Long long time ago, in a continent far away…
Well, this is just a dramatic start in a desperate attempt to catch your attention.
It was in this continent just around a decade ago that people in the fledgling field of astronomy in Africa got together and decided to put up a professional body to further the aims of astronomy in the African continent. This body was to be known as the African Astronomical Society. However, because of the typical (and irritating) challenges of finance and politics, the ambition died and the dream was deferred. Copies of the founding documents are now gathering dust and accruing penalty charges in a Ghanaian registration bureaucrat’s office.
Things have changed, and radically at that. Some African governments, convinced of the importance of astronomy in Africa, are pumping millions of dollars into the field. There is a sense of excitement in the community, as the dawn of new possibilities in the field have emerged. In the eyes of governments, astronomy is no longer a backwater ivory tower science. Astronomy means highly trained, incredibly dynamic individuals, just the kind of people Africa needs. The field is attracting Africa’s most intelligent young people. The universe is open for business!
This automatically informed the need to revive the organisation. We need a body to be the voice of astronomy in the continent. It can then represent us at the summit of Astronomy organisation in the world: The International Astronomical Union (IAU). The IAU is like the United Nations of Astronomers. Thus, astronomers in Africa need an African Union, hence the need for an African Astronomical Society. Because of the IAU, the world’s brightest minds will be descending on Africa’s southern shores. They need to find us ready!
I was (extremely) lucky to be invited to the revival of the African Astronomical Society. Africa’s most accomplished astronomers and astronomy educators were in the meeting. Representatives of the South African and Kenyan Governments were also in attendance. There was a recognition of the failures of the past, but an understanding that we had no time machine to go and correct these failures. As such, we could only move forward.
We set out to work on the improvement of the constitution.
There was need to get and understand the views of everyone, while keeping the meeting moving forward. For example, I was in disagreement with the general opinion that regional structures are not important for the organisation. I however would prefer a structurally imperfect but functional organisation to a structurally perfect but moribund one! There was a general understanding that diversity was not just about optics. Astronomy in Africa must give a voice to its women and its young! This was reflected by our elected leaders list:
The new members of the AfAS Executive Committee:
President: Jamal Mimouni (Algeria)
Vice-President: Lerothodi Leeuw (South Africa)
General Secretary: Sarah Abotsi-Masters (Ghana)
Assistant General Secretary: Charles Takalani (South Africa)
Public Relations and Education Ofcer: Olayinka Fagbemiro (Nigeria)
Early Career Representative: Zara Randriamanakoto (Madagascar)
Additional Member #1: Palesa Nombula (South Africa)
Additional Member #2: Etsegenet Getachew (Ethiopia)
There was an offer of support of one million rands per year from the Department of Science and Technology of South Africa for the organisation. The offer was (obviously!) accepted. The Kenyan High Commission in South Africa offered support. Something good is coming in the way of Astronomy in Africa. All in all, it is an exciting time to be a Scientist in Africa. There is a certain unparalleled beauty in dawns. I am privileged to be watching the much awaited scientific dawn of a beautiful continent.
The Author thanks:
The Office of Astronomy for Development for organising the conference, and inviting him,
The South African Department of Science and Technology for supporting his travel to, and accommodation in, Capetown,
The South African Astronomical Observatory for hosting the Conference.
Thank you Takalani, Kevin, Nuhaah, and Ramasamy!
Credit for the images used:
Office for Astronomy twitter handle: https://twitter.com/Astro4Dev
Vanessa McBride twitter handle: https://twitter.com/AstronoVee