Official Ethiopian sources announced the launch of the first satellite to space in December 2019. In the week prior to this historic event, a group of 24 astrophysicists, scientists, artists and innovators got on the “Astrobus Ethiopia” and will travel eight cities in the north from Ethiopia, to offer practical workshops on science and art.
The group left Addis Ababa on December 7 and met with more than a thousand high school students in each city, in places organized by local universities, to provide various workshops that encourage abstract and critical thinking. In total, they intend to reach more than 8000 students and arouse their curiosity.
“The main idea is to contribute scientific and abstract ideas that are accessible and relevant to our daily lives, and create new and interesting connections,” Nebiha Shafi told Global Voices in a video call.
Shafi, an Ethiopian astronomer, currently works in South Africa and studies the evolution of the galaxy. But social commitment is also his passion: to encourage more girls and women to get involved in science.
Shafi, together with cosmologist Yabebal Tadesse, who works in Germany as an independent data scientist, have been part of Astrobús Ethiopia since its inception in 2017. Tadesse, who explores “the universe through cosmic microwave background data,” said that He came up with the idea of Astrobus Ethiopia when he saw a picture on Facebook of the “Astro Truck”, a social astronomy project in Senegal.
Tadesse called Shafi immediately and proposed the idea of doing something similar, but expanded the scope of the project to include art and innovation in addition to astronomy. With their colleagues, they began to imagine the design of the project and answered a call from Astronomy for Development (division of the International Astronomy Union) to receive funds.
“We talked to our friends and colleagues, and everyone was excited, especially about the combination of innovation and art – it's not just science,” Shafi said.
However, it took two years to carry out the project, due to political instability in Ethiopia between 2015 and 2017. “The stability situation at that time was a concern. There were many demonstrations in the regions we were going to go to, so we had to wait a bit, and we also wanted to have a partner here (in Ethiopia), because most of us were out of the country at that time, to help us with the logistics, ”Tadesse said in a video call with Global Voices.
Shafi and Tadesse assembled a production team and partnered with the Space Science Society of Ethiopia, the first of its kind in the country.
ESSS (in its acronym in English) was established in 2004 with 47 founding members, and currently has 10,000 members, 19 divisions and one hundred science school clubs throughout Ethiopia. The society established the first Entoto Observatory and Research Center in East Africa, and as a member of the Astronomy Union, they were the perfect partner for Astrobús Ethiopia. The majority of Astrobus team members also work with the Institute of Space Science and Technology of Ethiopia, whose motto is “We explore the universe for the benefit of our people!”.
Astrobus Ethiopia 2019
The Astrobus Ethiopia 2019 tour reflects many objectives that the inaugural version of 2017 had. The group of 24 artists, scientists, innovators and storytellers will gather young people to learn about the stars, planets, galaxies and the cosmos, but also about narratives , photography, music, cinema, agriculture, and fashion. The team produces educational material in the three main local languages: Amharic, Oromo and Tigriña.
During the nine-day tour, students from at least ten high schools will meet at local universities to learn, connect, and commit to new ideas. Although many of the team are astrophysicists and cosmologists, Shafi and Tadesse insist that their mission is more about critical and creative thinking than anything else.
Astrobus leaders will teach students how to face challenges directly, how most innovators work in their respective fields – be it design, fashion, poetry, engineering, astronomy or the arts. Tadesse explained the importance of learning the “vocabularies of the challenge” to understand and interpret, combine and compose, create new ideas and solutions.
“We have to learn how to transfer knowledge, and knowledge transfer requires abstract thinking to solve problems,” Shafi said.
For many students, it will be the first time they use a telescope, drones or binoculars to study the universe. For more curious children to have access to more equipment, Astrobús Ethiopia launched a fundraising campaign.
Historical advances in space science
The group will return to Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, just in time for the historic launch of the satellite into space, which is scheduled for December 17 in the city. The team plans to be there to celebrate Astrobús's achievements and also national advances in space science and technology.
“We want to highlight that, as if we think a little differently, we can sometimes improve the system,” Tadesse said, adding that Ethiopia's latest advances in space science and technology should have more recognition. For example, the Nobel Prize in Physics was for the discovery of an exoplanet that orbits a star, and the International Astronomy Union asked Ethiopia to give it a name.
“Every time we see something happening in the country, both nationally and internationally, we say that everything starts with something – a single idea that then transforms,” Shafi said. “Nothing is too big and there is no idea that it is considered small.”