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Isilimela – ALI’s Class 12 name is inspired by ancient African lore

We are the digging stars.
It is time to invest in the harvest of tomorrow.
We are the leaders who will light up the night with a promise of plenty,
We are the renewal we seek.
We are the herald of freedom that marks Africa Day.
We are all digging stars.

IsiLimela or the Pleiades were the ‘digging stars’, whose appearance in southern Africa warned of the coming need to begin hoeing the ground. All over Africa, these stars were used as a marker of the growing season. “And we say isiLimela is renewed, and the year is renewed, and so we begin to dig” (Callaway 1970). 

The Sotho and Tswana had a rule for finding direction at night: if you want to travel west, keep the Southern Cross on your left hand, and Selemela (the Pleiades) on the right.

Xhosa men counted their years of manhood from the time in June when IsiLimela first became visible. 

In Kiswahili (East Africa & Zanzibar), they are Kilimia, “The Ploughing Stars” or “The Digging Stars”. There is a Swahili proverb that says: “If the Digging Stars set in sunny weather, they rise in rain; if they set in the rain, they rise in sunny weather.” Similarly, they are Kelemera to the Nyabungu of Ruanda, Lemila to the Nyasa of Malawi, Selemela in Sotho, Shirimela in Tsonga, Selemela in Tswana, Tshilimela in Venda, and isiLimela in Xhosa and Zulu.

According to the Namaquas, the Pleiades were the daughters of the sky god. When their husband (Aldeberan) shot his arrow (Orion’s sword) at three zebras (Orion’s belt), it fell short. He dared not return home because he had killed no game, and he dared not retrieve his arrow because of the fierce lion (Betelgeuse), which sat watching the zebras. There he sits still, shivering in the cold night and suffering thirst and hunger.

A girl child of the old people had magical powers so strong that when she looked at a group of fierce lions, they were immediately turned to stars; the largest are now in Orion’s belt.

For the Tswana, the stars of Orion’s sword were ‘dintsa le dikolobe’, three dogs chasing the three pigs of Orion’s belt. Warthogs have their litters while Orion is prominent in the sky – frequently litters of three.

The /Xam Bushmen said the Pleiades are one of “summer’s things”, and the Khoikhoi used the Pleiades to forecast the start of the rainy season.

The Xhosa would watch for the first appearance of the isiLimela in June. It is said that the month of the Digging Stars, Eyesilimela, symbolized new life in man. The coming-out ceremony of the abakwetha circumcision school, when boys would become men, was determined by the appearance of this stellar grouping, and it is the custom for Xhosa men to count their years of manhood from this date.

The //Gana Bushmen say that the Pleiades are the wives of Canopus and Sirius, and the men’s younger brother is Achernar.

Aldebaran and the Pleiades are described by the Ibibio of Nigeria as “The Mother Hen and her Chicks”.

The Namaqua Khoikhoi spoke of the Pleiades as the “Stars of Spring” and called them the Khunuseti. They were the daughters of Tsui //Goab, the Dawn or Sky God. A beautiful mythical tale encompasses the remarkably bright stars of this region. One day, the story goes, the Khunuseti told their husband (Aldebaran) to go out and hunt the three zebras (Orion’s Belt). Dutifully, the husband went out but took only one arrow with him. He aimed and shot at the zebras but missed. His arrow (Orion’s Sword) fell beyond them, and it still lies there today. Although he wanted to retrieve the arrow, he couldn’t: there was a fierce lion (Betelgeuse) nearby who was also watching the zebras. So, the poor man sat there, shivering from the cold and suffering from thirst and hunger, unable to return to his wives (who would be angry) or to collect his arrow (the Ju/Wasi Bushmen have a similar tale).

Thanks to our valued partners and to all the Fellows who continue to contribute in many ways.

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