The Ghana Planetarium, founded on an elderly couple's pension, is set to close later this month -- but a small group of supporters is rallying to help find it a new home.
Open since 2009, the Ghana Planetarium is the first and only planetarium in Ghana and in West Africa, and one of a handful of digital planetariums on the continent. Founded by Jacob and Jane Ashong, and funded through the retired couple's pension, it has become a second home to science and astronomy enthusiasts in the country. But the future of the planetarium lies in question -- and keeping it running has become more and more difficult for the Ashongs.
Every year, the planetarium receives approximately 25,000 visitors, mostly school children. In recent years, the planetarium's financial challenges have become a burden on its founders. While visitors pay an entry fee, it isn't enough to cover costs. "We are running as a business with no profits," Jacob Ashong told OkayAfrica. “Every year, we have to put about $10,000 (USD) of our money [in]. We’ve reached the stage where we want to stop.” The couple, based in the UK, oversees the planetarium remotely for the most part, and they continue to dip into their personal savings to keep it operational.
Five years ago, a donor paid the planetarium's rent for three years. Knowing those funds would be depleted, the founders worried they might have to one day close the planetarium. The Ashongs launched a global appeal to planetarium centers worldwide in 2017, seeking funding to keep the Ghana Planetarium open. But with challenges in fundraising the amount needed, the couple went back to the drawing board.
Then, they were hit with another curveball.
Every year, the planetarium receives approximately 25,000 visitors, with the majority being school children.
Photo: Ghana Planetarium
“The current owners want to do something different with the building [where the planetarium is located],” Ashong says. “We’ve already agreed — so we need to move by the end of September.”
The news of the planetarium’s closure has upset many in the local science and astronomy community — and through hearing about its closure, many Ghanaians are learning about the planetarium’s existence for the first time. Members of the Humanist Association of Ghana (HAG), who have a long-standing partnership with the planetarium, began rallying behind it, hoping to fundraise enough for the planetarium to remain open or relocate.
Justice Okai-Allotey, communications manager at the HAG — a network of atheists and agnostics who promote critical thinking and defend human rights in the country — explains the importance of the center: "As a secular humanist, I believe science is a bedrock of everything we do as people. It asks questions and gives us responses to things that we don't know. We have to protect it at all costs."
Jacob and his wife Jane Ashong opened the Ghana Planetarium in 2009
Photo: Ghana Planetarium
Upon hearing of the planetarium's impending closure, Okai-Allotey and other members of the HAG began spreading the word about the center's financial troubles to their community of like-minded free thinkers and science enthusiasts. The group drew a crowd for the planetarium's closing event in August, with many people visiting for the first time.
At the closing event, there was a film screening, presentation on the cosmos, telescopes available for use, and a children's area for young science enthusiasts to learn and ask questions in the space one final time. Okai-Allotey still remembers how he felt a few years ago on his first visit to the Ghana Planetarium. Looking into a telescope, he was in awe of outer space. "Knowing that I could see this in Ghana, for me, was the cherry on the cake," he says. When he heard about the planetarium's closure, Okai-Allotey said he felt sad that Ghanaians would lose a valuable space that promoted science and reasoning.
On the contrary, Ashong isn't sad. If anything, he’s more fired up than ever about the need to keep the planetarium going. Ashong believes the closure is a temporary challenge — and insists it will reopen in a new location soon. In fact, he says news of the closure has attracted new people to the planetarium.
News of the planetarium’s closure has upset many in Ghana's science and astronomy community.
Photo: Ghana Planetarium
"I feel so wonderful, because it's giving my wife and I an opportunity to bring new and fresh volunteers — new Ghanaians are willing to come and learn," he says. In addition, Ashong is optimistic about a partnership that could support the Ghana Planetarium in becoming more financially stable. The Ghana Academy of Arts and Sciences, a government entity, offered to host the Ghana Planetarium at one of its properties in Accra. While they would not need to pay rent, the Ashongs would still need to cover the planetarium's costs (three staff members and operating expenses) and split any profits with the academy.
However, moving the planetarium is not simple or affordable. According to Ashong, it is more cost-effective to order a new dome and build a planetarium on-site than to move their current dome. This will still cost between $70,000 to $120,000, which Ashong is looking to raise.
Between the couple’s personal funds and contributions from friends and family, they’re tapped out. The Ashongs are still seeking funds, and hoping that other planetariums and the science community more broadly, can step up with the money needed to save the Ghana Planetarium. "Even if it takes one year, it doesn't matter," says the bubbly 85-year-old.
It may take much longer, but the couple is still hopeful. Ashong and his wife, Jane, 78, believe that a partnership with the Ghana Academy of Arts and Sciences will help offload some of their responsibilities so they can finally retire.
While the Ashongs fundraise to establish the planetarium in a new location, they continue to foster a love of outer space and science amongst Ghanaians. Ashong, who holds a PhD in molecular biology, explains their plan to continue promoting science: "We are developing a system to go to schools, to give them talks, to encourage their interest [in astronomy]." The couple is also planning to revive their mobile planetarium — a simple contraption at the back of a truck, operated by volunteers who, in previous years, drove it to various communities across the country.
For now, science enthusiasts like Okai-Allotey are holding onto their memories of the planetarium and its sense of wonder. "Looking at the night sky and our amazing planet and [seeing] how it looks through the telescope has stuck with me and will always be with me forever," he says.