Society & Success

Student in love with universe marvels at ‘how stars are born’

Susan hopes to travel to Mars and “have a piece of it.”  Photo/LIZ MUTHONI
Susan hopes to travel to Mars and “have a piece of it.” Photo/LIZ MUTHONI 

One minute, the crowd is enjoying a light moment, in the next one it is trying to come to terms with nature’s marvels.

It starts with an orange morning sun as its petals curl open.

Then in a matter of minutes, a total blackout appears. That was the nature’s call that invited one 30-year-old Kenyan Susan Murabana Oduori into astronomy.

The action is on March 29, 2006 at the Cape Coast Ghana when the area experienced a total solar eclipse, a rare natural occurrence.

That morning — by nine in the morning in a place where the sun wakes up as early as six — the sun had dawned looking like a beautiful piece of orange and radiating with warmth and hope.

Even before break into the afternoon, Cape Coast was suddenly thrown into total darkness.

Wild animals started getting back to their caves; people ignorant about the awe-inspiring celestial event though the world was turning upside down.

Usually, total solar eclipse captures global attention when it happens; there are people who will pay anything to travel and be part of the experience.

At the Cape Coast, Susan was in the midst of these enthusiasts something that opened a new frontier for her career options.

From her IT practice and economics and sociology classes sprout her love story with astronomy.

She explained total solar eclipse as what happens when the moon passes between the sun and the Earth so that the Sun is fully or partially covered.

This rare phenomenon happens during a new moon, when the sun and moon are in conjunction as seen from the Earth.

At least two and up to five solar eclipses can occur each year on Earth, with up to two of them being total.

Since the encounter that opened a conference on traditional astronomy, Susan came back home challenged and has been exploring the astronomy to improve her knowledge in these issues, both as a science, art and cultural issue.

“My interest in astronomy was to try and connect my science interests and knowledge to the daily lives of my people’,” recalls Susan who has been travelling the academic way to the moon and other celestial spaces.

Today, Susan knows and speaks about the amazing nature of the universe — and without a stammer.

Susan, who is pursuing a Master’s degree in astronomy at James Cook University in Tropical Northern Queensland, says that just like human beings and animals stars are born, grow and eventually die.

She brings home the defining characteristics of the planets, saying Venus has very thick atmosphere and very hot and sunlight can’t filter through; Jupiter is gaseous and so inhabitable for man.

Susan — with an open smile spread on her lips — is a very hopeful woman.

With all the exploration and Galactic tourism that some billionaires have started, she hopes to have a chance to travel to Mars and reserve herself a slice of the planet that scientists have said is closest to Earth in nature, just in case there is need for relocation when this planet if fully occupied.

Susan’s love affair with nature started while a student at Bunyore Girls in western Kenya.

But astronomy, her first love and future career, is not just science and science.

She is convinced that there are a lot of cultural and artistic energy to go with tales and facts around our university — the solar system and space.

Just like romantic love affairs, Susan’s relationship with astronomy has been shaping through the stages.

It started as an inexplicable attraction to the sciences while in secondary school.

As a student at the Catholic University where she studied sociology and economics, Susan met some foreign volunteers most of them were PhD students in Astronomy.

She met this group and gradually started getting attracted to the idea.

But even then, she was just attracted with some degree of lust: their knowledge and ability to put an idea that she had always considered very complex in a very simple way, she admits, left her interested in the subject.

When she eventually had opportunity to interact with nature at work in Cape Coast, she got hooked up.

On arrival home, she went straight into research, this time in Western Kenya and Uganda where she interacted first-hand with traditional African Astronomy of the Wanga and Teso.

In the case of the Wanga, the colour of the celestial bodies meant a lot in terms of their safety.

When the moon got a little orange at Mount Elgon, war was looming.

This would send the community preparing for war, says Susan drawing from her research.

“Unfortunately, I did not have a lot of time to delve deeper into the issues,” she regrets. “I must go back and do more work there.”

The Teso people of Uganda are a little more elaborate in matters astrology, even scientific according to Susan, who straddles the two sides of the subject: culture and science.

“The rainmaker’s (she interviewed a Teso rainmaker in her research) story on the relationship between the sky and raining seemed very close to what science teaches.”

Why astronomy? “A peek into the space is just a desire to learn more about our universe. We know so little. We are just a dot. We have no idea on whether there is any other intelligence species out there. There is so much into the space that we don’t know.”

In Africa, some work has been done with regards to astronomy but not as much.

Undergraduate classes

Manuscripts have been discovered in Mali suggesting that Africans had concluded that the Earth moved around the sun several centuries ago closer home, there are Kiswahili manuscripts that are yet to be deciphered.

Then there are the Turkana stones that are said to have been built facing certain stars that determined the seasons.

In Kenya, astronomy is yet to be fully explored; so far, the University of Nairobi is set to open first undergraduate classes on the subject.

Besides her studies, Susan is busy enticing high school students and Kenyan public to sciences and astronomy in particular.

She holds regular star parties and open nights where enthusiasts get a chance to gaze into the skies with or even without her 4.5 inch telescope — one of the best in the country.