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Why Uganda Has Two Eclipse Monuments

The East African country may be the eclipse monument capital of the world.

Solar eclipse events are transient by their very nature, so permanent monuments to such celestial events are scarce. But in Uganda, there are two that honor important eclipses from the area’s past, one recent and one hundreds of years old.

Back in 2013, a total solar eclipse passed over Uganda, and the small town of Pakwatch in the northwest of the country was identified as the best place to see it, possibly in the entire world. Specifically, Pakwatch’s Owiny Primary School was singled out as a prime viewing location.

As hundreds of eclipse-chasers and onlookers prepared to head to the area for the eclipse, the Minister of Tourism’s office announced that it would erect a monument to the event at the school. The monument was constructed amid a number of other infrastructure fixes, including improvements to some of the local roads and renovations to water stations and buildings.

As outlined in a diagram of the monument shared on Ugandan news outlet The Daily Monitor, the attraction is shaped like a squat stone pyramid, topped with a metal eclipse medallion on top.

The monument to the Pakwatch eclipse.
The monument to the Pakwatch eclipse. Igongo Cultural Centre/Used with Permission

On November 3, 2013, the eclipse passed over the assembled onlookers at the school, a crowd that included Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni. In the photo above, spectators can be seen surrounding the monument while awaiting the eclipse.

The 2013 eclipse was a momentary economic boon to the area, but the monument is its more lasting legacy. However it is not the only eclipse monument in the country. Almost 300 miles south, and a bit farther west, Uganda has a second, more grandiose monument that, while built more recently, honors an eclipse much farther in the past.

Located in the Biharwe neighborhood in the town of Mbarara, the 1520 Eclipse Monument was erected in 2014 near the Igongo Cultural Center & Country Hotel. The Igongo Centre, which was also refurbished in an effort to attract tourism to the area, features historical and cultural displays, of which the eclipse monument is the most grand.

The monument crowns a hill near the hotel, and has a sort of afro-futurist vibe. The piece was designed by an art student who incorporated meaning into every facet of the monument. The central feature is an eclipsed orb held in a three-legged stand meant to symbolize a trio of Ugandan kingdoms (Bunyoro, Buganda, and Nkore). The surface of the monument is also covered in symbols such as drums and spears, as well as Egyptian writing.

Visitors check out the Biharwe eclipse monument.
Visitors check out the Biharwe eclipse monument. Igongo Cultural Centre/Used with Permission

The eclipse event honored by the monument is thought to have occurred in the year 1520, and factors into the area’s cultural history. According to local folktale, hundreds of years ago, in a time when a number of small kingdoms were at war with each other, King Olimi I was carrying his spoils over Biharwe Hill, when a strange thing happened. The skies darkened unnaturally, which the king took as a sign that the spirits of those they had killed in the war had returned to exact their revenge. King Olimi and his troops abandoned their loot, including cattle, food, and concubines there on the hilltop, fleeing the unnatural shadow. The locals were able to collect the discarded spoils, calling their haul “cattle from heaven.”

While the story may or may not be entirely true, the eclipse itself certainly seems to have occurred. The monument is a fitting mix of real-world installation and fantastical design.

Two monuments might not seem like that many, but given how few monuments to the world’s eclipses exist, Uganda might have accidentally become the eclipse monument capital of the world.