Broadly speaking, the “Space Race” of the 1950s and 60s involved two major players, the United States and the Soviet Union. But there were also minor players: take, for instance, the Zambian Space Program, founded and administered by just one man. A Time magazine article published in November 1964 — when the Republic of Zambia was one week old — described Edward Mukuka Nkoloso as a “grade-school science teacher and the director of Zambia’s National Academy of Science, Space Research and Philosophy.” Nkoloso had a plan “to beat the U.S. and the Soviet Union to the moon. Already Nkoloso is training twelve Zambian astronauts, including a 16-year-old girl, by spinning them around a tree in an oil drum and teaching them to walk on their hands, ‘the only way humans can walk on the moon.'”
Nkoloso and his Quixotic space program seem to have drawn as much attention as the subject of the article, Zambia’s first president Kenneth David Kaunda. Namwali Serpell tells Nkoloso’s story in a piece for The New Yorker: not just the conception and failure of his entry into the Space Race (“the program suffered from a lack of funds,” Serpell writes, “for which Nkoloso blamed ‘those imperialist neocolonialists’ who were, he insisted, ‘scared of Zambia’s space knowledge'”), but also his background as “a freedom fighter in Kaunda’s United National Independence Party.”
Born in 1919 in then-Northern Rhodesia, Nkoloso received a missionary education, got drafted into World War II by the British, took an interest in science during his service, and came home to illegally found his own school. There followed periods as a salesman, a “political agitator,” and a messianic liberator figure, ending with his capture and imprisonment by colonial authorities.
How on Earth could this all have convinced Nkoloso to aim for Mars? Some assume he experienced a psychological break due to torture endured at the hands of Northern Rhodesian police. Some see his ostensible interplanetary ambitions as a cover for the training he was giving his “Afronauts” for guerrilla-style direct political action. Some describe him as a kind of national court jester: Serpell quotes from the memoir of San Francisco Chronicle columnist Arthur Hoppe, author of a series of contemporary pieces on the Zambian Space Program, who “believed it was the Africans who were satirizing our multi-billion-dollar space race against the Russians.” As Serpell points out, “Zambian irony is very subtle,” and as a satirist Nkoloso had “the ironic dédoublement — the ability to split oneself — that Charles Baudelaire saw in the man who trips in the street and is already laughing at himself as he falls.”
Whatever Nkoloso’s purposes, the Zambian Space Program has attracted new attention in the years since documentary footage of its facilities and training procedures found its way to Youtube. This fascinatingly eccentric chapter in the history of man’s heavenward aspirations has become the subject of short documentaries like the one from SideNote at the top of the post, as well as the subject of artworks like the short film Afronauts above. Nkoloso died more than 30 years ago, but he now lives on as an icon of Afrofuturism, a movement (previously featured here on Open Culture) at what Serpell calls “the nexus of black art and technoculture.” No figure embodies Afrofuturism quite so thoroughly as Sun Ra, who transformed himself from the Alabama-born Herman Poole Blount into a peace-preaching alien from Saturn. Though Nkoloso never seems to have met his American contemporary, such an encounter would surely, as a subject for Afrofuturistic art, be truly out of this world.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.