SKA on the birthplace of humanity

By Time of article published May 11, 2012

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Ruben Mowszowski

South Africa has been judged the superior location for the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescope, but the Australians are not happy and SKA project leaders are now considering whether they should split it between the two countries.

This switch from science to diplomacy suggests that astronomers are every bit as human as the rest of us. The Australians want it to be in Australia and the South Africans want it to be in SA. So let me assume a position of scientific neutrality and say where I think it should go.

But first some background about our chosen location near Vanwyksvlei in the Northern Cape. Reading the press releases you will assume that the site has no history worth mentioning.

You will find no mention of the fact that it was the home of the /Xam, a people with a culture reaching back tens of thousands of years. No mention of the world-renowned archive they left us. No mention of the star knowledge for which they are famous. No mention of our ancestry which binds us to the /Xam and connects every person on the planet to this continent.

Vanwyksvlei turns out to be a place of salt pans, party line telephones, dorps where people walk in the centre of the main road because a car only goes through once or twice a day and unemployment. The farmers, descendants of Dutch colonists, seem a race of giants. When Jan Louw, who owns the farm on which the telescopes will be sited surveys his land, he tilts his gaze upwards as if compensating for the trajectory of an eye beam over the enormous distance.

The Sunday preacher, also a big man, tells the assembled farmworkers – the men mostly bleary, the women sober and attentive – “I too have an addiction.” He unbuttons his cardigan. Pats his stomach. “You think it’s natural to have a maag like this?”

It raises a laugh. Afterwards he asks the workers to put ten percent of their salary on the table for the church. It’s the entertainment for the week. There is no television here. No radio. No cellphones. Or if there are, there won’t be when the telescope is erected. The silence is critical to the success of our bid and is protected by law.

There is another kind of silence here. It’s to do with the word genocide, but you won’t find it on any memorials. Only the engravings on the rocks left by the disappeared. Artist Robert Slingsby has joined me on the visit and has spent the last 30 years recording these enigmatic images, interpreting them in his art.

Within minutes of our arrival he finds a petroglyph – a scratched engraving – at the epicentre of the proposed array. It is the shape of a fish – a numinous image from the spirit world – lines trailing off its tail, pointed vertically at the ground as if marking the spot.

The evidence of the /Xam’s former presence is all around us; in the engravings, in the stories the land tells, in the faces of the farmworkers, in the genes that speak through the bodies of farmworker and perhaps farmer alike, and in the 12 000 pages of an ethnological archive which contains the experiences, beliefs, anecdotes, myths and rituals of the /Xam. Called the Bleek-Lloyd Collection, the late nineteenth century ethnology describes a people embedded in a world where everything is connected.

When the Pleiades come out

and the wind has blown and died away

and the sun’s eye is burning

if a man who has killed

looks at a star, looks at Canopus

the star’s wind will be cold

because the star is one with the man.

The /Xam are gone, dispossessed, exterminated, but the elements which gave form to their language persist. The hills thrust upwards, wind blows patterns in the red dust, tortoises creep over the land, engraved stones beat out a staccato rhythm and at night the stars still speak, but few can hear.

Our Cartesian separation – the mind that thinks and the things or objects that it thinks about – has been very successful for our science, less so for our planet. Our objective science describes the measurable quality of things, but not the innumerable ways they interact in a subjective world. Descartes – bless his mathematical heart – started the scientific revolution a few years before Van Riebeeck arrived in Table Bay and gradually the world around us has lost its vitality. We now live in a world of measurable objects.

Yet without our direct perceptions and experiences, the symbols of science would be meaningless. Five hundred years after Galileo, astronomers still talk about the sun rising.

In an account given to the German linguist William Bleek and his sister-in-law Lucy Lloyd, a /Xam informant talks about “the water which is like a pool, in which we see all things; the things which are in the sky we see in the water, while we stand by the water’s edge. We see all things, the stars look like fires which burn”.

We need these ancient voices to remind us that our perceptions are grounded in experience, that we are in the world as both subject and observer.

This is not just the talk of new agers and hippies. Not just another bumper sticker. In Vaclav Havel’s words: “We may know immeasurably more about the universe than our ancestors did, and yet it increasingly seems they knew something more essential about it than we do, something that escapes us.”

In recent years, while the descendants of the /Xam and other people struggle to find a place for themselves in the world, Bleek and Lloyd’s informants have become the focus of intense academic attention. One of them in particular, the man called //Kabbo – his name means “dreamer” – has reached across time with his words and touched journalist Sylvia Vollenhoven, herself a descendant of the scattered disposessed who became servants to the colonisers in the Swellendam area. Her aim is to free //Kabbo and the other informants from the grip of academia and take their stories and vision to the people of this country – in particular to the marginalised rural descendants cut off from their heritage, for whom the words spoken by the man called Dia!kwain will resonate:

This place does not feel to me

As the place used to feel to me.

This place feels empty before me

Because the string has broken for me.

Which brings me back to the telescope. It has been called iconic because of its size, but it’s the context and the larger vision that make the icon. Table Mountain is iconic because of its spectacular position and because it speaks of a city, a country and the vast and ancient continent beyond.

The Apollo 17 moon mission conducted many elaborate scientific experiments, but it was an unscheduled snapshot of the earth – now said to be the most widely disseminated image in history – which transformed our view of the world.

The three thousand dishes of the SKA telescope, pointed at the origin of space and time, in the home of the people longest known – the direct descendants of our collective mother – working together across many African countries will be an iconic symbol of our shared humanity and common future, and a rallying vision for global peace.

Here in the birthplace of all humanity is where we might come home to each other, come home to ourselves, come home to the cosmos.

l Mowszowski is the co-author of Karoo Moons (Struik) and author of the short fiction collection Souls of Ancient Fish (Brevitas.) He was a prize-winning finalist in the Vita Short Story Awards, a finalist for the Nadine Gordimer Short Story Award, shortlisted for the SACPAC National Drama Award, winner of the South African Science and Technology Journalism Award, and shortlisted for the EU Literary Award.

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