Seeing the sights or saving them?

While travelling in Zambia in 2001, Joe Cali helped to prevent hundreds of African villagers from sustaining permanent eye damage.

I travelled to Zambia intending to visit wildlife parks, Victoria Falls and to observe a total eclipse of the sun on June 21st, 2001. Zambia was my third eclipse expedition. As a photographer, I always try to combine these eclipse expeditions with extensive travel in those countries.

Ten days before the eclipse, I was offered an opportunity to go and live with a family in a small Zambian village. Kapini is a village of one thousand Lenge tribes-people located 25km north of Lusaka. It has no power or telephones. The locals live in mud brick huts with grass-thatched roofs. There is a primary school. Older students attend boarding high school some distance away. The government charges substantial fees for primary and secondary schooling. The average family has 8-10 children. It is common that many families cannot afford for all their children to attend school simultaneously. Children shuffle in and out of school as money is available.

My hosts owned four small mud brick huts. They offer two of these huts to passing travellers wanting to try the local lifestyle. This is not a tourist venture, no drums, no dancing or folk shows. No special treatment. here you eat what they eat, you live like they live. You are a welcome guest in a lovely village where people just go about their daily life. The local diet is based around a starch made from boiled ground maize eaten with a variety of vegetables and protein sourced from fish, chicken, eggs or rats.

During my stay, I visited Kayosha Middle Basic School to talk to the teachers about their eclipse educational materials. Kapini Village lay along the path of totality. The teachers told me there were no materials. Some men in the village were making plans to make filters from smoked beer bottle glass. Children were collecting silvered sweet wrappers to view the eclipse because they looked like the solar eclipse filters being sold in Lusaka. The teachers were concerned because they had no information and no expertise. I was horrified at the potential for widespread eye damage.

I extended my visit and began working with the teachers immediately. We constructed simple yet safe viewing apparatus out of materials we collected around the village. I made two "eclipse projectors" from shaving mirrors and paper. One projector would be used to project the suns image into the meeting hall where the youngest children would be assembled. Inside the building teachers could supervise to ensure that they didn't look directly at the sun. The second would project onto a large outside wall that the older children and adults could watch. The school had no duplication facilities. I hand drafted posters with basic educational and safety information that were put up around the village. A few days before the eclipse, I returned to Lusaka to meet friends. As I was departing, the headmaster, Bernard Chiwala came to the bus stop. He told me he was still concerned for the children and asked me to return on eclipse day to assist the village. I promised him that I would return.

Back in Lusaka, I learn that the Zambian government had promised to spend US$250 000 on eclipse preparations. This represented only a fraction of the budgets of neighbouring countries. Even troubled Angola allocated US$3 million while Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and Madagascar had allocated much more. The ministry of finance fought against spending any money. After losing the argument with the government, they delayed releasing the funds until it was too late to use the funds for any meaningful prevention measures. There was a TV based education campaign. Kapini only had one battery operated TV between hundreds of people.

The TV in Kapini village is only turned on for football matches. I realised that we could prevent hundreds of cases of eye damage in Kapini village. I e-mailed my two friends. Both agreed to join in when they heard what was going on. I met a teacher from England. He had an existing interest in this type of work and asked to join in.

Two days before the eclipse a government minister was seen on television sending thirty university students each armed with 1000 pairs of eclipse glasses to the country to educate and distribute glasses. Thirty students were supposed to speak to 6 million people spread over 750000 square kilometres in just two days. Yeah right!

We returned to the village early on eclipse day. The eclipse began at 1:30pm local time. We set up our cameras and other equipment then began talking to the villagers who had gathered to watch us set up. One student turned up with lolly wrappers lining his sunglasses. I assured him in no uncertain terms that he would go blind and would not be able to play football. The message sunk in. We didn't see any more sweet wrappers or smoked glass all day.

We distributed some eclipse glasses we had obtained. Ten people shared each eclipse filter. Mirror projectors were operating around the school. The school grounds were full of people as the temperature dropped and the light began fading rapidly. The atmosphere was electric as we counted down the last minutes to the total eclipse. Villagers spilled onto the school soccer oval and the village women began ululating as the Moon's shadow swept across the landscape at supersonic speeds engulfing the village in its wake. We signalled the villagers when it was safe to look directly at the eclipse with a honk of a car horn.

There was a brief total silence followed by one simultaneous gasp as the villagers got their first view of the Sun's magnificent coronal streamers radiating out from the dark lunar disk. There was a deep crimson glow encircling the entire horizon capped by a orange and yellow bands that melted into dark sapphire blue sky overhead. Many people described it as a 360 degree sunset. Jupiter and a handful of bright stars became visible then my eye was drawn to a small telescope I had set up. The suns corona is an impressive sight to the naked eye. Through a telescope, it is astonishing. The corona has a much more complex structure when viewed through a telescope than can be seen with the naked eye. Prominences, parts of the sun's surface thrown into space by magnetic storms on the sun, encrusted the lunar limb in ruby red blotches. The villagers screamed and cried as totality progressed.

Totality ended with a spectacular diamond ring that seemed to last forever. We all exchanged glances. Everyone had huge grins on their faces. The villagers were coming up to us , some with tears in their eyes thanking us for helping them see the eclipse.

We returned to Lusaka. Our group dispersed. I returned to the village as a guest science teacher for a day. I learnt that our project had been an outstanding success. The medical clinic had not seen a single patient with any eye damage. I was overwhelmed that so little effort on my part made such a difference to these peoples lives.

Joe Cali

See the photoessays from this trip