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.
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.
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. 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. For the book to be effective, one should not “have relations” with girls before using it. (This seemed to me odd: one used the book to attract girls; yet one shouldn’t have relations with girls whilst using the book. Was a paradox hiding in there somewhere?)
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 girls 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 traditional 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 the “evangelists” so luxuriantly sprouted by the so-called “charismatic” churches.
Well, with all this mystical subtext going on, 20 May 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. Twelve noon – more dreaded than any other hour – came. Still nothing.
The morning school session ended. Our anxiety was heightened by the fact that we were excused from coming back for the afternoon session. After lunch, my mother, unusually, took us all by the hand and led us to the palace of my grandmother, the Queen Mother. As the Queen Mother’s relatives, we went and sat close to her – as if she was a mother hen who would spread her wings over us to protect us.
We sat and waited. One o’clock came and went. Nothing happened. 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. An owl in a nearby bush hooted. And then, most frightening of all, real darkness began to close in. Soon, all went completely dark. At this, all the children in the palace spontaneously let out a huge, hysterical wail. The older people, instead of comforting us, had also panicked and were saying things like, “Ei, so it is true!”.
Then the Queen Mother ordered her drummers to beat their drums. I have never seen drummers go about their business with so much gusto. After about three minutes of total darkness, 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. The chickens came clucking out of their sleeping places.
We looked at the faces of the grown-ups. But they looked on the ground and avoided our eyes. The relationship between grown-ups and children had changed for ever.
We heard later that during the eclipse, men who were sexually impotent had collected themselves together and exposed their male organs 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. I still don’t know to this day whether it worked for them, for how can one march up to an elderly person and ask him, “Please, Sir, did the eclipse bring your manhood back to form?’’.