Copyright The Guardian Online
April 3, 2006 10:48 AM
I was very sorry not to be in Ghana on March 29 2006, when a solar eclipse was observed in many parts of the country.
Eclipses have a tremendous hold on the imagination of our people, and I was not surprised to read in the Ghanaian Times newspaper that police had had to be called in to protect the premises of Pepsi Cola in Accra, Ghana, after thousands of people had congregated there to exchange crown tops, taken off soft drinks, for solar eclipse goggles.
The belief was that with those glasses, the solar eclipse could be watched safely. Pepsi Cola had advertised in the local media that whoever brought in three bottle tops would get a pair of glasses. But the company had underestimated the interest the eclipse would create in the populace and it had run out of glasses by the time many people turned up.
If Pepsi Cola knew what I knew, it would not have toyed with the Ghanaian people’s attitude towards the eclipse. An eclipse is taken extremely seriously by Ghanaians and other Africans. Many do not regard eclipses, especially a total eclipse of the sun, as a mere phenomenon of astrophysics. Some have invested the occurrence with a metaphysical significance of which the architects of Stonehenge would approve.
In the countdown to the March 29 eclipse, an Islamic “scholar”, Mallam Muniru Hamidu, was given enormous publicity when he declared that the world was “coming to an end” because it is written in the Qur’an that when the end of the world comes nigh, “God would cause the sun and the moon to come together.”
Of course, it is not only in the Qur’an that apocalyptic prophecies about the end of the world have been made. The Bible too has things to say about the signs that will precede the return of Jesus Christ to the world, to judge the “quick and the dead”. One of the signs is the descent of darkness in the daytime.
What those people who continue to trot out these prophecies each time there is an eclipse fail to explain is why it is that although both the Bible and the Qur’an have been with us for hundreds of years, during which eclipses have regularly come and gone, we are still here. I suspect that each time the world doesn’t end after an eclipse, the false prophets disappear underground. By the time they reappear to make new apocalyptic prophecies – if they ever do – no one would remember what they had said about a previous armageddon that hadn’t happened.
The biggest total eclipse of the sun in west Africa is generally thought to have occurred in 1919, but I remember that when I was a tiny schoolboy, a major one took place – on May 20 1947. A few weeks before the time, we heard vague rumours that “darkness would descend on the earth” in the daytime. The rumours grew until everyone began to talk about “the coming darkness”.
At Asiakwa, in rural Ghana, where I was in junior school, there wasn’t a single person who could properly explain to us the scientific basis of “the darkness” that was going to come. But I noticed that, as the date got nearer, the bigger boys in our school became rather secretive and detached from the rest of us. They moved about in small clusters, and were observed to be indulging in fasting and much washing of their hands and faces. Occasionally, they were caught murmuring incantations. I learnt later that these came from a mysterious, illustrated book on occultism called The Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses, imported from a remote place called India.
One of my older cousins told me this book contained diagrams and charts, which could be used to invoke spirits into the world from “out there”. There were also “talismans” in it, which could be ordered and used to attract girls, or to play better at football. He warned me that because of these magical powers, the book was “dangerous” and that was why its contents had been taken out of the Bible. In fact, many of those who ordered the book did not receive it because the post office had put it on a prohibited list and used to seize it. It could only arrive if it was cleverly disguised as a comic book or something. This was because the authorities believed that if one tried to use it and made mistakes, one could go mad. Also, if one glanced at certain charts in it without saying the correct incantation at the right time, one would go blind.
My cousin piled the fright on to my impressionable mind: even holding the book could cause harm, he claimed; one needed to purify one’s hands with an imported liquid called “Florida water”, before handling the book. There was also another imported liquid, called “olive oil”, with which one must “anoint’ one’s face and hands before using the book. This was the same oil, my cousin added that was used by the prophet Samuel in the Bible to anoint King David and King Solomon. Samson was also anointed with that oil and that was why he became so strong.
But my dread of The Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses was as nothing compared to what I felt when I was told that there was another book that was even more advanced in occultism, called The Eighth and Ninth Books of Moses. Eighth and Ninth? It was supposed to contain the original charts that God drew for Moses, showing where he should stand to receive the words to be written on the tablets of the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments? The fire on the mountain that didn’t burn itself out? Moses hiding his face so that he wouldn’t see God and die? Holy Moses. My child’s imagination boggled.
An interesting fact about the big boys who ordered these books from India was that they did this although all of them had undertaken the arduous task of memorising huge chunks of the catechism of the Presbyterian church, in order to be “confirmed” into the church. When one was asked to recite these catechism passages – in front of the whole church congregation – and one stumbled on the words, one would not be confirmed. In our small community, this amounted almost to excommunication; the disgrace was immense and was comparable only to what accrued to a young girl who got pregnant before she could be confirmed. Many grils died at confirmation time as a result of the terrible stigma of failing to be confirmed: they tried to abort their pregnancies, using all sorts of unsafe methods.
You may have heard that west Africa is festooned with religion at the moment. Indeed, anything goes in the place – many people are regular churchgoers, but give them a serious personal crisis and, hey presto, they would be off like a shot to consult fetish priests and priestesses, as well as other “spiritualists”. Much money changes hands during these consultations and it is little wonder that some of the richest people in west Africa are dealers in the occult, including “evangelists” luxuriantly sprouted by the so-called “charismatic” churches.
