After The Crocodile Has Eaten The Sun
Updated: Nov 1
Being out in the Okavango Delta it is hard not to notice the night sky. For me it is always one of the most absorbing parts of my stay in the bush. Seeing how the constellations sparkle on the winding river channels and open flood plains has me in awe. Botswana, being home to one of the few International Dark Sky Sanctuaries, has an almost indescribable starry night sky. During the time of a New Moon, the already star-sprinkled sky is engulfed with the transcendent Milky Way Galaxy, or Ngio Dhao in Hambukushu, meaning ‘the road of the skies.’ Because Tswana cosmology has been handed down orally, the stories differ from tribe to tribe, and even person to person. Today, Setswana nomenclature is debatable, which can lead to significantly different conclusions. This makes for a more captivating and enriching journey when learning about their ethno-astronomy.
A baboon howls in the moonlight, in celebration of Halloween! Photo credit: William Steele
Some of the stories I will share have come from the NHFU’s friend and employee, Senabe. Senabe is a San river-man, who recently starred in our newly released film ‘Okavango – A Flood of Life’, in which we tell a story about the importance of the Flood to his people as well as every animal that inhabits the Delta. The San believed that the Earth was alive and not just made up of rocks, rivers, plains and seas. To them, the world knew pain, anger, sorrow and joy. Deep-rooted in the African soul was such a respect for the Earth that even when they mined Her for metals, they would completely refill the mines once they had completed their mining, and the resources were never to be depleted. In many African tribes there were individuals known as ‘listeners of the Earth’ observe the environment around them, so far as to track which trees were lessening and en route to extinction in their area. In such a case, the tribe would move their base to give the Earth a rest as She has clearly grown tired.
A male lion poses behind May's super moon. Photo credit: Liz Johnston
There is an old Botswana folklore which describes their understanding of sunrise and sunset, which bears an astonishing similarity to that of the Egyptian Sun god Ra. This story starts with a lonely crocodile who long envied the beauty and magic that the Sun possessed. This forlorn crocodile presented an idea of his to the sun, to which, after much persuasion, she finally agreed. The plan went that every evening after the Sun had to set in the West, the eager crocodile would swallow her fiery beauty and proceed to swim all the way back across the river to the East, where she would pass back through the crocodile ready to rise again for a new day. This way the crocodile was able to spend the whole night living with the Sun’s beauty within him. This story is a beautiful example of the poetic way that the Batswana interpret the world above us. Another San tribe believed the Sun to be a man originally, whose head beamed like a bright light. This man was said to be a lazy, selfish fellow who would keep his luminescence to himself. One day, a San leader was fed up and chopped off the idle man’s shining head and threw it up into the sky so that everyone could see and use the light. There came their origin of the Sun.
The sun rises behind a pair of giraffe. Photo credit: William Steele
The importance of the Moon to the Batswana is very apparent. To the river dwelling San, the Moon is believed to be a song of joy representing the coming of a brighter side of the month. During a full Moon, the river people rejoice and dance. To many people in Botswana, the Moon embodies a woman. A woman is thought to bring light into a home, but light that is not as scorching as the Sun. This light is associated with happiness. Similar to many people’s ‘Easter Bunny’ in the Moon, to the San, the markings in the Moon resemble a woman carrying a child or a bundle of sticks. Batswana’s enchantment of the Moon, as is displayed in their wall art and dialect, stipulated that there was an early knowledge of the lunar cycles. To many, the stars in the sky were originally people, whose spirits have been so long passed that they are no longer ancestor spirits, but that they left Earth and now dwell in the heavens to guide their people down on Earth. These spirits are called upon in times of peril and sorrow. What more beautiful way to remember our loved ones than as stars in the sky? The supernatural Milky Way that covers our sky has another alluring origin story. The ‘road of the skies’, was said to have emanated when a young girl, angry with her mother, threw the fire she was cooking on up into the air with sheer fury, leaving the blazing coals scattered across the abyss. The night sky is so full of stories and the more you look, the more you find. If only stars could talk.
Star trails and the Milky Way light up the night sky, behind silhouetted Mokolwane Palms. Photo credit: William Steele
These extremely rich oral traditions and stories of the vast world above us have been passed down in Botswana, from generation to generation, for centuries. Now, with modern camera equipment and astronomical instruments we are able to take even deeper journeys into the history and beauty that the night sky holds. Perhaps tonight you will use your own natural astronomical instrument, your eye, to take a few minutes to observe and appreciate the millennia of tales that the cosmos bears and you will remember the stories once told around the bush fire, after the crocodile ate the Sun.
Text written by Amy-Jean Beattie