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Wednesday, 20 June, 2001, 14:14 GMT 15:14 UK
Madagascar awaits total eclipse
Malagasy children prepare for Thursday's eclipse over Madagascar
Practising for the big day with a pair of special glasses
By Alastair Leithead in Madagascar

How are the people of Madagascar and their traditional culture coping with their first eclipse in 100 years to visit the island on Thursday?

One way to find out was through a visit to the local witch doctor or "ombiasy".

We had to wait an hour before being granted an audience. When we arrived he was busy attending to a woman with a sick baby and three men wanting to know the best day for a circumcision.

Someone called eclipse is coming on Thursday and they mustn't look at him or they could go blind

All I wanted to know was what the eclipse meant to the witch doctors of Madagascar and how they would be advising their clients to deal with the celestial sunset show on the red island.

"It is a very powerful event and a period of great change," said the witch doctor, as the chain of interpreters of Malagasy to French and French to English each struggled in turn to find the exact phrase they were looking for.

"Babies born on the day of the eclipse could be destined for great things."

"It is important that the parents go to their ombiasy to find out how their power should be used."

"There is bad associated with their birth too, so their parents must be very careful," he added quietly and thoughtfully, nodding slowly.

'Stay indoors'

But what about the big question everyone in Madagascar is asking at the moment - should people actually watch the eclipse?

"We mustn't underestimate what the position of the sun, the moon and the earth like this can do."

It is a very powerful event and a period of great change

Malagasy witch doctor
"It is definitely wise to lock yourself into your house and stay there until it is safe," said the ombiasy.

And people from all 18 ethnic groups across the world's fourth largest island take everything the ombiasy say very seriously.

Driving south from Antananarivo, the capital of Madagascar, en route to the "zone of totality" - the narrow strip where the moon will totally cover the sun - and a brief and unscientific survey reveals an amazing lack of understanding.

Presidential intervention

The first that people in rural areas heard about the eclipse was from announcements by the president, and so they associate it with him.

One man standing beside the red dusty road said he was going to write a letter.

"I'm going to ask the president if he can bring the eclipse forward to the morning as I lose so much work if it comes in the afternoon," he said.

I could imagine him sitting there next to his fruit stall, pen in hand, hoping his mail would arrive on time.

Health warnings

Many people along the 800 mile route said they would be staying indoors and that they were scared that they would be blinded by the eclipse

Foreboding messages over a backdrop of tense music have been punctuating television and radio for the past few weeks, and posters warning people not to look at the sun without protective glasses are plastered on public walls.

I'm going to ask the president if he can bring the eclipse forward to the morning as I lose so much work if it comes in the afternoon

Trader's request to the president
They have been told it is bad to look, but they do not seem to understand why.

"People in my village say they have to be careful as someone called eclipse is coming on Thursday and they mustn't look at him or they could go blind," said a former culture minister turned poet.

"But they had an eclipse a century ago and there are no reports of mass blindness in any of the historical journals."

Yolande Rajaobelina from the Malagasy Government's Eclipse Task Force is adamant enough has been done, and the message has got through.

Glass rumours

Some traders along the road to the west coast, which may possibly offer the best view of the eclipse, say they do not know if it is happening in the morning or the afternoon.

Others say that if they leave the eclipse glasses on too long they will see people naked - a terrible "fady" or taboo in the Malagasy culture.

More rumours say you can still burn your eyes - even through the glasses - that is if you can get hold of any at all.

They cost 2,500 Malagasy Francs - less than half a US dollar - but they are beyond the means of most people living in the countryside.

Six million were promised free and many millions more offered for sale, but still people go without.

Meanwhile the well-off Malagasy and the tourists fly past in their four wheel drive vehicles, eclipse glasses, telescopes and cameras at the ready.

And the farmers in the rice paddies are left to decide whether to side with science or stick to the ombiasy and his wise ways - confining themselves indoors for a once in a lifetime experience.

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See also:

24 Aug 99 | Total Eclipse
Eclipse shadow unveils scientific mysteries
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