The big boys who went in for occultism had two wishes that were foremost in their minds: first, that beautiful girls would look favourably on them and also desist from becoming pregnant if and when they allowed themselves to be successfully wooed. (Unwed motherhood in the Presbyterian church, as I have already suggested, was a fate worse than death.)
The boys’ second dearest wish was that the questions that “came” in that year’s dreaded school leaving examination, known as “hall” (because it was held in a big hall that was able to sit hundreds of pupils from all the schools in a district) would be questions whose answers the boys had “chewed” by heart beforehand.
Well, with all this mystical subtext going on, May 20 1947 dawned upon us. It was like any other day, bright and sunny. We went to school as usual. Lessons went on. But we would steal occasional glances out of the windows every now and then to see whether any “darkness” was “coming”. We saw nothing.
Sometimes, one of us invented an excuse: “Please, Teacher, I want to go and collect my exercise book from my brother in class three.” We all knew he was going out to take a closer look at the sky. But the teacher wouldn’t have a clue.
When the boy returned to the classroom, he shook his head slightly. We got the message: “No darkness here.” After about 30 minutes, another boy would repeat the exercise. Again, there would be nothing for him to report.
Twelve noon – more dreaded than any other hour – came. Still nothing.
We finished school. Our anxiety was heightened by the fact that we were excused from coming back for the afternoon session – ”because of the rumours being circulated about the impending descent of darkness, which could cause trouble in the school,” our teacher announced.
When we got home, we found that things were unusually quiet there too. Tension filled the air. We ate our lunch without the usual admixture of frolicking and squabbling.
After lunch, my mother, unusually, took us all by the hand and led us to the palace of my grandmother, the Queen Mother. This lady, Nana Afia Boatemaa, was a woman of extraordinary presence. She was quite stout and her fearsome appearance was accentuated by the way she bunched her hair into three clumps and left it bare. Her nickname, which could only be used by her own sisters, was Puaa (“She-of-the-weird-hairdo”). Unusually for a woman in our society, she had actually been our chief before stepping down and giving that powerful office to a man.
When we got to the palace, we saw that not only her relatives (like us) had gathered there but also a lot of other people who wouldn’t be seen dead at the palace under normal circmcumstances, due to the fact that if one misbehaved there, one could be fined a pot of palm wine on the spot. As the Queen Mother’s relatives, we went and sat close to her. It was as if she was a mother hen who would spread her wings over us to protect us if something untoward happened.
We sat and waited. One o’clock came and went. Nothing happened. So, a few people were emboldened to pooh-pooh aloud the whole idea of darkness coming in the daytime.
Soon, it was two o’clock. Then 2.30. Still nothing.
But, shortly before three, things began to turn eerie. The sunshine began to fade into a moonlight sort of haze. Chickens, clucking anxiously, began to troop back into the house from the streets and crept into their roosting places. Absolutely weird. An owl in a nearby bush was heard to hoot.
And then, most frightening of all, real darkness began to close in. Soon, all went completely dark.
At this, all the chilkdren in the palace spontaneously let out a huge, hysterical wail. No one told us to stop, and so we continued crying. For indeed, the older people, instead of comforting us, had also panicked and were saying things like, “Ei, so it is true!” When we the kids realised that the grown-ups had no answer to what was happening, we cried even louder.
Then the Queen Mother showed us why she was so respected. She had a brainwave and calmly ordered her drummers to beat their drums. I have never seen drummers go about their business with so much gusto. Their drumming drowned our hysterical cries and carried them into a plane of sound transmuted into a quest for answers. And somehow, the familiarity of the drums’ deep sounds calmed our nerves.
After about three minutes of total darkness – which seemed like eternity, of course – the sky began gradually to lighten. The drummers, encouraged that their efforts were beginning to bear fruit, went at it with even greater strength. Soon, the sun was out and shining again – as if it hadn’t ever gone anywhere. The chickens came clucking out of their sleeping places, cocks chased hens about, and they all ran outside to look for insects to eat.
We looked at the faces of the grown-ups. But they looked on the ground and avoided our eyes. It had been a close thing and the relationship between grown-ups and children had changed for ever. But we didn’t know it at the time.
There were several sequels to this unusual day. We heard, for instance, that some men who were sexually dysfunctional had collected themselves together and exposed their manhood to the darkness for the duration of the eclipse. They were expecting to be able to get their “pecker up” after going through the humiliation of having the state of their sexual performance advertised for all in the village to see.
We also heard that, whilst the drummers in the Queen Mother’s palace had been belting out their sounds, the Queen Mother’s own fetish priestess had, at the first sign of darkness, run with fright into the church building, where an impromptu service was being conducted by the Presbyterian minister. She would be resigning from her job forthwith and joining the church, formerly her worst enemy. The circular received from church headquarters which had enabled the church to forecast the darkness settled it for her. Her own fetish – a powerful deity that was supposed to dwell in the stream from which we got our drinking water – had signally failed to give her any inkling that darkness was about to hit the world.
The irony of us Bible-toting schoolchildren being “saved” by the Queen Mother’s drums, while the fetish priestess who should have been dancing in front of the drums went, instead, to attend a church service for the first time in her life, was not lost upon us. Eclipse day was, indeed, a day on which eveything was turned upside down.