Crowd at eclipse viewing site

We never expected so many people!

Wrenched from our beds at Utengule Coffee Lodge before dawn, we boarded a bus and drove three hours east along the main highway from Mbeya, Tanzania. Turning north, we had continued several miles to Rujewa. This remote little village had been chosen for viewing the Annular Solar Eclipse on 1st September 2016.

A total eclipse of the sun happens when the moon passes in front of the sun, completely obscuring it for a few minutes. An annular eclipse means that a ring of sunlight would be visible surrounding the Moon’s disc. This happens when the Moon’s elliptical orbit takes it so far from Earth that its disc looks smaller than that of the Sun. There are slightly more annular than total eclipses because, on average, the Moon lies too far from Earth to cover the Sun completely. Total and annular eclipses are visible somewhere on Earth about 3 times every 2 years, but at any given spot you would only see one every 400 years. To see an annular eclipse was a very big deal for the people of Rujewa. Their village lay on the median of the path of totality, a strip 100km wide running across northern Madagascar, Mozambique, Tanzania, DRC and Gabon, within which viewers would see the sun and moon perfectly aligned.

The eclipse had been publicized in the national media, with reassurances that this was a natural phenomenon and the world would not end nor the Sun fall from the sky. Tanzania Tourist Board had also promoted it as a tourist attraction. So people came not only from Mbeya region but from far away to see this rare event, including 16 of us all the way from USA.

Merchants spread out curios for sale at eclipse viewing site

Cultural dancers

As the moon began to eat away at the sun, the murmur of the crowd swelled. Arms rose above the heads, shielding eyes, aiming cellphones or tablets or cameras at the sun. My group had brought tripods and filters and long lenses. Each photographer attracted a ring of spectators, eager to look at the image on the back of a digital camera, trying to photograph that with their phones, or merely taking selfies next to the aliens. A roving reporter interviewed some of us for the BBC World Service.

Two photographers point cameras at sky  Woman photographing with mobile phone  BBC reporter interviewing tourists Boy views eclipse through special glasses  Man photographs image of eclipse from camera display with his phone

At least half the viewers were crisply uniformed school groups, whose teachers herded them into lines. Each student in turn had a few seconds of wonderment, viewing the sun through the communal eclipse specs. I wandered among the less organized school groups distributing spare eclipse viewers and anarchy.

Several people asked if I could pose for a photo with them. A raucous quartet of party girls sharing a beer can called, “Hey mzungu! Take our picture!” before trooping off in search of fresh excitement.

Party girls pose for photo

A young couple approached me, husband dragging pretty wife by her hand.

“My wife has a question for you, sir, but she is too shy to speak to a Mzungu!”

A small crowd gathered. I took her hand and said in Swahili,

“Hello, don’t be afraid. I’m just a human being, like you. What would you like to know?”

She giggled and looked embarrassed but eventually said,

“What is the cause of this thing, this eclipse?”

So I explained how the sun is far away, and how the moon was passing between us and the sun. She seemed to get it, and thanked me.

“You’re very welcome. And beautiful too!”

She dissolved into more giggles and was dragged away.

At 11:53 the eclipse reached its maximum. The day became a little darker and definitely colder, but even 95% obscured, the tropical midday sun was still too bright for us to see the ‘ring of fire’ with the naked eye or an unfiltered camera. I held my eclipse specs over my lens and got an image.

After three minutes the shadow passed. The sky brightened, the warmth returned. An eclipse is so transient, a brief crossing of heavenly bodies. I captured a bright ring in my photo but it could be anything, anywhere.

What I will remember more is the delight on the faces of children and adults alike, whether brown or pink, all united in our excitement and awe at this natural wonder.

Children excited about viewing eclipse Girl wearing white hijab

Graphic showing family tree of apes and man.

Ape family tree, by David Bygott

 I just led a Great Ape safari through Uganda and Rwanda to see chimps, gorillas and many other primates. It was a thrill to look into the feisty eyes or a chimp and the calm brown eyes of a gorilla and feel the connection – kin – but not quite. I was especially aware of our differences because one of my guests had said at the beginning of the safari:

“I came on this trip in order to see our closest ancestors.”

“No.” I had to reply. “None of the great apes alive today are our ancestors. Our ape ancestors have been dead for over 6 million years.”

He looked puzzled but eager to understand. So let’s try to make it clear how we are related. First, we humans and all the monkeys and apes are primates. Primates are an order of mammals with binocular and color vision and grasping hands. Primates split off from the ancestral mammals about 60 million years ago and diverged into various kinds. Through fossils and DNA we can trace the ape line back about 25 to 30 million years. The “ancestral ape” had no tail and was larger and longer-lived than other primates.

The apes continued to split; gibbons and orangutans went their own special ways and the other ape line kept evolving too. By about 9 million years ago a gorilla line was established and the rest of the ape-like beings evolved into two major types: chimps and hominins. Today we have two living representatives of the chimp line – chimpanzees and bonobos. Since Neanderthals died out relatively recently, that leaves only humans as representatives of our hominin line – the upright walking apes. So apes are our relatives but NOT our ancestors.

Here is a family tree with the living apes that shows the very approximate times when we left the other primates. A family tree is like an African flat-topped acacia, whose gnarled branches separated long ago and all the little twigs of the canopy have been on earth for the same amount of time. We humans are not at the top of a tree like a pine, with all other creatures down below us. I think it is very important to realize that all living beings are at the same level, we are all survivors through time. Gorillas and chimps are definitely our surviving relatives, but not ancestors.