Dark continent: Africa watches total eclipse in fear and wonder

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Paramount Chief Nathaniel Gurupira could have done with a druid yesterday. But he will have to wait until today for his spirit medium to reveal the significance of the terrifying total eclipse of the sun which cast a strange darkness over his compound at 3.15pm.

Sitting beneath a baobab tree on a clapped-out office chair, his daunted subjects huddled at his feet, the 76-year-old chief pronounced with requisite serenity: "It is God's work." We had just emerged from three minutes of darkness and sudden cold, made all the more eerie by the constant blueness of the huge and cloudless sky above Zimbabwe.

On the southern hemisphere's shortest day, a 4.5 billion-year-old body, the Moon, had just passed across and covered the 5 billion-year-old bundle of fire we call the Sun. "What if the Moon changes its mind and turns back, and covers the sun forever?" asked Knowledge Kwinjo, 12.

Apart from at tented camps in Zambia and Madagascar, and at Zimbabwean hotels full with telescope tourists from the northern hemisphere, the scene is likely to have been similar in remote settlements throughout southern Africa. Most people do not have televisions or newspapers. Public information is hard to spread, except by radio.

As for salvaging millions of retinas from solar combustion, only war-torn Angola reportedly distributed millions of viewing glasses. In Zimbabwe, most people watched the eclipse through empty crisp packets, folded double.

"Why would you pay Z$200 (£1.20) for a pair of paper glasses which you can use for only three minutes," said Rachel Gurupira, 60, the senior wife among the chief's four spouses. At nearby Tsiga school, the headmaster, Kerry Chikukwa, said charity had shone on his primary pupils. An insurance company had sent him nine pairs of viewers marked "Cornwall, 11 August 1999".

"The problem," he said, "is that I have 350 pupils. So we have advised them: 'Do not look at the sky with the naked eye'. We have tried to explain the phenomenon and we know they will tell their parents, but children's inquisitiveness is such that I am a little worried about their eyes."

In the wake of the first total solar eclipse of the millennium, Chief Gurupira's worries are bigger. Bad things have been happening in President Robert Mugabe's country – electoral violence, floods, Aids – and few people believe yesterday's kuwora kwezuva (rotting of the sun) can be a good portent. Even as rivulets of light rippled across the straw huts of the village, marking the return of the sun and the warmth after the total eclipse, the mood remained tense. No cockerel crowed for the afternoon dawn.

"This event means something – that much is certain. It could be drought, it could be floods but it could also be good things. We will not know until I go to Mount Darwin tomorrow to hear from Svikiro, the Shona spirit medium. We used to have someone here in the Mutoko area who had the ancestors' knowledge within him. Now I have to go all the way to Mt Darwin, about 100km away, to find Svikiro," he said.

The trauma implied in losing the Sun, even for a few minutes, was enormous on this hilltop compound. Chief Gurupira, his wives, their 18 children and 25 grandchildren live from the photosynthesis it generates in their crops. For them as for all of us, the Sun is the most reliable feature of life; our principal source of light and warmth, our marker of time.

On Wednesday, the pro-government Herald newspaper carried a warning from the Zimbabwe National Traditional Healers' Association (Zinatha) that kuwora kwezuva is a bad omen, which can be preceded by misfortunes including new incurable diseases, deaths of prominent people and natural disasters. They are caused, the association said, by a vengeful spirit, called Maruvembere. Zinatha said it was ready to advise the nation's leaders.

In the last two months, President Mugabe has lost three of his closest allies – two of them in car accidents and, one, the notorious war veterans' leader Chenjerai Hitler Hunzvi, to illness. Zimbabwe is said to have the highest Aids casualty figures in southern Africa and, last week, the United Nations predicted that life expectancy would fall to 27 by 2010. This year's rainy season was excessive and the Zambezi river burst its banks both here and downstream in Mozambique.

Government opponents point out that the eclipse shadow, 275km wide, which fell across southern Africa yesterday, cast into darkness the very area of northern Zimbabwe which is the heartland of the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF). What they fail to mention is that another eclipse, in December 2002, will put Matabeleland – where the opposition Movement For Democratic Change draws mass support – in the shade.

The gravitational interaction of the Sun, Earth and Moon leads to a total eclipse somewhere in the world about every 18 months, yet on average any single location is likely to see one only every 400 years.

Chief Gurupira said he believed his area had experienced one about 300 years ago but he was not aware of its impact. Given Africa's oral tradition, few eclipses have been recorded, though it is known that the battle of Isandlwana, in which the Zulus annnihilated the British in 1879, was interrupted by a total eclipse of the sun.

As he pondered the potential effect of the shortest day of the year having been made three minutes shorter, Chief Gurupira looked to the future. "The white man came and took our land and now he does not want to give it back. I do not even have land to give to my son. We were the losers and we are losers still. Perhaps, this eclipse will be so extraordinary that we finally see justice done. I will ask Svikiro," he said.