Monday, April 15, 2013


I'm back in Cape Town now for a few days after a very quick, but very meaningful and informative trip to Ethiopia. In each of the places I've gone on this project I've had time to fully immerse myself not just in the educational or astronomical culture, but also a bit in the national culture, the language, the local histories, the arrangement of the cities and so on. By spending 2.5 weeks in Ethiopia, instead of my standard 2-3 months, I didn't necessarily have time to do this, and instead was on *Watson Power Mode*, attempting to absorb and do as much as humanly possible in the short time I had. 

I chose to go to Ethiopia because astronomy is rapidly developing there at the professional level. The Ethiopian Space Science Society (ESSS), which is based at the Department of Technology at the University of Addis Ababa, is currently in the process of building a professional-class observatory with two 1-meter diameter telescopes in the mountains just above Addis. They're also beginning site testing for another observatory in the north of the country, in the more remote hills of Lalibela. In visiting Ethiopia, I wanted to see how this development is affecting students, if at all. Simultaneously, I wanted to explore how other aspects of Ethiopian culture, including religion, affect children's notions of the Universe.

Through my work at the OAD in Cape Town, I was able to connect with the ESSS ahead of time and through them, I visited 5 different schools across Addis in the time I was there. We visited both public and private schools, although each of the schools we visited had their own Space Science Club. Besides these clubs, astronomy is barely in the school curriculum, usually taught as small units in physics or geography classes. For the most part, I gave my standard presentation and engaged with students directly this way.

Speaking to the Nazareth girls school Space Science Club.
Nazareth girls school, student organized Space Science Club evening event, complete with  star gazing
Misrak Goeh Secondary School Astrophysics club
St. Joseph School Space Science Club
These space science club meetings usually included student presentations on topics ranging from the basics of the Solar System to traditional Ethiopian astronomy to the possibility of life on Mars. Each student presentation was highly researched, and you could see the personal interest these students had in the subject matter. Some of the students (especially in the private schools) had extremely high-level questions, some of which I couldn't answer. It seems that these students are getting their information from the internet, or Discovery-channel type TV programs, as schools don't cover these topics at all. 

Advanced Q&A session at the St. Joseph School. In my first visit to St. Joseph, the students thought my presentation was "elementary," and they requested an advanced Q&A session where they could ask high-level questions. This panel of astrophysicists couldn't even answer all of their questions regarding anti-matter, string theory, white holes, and the standard model of cosmology.
Student presentation on the life cycle of stars, Nazareth Girls School

With the ESSS, I visited the site of the Entoto Observatory, just 30km away from Addis Ababa. Despite the proximity to the city, the light pollution is fairly low and because of the high altitude, it is less rainy than in the city. When I visited, the spaces for the two domes were being constructed, and the buildings for offices, cafeteria and accommodation were nearly complete. Over the course of my visit, the domes were delivered, and in the months ahead the telescopes themselves will be shipped and installed.
Construction of the Entoto Observatory
Construction of the Entoto Observatory.
Main Observatory building for offices, cafeteria and accommodation.
Probably the highlight of my time in Addis was couch surfing with Birukti, an inspiring young woman who has facilitated numerous outreach projects in Addis through the support of her church. She generously agreed to host me for my entire visit and helped me to engage with Addis life as much as possible in the little time I had.

With Birukti in front of Wenchi Crater Lake
Because work on the Observatory was busy during my visit, and because the ESSS members work only on a volunteer basis, my school visits with the ESSS only happened on a few days. With Birukti's help, I spent the remainder of my time exploring Addis Ababa and a bit outside the city, and engaging with kids in different settings besides in schools.

About five years ago, Birukti started a house for teenage boys who had formerly lived on the street. The project, called "Change House," had a total of 22 boys to start, many of which have graduated and are working and self-sufficient. With Birukti, I visited the house, which has 4 boys living there now. The following night, the boys, plus a few of the graduates, came over to Birukti's house for dinner, games and a little bit of telescope time.  The clouds rolled in before we could see anything too cool, but it was nice that they still got to see how the telescope worked.

At Birukti's with the Change House boys
Looking through the telescope before the clouds roll in.
Birukti also organized a program for girls she works with in the Entoto mountains to do a quick lesson on astronomy. We went over the basics of the Sun, Earth and Moon system, and explained orbits, seasons and lunar phases. 
Birukti translating for our lesson about the Sun, Earth and Moon
Learning about Earth's tilt.
Even though I didn't have time to explore a wide variety of educational settings and speak with tons of kids, I do feel that I did a lot given my short time there. I am grateful for the opportunity to see a completely different country which functions very differently from any place I've been. Special thanks to the ESSS for facilitating my project and to Birukti for hosting me!

Tomorrow I head to NEW ZEALAND for phase 4 (or 5?) of my trip. I'm sad to leave what has become my family and my home in Cape Town, but I feel ready for more adventures and a new place to explore.

To close, more pictures from Ethiopia:
Huge Orthodox Christian church in Bole, Addis Ababa
Sunset from Birukti's house. The sky, I think, was Addis' most beautiful quality.
View of Addis Ababa from halfway up the Entoto mountains
Wenchi Crater lake
First time on a horse! Wenchi Crater 
Amazing sunset from the plane

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