By Alexander Wallace
All too often, those of us in the West have rather skewed views of what we consider ‘developed.’ Much of the world thought that the Soviet Union was a backward, almost failing state when it shot first Sputnik and then Yuri Gagarin into space. At that time, it was the United States that swaggered haughtily about the world with an optimism about its future that seemed almost infectious.
But it was not only the Cold War hegemons that had space programs. There is one interesting footnote in the history of space exploration in the twentieth century that never got off the ground (figuratively or literally). That was the Zambian space program, spearheaded by the idealistic firebrand, and respected anti-colonial revolutionary, Edward Mukaka Nkoloso. Such a program was an ambitious one even for the great powers; for Zambia, a country that had only gained its independence from the British in 1964, it was a titanic undertaking. It was thought, at the time, to have possibly been a cover for other political activity, and so was not always taken seriously by outsiders (Arthur Hoppe, a journalist covering the program, came to the conclusion it was a satirical mocking of the Space Race and even former Zambian president Kenneth Kaunda has said he viewed it as something done mostly for fun).
Such a program, and how it so utterly goes against what we think of when we discuss space exploration, has inspired a few creative works, like an art book and a movie trailer; however, what we’ll be discussing today is a short film directed by Nuotama Frances Bodomo, entitled Afronauts.
The film itself is in black and white, reflecting the way that so much footage from the period was shot. It shows the entire enterprise as a noble one, one that encapsulates the hopes and dreams of a newly independent nation looking to stand proud on its own two feet. Their methods are ramshackle compared to what you’d see at Cape Canaveral or at Baikonur Cosmodrome, but there’s an earnestness in everything that shows that, at least in Bodomo’s film, the effort is a real one.
But there is a dark side to the entire enterprise; the astronaut, the seventeen year-old Matha Mwambwa, is portrayed here as albino (an invention of Bodomo), and is the object of some derision because of it. Likewise, she seems more than a little hesitant about the mission; she has been placed as the conduit of her country’s dreams while she herself is met with opprobrium by so many of her countrymen.
There are better analyses of the film out there (like this interview with the director, which is very much worth reading), so I won’t delve too much into symbolism or whatnot. What I will do is take the events of the film as granted and treat it as the jump-off point for alternate historical speculation.
Zambia in the 1960s after its independence from the British was a poor, underdeveloped country (as imperialists were wont to leave behind them in Africa), heavily dependent on copper exports. Its capacity to send its goods to world markets was impeded by the presence of unrest in white-dominant territories bordering the country; Kenneth Kaunda, the first president of an independent Zambia, negotiated a deal with Tanzania for a railroad from the country’s copper-rich region to Dar-es-Salaam. Most economists would argue that a country in that situation would be ill-advised to pour so much investment into a hypothetical space program, even if the majority of money could be found from the donations Nkoloso asked for from foreign investors. However, I can see one major possibility if Nkoloso’s program succeeds in launching a vehicle, even if the launch ultimately fails to get into orbit.
In the early 1970s, Kenneth Kaunda was the third chairman of the Non-Aligned Movement. If Zambia got anywhere approaching Sputnik in the late 1960s, it would have been a major symbol of that which a country not in close orbit to Washington or Moscow was capable. It is strongly doubtful that Zambia could get a human being into space alone in the period, but it could inspire the likes of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt or Indira Gandhi’s India or Josip Broz Tito’s Yugoslavia, to name but three examples, to begin cooperating on a space program independently of the superpowers. If the Non-Aligned Movement has a space presence that early, it will draw its constituent members together, and has a small chance of changing the balance of power in the Cold War just a tad. It’s dreaming big, I know, but that sort of ambition is what got humanity into space in the first place.