Winter 2004  
African Stars
 

by Christopher Reardon


As a child, Thebe Medupe looked up at the night sky and saw the light of a thousand distant stars. That light, he later learned, had sped across the heavens for centuries before reaching his village in a remote corner of South Africa. But when he looked up, he did not see the past; he saw his future.

Medupe, who grew up under apartheid, in a home without electricity or running water, went on to become one of South Africa's first black astrophysicists. He earned his doctorate at the University of Cape Town in December 2002, at age 29. Although his triumph over adversity had the satisfying ring of a made-for-TV movie, Medupe felt strangely incomplete. "I know so much about the stars," he reflected, "yet I know so little about my own continent and how my people are connected to the sky."

So, in the midst of his doctoral studies, Medupe embarked on a personal odyssey to reconcile his scientific approach to understanding the universe with the kind of stories and traditions that kindled his imagination as a child. Accompanied by two documentary filmmakers, he watched a partial solar eclipse with a shaman in Namibia; met with a diviner among the Dogon people of Mali, who look to the stars to determine the best time to plant or harvest their crops; and visited the earliest known solar observatory, a stone circle in southern Egypt that predates Stonehenge by a thousand years.

Medupe's journey is the subject of "Cosmic Africa," a documentary film that had its world premiere in Cape Town on Oct. 30, 2003. (It has also been screened at film festivals in Canada and the United States.) Directed by Craig and Damon Foster, it explores several strains of the indigenous knowledge that informs cultural traditions, art forms, legends and ceremonies. Along the way, Medupe comes to see these ancient cosmologies not as the antithesis of his science, but rather as its earliest beginnings. His work gains new resonance as he encounters cultures where the stars still guide people in their daily lives.

Early in the film, Medupe's quest leads him to a Ju/'hoansi village in northeastern Namibia. There he meets Kxao Tami, a celebrated shaman who recounts a legend about two of the brightest stars in the southern sky, Alpha Crucis and Gamma Crucis.

"Where I see two giant nuclear furnaces," Medupe says, "they see the sons of the creator, lions and the origin of fire. The Ju/'hoansi stories are not just myths. They are ways of linking the mysteries of the earth with the movement of the stars."

'I know so much about the stars, yet I know so little about my own continent and how my people are connected to the sky.'

Later, among the Dogon people of Mali, Medupe watches a diviner draw a detailed map of the heavens in the sand, then sprinkle it with ground nuts. During the night, a jackal eats the offering and leaves its paw prints on the map. Reading these signs, the diviner rightly predicts that a local man will die the next day; moments later we see villagers interring a body in a grotto high in the cliffs.

The Foster brothers, born and raised in Cape Town, won several awards for "The Great Dance" (2000), a film about the hunting and tracking skills of the Kalahari bushmen. In "Cosmic Africa" they shot in high-definition digital video, a format that George Lucas introduced in "Attack of the Clones" (2002), the latest episode in his Star Wars series. Their vivid cinematography evokes Africa's rugged grandeur, combining rare footage of ceremonial dances with allegorical scenes of lions and snakes and time-lapse images of stars passing overhead.

"Cosmic Africa" was produced by Cosmos Studios, a company co-founded by Ann Druyan, who wrote the acclaimed televisions series "Cosmos" with her late husband, Carl Sagan. Although it is still struggling to find a U.S. distributor, "Cosmic Africa" is popular in South Africa.

Since making the film and finishing his dissertation, Medupe has kept up a busy pace. As a research fellow at the South African Astronomical Observatory in Cape Town, he has continued his research on pulsating stars. As a lecturer at the University of Northwest in Mmabatho, he is training a new generation of black astronomers. Meanwhile, he has been teaching schoolchildren in the village near Mafikeng where he grew up. It was there, long ago, that his grandfather told him of a girl who threw a handful of embers into the sky, creating the Milky Way. This explanation, he says, still has its place.

A Ford Foundation grant for "Cosmic Africa" is part of a larger effort to support the development of a group of African astronomers and astrophysicists. A grant was also made to the South African Astronomical Observatory to establish a graduate program in astronomy. The observatory, together with several international partners, is constructing the largest optical telescope in the Southern Hemisphere, which will contribute to new knowledge about the southern skies. To learn more about "Cosmic Africa," visit www.carlsagan.com.

Christopher Reardon writes for The New York Times, The Washington Post and other major publications.