Magazine article New African

The Day the World Failed to End-Again: Solar Eclipses Have a Tremendous Hold on the Imagination of Our People, and a Major One on 20 May 1947 Brought Utter Panic in Ghana, Particularly among Doomsday Prophets. Fast Forward to 29 March 2006

Magazine article New African

The Day the World Failed to End-Again: Solar Eclipses Have a Tremendous Hold on the Imagination of Our People, and a Major One on 20 May 1947 Brought Utter Panic in Ghana, Particularly among Doomsday Prophets. Fast Forward to 29 March 2006

Article excerpt

I was very sorry not to be in Ghana on 29 March 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 that the police had had to be called in to protect the premises of Pepsi Cola in Accra, 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, and Pepsi Cola had advertised in the local media that whoever brought in three bottle tops would get a pair of glasses. Free. 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.

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You see, 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 which cannot be easily understood unless you were brought up in an African village.

In the countdown to the 29 March eclipse, for instance, an Islamic "scholar", a 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 got nigh, "God would cause the sun and the moon to come together". Now, of course, it is not only in the Qur'an that such 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.

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 20 May 1947. A few weeks before the time, we heard vague rumours that "darkness would descend on the Earth" in the daytime. Some people dismissed the rumours as nothing but the usual piffle you often hear in villages--if you shake hands with certain people at certain times, your manhood will wilt, and that sort of thing. But these rumours grew until everyone began to talk about "the coming darkness". At the Asiakwa Presbyterian 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 the mysterious, illustrated book on occultism called The Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses, imported from a remote place called India, and with which readers of this column should be familiar.

One of my older cousins told me that this book contained diagrams and charts, which could be used to invoke spirits 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 censored 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 books" list and used to seize it and burn it.

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. …

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