Solar Eclipse in Johannesburg 21 June, 2001

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13.15, Midrand, Northern JohannesburgWeather

It is 15oC with just a bit of smoke lingering over Alexandria1 to the Southwest. The wind is south westerly at 11km/h and barometric pressure is 1024hPa, a fine day. There is soon be a 67% solar eclipse, beginning in 35 minutes. The various household members (Richard-the-Beloved-Husband, Habiba-the-Keeper-of-House-and-All-Things-Tswana, Timmy-the-Fatherless-But-Much-Fathered-Son-of-Habiba and Fazil-The-Kwaito2-Teen-Nephew-of Habiba, and my humble self) are more or less ready for the event. Cato and Zoë, erstwhile dog-pets, but more like children, are not prepared. They will become stressed by the event, as will our elderly gentleman-cat, Toughie.

Special viewing glasses were advertised on TV, 'free! from Spec-savers,' a local eyewear chain. Upon visiting said local eyewear chain, I discovered that they were free only with a purchase of a R5003 pair of prescription glasses. However, the price for non-customers was only R2.50, and I purchased 5 pairs of special cardboard glasses with foil lenses, which will enable safe eclipse-viewing in short, 10 second intervals, with sufficient eye-resting in between to protect our various corneas.

South Africa is not quite prepared, although Zambia, which has declared this day a public holiday, is. In Madagascar the joke is that the government wishes to postpone the event so that preparations can be finalised. It is rumoured that a committee is making a plan to protect cattle corneas. A decision has been taken to distribute free glasses to all school children but logistics remain uncertain, and this is not a joke.

The Kwaito-Teen-Nephew is at a end-of-term party at his school and will not be present. All other household members are present. We, the others, are waiting for night in the day over South Africa. We will now look for a spot in the garden where the willows do not block the sun, so we can see the moon do it instead. Because today is also the winter solstice, it may be the shortest day of our lives.


The birds are unusually silent. An eerie and unnatural quiet. A dog across the vlei is howling, but ours are hiding in their houses. It looks as if a rat has taken a bite out of the lower left-hand corner of the sun. Any change in light is as yet uncertain, as if it is only beginning to think about something that may or may happen.


A small flock of Mousebirds, tails streaming, swoop low over the vlei and into the bush opposite. An occasional dove dives for cover. The only sounds are distant traffic, Richard's quietly explicated science lesson to Habiba and Timmy, and the crickets. The crickets are always there in the background, but it is only today that we can hear them over the silence of the birds. The ambient light is now very slightly dimmer than before and it is clear that a solar eclipse is underway.


The crickets have stopped vocalising, and even the traffic sounds have quieted down. I wonder about the alleged barking dog phenomenon - the canines in this neighbourhood are very quiet. Every once and a while a dove hoots urgently and abruptly stops. Cato is huddling in the sunshine with a frown. Zoë is worried, head-down, following close on the heels of humans as they retire to the kitchen to make a pot of tea. Toughie has left the building, no doubt seeking feline companionship for the duration. We take our tea out to the lapa to look again.


The eclipse is nearly 50% total. The sun looks like the crescent horns of a bull, head down and ready to charge. It is easy to see why a solar eclipse is traditionally an evil omen to Africans. In Sub-Saharan cultures, the family cattle have very close relationships with their ancestors, who will express their feelings through special family bulls and cows. So this crescent sun high and dominant in the sky means that a very powerful ancestor is mighty mad. The sun sends the message loud and clear. It is a time for self-reflection, self-judgement is in order. What have we done wrong? What have we missed, overlooked, ignored? A Blackcollared Barbet perches high and gives a low, snake-like hissing call I have not heard before. It is clearly a warning.


The solar eclipse is 67% total, and the event is at its peak for those in this part of Africa. The crescent now points down and to the right. The light is very pale and yellow, that of the early stages of sunset - but the shadows are all wrong and things are not as they seem. Both Cato and Zoë point their noses toward the north, sniffing in the direction of the sun, but Cato does not bark. Zoë races along the fence, and returns to her sentry point new the garden door, she growls as only an Alsatian can, ruff standing up. One neighbour dog join in sporadically. The anticipated cacophony of howling canines does not quite happen. Ndowe, Sister-of-Habiba, joins us. Zoë returns quietly to her dish, a self-reward. I suspect she knew that she was expected to bark, she is a very attentive and obedient creature. Cato has no such compunctions, he does not do leashes. The wind is chilly, the house cold, wanting to be shut-up to preserve heat. Just after the turning point, as the moon begins to move away, the Barbet calls again, but this time it is a familiar click and whistle.


A fat, growing crescent stands on an end, the moon exiting rapidly to the right. The light is brighter, birds are picking up their song once more, and fat Olive Thrushes have resumed their dog-dish raids. The household is now clearly bored with eclipse-watching. There was no night in day, but we did have the momentary illusion of a sunset in midday. The return to an ordinary sunny day is much quicker than it's obfuscation. The sun is warmer, brighter, we live on a resilient planet. I sip tea with freshly fragrant lemon, picked just now from my kitchen garden. Cato and Zoë retreat to their favourite sunny corners for a nap. Toughie comes in through the bathroom window with a meow, hoping for milk. The windows can remain open to the sun for an hour or two longer. Beloved Husband and Much-Fathered-but-Fatherless-Son put the popcorn pot on the stove, it a holday in this household. My duty is now to queue up the video. I think about making a plan to be on the north slopes of the Drakensburg escarpment on 4 December of this year, where the the moon will next eclipse the light of the sun over Africa. Why, I wonder, do I seek this?

1A large and lively former township, now incorporated into the City of Johannesburg, comprised of both formal and informal housing, where the primary winter fuels are wood and anthracite2An indigenous style of hip-hop music3Roughly equivalent to US$63, an enormous amount of money in SA, which could buy one a sinfully luxurious night in an exclusive hotel

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