Culture TED Fellows

The moon’s path is full of thorns: Fellows Friday with Johnson Urama

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Nigerian astronomer Johnson Urama wants to promote the future of astronomy in Africa by looking deep into history. With his African Cultural Astronomy Project, he is gathering the lost ancient astronomical traditions and stories of indigenous Africa, hoping to show modern Africans that the science of the skies is relevant to their past, present and future.

The TED Blog interviewed Urama to find out much more. An edited transcript of our conversation follows.

So, tell us about yourself.

I’m from the southeastern part of Nigeria. By training, I’m an astronomer, and teach astronomy at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. But I have a passion for indigenous astronomy — the ancient cultural astronomy of parts of Africa. Our forefathers had some knowledge of astronomy but it was, unfortunately, not written down, so much of it has been lost. My organization, the African Cultural Astronomy Project, is trying to recover part of this knowledge and use it to create awareness and interest in modern astronomy — and science in general — among Africans today.

How old are African astronomical systems? Have they been dated?

African astronomical systems are as old as the people themselves, because our forefathers depended on the skies for navigation, for agriculture, for their calendar, for their rituals. Practically everything revolved around the sky. The calendar, largely based on astronomy, determined farming periods, and everything was organized around that. Before the advent of the modern calendar, the African calendar was lunar. And even now, in some parts of Africa, calendars are still based in lunar systems.

How was the information lost?

The information was passed down orally in folk tales from generation to generation, and the present generation has no time to give for such folk tales. People are migrating to urban centers, and they’re just interested in Western education. Nobody talks about our indigenous knowledge.

A typical ancient wall painting in parts of southeastern Nigeria, which could be portraying astronomical information. Photo: Johnson Urama

A typical ancient wall painting in southeastern Nigeria, which portrays astronomical information. Photo: Johnson Urama

Give us an example an indigenous African astronomical practice or story.

Among the Hausa speaking people of West Africa, for example, they have it in their folk tales that the moon and the sun were friendly until the sun gave birth. Then the sun called the moon and asked him to hold her daughter while she went and washed herself. The moon took the sun’s daughter, but was not able to hold it, for it burnt him, and he let it go, and it fell to Earth — that is why humans feel hot on earth. When the sun returned, she asked the moon where the daughter was, and the moon replied, “Your daughter was burning me so I let her go, and she fell to Earth.” Because of that, the sun pursues the moon. Another variant is that the moon’s path is full of thorns, while that of the sun is sandy, and because of that the moon cannot travel as quickly as the sun. So when the moon can proceed no farther, he gets on the sun’s path, and the sun catches him. When the sun has caught the moon, the people take their drums and ask the sun to spare the moon. This “catching-up” occurs during an eclipse of the sun — usually partial or annular.

Also, among the Igala speaking people of Nigeria, when an eclipse happens it is believed that the world wants to come to an end, so the people start beating drums, buckets, plates and bowls as a plea to their god to spare the world. And when the eclipse is over, they start chanting, “Thanks be to our gods, for they have heard our prayers.” It is also believed that the moon has two wives — and these are the brightest stars that stay very close to the moon when it appears in the night, the most loved one staying closest to him.

On a practical level, how do you go about gathering these traditions? Do you approach community members for knowledge?

Some of the traditional practices are what we grew up with, and we are just trying to interpret them in scientific or astronomical ways. We also have some works of earlier ethnographers who studied the practices of different African ethnic groups many years ago — and some of these archival materials are now interpreted in terms of modern astronomy. Sometimes we also interview very old people who possess knowledge of ancient practices and traditions that are still unrecorded. Our cultural astronomy conference held in Cape Coast, Ghana, in 2006, had a training workshop component. Our 2014 may also incorporate a training workshop.

Mr. Ezeja Atama: the atama (chief priest) Ugwuojome of Nsukka sitting inside his shrine. Such priests examine the motions of heavenly bodies to come up with the calendar of her people. Photo: Johnson Urama

Ezeja Atama, the atama (chief priest) Ugwuojome of Nsukka, sitting inside his shrine. Such priests would traditionally examine the motions of heavenly bodies to come up with the calendar of the people. Photo: Johnson Urama

What will you do with the information that you gather? How will you store it or disseminate it?

