This post was written by Kyle Doane from Nomad Domes, an organization that helps set up portable planetarium systems in developing countries to inspire and encourage children’s interest in science. They are working with the Amateur Astronomy Society of Kenya to bring the first portable, digital planetarium to Kenya. You can support their cause on StartSomeGood.
In 2006, I visited Kenya for the first time. It is an amazingly diverse place with mountains, flamingo-filled crater lakes and an east coast along the Indian Ocean filled with white sand and sea turtles. There is much more to Kenya than just the lions, elephants, giraffe and zebra that most Westerners picture from our trips to the city zoo. The large cities of Nairobi and Mombasa are pulsing and crammed with humans, but the vast, protected parklands such as Tsavo and the Mara stretch with windy dirt roads where baboons are far more plentiful than people. It is easy to find yourself lost in time.
Although Kenya seems exotic, there is some deep whisper of “home” carried on the wind. Some of the earliest known hominid fossils were found by Louis Leakey near Lake Turkana, and many scientists think that all humans on our planet trace our ancestry to this place. Every culture on Earth has looked out to the stars to define its own place in the cosmos. They have played “connect the dots” with the stars to form pictures — “asterisms” –which relate to their own culture. The stories from cultures in Kenya likely predate the famous asterism stories of the Greeks and Chinese.
Part of my trip involved visiting a Maasai community where a friend of mine, Kakuta, grew up. The community of Merrueshi is located equally distant from either Nairobi or Mombasa and far away from any paved road. The closest “main” road is a dirt track that leads to Amboseli at the foot of Mt. Kilimanjaro. The Maasai are traditionally a nomadic people, and this community was about as far away from light pollution as possible on today’s planet. I was excited to record the cultural stories of a people who had used the stars to guide them for thousands of years.
I met Kakuta in Seattle where we both worked as environmental educators at Woodland Park Zoo. Kakuta had built a foundation in Seattle which raised enough money for his community to build a school so that the Maasai kids could finally be educated at home in their own culture instead of being shipped off to English-style boarding schools where they seldom thrived. Kakuta says, “A Maasai without his culture is like a zebra without his stripes.”
After a couple of days getting to know the school and the community, I offered to do an astronomy night for the high school students. We gathered at the school after sunset and shut off the school’s security light, which was the only light visible on the horizon. The Maasai call the Milky Way “The River of the Gods,” and it really did seem to flow across the sky. Had this been a March sky, the Southern Cross would have been visible exactly on the opposite side of the sky’s dome from the Big Dipper. On the Equator, every star is a possible telescope target. In late September, Ursa Minor was barely visible sticking up from the Northern horizon, her tail pinned to the Polaris somewhere just below what I could see. Cygnus swam in the river directly overhead.
I asked the kids to point out any asterisms that they knew. One student said “Orion,” which was not visible that time of year, and another pointed to Cygnus and said, “The Southern Cross.” I ignored the fact that they were “wrong” and congratulated them on knowing some asterism names and explained that they could see the ones they mentioned in a few months. I asked if any could show me any of the Maasai asterisms. They were silent. One student said, “We haven’t learned these from our elders because we have been sent off to school.” I realized then that the thousands of years of oral lineage had been broken in this generation. As the elders die, so will their stories and so will a connection that all humans have to our collective ancestry.
The elderly night watchman said that he didn’t know many stories, only the ones that “everyone knew.” He began to tell the kids how to use the stars as calendar markers to predict rain – remember, the tropics have seasonal rains. The kids were amazed and promised to ask their grandparents for more stories. I promised that I would some day come back and hear their stories.
For the last seven years, I’ve been making steps toward that promise.
Kenya’s connection to astronomy is far more than just the preservation of cultural stories. It’s location on the Equator with an eastern coast makes it an ideal location for both telescopes and satellite launching facilities. Kenya has been chosen for a node of the Square Kilometer Array — the largest radio telescope ever built — and the infrastructure that comes with participating in the SKA will have a positive economic impact on the country.
The University of Nairobi has graduated its first cadre of B.S. Astronomers with hopes that they will one day work on astronomy projects in Kenya. Some of these Kenyan astronomers have formed the Amateur Astronomy Society of Kenya (AASK) to inspire children to become interested in science. The innovations that come with homegrown scientists can make huge strides towards eradicating poverty and bettering living conditions in the large urban slums.
When the Perot Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas decided to officially retire its Digitalis Alpha 2 portable projection system, I worked with my friends in AASK to make a proposal to give that system new life as the first digital planetarium in Kenya — perhaps the first in East Africa. Digitalis has kindly agreed to refurbish and upgrade the projection system to “better than new.” This portable digital planetarium can be set up in any school throughout Kenya.
The planetarium is an inflatable dome with a projection system in the middle. Students sit inside the dome and see a simulated sky on the dome in every direction. We can show details of the night sky, including telescopic views of deep space objects, such as galaxies and star forming nebula, and planets which rotate and have moons revolving around them. We can change the perspective and land on one of these moons to look back at the Earth. Landing on our own moon, we can show the perspective of the Earth as seen by the Apollo astronauts. From this view, Neil Armstrong said, “When I close one eye and stick up my thumb, I can blot out the entire Earth. Everyone who ever lived is under my thumb. I don’t feel like a giant, I feel very small.”
From this perspective, we realize that our Earth is tiny and interconnected. What happens in one part does have an effect on us all. Kenya is a diverse crossroads where Muslim, Christian, Hindu and many other traditional cultures exist side by side. The more people that can have this perspective of the universe and understand the place of our tiny blue planet, the more difficult it is for them to be exclusive and extremist in their beliefs. As simple as this sounds, I do believe that peace comes through understanding.
The money that I’m raising is just to cover the cost of shipping the equipment to Kenya and training the members of AASK. This is a very small investment for a project that will have such an important impact. The planetarium will be a place where people can begin to understand and appreciate other cultures and have a glimpse at our true place in the universe. It will inspire the next generations of scientists who will further our understanding of, and on, our tiny blue world.
To support the effort to bring the first portable, digital planetarium to Kenya, visit Nomad Dome’s campaign on StartSomeGood.
Photo Credit: Thinkstock
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