(Editor’s note: This is an updated version of an article that was originally published in the 2013 December/January issue of Open Minds magazine. Reprinted with permission. Drawings reprinted with permission from John E. Mack Archives LLC).
One of the most extraordinary mass UFO sightings in recent history occurred among children at an elementary school playground in the small farming village of Ruwa, a suburb of Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe, Africa.
On September 16, 1994, during mid-morning recess at the Ariel primary school in Ruwa, about sixty-two children put down their jump ropes and Rugby balls and reported seeing spacecraft and two “strange beings” in the rugged, grassy area adjacent to their schoolyard.
News of the sighting spread fast, and in the days and months following the event, researchers and reporters from around the world traveled to the school to talk with the young children who had made the incredible claims.
According to investigators, the English-speaking schoolchildren, who ranged in age from six to twelve years, had immediate and differing reactions to the encounter. Some of the students said they ran about the playground in an excited, confused state while others stood spellbound watching the event unfold. Some said they were curious and wanted to check out what was happening, while a few others were frightened and started to cry.
Nevertheless, the children’s reports were vivid, clear, and consistent. Many of the children reported seeing beings that wore shiny tight-fitting black suits, had very thin arms and legs, and were about four feet tall. The spacecraft was described as large and silver with lights and a red stripe around the edge. Although some children drew pictures of the beings without hair, many children said the beings had long straight black hair with facial features consisting of large oval black eyes, small nostrils, and a slit for a mouth.
Many of the children reported that one of the beings remained on top of the spacecraft, as if on watch, while the other being moved directly toward them. And, perhaps most remarkable, a number of the children claimed to have telepathic communication with the beings who gave them prophetic messages about the environmental destruction of Earth.
There were no adults on the playground during the 10:15 a.m. recess that morning. Teachers were inside the school attending a staff meeting while older students, chosen to be prefects, were responsible for supervising the younger children on the playground. The nearest adult was a mother volunteering in the school “tuck” shop, which sold a variety of snacks and sweets. During the encounter, which lasted about fifteen minutes, an older boy made a beeline to the mother in the snack shop and shouted for her to come look because a UFO had just landed and a “little man” was running around in a one-piece suit.
At some point during the encounter, students raced back into the school to tell their teachers what had just happened. One teacher, whose testimony was video recorded by researchers, said, “They came running up here in such a panic, and even if we had staged it, they could not have run all together like that.”
Some of the teachers were skeptical hearing the news, and another teacher was recorded as saying, “I believe that they’d seen something, but I wasn’t prepared to accept that it was anything supernatural or anything like that.” But the students remained adamant about what they saw.
A Highly Unusual Week
Although the Ruwa encounter happened on a Friday, the days preceding the event had been highly unusual according to the late UFO investigator Cynthia Hind, who was based in Harare at the time. Hind described her investigation of the Ariel school sighting in her 1996 book, UFOs over Africa.
In the book Hind wrote that a few days before the encounter, hundreds of Zimbabweans had reported seeing bright flashing lights in the sky in what was thought to be a spectacular meteor shower. Additionally, odd explosions were heard near the country’s Lake Kariba area, a mother and son veered while driving to miss a strange object in the road, and two pilots from Harare claimed they saw what looked like a fireball with a tail.
First Investigators on the Scene
Late journalist Tim Leach, a former BBC cameraman in Harare and head of the Foreign Correspondents’ Association in Zimbabwe, was one of the first to be tipped off about the Ruwa encounter. Leach phoned Hind about the event and asked if she’d be willing to visit the school with him. Hind agreed to do so and then promptly made a few key phone calls. One call was to the parent helping out in the snack shop at the Ariel school. The mother told Hind that at first she disbelieved the boy who implored her to come see the UFO near the playground and thought he was just “pulling her leg.” But, at home later that day, the mother was able to connect Hind with a few of the children who had witnessed the encounter, including her own daughter. Hind listened to the children talk about disc-like objects, otherworldly beings, bright lights, and high pitched flute-like noises. One boy reported seeing three objects flying overhead with flashing red lights; the objects would appear and disappear seemingly at will. A girl reported seeing a disc-like object about to land in the bush near the playground. Another child said she thought there was one main object in the sky along with three or four smaller objects.
