Zambias Space Voyage…

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Last night I watched an interesting documentary that made me feel proud to be Zambian, which was refreshing considering the political circus we constantly have to put up with. The documentary also made me realise we have now drifted light years away from the original Zambian dream. All because we’ve stopped dreaming.

Mukuka Nkoloso: The Afronaut focuses on the remarkable life of Mukuka Nkoloso , an eccentric genius who dedicated his time and effort to ensure that Zambia beats the Us and Russian in the space race and eventually land a teenage Zambian girl on Mars by 1965. You’re thinking crazy right? Read on!

Nkoloso who had served with the British forces in World War II became a grade school teacher upon his return and immediately showed sparks of his oddness when he established his own school and began teaching his own brand of science. This infuriated the colonial government who quickly shut down the school but there was to be more mischief. A fiery nationalist, his contribution to the country’s independence struggle movement were short lived as the colonialists banished him to his home town in Northern Zambia in 1957.

Three years later he returned to Lusaka and founded the Zambia National Academy of Science, Space Research and Philosophy. It is for these outlandish ideas of space voyage that his name is synonymous with bizarreness to this day. Remember, this was two years before John F. Kennedy announced to the world that the US would have a man on the moon by the end of the decade.

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Nkoloso continued on his peculiar path recruiting 10 young men and a teenage girl named Matha Mwamba and aptly called them Afronauts to mean African astronauts, the dream he was determined to see come to fruition. You have to admit Afronaut has a nice ring to it and makes perfect sense. I’m slowly becoming a believer.

On an abandoned farm not so far from the city of Lusaka he strenuously trained his Afronauts, rolling the trainees down a hill in an oil drum to simulate the weightlessness they would experience during space travel. Of course these strange activities would attract ardent crowds who were fascinated by the group’s antiques. Nkoloso would however not be slowed down by this unwanted attention, in fact it’s amazing how he remained absorbed by the space program even as the country was in political turmoil as independence beckoned.

The documentary contains actual footage of the man instructing his team through a routine at the training site when a reporter from the International Television Network (ITN) interviewed Nkoloso in 1964. I could not help but smile when I saw some seemingly curious physical excercises they underwent but it was all real to him and you have to admire that because a dangerous man is one who dreams with his eyes wide open. And it was not all physical, the scientist being true to his profession balanced the curriculum by also teaching the Afronauts about the moon and stars and principles of space flight. Impressive.

If you’re going to dream, dream big. That was Nkoloso’s line of thought. He did not simply want to achieve space travel, he believed there was life on Mars and intended to send 17 year old Matha Mwamba, two cats and missionary to Mars where Zambians would be responsible for spreading human civilisation. Ok, how about we call that bodacious…

“There was a trial launching of the Cyclops capsule using an African firing system, the Mukwa system which was basically a catapult. The craft rose to an altitude of three metres, I’m now experimenting along new lines.”

Interestingly, the documentary is narrated by a Zambian and there are also interviews of locals including Nkoloso’s son. I find this most interesting because it I think it is important that we as Africans should tell our own story before someone else tells it on our behalf. Also, most of the interviewees were young and if they can learn about such inspiring figures then they are being well prepared for future prospects and challenges.

Nkolosa’s dream of launching the D-Kalu 1 rocket into orbit on 24th October 1964, the day of Zambia’s independence did not suffice as the Independence celebration committee thought the idea was inappropriate as it would terrify the jubilant masses .But this is just the sideline story, the main reason for the failure to launch was the lack of financial support by government.

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To say the guy was simply undeterred, is an understatement. He wrote to United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) requesting for seven million pounds to fire his rocket into space. Wait a minute, that’s seven million pounds sterling in 1964 being requested for by African primary school teacher , I’m running out of superlatives for this man. Well as it turns out they didn’t get back to him, also Neil Armstrong walked on the moon and Matha became pregnant.

In his later years he became was appointed as president Kenneth Kaunda’s representative at Liberation Centre, the headquarters of a regional freedom movement spearheaded by Zambia. And as if to demonstrate that the sky was truly not the limit for him, Nkoloso would graduate with a law degree from the University of Zambia at the age of 59. Two years later the Russians awarded him an anniversary medal, The Fortieth Anniversary of Victory in the Great Patriotic Wars of 1941-1945 in Moscow.

On 4th march 1989, a day after I was born, he died of health complications. This one single fact made me somehow feel connected to the man, it’s like he passed the baton to me. Maybe not the rocket science but certainly the eccentricity and ambition .He was given a state funeral and to this day lives on in Zambian folklore.

To borrow from the man himself, from the motto of his science academy to be more exact : “Where fate and human glory lead, we are always there.”

Proudly Zambian!

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