Probably we’ll publish some as books, and some just as articles in academic journals. After the Ghana conference, we published a book on African cultural astronomy. There is also another book project about cultural astronomy worldwide. I made a contribution to that, but it was just about Nigerian perspectives.

I’ve heard you speak about some of the constellations over Africa. You said that as an astronomer, it’s interesting to be in Africa because of its dark skies.

Yes, Africa still has access to a good portion of dark skies. There’s simply not as much light pollution, or even radio pollution, as in some other climes. It’s not just only light; all this radio communication stuff is a problem for observing in radio frequencies. So Africa is still largely dark, and that is a plus for astronomy. Also, we have access to the center of the Milky Way galaxy, where you have lots of interesting stuff — star-forming regions, for example. In the northern hemisphere, there are a number of places that don’t have good access to that region of the sky.

Do you encourage other astronomers from around the world to come to Africa and bring equipment, knowledge and education?

There is an Office for Astronomy Development, located in South Africa, whose major goal is to facilitate the development of astronomy in a number of places like Africa, parts of Asia and a number of other places like the Caribbean islands, where modern astronomy is not yet well-developed. And there are a good number of people currently working on promoting African astronomy. Like TED Fellow Hakeem Oluseyi, who leads the One Telescope Project – he’s working toward having at least one telescope in every nation in Africa. There are also educational initiatives like Universe Awareness, Global Hands-on Universe, and so on.

The Odegwoo shrine in Lejja, southeastern Nigeria is associated with fertility. Its worshippers sit at the north and south sides. And the north-south orientation is based on the local philosophy that the "ingredients" needed for procreation are very fragile and should not be exposed to the radiant heat from the Sun (on the east-west axis).

The Odegwoo shrine in Lejja, Nigeria, is associated with fertility. Its worshippers sit at the north and south sides. The north-south orientation is based on the local philosophy that the “ingredients” needed for procreation are very fragile and should not be exposed to radiant heat from the sun (on the east-west axis).

Do you want to get young people interested in indigenous astronomy because it’s part of their history and culture? Or is it also important on a practical level?

I am invested in this because I’m an African. I understand some of these practices, some of the language, some of the stories. And I find it a good vehicle for communicating modern astronomy. The feeling among most of us — especially in equatorial Africa — is that we have no stake in astronomy. If you go towards the southern and northern tips of Africa, you find a higher level of interest and participation in modern astronomy. But closer to the equator, maybe plus or minus 20 degrees, there is lack of interest.

Part of the problem here is that people don’t find it easy to relate to astronomy. Many African people see astronomy as something that is very foreign; there is an attitude that the average African has no business with astronomy. In Nigeria, for example, people are just interested in oil, on the Earth. We don’t talk of anything in the skies. But I try to use indigenous, cultural astronomy to help them understand that our forefathers had knowledge of this for thousands of years. This has been an essential part of our lives. It’s just that we lost it somewhere, and we need to get it back. Astronomy should not be something foreign to us.

Given that interest in astronomy is low, how many students do you have in your astronomy program?

We have two levels. At my university, astronomy is a compulsory course for physics students, so every student is exposed to it. I got involved in astronomy through that course, which I took in my third year. And the other level is post-graduate. In a typical year, we have maybe maybe five to 10 students admitted to do an MSc in astronomy and maybe another one or two for a PhD.

There must be many different traditions throughout African cultures — a very rich body of knowledge.

Of course; it’s quite diverse. In Nigeria alone, we have over 200 ethnic groups. And when you talk about all of Africa, there are several hundred. That is why we’re also trying to encourage more people to come into this cultural astronomy project: it is always better if there is somebody from a particular ethnic group wanting to study their own indigenous astronomy. If you don’t understand the language, it’s difficult to research astronomy practices. Africa is quite vast, so we are trying to get as many people as possible involved. The hope is that, as we work in different regions and different ethnic nationalities, we’ll be able to see how we can begin to fit all the knowledge together.