The 1994 Ruwa Zimbabwe Alien Encounter
This popular tale claims 62 African schoolchildren were contacted by an extraterrestrial.
It's one of those stories that defies all rational explanation. 62 children at a school in rural Africa all witnessed a craft come down out of the sky and land just outside their schoolyard, and a strange being stepped out and communicated a telepathic message to all of them that they need to take better care of planet Earth. The event was broadly documented, not only by responsible news organizations such as the BBC, but also by a respected academic who interviewed the children and reported that they all told exactly the same story. Surely 62 children wouldn't all tell the same lie, and surely rural Africans would have no pop culture references from which to fabricate a flying saucer story. While today's skeptical academics dismiss the episode as a case of mass hysteria, the UFO community embraces the Ruwa, Zimbabwe encounter of 1994 as an unassailable body of evidence that we were visited by extraterrestrial beings.
It was the midmorning break on September 16, 1994. 250 schoolchildren were all outside playing at the Ariel School, a private elementary school in the Harare province of Zimbabwe. Ruwa itself isn't even a town, just a local place name, little more than a crossroads in an agricultural region. The adult faculty were all inside having a staff meeting and none of them witnessed what happened. 62 of the children saw it (aged 6 to 12); nearly 200 did not. The details are not actually as consistent as usually reported, but the basics generally are. Somewhere between one and several silver balls or objects or spacecraft either appeared in the sky, darted about, or came floating in low, to a field of brush and small trees just outside the school property. One or more either landed or hovered above the field, and anywhere between one and four men, either normal-looking black men or conventional small gray aliens wearing black clothes, stood either atop the craft or beside it, faced the children, and communicated telepathically the need to take good care of planet Earth. The craft either faded away, flew away quickly, or disappeared, either leaving one or more men behind or taking them away. When classes resumed, some of the children told their teachers. Some told their parents. The story got out. Universally, it was reported that 62 children, with no reason to lie and no prior exposure to the concept of space aliens, would never all make up (and stick to) exactly the same story.
A couple months later the event got its most famous stamp of authenticity when John Mack, a prominent and respected professor of psychiatry at Harvard University, came in person and interviewed the children. Many of these interviews were videotaped.
And another little girl:
Mack reported to the world that the event was genuine, that the children were telling the truth, and that extraterrestrials had indeed visited Zimbabwe on that day. And his is the verdict that has been endorsed by the popular media ever since, including at least two features on the TV program Sightings.
Inside academia, however, it is the mass hysteria explanation that has found the most traction, as happened in a number of other mysterious cases we've talked about here on Skeptoid. A literature survey published in the Malawi Medical Journal found that such cases are surprisingly common in African schools, citing many such cases and concluding "The psychosocial environment plays a crucial role in the occurrence of mass hysteria in developing countries." Whether mass hysteria was involved here or not, the psychosocial environment absolutely did come into play. To see how, let's go back and look at some of the less commonly reported details in this event's history.
With most UFO stories, we can trace a case back to a single person who became its primary advocate and "creator of the legend". In this case, there were two. One was John Mack, and the other was UFO writer Cynthia Hind, editor of the periodical UFO Afrinews, and also the African representative for MUFON — the Mutual UFO Network. One day, ZBC Radio reported that there had been a rash of UFO reports from all over southeastern Africa, consistent with a large meteoric fireball passing over the continent at about 9:00pm on September 14 — two nights before the Ariel School event. Few Africans knew it, but that fireball had been the re-entry of the Zenit-2 rocket from the Cosmos 2290 satellite launch. The booster broke up into burning streaks as it moved silently across the sky, giving an impressive light show to millions of Africans. Many people answered ZBC Radio's request by calling in with all sorts of disparate UFO reports prompted by the re-entry, ranging from one shooting star to a fleet of sixteen brightly lit spaceships. Zimbabwe was gripped with its own little wave of UFO mania. The radio announcer said that the BBC was looking for anyone with information or photographs. Tim Leach, the BBC correspondent in Zimbabwe, picked up the phone and called his friend Cynthia Hind, knowing that UFOs were her jam. Two things transpired from their conversation: first, Hind learned of the Ariel School event, as someone had phoned it in to ZBC Radio; and second, Hind recommended that Leach call John Mack.
