I would like to take this opportunity for which I am very grateful for
to honor a man whom I have only met in his works. Anthony Ferrel is
the author of the popular astronomy book: Skywatching,which comes
highly recommended for professionals and enthusiastsalike. I found the
book during an unguided exploration of the local library, in my very
younger years when I was stilltrying to find my identity, so to speak,
in the kind of booksI like.
This book is the very root of my being today somewhat of avoracious
reader and knowledge seeker of sorts. So, many years later I was very
lucky to meet a former student of his, whom, though not surprisingly,
spoke very highly of him. I remember vividly how I was still
'charging', soaking up the morning sun on a stoep in the very crisp
winter morning at the South African AstronomicalObservatory in Cape
Town, when this former student informed me that the great professor
had died a couple of years back.
Very few people get to meet their favorite authors, and I'msure that
those who do treasure such moments. I hadn't read the book in a
longtime but knew its contents, page by beautiful page by heart, and
just meeting one ofhis students who knew him personally was the
closest I had to meeting him. I imagined how he might have been in
thevery spot I was standing when I visited the observatory in
Sutherland when one evening, as he so vividly describes in the
introduction in his book, he saw the few constellations that had
already started appearing in that twilight aftersunset.
I even remember how he described each of them they that he saw as if
they were people and drew for me a picture of the sky that I'd never
seen. It was like discovering something that had always been there,
right over my head, a canvas in which a higher being may have reserved
to show His best works. The illustrations and simple English he used
enthralled me and to this day, I try to follow suit as best I can. One
of the topics he wrote about revealed to me something I never thought
was possible, that Africans are astronomers in their own right, or at
least used to be.
I have always had this idea that looking up at the stars was a western
thing, and many of my peers do away with such stupidity. Anthony, in
his book, opened my eyes in many respects. This particular page has
this Nguniword that caught my then very curious eye: Isilimela, and he
wrote about it somewhat along these lines. This term was and still is
an essential facet in the Xhosa calendar. It marks the beginning of
the agricultural season and the time in which initiates 'go to the
mountain' as they say.
It begins when a group of stars known as the Pleiades cluster in the
Taurus constellation reappears in an eastern twilight. This also
brings light, to the people, who I consider the earliest (African)
astronomers who were entrusted with spotting the reappearance of this
cluster, this Isilimela which was then very important in that it
marked the best time in which the season could begin. So important was
this task that the first person to spot itwas rewarded with the
slaughtering of a cow with his name held in great esteem.
I find myself thinking how this vital skill was passed down orally,
with no books with drawings and beautiful pictures to spark the
imagination, but poetic and mythical descriptions that would
flamboyantly paint the picture in the student's mind. Iimagine a crisp
night, an old man, young boy on his lap, sitting on a rock in the
twilightas the cluster slowly appears and the wise one pointing out
the twinkling beauty.
In this, I see a cosmic connection, and an African oneat that. The
night sky is beautiful, and finding out whatmakes such beauty, is part
of the adventure of being an aspiring astronomer. It is my ancestral
right. I am what I am,and are to be, because of books like Antony
Ferrel's. And in him, I am eternally grateful.