Solar eclipse sweeps across southern Africa

Thousands of tourists, scientists and new age mystics today gathered in Zambia to watch the first total solar eclipse of the new millennium sweep across southern Africa. Angola was the first country to experience darkness as the moon’s shadow began its 8,000-mile journey across southern Africa, passing across Zambia, Zimbabwe and Mozambique before heading out to the Indian Ocean island of Madagascar. Zambia’s capital, Lusaka, where there was the greatest concentration of tourists, experienced about three and a half minutes of “totality” – a complete solar eclipse – at 1.09pm GMT. The eclipse was longest in Angola, but many tourists shied away from the country, which is still fighting a 25-year-old civil war, and opted for Zambia instead. The government expected more than 20,000 tourists – the most ever in Zambia – and deployed 2,500 police to patrol the streets of Lusaka and other tourist areas. Eclipse day was declared a national holiday. Hotels were fully booked in Lusaka, the only capital within the eclipse band, and farmers in the eclipse path rented out land for makeshift campsites. “This is a big event for Zambia,” said Agnes Seenka, the head of the government’s eclipse committee. In a country where nearly three-quarters of the people live in poverty, many cannot afford to buy protective glasses or attend the mass barbecues being held in Lusaka. Zambians have been bombarded for months with newspaper editorials, television commercials and special eclipse radio programs warning people not to look directly at the sun without protective eyeglasses before it is fully eclipsed. Tribal leaders in Zimbabwe warned that the eclipse was a sign that the ancestors were unhappy with a nation that had abandoned the traditional African values of peace and harmony. As retribution, they would bring further conflict to a country already suffering from political and economic turmoil and the Aids epidemic. In Zambia, members of the Ngoni tribe planned to recreate their 1835 crossing of the Zambezi River during their flight from the warriors of the Zulu king Shaka. The original crossing coincided with a total eclipse. Meanwhile in Angola, police seized 5,000 pairs of glasses being sold by street children after tests showed they would not protect people’s eyes from being damaged during the partial phases of the eclipse. The last total eclipse was in Europe in August 1999. The next one will also hit southern Africa in December 2002, but that will be during the rainy season, when there is a greater chance of cloudy skies.

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