalting in the good times brought
to the citizens during his 20 year leadership, and also occasionally
executing opposition party members.
for what amounts to a restaurant tip or perhaps 2 beers
at an American baseball game, Zimbabwean children may very
well not be able to avail themselves to a secondary education.
Point-in-fact; when Robert Mugabe
took over the former Southern Rhodesia after a fiercely-contested
majority rule independence struggle in 1980 there was a prevailing
feeling that self-rule by a member of the Shona tribal system
was a good idea. After years of failed domestic policies, severe
and continuous devaluation of the currency (the $Z has realistically
devalued by an unbelievable 50% during our 3-week visit!) and
the outrageous use of Zimbabwean warplanes in the Congo's most
recent civil war -- Mugabe's time has clearly run it's course.
His government, morally bankrupt and corrupt, hangs on by rewriting
the recent history of Zimbabwe's independence. There actually
exist Mugabe cronies who claim to be "war vets" -- given that
the war was in the late 1970's and the majority of these individuals
are in their 20's, that "fact" would have to be challenged.
No matter -- the locals (especially in the rural areas) are
flooded with propaganda and terrorized by the "war vets" --
and legitimate landowners and farmers have occasionally lost
their land to pro-Mugabe squatters. The shame of it is that
these farms are often black-owned, but even if they aren't,
the majority of superintendents and ranchers are black. As such
then, by "occupying" these once-productive farms the squatters
(read "homeless unskilled street people") essentially render
the farms useless -- they very often possess no farming skills.
Nevertheless, these government cronies and shills do severely
effect the otherwise peaceful and highly productive rural areas
It's odd to be a visitor and still be aware of all these details
-- this is because the average rank and file Zimbabwean, both
black and white, is well-educated and articulate -- and wishes
and deserves real democratic leadership, not the vestiges of
a totalitarian dictator masquerading as a populist. Yet Mugabe
was "democratically" elected. (Often threats by Mugabe supporters
to a person's family closely precede an election.) In 2002 (next
year) new presidential elections will be held, and everyone
(really!) we've met is willing to engage in what I perceive
as virtual total freedom of speech, especially concerning the
subject of the upcoming elections and the present state of Zimbabwe.
I contemplate that this is because these native Zimbabwean's
have grown up with this basic constitutional right -- much like
in the West, where the right of freedom of speech is assumed,
so protest and opposition certainly and continually exist. These
good people are very aware of Mugabe's shortcomings and are
also very prepared to replace him. They know they deserve better
and speak out openly about it.
. . these native Zimbabwean's have grown up with this basic
constitutional right -- much like in the West, where the
right of freedom of speech is assumed, so protest and opposition
certainly and continually exist. These good people are very
aware of Mugabe's shortcomings and are also very prepared
to replace him. They know they deserve better and speak
out openly about it.
After the delightful presentations
and discussions we do, in fact, tour the clinic and discover
3 patient's rooms with 3 beds each, an examining and operating
room and a locked medication area. Everything has also been
recently painted and outfitted apparently with the aid of our
contributions. We're really honored to be guests of the people
It's 2 hours later and after some long minutes of partial phases,
totality is upon us. Bonnie Gordon of Astronomy Magazine finally
appears a bit relaxed -- apparently she feels responsible if
on these eclipse outings cloudiness spoils the proceedings.
She's been nervously pacing about (not unlike myself) during
the partial stages. Her associate, the soft-spoken Senior Editor
Rich Talcott is also on hand for help and consultation. He's
been moving around in the crowd, patiently answering any and
all questions and graciously admiring many of the astronomers'
high-tech instruments. Mark Laidig, a participant with us on
safari previous to the eclipse, is projecting the sun's rapidly
advancing eclipsed image for the villagers and Bonnie's husband
Peter has been shooting digital photographs of the eclipsed
sun and local villagers' faces. The exciting diamond ring event
occurs and then the magnificent solar corona appears, in full
glory, with exquisite red prominences encircling the sun. The
villagers are chanting and singing. Simon, from the local astronomy
club, suddenly abandons his research telescope and camera to
reinform the villagers that they can look at the sun during
totality. (They've apparently been told by the government not
only that it is dangerous to look even at totality, but also
that months of bad economic times may very well follow the eclipse.)
I personally have no doubt that this will occur, but I don't
believe the eclipse will have much to do with it. Nice propaganda-ish
effort by Mugabe, however. This reminds me of the Central American
human sacrifices that often followed such events. No matter
that the shamans (in collusion with the chieftains) already
were secretly aware of the natural mathematics surrounding such
eclipses, and were able to predict them within minutes. The
human sacrifice maneuver was merely a convenient method of removing
rivals and other "undesirables." Some Rushingans do, in fact,
turn around and are greeted to a grand and spiritual event.
As always, totality never lasts long enough. Soon (after merely
3 minutes of totality) the diamond ring is visible again and
the sun reemerges from behind the moon. Our particular day of
reckoning has ended on a positive note, and weary astronomers
pack up and board the busses for home.
locals have apparently been told by the government not only
that it is dangerous to look even at totality, but also
that months of bad economic times may very well follow the
eclipse.) I personally have no doubt that this will occur,
but I don't believe the eclipse will have much to do with
Harare has 2 daily newspapers.
One, The Herald, is a shill for the President's political party.
The other (The Daily News) is an opposition rag, proudly displaying
the header "Telling It Like It Is." Today, the day after the
spectacular Total Solar Eclipse, the headline of The Herald
proclaims "Presidential Family Views Solar Eclipse" and features
a photograph of Robert Mugabe and his new young wife sipping
cocktails from the garden while peering through mirrored eclipse
glasses. The headline of The Daily News reads "Police Attack
Villagers." On page 2 The News announces that they will be featuring
a new serialized version of George Orwell's Animal Farm
starting tomorrow. The day of political reckoning in Zimbabwe
is fast approaching.
News announces that they will be featuring a new serialized
version of George Orwell's Animal Farm starting tomorrow.
The day of political reckoning in Zimbabwe is fast approaching.