Public Streets

The Afronaut Archives: Reports from a Future Zambia

This is the latest installment of Public Streets, an urban observation series created by Ellis Avery and curated by Abigail Struhl


“Most Westerners don’t even know whereabouts in Africa we are.” So said Edward Mukuka Nkoloso at a press conference announcing that he had founded Zambia’s National Academy of Science, Space Research and Philosophy. It was 1964, and the British protectorate of Northern Rhodesia had just become an independent African nation. “Imagine the prestige value this would earn for Zambia,” Nkoloso boasted. Over half a century later, most Westerners still don’t know much about Zambia. Even fewer people, Western or otherwise, know about Nkoloso.

I’m a Zambian writer with an interest in science fiction and a bent toward absurdism; when I first found out about the Zambian space program, it was like discovering a whole new moon to roam. But as I dug through arcane Internet references and dusty archival documents, I learned that this moon had a dark side. Before Nkoloso had made his debut as a benign, possibly batty space enthusiast, he had been jailed, and likely tortured, for fighting to free his country from colonial rule.

I first heard of the Zambian space program in 2012, when my friend Michelle sent me a link to a video called “Afronauts,” a trailer for an exhibit by the Spanish photographer Cristina de Middel. It began with title cards that explained, “In 1964, in the middle of the space race, Zambia started a space program that aimed to put the first African on the moon. The director of this unofficial program was Edward Makuka [sic].” This led me to a Wikipedia page for “Edward Makuka Nkoloso” [sic], and then to a YouTube clip from a show called 5 Terrible Predictions about “the wacky world of Zambian astronauts.” It showed grainy black-and-white footage from the ’60s of the man himself, fitted out in cape and helmet.

Nkoloso had apparently been training his space cadets by swinging them from long ropes, rolling them down hills in empty oil barrels, and bobbing them in streams to simulate water landings. His one female cadet, Matha Mwamba, was raising twelve cats. Why? To be released upon landing on Mars, to make sure it was habitable. At the close of an interview with Nkoloso, the British reporter turned to the camera and said: “To most Zambians, these people are just a bunch of crackpots and from what I’ve seen today, I’m inclined to agree.” When I read Nkoloso’s own op-ed about the program, however, the outlandishness of his project seemed to border on irony, even satire: “We have been studying Mars from our telescopes at our headquarters and are now certain Mars is populated by primitive natives…. a missionary will be launched in our first rocket. But I have warned the missionary he must not force Christianity to the people if they do not want it.”

Before his debut as a benign, possibly batty space enthusiast, Nkoloso had been jailed, and likely tortured, for fighting to free his country from colonial rule

I was hooked. I began to hunt for information about this remarkable man. But my research via the UC Berkeley library turned up only scattered references to Nkoloso. There were some scholarly articles about colonial history; Dominion Status for Central Africa?, a 1958 pamphlet published by Kenneth Kaunda, Zambia’s first president; a 1988 interview with Nkoloso in a travel rag called Z Magazine; a 2003 BBC program, African Space; and a 2013 episode of a South African show called Faces of Africa. From these resources, I pieced together a cursory biography: Born in the north of the country, Nkoloso had been training to become a priest at a seminary when he was drafted to fight overseas for the British during WWII. Upon his return, he started a school, headed a Veteran’s Association, served as a local councilman, became a traveling salesman for pharmaceuticals, joined a political party, got arrested, and then, unaccountably, started a space program.

This sketch of his life had some incoherent and inassimilable details, which titillated the fiction writer in me. For instance, how did Nkoloso’s space program relate to his earlier efforts to resist British rule? Two anecdotes in particular grabbed me by the lapels. In 1956, Nkoloso had stormed into a British District Commissioner’s Office to protest the desecration of African corpses, which had been dug up and relocated to make room for new white settlers. Almost a decade later, just before Zambia gained independence from the British, Nkoloso and his comrades had bribed a mortuary attendant to give them the corpse of a white woman. They smeared animal blood on it and transported it to the whites-only Ridgeway Hotel. They turned out the lights in the bar and threw the corpse on the floor. “This is the body of [Prime Minister Roy] Welensky’s wife,” Nkoloso shouted. “We’ve just killed her. If you don’t get out of our country we will kill you too.”

