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Samyukta Manikumar: Dark nights from Kenya to Slovenia

Slovenian astrotourism consultant Samyukta Manikumar shares her experiences in Kenya and Slovenia, promoting dark skies and designing tourism experiences that connect people with the night sky and nature.

Each month DarkSky International features DarkSky Advocate from the worldwide network of volunteers working to protect the night. This month we’re highlighting the work of Samyukta Manikumar in Slovenia and Kenya.

Samyukta Manikumar’s most salient memory of the night is watching a lunar eclipse in the vast, dry, flatland near Magadi, a small town in Kenya’s Rift Valley in East Africa. There as part of an astronomy outreach project, her team was giving locals the opportunity to observe the eclipse and night sky through telescopes — some for the first time. 

“It was a really small village, completely untouched and very little light,” she recalls. “To be able to see the lunar eclipse with the planets lining up and the galaxy —  it was moving in a very visceral, primal way. You’ll always remember the first time you really feel it. And probably the reason I remembered it so fondly is because that was the first time I really felt that.”

Talk to Samyukta for five minutes and you will feel totally at ease thanks to her gentle, thoughtful energy. Now based in Slovenia, her work is wide and varied: she is an astrotourism consultant, writer, designer, astronomer, mathematician, starbathing guide, conservationist, and a member of DarkSky’s International Committee. 

Samyukta’s aims as a dark-sky advocate are to design tourism and conservation experiences with a dark-sky component, as well as to lead personally guided stargazing tours in the mountains of Slovenia.

The location of the starbathing experience in Maribor, Slovenia.

Born and raised in Kenya, Samyukta found her love of dark skies while visiting safari camps with her family as a child.

“We would go every couple of weekends, often to the parks in the game reserves where they have to turn the lights off by a certain time and it’s generally quite dark,” she says, emphasizing the high level of environmental awareness around Kenya’s game reserves. “They use low and little lighting. It’s very romantic and natural and wild.”

These early experiences under the East African sky and out in nature, interacting with animals in unconfined and respectful, distant spaces instilled a love for the natural world in Samyukta and encouraged her to pursue studies in science and astronomy.

After university, she was involved with Sayari, an astrotourism-for-development pilot project in Kenyan game reserves. It was then that she got in touch with DarkSky International and learned more about the issue of light pollution and how dark skies could be a useful selling point for Kenya’s tourism development plans. She also worked with Travelling Telescope, a Kenyan social enterprise promoting social change using astronomy, with a specific focus on raising awareness about the gender imbalance in STEM.

With COVID-19 creating major challenges in the Kenyan tourism industry, Samyukta is currently spending her time in Slovenia, a country she praises for its environmental awareness and commitment to dark-sky protection. Slovenia was the first country to pass a national law to curb rising light levels back in 2007.

The location of the starbathing experience in Maribor, Slovenia.

“It’s an easy place to start and have this conversation,” she says of Slovenia’s high sensitivity to environmental protection. “More than 60% of the country is forested and they work hard to increase that number. There’s a really strong understanding, compared to most other places, on the importance of the environment.”

In addition to her consultancy business, which designs dark-sky tourism experiences and products, Samyukta leads starbathing excursions in the mountains above Maribor where she lives. These aim to give people the chance to be fully immersed in the outdoors at night in a safe way.

“During the day, you’re just bombarded with visual stuff and everything else is kind of toned down,” Samyukta says about why she started the starbathing experiences. “ I noticed that, when I went out in the dark, everything else was heightened. You can hear better and you smell better, and everything else is alert because you can’t see so well.”

The experiences Samyukta designs use people’s senses to get them to connect with darkness.

She has also created a database that catalogs the impacts of light pollution on wildlife species in Kenya by cross-referencing the research conducted in other places. 

“Nobody is doing this research on the ground in Kenya because the concept of light pollution has not really touched the country yet,” she says.

In the future, Samyukta wants to compile Kenyan cultural stories of the night together with information about how Kenyan wildlife is affected by light pollution into what she calls an “astro-journal” — a book that would encourage people to go outside and engage with the night sky.

“This heritage is just disappearing so quickly,” she says. “There are no records, nothing. Because it’s all oral. You need someone to document it. I want to encourage people to develop a personal relationship with the night.”

You can connect with Samyukta on Instagram @samyuktamanikumar or via her website

To join the DarkSky Advocate Network, go here.