Meet ‘The Afronauts’: An Introduction to Zambia’s Forgotten 1960s Space Program

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Watch a 5‑Part Ani­mat­ed Primer on Afro­fu­tur­ism, the Black Sci-Fi Phe­nom­e­non Inspired by Sun Ra

Sun Ra’s Full Lec­ture & Read­ing List From His 1971 UC Berke­ley Course, “The Black Man in the Cos­mos”

Sun Ra Applies to NASA’s Art Pro­gram: When the Inven­tor of Space Jazz Applied to Make Space Art

Won­der­ful­ly Kitschy Pro­pa­gan­da Posters Cham­pi­on the Chi­nese Space Pro­gram (1962–2003)

Sovi­et Artists Envi­sion a Com­mu­nist Utopia in Out­er Space

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.

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