This was the same man with stars in his eyes? This was the “amiable lunatic” to whom western journalists condescended as they roundly mocked his National Academy of Science, Space Research and Philosophy? I had dived into what seemed like a silly space opera only to find the corpses of colonial history there. The recurrence of this darkness—the darkness of death—prompted me to voyage into the heart of darkness to learn more.

Photograph courtesy of the author

Except that the heart of darkness, for me, is just home. On my next trip to Lusaka to visit my family, I made my way to the National Archives of Zambia. The Archives are not physically connected to a library, but rather housed in a seventies-flavored concrete building quite close to the grand Anglican Cathedral, where my parents were married in the ’70s and where I went to Sunday School in the ’80s. In a small office, at a counter manned by diligent, impressively insouciant clerks, I filled out the first of many paper forms and paid the fee to register (discounted for me as a Zambian citizen). In passing, I asked the clerk about Nkoloso. Were there any files about his life or his space program? She raised an eyebrow. “Oh-oh? You’re looking for Ba Nkoloso?” She smiled wryly and pointed around the corner. “We have a picture of him just there.”

I strolled back into the lobby, where I found some peeling photocopies of black-and-white photos from the independence movement. A few displayed women—some bare-breasted—holding signs: TELL BRITAIN THE DAYS OF MISRULE ARE NUMBERED. WE WANT SELF-GOVERNMENT. NO ROOM FOR WHITE SETTLERS. U.N.I.P. SAYS KAUNDA KNOWS DEMOCRACY. In one, protestors carried a coffin on their shoulders, its side graffitied with the name “Roy Welensky”: a mock burial of the prime minister that Nkoloso had threatened at the Ridgeway with the borrowed white corpse. Another picture showed President Kenneth Kaunda—or KK, as we call him—in front of a crowd. With him stood a man wearing an oversized army uniform, wielding a kind of paddle. Nkoloso! The caption identified him as a “late freedom fighter” and “firm supporter of Dr. Kaunda and UNIP.” I remembered an article that said Nkoloso had been a kind of mascot for the United National Independence Party. Here, he looked like what we now call a hype man—someone who rallies the crowd and introduces the main act.

All the names on those documents sounded European—these were no Afronauts. I sent the folders back

I strolled back into the front office of the Archives. “Yes, but… Isn’t there anything else?” Heads shook slowly, shoulders shrugged languidly. I requested one folder to which a historian had referred, and searched for more leads in the xeroxed notebooks that serve as the Archive’s catalogue of materials. I pressed my pen hard into the form to make sure my call number requests showed up on the copy—there was an inky, slinky sheet between the two, a technology rarely seen these days beyond the occasional waiter’s notepad or cab receipt. I sat at a large table in an over-air-conditioned, under-wifi-ed reading room. I waited.

The folders—three at a time—that the clerk placed on the table in front me smelled of dust and the husks of dead insects. At first, there was nothing. Particularly disappointing was the thin folder for the “Lusaka Astronautical Society,” which I had hoped might be an early version of the Zambian space program. The Society, “to promote the development of astronautics by the study of rocket engineering, space medicine and legislation, astronomy, navigation, astrionics, and other associated sciences,” had apparently received government certification, but was cancelled in 1966 “due to no members.” All the names on those documents sounded European—these were no Afronauts. I sent the folders back and filled out some more requests. This went on for a few chilly, rustling hours.

Finally, the folder on the Ndola Urban Council yielded some nuggets. Here was Nkoloso’s name in the list of attendees to these meetings with the Colonial District Commissioner. Here were notes from the meetings, not direct transcriptions but with enough detail of syntax and diction to evoke a sense of that fiery young man standing up, raising objections, making requests, and, unlike his fellow council men, holding forth at length on the political bases of his arguments. At one point, he predicted that the black and white races were destined to “become dialectic in the struggle for survival, to assimilate each other or co-existence will be at an end.” Dialectic! This was the man they’d called “Zambia’s village idiot”? There were no photocopiers so I typed notes, transcribing manically until closing.

