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Colombian Indians View Eclipse

February 27, 1998

NABUSIMAKE, Colombia (AP) _ A shadow swept quickly over the village, the birds began to chirp and an Arhuaco Indian named Bonachi stared long and hard through protective glasses at the solar eclipse.

``When they said it was going to get dark in the middle of the day I didn’t believe them, but now I do,″ he said in a thatched mud and wood hut in the center of the village. ``Half the sun has been eaten already.″

Scientists from around the world drooled at the opportunity provided by Thursday’s eclipse to study the sun. But for the Arhuaco Indians in Nabusimake, who worship the sun as humanity’s father, the phenomenon was a solemn religious event.

Nabusimake, the tribe’s religious center in the Sierra Nevada mountains, means ``the land where the sun was born″ in the Arhuaco language.

Bonachi and the others had been told by their priests, or ``mamos,″ that looking at the sun during the eclipse would be disrespectful _ but many indulged anyway, using protective eyewear loaned to them by ecotourists and astronomy buffs.

``The stars, the stars. Look!″ said Cicarina, an Arhuaco man gaping at the darkened sky that suddenly emerged at 1:01 p.m.

Others heeded the advice of the priests and stayed indoors or looked away as the moon passed between the sun and earth, darkening the village for nearly four minutes.

``The mamos say the moon eats the sun because we have sinned,″ said Jose Domali, an Arhuaco man who uses a Spanish name. ``The sun is only going to come out again because the mamos have done the necessary work.″

Gumkeya Namaku, a mamo, said the eclipse offered a rare opportunity for the sun and the rest of the universe to cleanse itself of the sins humans commit.

The eclipse was the result of an encounter between the sun and the moon, representing the virgin daughter of the earth, Namaku said. After the meeting, the sun emerges purified or reborn, he said.

``All of the evil things of the world are buried and the earth becomes as if newly bathed,″ he said.

Tobias Mindiola, who teaches the Aruacho language and culture at the town school, said it also was important for man to cleanse himself.

``The sun and the moon are infallible,″ he said. ``It is man who sins when he harms the sun, the moon, and the earth _ when he harms himself.″

The Arhuacos are not alone in attributing special meaning to eclipses. Humans have tried to explain the phenomenon for centuries, and even today science hasn’t taken the magic and mystery out of the way many perceive the event.

The eclipse, this century’s last for the Western Hemisphere, was visible from the Galapagos Islands, northern Colombia, Venezuela and the Caribbean.

In Haiti, school principals told students to stay home and forecasters’ cautionary warnings not to look directly at the sun with unprotected eyes gave way to wild rumors that the sun would drive people crazy, render them blind or burst their eyeballs.

In more cosmopolitan parts of Colombia, the eclipse was still a major event. Thousands flocked to the northern cities of Valledupar, Monteria and Turbo to see it. In Bogota, where the sun’s brightness dimmed by 86 percent, even President Ernesto Samper took a look.

In Nabusimake, villagers watched with relief as the sun began to re-emerge.

``That was very scary,″ said Bunkwanaku, a diminutive Arhuaco woman. ``But now it’s daytime again and everything is back to normal.″

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