Edward Makuka Nkoloso, the Afronauts and the Zambian space program

In 1964, at the height of the Cold War, an African schoolteacher named Edward Makuka Nkoloso launched the Zambian space program with a dozen aspiring teenage astronauts or “afronauts”. Nkoloso said he had been inspired by his first airplane flight. When the pilot refused to stop the plane so that he could get out and walk on the clouds, Nkoloso made up his mind to enter the Space Race. He had big dreams, namely, using a catapult-inspired “firing system” to send an aluminium and copper spacecraft, Cyclops I, holding ten afronauts to the Moon. “Our posterity, the Black scientists, will continue to explore the celestial infinity until we control the whole of outer space”.

Zambia

The former British protectorate of Northern Rhodesia, taking its new name from the great Zambezi River, Zambia, officially the Republic of Zambia, is a landlocked country in south-central Africa. It neighbours the Democratic Republic of the Congo to the north, Tanzania to the north-east, Malawi to the east, Mozambique to the southeast, Zimbabwe and Botswana to the south, Namibia to the southwest, and Angola to the west. The capital city is Lusaka, and it is located in the south-central part of Zambia. The population is concentrated mainly around Lusaka in the south and the Copperbelt Province to the northwest, the core economic hubs of the country. On October 24, 1964, Zambia became independent of the United Kingdom and Prime Minister Kenneth Kaunda, also known as KK, became the inaugural President. Kaunda’s socialist United National Independence Party (UNIP) maintained power from 1964 until 1991.

Edward Makuka Nkoloso

Edward Makuka Nkoloso was born in 1919, in the northern part of Northern Rhodesia, a prince of the Bemba warrior tribe; as a child, he received the distinctive scars to the temples. Nkoloso met Kaunda as a young man; like the future President, he had a missionary education, learning theology, Latin, and French. Nkoloso wanted to join the priesthood but was drafted into the Northern Rhodesian Regiment forces in World War II. Over the course of stints in Abyssinia and Burma, he was promoted up through the ranks in the Signal Corps, the communications branch of the military. After the war, he became translator for the Northern Rhodesian government. He also opened a new school, which was purportedly shut down by British authorities. Like black veterans around the world, Nkoloso had discovered that fighting for white men did not grant him a better life back home. “We are entirely forgotten” he wrote, on behalf of African ex-servicemen, in a letter to the editor of The Northern News. Nkoloso drifted between secondary schools around the country, teaching Latin, science, and math. He then joined the resistance movement and was arrested and imprisoned in 1956 and 1957. Following his release, he was appointed as security official of United National Independence Party.

In 1964, after having participated in the Constitutional Convention, Edward Makuka Nkoloso, the founder in 1960 of the Zambia National Academy of Science, Space Research and Philosophy, tried to convince his government to create a national space program in an attempt to send the first African astronaut or “afronaut”, term coined by the grade-school science teacher, into outer space. Then eventually twelve afronauts and ten cats on the planet Mars. In a newspaper editorial, Nkoloso claimed to have studied Mars for some time from telescopes at his “secret headquarters” outside Lusaka, and announced that the planet was populated by primitive natives. At the time, Zambia’s population numbered three and a half million, with barely one thousand five hundred African-born high school graduates and less than one hundred college graduates.

The space program was perhaps both a real science project and a cover. After independence, Nkoloso served as President Kaunda’s “Special Representative” at the African Liberation Center, a safe house and a propaganda machine for freedom fighters in other still-colonized nations on the continent: Angola, Southern Rhodesia, Mozambique, and South Africa. Nkoloso set up a training facility ten kilometres away from the capital Lusaka, where the volunteers dressed in overalls and British army helmets, took turns climbing into a 200-litre oil drum and being rolled down a hill bouncing over rough ground. Another part of the training involved clipping their rope-swings at the height of their arc to simulate weightlessness. According to Nkoloso, these exercises would train the afronauts on the feeling of weightlessness in both space travel and re-entry. The Kalahari Desert provided a chance to practise “Moon landings”. Godfrey Mwango, at twenty-one, had been tasked with the Moon landing. Matha Mwamba, sixteen, was headed for Mars. Nkoloso’s dog, Cyclops, was to follow in the paw prints of Russian Laika. The other cadets carried a Zambian flag and a staff in the shape of “a crested eagle on a dinner plate atop a sawn-off broomstick”. Nkoloso wore a standard-issue combat helmet, a khaki military uniform, and a flowing cape – multi-coloured silk or heliotrope velvet, with an embroidered neck and festooned with medals. His afronauts sometimes wore green satin jackets with yellow trousers.

Some people think I’m crazy”, Nkoloso told a reporter for the Associated Press. “But I’ll be laughing the day I plant Zambia’s flag on the Moon”. Nkoloso claimed his country would not only beat both the Americans and Soviets to the Moon, but do it within a year. Nkoloso stated goals of the program were to establish a Christian ministry to “primitive” Martians, and the hope of Zambia becoming the “controllers of the Seventh Heaven of Interstellar space”. Newspapers also reported the large sums of money, ranging from twenty million to two billion dollars, that Nkoloso requested from Israel, Russia, the U.S. and the United Arab Republic. One saw “piles of letters from foreign well-wishers containing plenty of advice, but no money beyond a 10-rupee note sent by a space-minded Indian schoolboy”. He wrote an editorial for a newspaper din which he revealed how he had asked UNESCO for a seven million pounds grant for his space program, and how he had instructed the missionaries not to force Christianity onto the native Martian inhabitants if they didn’t want it.

