The curious case of Zambia’s Afronauts who failed to launch
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CAPE TOWN, June 15 (ANA) - It was the 1960s and the United States and the then-Soviet Union space race was reaching its peak.
However, in a newly independent landlocked African country known as Zambia, schoolteacher Edward Mukuka Nkoloso and the Afronauts – which included a “spacegirl” and cats – were planning to be the first to reach the moon and Mars.
“They’d (the US and the Soviet Union) be only surprised because they underestimate our resources plus our intelligence, but I’m sure we are catching them.”
These were the words spoken by Nkoloso, the director-general of Zambia’s unofficial National Academy of Science, Space Research and Philosophy, who was also a science teacher, according to a video posted on YouTube that states it was originally from the Reuters News Archive.
It was November 1964 at the time of recording, and Nkoloso was responding to the question of what he thought the US and Soviet Union’s reaction would be when they found out Zambia had entered the space race.
The footage goes on to show a charismatic and confident Nkoloso dressed in a combat helmet, shirt and tie, with what seems to be a cloak draped around him. It also shows the Afronauts training in preparation for their voyage to the stars, including rowing exercises, being rolled around in a barrel, being pushed on a swing and sitting in a barrel while floating on a lake.
The journalist agreed with the reported consensus in Zambia that Nkoloso was a “crackpot”.
Eleven young Zambian men, a 17-year-old girl Matha Mwamba, cats, Nkoloso’s dog, and Nkoloso were Africa’s Afronauts, according to Namwali Serpell, a Zambian award-winning author and professor of English at Harvard University, writing in the New Yorker.
Nkoloso was seeking a substantial amount of money for take-off to commence at the end of 1965, he explained in the video from 1964.
As history goes, the US went on to win the space race after successfully landing a man on the moon on July 20, 1969, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) reported.
And to add to the woes, the Afronauts never took off from Zambia’s capital, Lusaka.
ZAMBIA IS HISTORY MONTH ON ROCK FM!— 96.5 Hit Radio (@RockFM_Zambia) October 9, 2020
The Incredible Story of Zambia’s Afronauts.🇿🇲🌍 pic.twitter.com/ANwqCpOr5H
Despite the Afronauts being grounded, Nkoloso was far more than a “crackpot”.
In an interview with China Global Television Network (CGTN), Nkoloso’s first-born son, Mukuka Nkoloso Jr, described the lead Afronaut as a “war veteran, freedom fighter, my father, a hero”.
He fought on behalf of his colonisers, the British, in World War II as the British recruited African men to protect their colonies.
Freedom was won for the British, with those who contributed to it still being enslaved in their home countries. Nkoloso originally joined on the promise that Zambia will be given its freedom following the conclusion of World War II in 1945.
The promise of Zambia’s independence did not come to fruition and Nkoloso became a translator for the colonisers, a science teacher by profession, and turned his fight from aiding the British to trying to dismantle their colonial administration through a political career.
Serpell reveals records of Zambia’s National Archive which detail Nkoloso’s fight against raising the Native Tax, advocated for a maternity clinic and colleges and argued for a multiracial society since it was the “inevitable destiny”.
In 1957’s Luwingu Disturbance, he organised large-scale protests against both the British colonial administration and the “Native Authorities” put in a certain degree of power by the British.
Nkoloso was imprisoned and tortured multiple times, especially during the uprising as a freedom fighter in Zambia’s first president’s Kenneth David Kaunda’s United National Independence Party (UNIP).
Nevertheless, Zambia gained independence in October 1964, and the video illustrating Nkoloso’s Afronauts was recorded a mere couple of weeks into Zambia’s independence.
Nkoloso’s tale provides a glimpse of where Africa would be if the shackles of colonialism and its legacies were never cast on both the mind and body. His Afronaut dream was symbolic of what might have come from the continent at a time when it was unthinkable, when Africans were so controlled that big dreams and high aspirations were deemed satirical.
– African News Agency (ANA); Editing by Yaron Blecher