May be because of lack of financial resources, many Malawians do not venture far beyond their places of origin. Their knowledge of the world, therefore, is limited by what they know of their homes. If you ask somebody from Waliranji in Mchinji about Nyezelera in Phalombe, for example, chances are they will be blank. Very few Malawians have comprehensive knowledge about Malawi and even fewer about the world.
Talk about worlds beyond Earth, the majority of Malawians will not have so much as a hint. When I was a student at Robert Blake Secondary School in Dowa in the 1970s, a meteorite fell in Chinguwo Village, about five kilometres to the east of the school. People did not understand what this was, some thinking it was the end of the world and others supposing that it was an act of war by an unknown aggressor.
Multitudes scampered to “safety” in faraway places. There were reports indicating that some people reached Dzenza and Area 25 in Lilongwe on foot in a single night. Rumours quickly spread to the effect that what had fallen was an object which had the inscription “Russia” on its body.
The Chinguwo villagers need not have run. Rocks are plentiful in space. Few people may realise this. Between the planets Mars and Jupiter, for example, there is a wide space known as the Asteroid belt, occupied by rocks of all different shapes and sizes numbering in tens of thousands.
From time to time, fragments of asteroids (called meteoroids) get trapped into Earth’s gravitational field and fall to the surface. Thank God we have an atmosphere. As the rocks make their way to the Earth’s surface, they burn up by friction, passing through the atmosphere. Only tiny, harmless particles reach us. If anyone has seen what is known as a “shooting star”, it is a meteoroid burning up. If a meteoroid is big enough it will not fully burn up, hitting the Earth’s surface as a sizeable object, called a meteorite. This is what happened in Dowa (and in Machinga) in the 1970s
Last year strange objects fell in Mulanje district, causing panic among the villagers there. The objects turned out to be the debris of a discontinued artificial satellite. Again, many Malawians may not be aware that above us there are numerous human-made objects orbiting the Earth for purposes of communication, weather monitoring, global positioning, among others. It is common practice to shatter these objects when they are no longer required. This normally happens above open seas so that people are not disturbed by the debris, but sometimes they are unintentionally shattered above land masses.
More recently, people were baffled with the appearance of what seemed to be a strange object in the evening sky. Declarations were quickly made by some that the world was ending. Others predicted that the strange appearance would spell “strange weather”. The truth of the matter is that what appeared in the evening of September 29 2013 was a natural object. It is called Venus, the second planet from the Sun in the Solar System. Earth, where we live, is third. Venus appeared in apparent close proximity to the crescent Moon, a phenomenon known as occultation.
Some people refer to Venus as “Earth’s sister” or “Earth’s twin” because of the similarities between the two planets in size and mass. Other than that, the two planets are vastly different from each other. In summary, unlike Earth, Venus is an extremely hostile environment partly because it has the hottest surface of all planets (roughly 460 degrees Celcius – hot enough to melt lead and tin!). Its atmosphere is so thick that the Venutian atmospheric pressure is 93 times that on Earth. Anybody that was contemplating migrating to Venus better rethink because if the temperature will not scorch them, the atmospheric pressure will instantly crush them.
Venus is the third brightest natural object in our sky, after the Sun and the Moon. It is the planet that comes closest to Earth. On a moonless night Venus will be bright enough to cast shadows from its (reflected) light.
Being closer to the Sun than the Earth is, Venus lies in an inner orbit relative to Earth. It can, therefore, only be seen in the early evening, after sunset or just before sunrise. As a result, it has traditionally been called the “Evening Star” or “The Morning Star” (nthanda).