In UFOs Over Africa, Hind described her reactions to hearing the children’s words: “All this took a bit of absorbing, and when I had finished speaking to the children, I made several [more] phone calls. One of them was to Colin Mackie, headmaster of Ariel school, and I suggested to him that he arrange to have the children draw pictures of what they had seen before they had time to discuss it among themselves.”
On the following Tuesday (September 20), Hind and Leach visited the school to investigate the encounter and take a look at the nearly forty drawings the children had created since Friday. The students’ artwork included many age-appropriate but detailed images of the spacecraft and the beings. After looking at the artwork Hind wrote, “The drawings were impressive; they were similar enough for me to acknowledge that the children were obviously seeing the same object and yet diverse enough to realize that there had been no collaboration among them.”
Hind and Leach then interviewed a small group of children on camera who spoke candidly about the encounter. One girl said she thought the being was “an alien from a different planet.” Hind wrote that Leach asked the children if the spacecraft they’d seen might have been a Zimbabwe Air Force helicopter or a Harrier Jump Jet. The children were adamant that the craft they saw was unfamiliar to them. Hind added that headmaster Colin Mackie said he believed the children had seen something that could not be explained.
Continuing her investigation, Hind walked over to the grassy area of the playground where the schoolchildren said the spacecraft had appeared. A technician accompanied Hind to the site and tested the area for radiation with a Geiger counter; however, there was no evidence of excessive radiation.
Dr. John E. Mack Travels to Ruwa
After hearing about the Ruwa encounter from Hind and Leach, the late Dr. John E. Mack, wanted to know more. Admired by many, Mack was a Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, and the author of the acclaimed 1999 book, Passport to the Cosmos: Human Transformation and Alien Encounters.
In early December, Mack traveled to the Ariel school with colleague Dominique Callimanopulos who had a background in anthropology. Callimanopulos had been studying the trans-historical social and cultural changes of indigenous peoples around the world, and her work was a natural fit at the Center for Psychology and Social Change, which Mack founded in 1983 in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
After visiting the Ariel school, Callimanopulos described the facility as well run and having a few small buildings with a lot of grassland and playground area. “It was not luxurious or terribly high-end, but had a nice comfortable and appropriate feeling,” she said. “The children all wore uniforms, spoke very articulately, and were well mannered and disciplined.”
Early that day, Mack and Callimanopulos met with teachers and headmaster Colin Mackie in a circle meeting. “Everyone was very polite and a bit careful about what they were saying because these were early days of reporting on this incident. As educators and people responsible for these children, they didn’t want to speak out of turn or say anything that might have alarmed the parents,” Callimanopulos said. “I do believe the teachers and staff very much believed that the children had seen something – they just weren’t sure what it was. And none of the teachers reported witnessing anything at the time.”
Mack and Callimanopulos spent two days interviewing and videotaping nearly fifteen students, one on one, and they asked the children to draw pictures of what they saw during the encounter. Although nervous at first, the children were able to express deep-felt emotions with Mack, who was an experienced child psychiatrist and recognized for having a kind and trusting demeanor.
“John was an amazing interviewer and there was a depth to his interviews I’ve seen few people replicate,” Callimanopulos said. “He never rested with the first answer and would always allow time and space for another way of asking the question. This allowed the kids to get beyond an initial reaction and answer; in some ways, they were able to relive their experience of their sighting.”
Callimanopulos added that Mack empathized with the children. “If he was talking to a young child and they were feeling nervous or maybe their chin was quivering as they were answering, he would say something like, ‘So that was kind of scary, huh?’” she added. “This would allow the children to go into the fear and produce a whole different narrative than an interviewer who might ask, ‘So what did you see?’”
The children had individual reactions. One boy said the encounter “gave him the creeps,” while Callimanopulos said another boy went searching for a being in the bushes and was staring at it.