The next time I was home, on a whim, I asked for a folder provocatively titled “Luwingu Disturbance 1957.” This one came in a box. I opened it, itchy nose asneer. Then I sat up: “In a recent letter to His Excellency the Governor, Miss Audrey Richards wrote with reference to the death of Paulino Nseko, aunt of Makuka [sic] Nkoloso, following this woman’s arrest after the Luena disturbances in the Luwingu District.” Nkoloso’s aunt? Death following arrest?

I pieced the story together. Caught up in arrests of miners on strike in the Copperbelt, Nkoloso had been sent back to his “home district” under house arrest. There, he urged locals to boycott the European store in town and to refuse to work as carriers, food servers, and census-takers for the British. He spoke publicly against the colonial government, the color bar, and even the local chief, who, as Nkoloso put it, had “sold the country to the Europeans.” These different factions—the freedom fighter and his people, the local chief, and the colonial officers—clashed dramatically, resulting in a warrant for Nkoloso’s arrest, his escape into the bush, and his eventual capture at a school. He and his family and followers had been jailed and allegedly tortured in the process.

I pored over dozens of reports between colonial administrators, letters between members of Kaunda’s African National Congress, and handwritten notes by Nkoloso himself from prison. He had even written to the Queen of England to seek legal aid under the Prisoners’ Poor Society law. The authorities described him at one point as “a well-educated but unbalanced man,” who was“imposing fear and gangster rule upon an otherwise peaceful and contented rural population.”

Nkoloso had apparently been training his space cadets by swinging them from long ropes, rolling them down hills in empty oil barrels, and bobbing them in streams to simulate water landings

I had caught a case of archive fever. But maybe just for these archives. The thing is, the documents about Nkoloso are especially conducive to the wonders of discovery. First, Zambia is still understudied, especially our rich political and cultural history. So there are many undiscovered treasures to be found in the archives. Second, while the catalogues are hard to navigate, our archives are impressively complete—one legacy of British colonialism is that we are a people deeply committed to paperwork. There is a great deal of information but it hasn’t yet been organized in a leading way. The documents are simply ordered chronologically—newest to oldest—which makes for an exciting backwards investigation from ends to origins.

Finally, Nkoloso is an incredible subject. He lived many lives—even more than Matha Mwamba’s cats—and there are surprises around every corner. Having written a nonfiction piece about the space program and fictionalized only part of his life in my forthcoming novel, I now long to create a digital archive of this remarkable man’s life. There are still so many facets of his life I want the world to see, so many quotations from his letters and interviews. These documents are from the past, yet they feel like reports from a future Zambia.

In the UNIP archives, housed in a dusty building on the other side of town, I found a firsthand account of the authorities’ first attempt to arrest Nkoloso after his anti-British agitation. It’s handwritten, in blue ink, in far less fluent English than Nkoloso’s, with delightful malapropisms, like “cloud” for the “crowd” that had surrounded and protected him. (“The cloud came and pushed him.” “A cloud remained neutral.”) This report has clearly been doctored—edited in places, in a different handwriting and in black ink. The lines about the torture Nkoloso may have endured as a crusader for Zambian independence are crossed out, edited to concede only that the officers began “taking off his hair.” There’s a comment scrawled in the margins: “This was untrue but was said by the chiefs—This report covers the balance of the trouble as advanced from both sides.” This document seems a perfect symbol of the Afronaut Archives as a whole: a hodgepodge of ink, a cacophony of claims, and in the words of its unknown annotator, a balance of trouble.

National Archives of Zambia, CO 2/37/1/36, Cabinet Office, Liberation Center, Foreign Nationalist Organizations

Featured image: Okavango Delta, Botswana, as seen from the International Space Station, 2014. Photograph courtesy of NASA

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