Saturday, 17 July 2010


One of the most puzzling reports that I heard when I lived in Utengule-Usangu in the early 1980s was that a meteorite had fallen to earth somewhere to the east of the village. This event was supposed to have taken place in the early hours (around 2.30-3.00 in the morning) of Thursday 12th November 1981. The first I knew about it was later that day when I joined my usual kikao or drinking group in the main village club and listened to intense speculation about what had happened. Was it really a meteorite that had fallen out of the night sky? Could it have been a plane crash? Or an explosion of some kind, a bomb perhaps? No one was sure.

The next day the Village Secretary (the CCM-appointed Katibu wa Kijiji) came to the kikao with the news that the cause of the loud noise that people had heard was indeed a “star” (Swahili nyota) that had fallen in the vicinity of Rujewa, the administrative centre of what was then Mbarali Sub-District. Needless to say on Saturday 14th debate in the kikao continued. The most detailed account I could obtain was from Paulo, a young Sangu man who had relatives in the area in question. The meteorite had fallen at Uyelevala, beyond Ubaruku village, and it was now being guarded by soldiers. People as far away as Luhanga, the village to the north of Utengule, had seen the earth light up at night, and some of them had thrown themselves to the ground, thinking that the world was coming to an end.

My fieldwork in Usangu was drawing to a close, and I left Utengule at the end of the year none the wiser about this seemingly apocalyptic event. Was it a meteorite that blazed its way to earth in a fireball? Thousands of meteorites are thought to fall to the earth every year, but only a small proportion of these are observed, located, and officially recorded and reported. The 5th edition of the Catalogue of Meteorites (Grady 2000) lists a mere 1,005 meteorite falls (the technical term for meteorites that have actually been seen falling to earth) and 21,502 meteorite finds (meteorites discovered on the ground but not observed falling). Only nine meteorites are listed in current databases for Tanzania, eight of them observed falls, and one a find – the famous Mbosi (= Mbozi) Meteorite, one of the largest iron meteorites in the world (Sassoon 1967). But only two meteorite falls have been reported since national independence (one in 1963 and one in 1988), and none are recorded in Usangu.

It is possible, I suppose, that a meteorite did fall but wasn’t reported to the wider scientific community: after all the Tanzanian state in 1981 wasn’t the most open of societies. Otherwise I find myself continuing the lively speculations of my drinking companions in Utengule. Was it a plane or even a piece of military hardware that had dropped out of the sky? Is that why soldiers were guarding the site, and was the meteorite story merely a cover? Or was something more sinister going on? Is Uyelevala Tanzania’s Roswell? And should I start writing more creatively (von Däniken-style) about Sangu cosmology; the belief that pangolins are sent down to earth by the ancestors, the complex of ideas about chiefship and fertility that this connects to (see Walsh 1995/96; 2007; also 2010), including the announcement of the death of a chief with the statement that “the sky has fallen down” (Sangu uwulanga wagwa)? Turn my ethnographic knowledge into a cross between The X-Files and The Gods Must Be Crazy? Answers in a bottle please.

The photo of the Mbozi Meteorite (above) is from the Maisha ni Vita blog.


Grady, Monica M. 2000. Catalogue of Meteorites (5th edition). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Sassoon, Hamo 1967. Guide to the Mbozi Meteorite. Dar es Salaam: Department of Antiquities.

Walsh, Martin 1995/96. The Ritual Sacrifice of Pangolins among the Sangu of South-west Tanzania. Bulletin of the International Committee on Urgent Anthropological and Ethnological Research 37/38: 155-170.

Walsh, Martin 2007. Pangolins and Politics in the Great Ruaha Valley, Tanzania: Symbol, Ritual and Difference / Pangolin et politique dans la Vallée du Great Ruaha, Tanzanie: Symbole, rituel et différence. In Edmond Dounias, Elisabeth Motte-Florac and Margaret Dunham (eds.) Le symbolisme des animaux: L'animal, clef de voûte de la relation entre l'homme et la nature? / Animal symbolism: Animals, keystone of the relationship between man and nature? Paris: Éditions de l’IRD. 1003-1044.

Walsh, Martin 2010. Red Velvet from Heaven. East African Notes and Records, 13 June 2010.

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