Mack’s conversation with one girl during the recording discussed the noises she heard during the encounter:
John Mack (JM): “What scared you?”
Girl #1: “The noise.”
JM: “What noise?”
Girl #1: “The noise that we heard in the air.”
JM: “You heard a noise?”
Girl #1: “Yes.”
JM: “What was it like? A roar, a buzz, or a hum? What kind of noise?”
Girl #1: “It was like someone was playing flute.”
On a recording with another girl, Mack asked, “If someone were to say, well, you know, you just have a lively imagination and you made this up, what would you say?” The girl responded, “I haven’t been influenced by any of my friends – I have seen what I’ve seen.”
Will Bueche’, archivist for the John E. Mack Institute, screened hours of videotape from Mack’s interviews with the children. He agrees that Mack was a careful and gifted psychiatrist who gave subjects personal space so they felt trusted and safe. “John would adopt the language the children used,” Bueche’ said. “For example, if one of the young girls described what she called a ‘strange being,’ John would immediately adopt that term and ask her about the ‘strange being.’ He wouldn’t use the word ‘alien,’ to set up any preconception in the mind of the subject.”
Consistency in the Reports
Callimanopulos believes the children saw what they described based on the consistency of their reports. “They all saw pretty much the same thing,” she said. “They saw a craft approach the playground and hover over the playground. And they saw two beings.” Callimanopulos says she still remembers one little girl who said the beings traversed the ground, almost as if they were floating.
Children also reported having telepathic communication with the beings through their large eyes and receiving messages about pollution on Earth and the overuse of technology. According to Callimanopulos, “Many of the children we spoke with had communication with the beings and described staring into the beings’ eyes.” She continued, “They had apocalyptic visions of the Earth. I remember one girl said she felt that all the trees would come down. There was another girl who probably said the most profound, deep things, and she reported feeling scared and also feeling sorry for the beings to the point of feeling love for them.”
Contemplating the Mysterious
For quite a while, there was significant media coverage about the Ariel school encounter that eventually gained worldwide attention, including a 1995 episode on the television show, Sightings. In time, however, headmaster Mackie quelled outside attention related to the incident.
But, for many of the children on the playground that morning, the Ariel school encounter was the start of an unforgettable, life-changing journey. Not only were the young students stunned to see something so unfamiliar, but they were suddenly cast in the challenging position of having to describe a highly unusual event to teachers, parents, friends, investigators, and reporters-and wanting to be believed.
Barbara Lamb, a California-based licensed marriage-and-family therapist and regression therapist, is familiar with the Ariel school incident and had known John Mack and Cynthia Hind. “John Mack told me that the children behaved and talked as if they were totally sincere,” Lamb said. “In the footage I viewed, it certainly appears and sounds as if they were telling the truth.” Lamb says that even though the children were standing at different locations on the playground, their stories were similar in content. In addition, Lamb has regressed hundreds of extraterrestrial experiencers in her practice who were told that Earth is in trouble and humans need to take better care of the planet. She said this was the basic message conveyed to some of the Ariel schoolchildren.
Lamb believes that what the children witnessed and reported at the Ariel school in 1994 is part of a very large movement going on amongst humanity that involves the expansion of human consciousness. “I think the children, as a voice of innocence and authenticity, offer a perfect contribution to the awareness that many people are growing into, anyway,” Lamb said. “More people are coming forth and speaking about encounters that they’ve had with otherworldly beings.”
Lamb also added that many people are waking up and becoming more aware of the spiritual as well as the physical nature of reality. “More people today are also thinking about the universe and the cosmos, and the possibility of intelligent life in these other aspects of space,” Lamb said. “More and more people, as well as many noted physicists, are thinking about the possibility of different dimensions of reality and parallel universes.”
But how are we to understand the unknown without feeling frightened or out of place? “The more we hear reports from other people about their UFO sightings and encounters with extraterrestrial beings, the more we are able to accept that these encounters exist.” Lamb continued, “We’ll probably always have skeptics who do not want to stretch their thinking about reality. John Mack used to talk about how people would have a certain paradigm about reality but become resistant when something new would come along like a crop circle, sighting, or an encounter with an extraterrestrial being. Accepting these aspects as real can be difficult for some people; they have to give up their old beliefs about reality and their worldview has to stretch and grow.”