Despite Edward Makuka Nkoloso and the Afronauts’ indifference as to which side of the Cold War would fund his space program, he insisted on keeping its details secret. “You cannot trust anyone in a project of this magnitude”, he said. “Some of our ideas are way ahead of the Americans and the Russians and these days I will not let anyone see my rocket plans”. Nkoloso had imagined a way to reach outer space. The rocket, named D-Kalu 1, was a 3-metre by 2-metre drum-shaped vessel. Named after the first president, Kenneth Kaunda, he claimed it was made of aluminium and copper, and space worthy. The planned launch date was on October 24, 1964, Zambian Independence Day, and would take place from the Independence Stadium, but was purportedly denied permission due to being inappropriate.

Unfortunately for Edward Makuka Nkoloso and the Afronauts, the funds from UNESCO were not forthcoming and to make matters worse, one of the afronauts, Matha Mwamba, a 17-year-old dubbed “spacegirl” got pregnant and was taken away by her parents. “Two of my best men went on a drinking spree a month ago and haven’t been seen since… Another of my afronauts has joined a local tribal song and dance group”. The ambitious project of Edward Makuka Nkoloso and the Afronauts never got off the ground and the debris has remained in situ ever since. Nkoloso stated the program failed due to lack of funds. The rocket was claimed to have been sabotaged “by foreign elements”. The Zambian government distanced itself from Nkoloso’s endeavour.

He then unsuccessfully ran for mayor of Lusaka, Zambia, emphasising scientific advancement. He was appointed by President Kaunda to the Liberation Center, a movement for regional freedom. He championed government support for witch doctors on at least one occasion. He claimed that they should have a place beside physicians, and that they are an antidote for Christianity which had hurt Africa’s medical skills, but states that he did not practice witchcraft himself. He retired in 1972. Over the years, Nkoloso has been called “an amiable lunatic”, “a court jester”, and “Zambia’s village idiot”.

Edward Makuka Nkoloso died on March 4, 1989, and was buried with presidential honours. Interviewed in 2016, former Zambian president Kenneth Kaunda said of the space program that “It wasn’t a real thing… It was more for fun than anything else”. Projects like this present Nkoloso as an eccentric visionary – an early pioneer of Afrofuturism, a term Mark Dery coined in 1992 to describe the nexus of black art and technoculture. There is a documentary footage from 1964 of Nkoloso and his team training in Zambia on YouTube. A group of young men and women, dressed unassumingly and mostly barefoot, jump up and down, clapping their hands in front of a banner reading “Zambia space academy”. The extended footage shows a young trainee being slotted into a metal cylinder, then raised up, his head poking out like a hapless turtle; another floating down a stream in a drum; Mwamba on a swing, wearing a bomber jacket, pumping her legs and smiling. The leader of these exercises wears an army helmet and a cape over pants, a dress shirt, and tie. A photograph book Afronauts commemorating the events was self-published by Cristina De Middel, a Spanish documentary photographer and artist living and working in Uruapan, Mexico, in 2012.

As a conclusion, talking about Edward Makuka Nkoloso and the Afronauts, here is the original article written by Edward Makuka Nkoloso:

We’re going to Mars! – WITH A SPACEGIRL, TWO CATS AND A MISSIONARY – by Edward Makuka Nkoloso.

I see the Zambia of the future as a Space Age Zambia, more advanced than Russia or America. In fact, in my academy of scientists, our thinking is six or seven years ahead of both powers. It is unlucky for Lusaka that I did not have a chance to run for mayor. If I had been elected, the capital city of Zambia would have been another Paris if not New York. If I had been mayor, Matero, Kamwala and Chilenje suburbs would quickly have been filled with flats and skyscrapers. Old houses would have vanished. But never mind, we will have our Paris yet. With me, Zambia would have been born with the blast of the academy’s rocket being launched into space. But the Independence celebrations committee said that would terrify the guests and possibly the whole population. I think they were worried about the dust and noise.

It’s a great pity, all is ready at our secret headquarters in a valley about seven miles from Lusaka. The rocket could have been launched from Independence Stadium and Zambia would have conquered Mars only a few days after Independence. Yes that’s where we plan to go – Mars. We have been studying the planet through telescopes at our headquarters and are now certain Mars is populated by primitive natives. Our rocket crew is ready. Specially trained space girl Matha Mwamba, two cats (also specially trained) and a missionary will be launched in our first rocket. But I have warned the missionary he must not force Christianity on the people in Mars if they do not want it.

I feel the Zambian government should help now if we are to become controllers of the Seventh Heaven Interstellar space. The government must pass strong bills to deal with the satanic plots of our enemies. I have known for a long time that Russian spies are operating in Zambia. Yes, and American spies are all over town too. They are all trying to capture Matha and the cats. They want our space secrets. These people must be dealt with immediately. Detention without trial for all spies is what we need. Otherwise, I am happy with the Government but it must encourage youngsters to join the academy.

At the moment they have knocked down my academy building in Matero. That is not good. I hope they build modern flats in its place to provide more offices for us. The capital of the new scientific Zambia must look beautiful. People from afar must not see a slum as the capital of the world’s greatest scientific state. Zambians are inferior to no men in science technology. My space plan will surely be carried out”. That is what we can say about Edward Makuka Nkoloso and the Afronauts.