As she was local, Hind went to the Ariel School within days and had the children draw pictures of what they saw. She took 22 photocopies of what she said were the "clearest" of them, and most that have been reproduced online show a very conventional flying saucer sitting on the ground on the usual footpads, with the usual row of windows around the equator, and the usual bulge on the top (most of the rest of the drawings are wildly divergent). When Sightings did one of their two shows on this, their token skeptic pointed out:
But Cynthia Hind quickly countered:
Her argument was that students at a rural African school would not have had exposure to modern media and thus would not be familiar with the concepts of UFOs and alien visitors; so when they report them and draw detailed sketches, the source must be an actual, real-life encounter. Let's have a look at the Ariel School.
Ruwa is a suburb of Harare, a modern metropolis of 1.6 million people (1.2 million in 1994), and Zimbabwe's capital. Since its founding as a British colony with distinctly European architecture, to its modern display of glass skyscrapers and office buildings, Harare has always been the nation's economic center. A 15-minute drive down the R5 highway and you soon get into agricultural regions, and right about at this transition is where you'll find the Ariel School. Their neatly uniformed students have active programs in many sports, clubs, and other extracurricular activities. They have a competition swimming pool, tennis courts, and a golf course. The demographics have changed; in 1994 the school was mostly white Zimbabweans of British and South African origin, today it's mostly black Zimbabweans. English is the language spoken in schools, so all the students — then as well as now — are perfectly fluent. Ariel was the most expensive private school around, and the students were generally from wealthy families in Harare who wanted to send their children someplace nicer than the crowded urban schools. Ariel's students had just as much exposure to the world's movies and television as people in every other modern city around the world — certainly including the wave of UFO mania that had been saturating Zimbabwe's news media ever since the fireball two nights before.
It wasn't just Cynthia Hind. In all the pro-UFO reporting of this event, you'll read that these rural African children were unfamiliar with popular media, and you certainly will not read that all they'd heard the day before, on every radio and TV station, was that spaceships were saturating their skies — all stemming from that Zenit-2 rocket re-entry. The UFO community misrepresents the children's background in an effort to persuade you that their stories deserve more credibility than they do.
Those children's stories came to us mainly through John Mack's interviews. Mack was going through a rough spell professionally. Earlier that year, he'd published a book called Abduction: Human Encounters with Aliens. As a tenured professor, he'd virtually abandoned his academic work and had devoted himself nearly full time to attempting to prove his deep conviction that aliens actively visit the Earth. Harvard had opened an official investigation into him for misconduct; specifically, for telling people who believed they'd been abducted by aliens that their experience had been absolutely real. One colleague wrote in the Los Angeles Times that Mack was "a brilliant fellow who occasionally loses it, and this time he's lost it big time". Keep that in mind: Harvard's issue with Mack is that his thing was convincing people they'd had an alien encounter.
So it was with a heavy baggage of bias and preconceived conclusions that Mack arrived in Harare to speak with these children. When multiple witnesses are involved in something, they should be interviewed as soon as possible and separately, to avoid any cross contamination between their stories. Mack did the opposite: giving the students two months to converse among themselves. A crucial insight into Mack's interview technique is revealed when comparing his results to those obtained by Cynthia Hind two months earlier: the whole theme of a telepathic message to protect planet Earth was not found in the stories collected by Hind at all. This major part of the story did not exist at all until Mack's interviews. Why? Because he prompted and suggested it, according to his existing beliefs; in addition to being an alien visitation advocate, Mack was an anti-nuclear and environmental activist. (Hind ultimately did report this angle extensively, but only after Mack's interviews.)
Hind's own interviews were even worse. She interviewed the children in groups of two to six, while other children were allowed to watch and listen to each group. Every single child's story was necessarily cross contaminated with the others. There is little wonder that she always reported that all the students told exactly the same story.
Maybe an alien spaceship did land there that day and communicate telepathically to this handful of children. Or, maybe a couple of strangers strolled through the nearby field, and maybe a stray party balloon floated past. We'll never really have any good idea of what did or didn't happen on that day, if anything happened at all — keeping in mind that "nothing at all" is what three quarters of the students reported. The actual events are buried under a nationwide UFO frenzy triggered by the rocket re-entry, under the hopelessly incompetent story sharing sessions of Cynthia Hind, and under the skilled promptings of Harvard University's resident expert in persuading people that they had an actual alien encounter. As far as serving as evidence of alien visitation, the 1994 Ruwa, Zimbabwe encounter falls just a little bit short.
Corrections: This transcript has been updated to correct a number of inconsequential errors, mainly thanks to the very thorough fact collection done by Charlie Wiser on his blog here. —BD
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