Dr. Leo Sprinkle, a licensed psychologist from Wyoming, has worked for more than fifty years exploring the paranormal. Although Sprinkle says he doesn’t have firsthand knowledge about the Ariel school encounter, he has read reports about the incident. “The Ariel school encounter is an important example of teachers and parents talking with children about a paranormal experience,” he said. “It’s important to listen to and accept what children say about their paranormal experiences such as ESP, past lives, and ET encounters.”
Sprinkle also believes the Ariel sighting is one way to contemplate and expand our concept of everyday reality. “I think more and more children are coming into the planet with psychic awareness and many feel they are here not only for their own spiritual growth, but also to assist humanity and its evolution.”
The “Ariel Phenomenon” Documentary
When Mack and Callimanopulos returned from Ruwa they hoped to eventually make a short film with the footage they’d shot of their original interviews with the children at the Ariel school. Years went by, and after Mack’s sudden death in 2004, Callimanopulos eventually contacted filmmaker and nature photographer Randall Nickerson of String Theory Films in 2006 to see if he’d be interested in working on the production. Nickerson viewed hours and hours of the interviews and was hooked. “After looking at the footage I was just struck by the consistency of the children’s descriptions and feelings,” he said. “I just felt they weren’t lying.”
It wasn’t long before Nickerson realized there was a bigger story to tell. In 2008 he traveled to Zimbabwe to track down and interview many of the Ariel schoolchildren (now young adults) as well as other key witnesses. His visit to the country was stressful, however, due to political unrest and the fact that western journalists weren’t allowed in the country at the time. “It was really dangerous to be there and I was concerned for my life,” he said. After completing his work in Zimbabwe, Nickerson traveled to South Africa and spent nearly ten months there working on research and filming.
During his research, Nickerson became even more curious about the Ariel school incident and felt driven to find out just what happened. He eventually traveled to England, Canada, across the United States, and back to Africa again in 2010 to find more individuals to help tell the story. “These stories are worldwide and in all cultures,” Nickerson said.
Tentatively titled, “Ariel Phenomenon,” the film is now a feature length production in the works to be released for mainstream audiences. “My goal is to present the facts gathered over a four year period and let people make up their own minds about this event.” (www.arielphenomenon.com/ – Editor’s note: Additional funds are needed to complete the movie. Find out more at http://www.arielphenomenon.com/fundraising-2).
After interviewing a number of the young adults from the Ariel school in recent years, Nickerson said many of them remember the incident vividly and are doing exceptionally well today. He said many still have a lot of wonder and curiosity about the encounter, and he feels the incident has kept a number of them open minded about the possibility of extraterrestrial life. “One boy told me, ‘If there’s one moment I’d like to relive, it would be that one particular moment that day.’”
Nickerson also said some of the original investigators at the Ariel school were really struck by the encounter. “One person I interviewed told me, ‘It haunts me to this day that what the kids said about how we are destroying the environment is coming to pass.’”
Many people, including Callimanopolus, look forward to completion of Nickerson’s film and hearing what the original children from the Ruwa encounter have to share today. “We realize what an important landmark case this was and we’re eager to complete the film so that the latest information about the case can be shared with as many people as possible,” Callimanopolus said. “The children were able to describe clearly what they were seeing. Testimony that comes from that place, where you’re just describing something you’ve never seen before, can be very clear and powerful.”
It’s been over two decades since the Ariel school encounter in 1994. How will people remember the event? What difference will it make in the big picture for Earth? Although Callimanopulos believes there are no definitive answers about what happened during the Ariel school sighting, she said the children were incredibly believable and had no motive for making it up. “It encourages us to think about the fundamental mystery of life and reality,” she said.
“There’s no question that something very unusual happened at that school,” Nickerson added. “One teacher who had been skeptical says he believes the children now, nearly twenty years later, because their testimony has been so consistent over time.”