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Afronauts – Zambia’s Space Program

A short presented at the Berlinale and a photographic book narrate the incredible space-adventure of an african dreamer in the 60s

Articles | 2014

It’s the 60s: the world is divided by the Cold War, and the USA are in the midst of the Space Race against Russia. While the international public observes the two powers’ plans for the conquest of the universe, in remote and forgotten parts of the world there are still big dreamers.

Let’s move to Zambia, an African country that just gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1964. In the midst of the celebration for the newly gained freedom from the colonialism, an ambitious college professor develops a great project for his country: he wants to create a space program and send the first African astronaut to the moon – possibly before the US and the USSR manage to do so.

This is the story of Edward Makuka Nkoloso, who founded (independently and without any kind of government support), the National Academy of Science, Space Research and Philosophy, Zambia’s first and only space program. A 17 years old girl (Matha) and two cats are the chosen “Afronauts”, to be sent on the Moon – and later, even on Mars – aboard a copper and aluminum rocket. A training camp was set a few miles from Lusaka, and to have the afronauts accustomed to the lack of gravity, a series of physical exercises were developed (for example, the self-proclaimed Director would launch the aspiring astronauts down from steep hills inside huge oil barrels). 

Partially visionary, probably detached from reality, Nkoloso was extremely serious about the project, and as himself claimed in the Op-Ed “We’re Going to Mars! With a Spacegirl, Two Cats and a Missionary, he even made a request for 7 million pounds to the UNESCO. The complex program also included the establishment of a Ministry of Christianity on Mars – although there was no intention of imposing their religion with violence on the inhabitants of the planet. Unfortunately, the lack of funding, the hostility of the government and the fact that Matha became pregnant during the training time (in an official letter  Nkoloso himself complained about the constant  “physical” distractions of his young students), forced the man’s dreams to collapse, and the program was left to die

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This story, as absurd and surreal as it sounds, is absolutely true, and it can lead to a reflection  on the thin line that separates dreams from our actual ability to achieve them. In recent years, this “food for thought”  led two different  female artists  to develop different interpretations of this story. The first approach to this forgotten tale was from Spanish photographer Cristina de Middel, who in 2012 published the art book “Afronauts“, an imaginary chronicle of events. Through made-up documents and photographs taken between Spain and Senegal, the artist  tried to recreate this African dream, that comes to life in these pictures due to her imagery, which combines 60s kitsch with a surreal atmosphere.

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Diametrically opposite, on the other hand, is the visual approach by Frances Bodomo, a young African-American filmmaker originally from Ghana. Her short film ‘Afronauts‘ has premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and was in competition at the Berlinale Shorts Program 2014. The  kitsch patterns of de Middel’s photographs are far gone…. instead, a dreamy black and white drags us into this adventure that’s suspended between dream and reality. Matha, the chosen one for the interstellar flight, goes through the trainings and the long waits in a state of alienation and concern, while she is surrounded by a general enthusiasm which is expressed in continuous choruses of incitement and psychedelic parties.

This arbitrary retelling of the events, that still maintains real elements from the story (such as the oil barrels rolling down the hills, cat- astronauts, the refusal to impose religion to the alien populations, something that stems from the vivid memory of the damages of cultural and political colonization) is one of the most interesting shorts presented at this year’s Berlinale.

The cinematography that creates a dreamy atmosphere, combined with an excellent soundtrack composed by  Brian McOmber (of Dirty Projectors fame) and an almost lunar landscape (in fact, they shot the film in New Jersey), all contribute in building a believable universe that at the same time also appears to be out of this world and time, intense and ethereal at the same time . Afronauts, the second outing from Bodomo, who had previously directed Oscar nominated Quvenzhané Wallis in Boneshaker, is the latest project to be financed through a kickstarter campaign, , stating once again the vital importance of crowdfunding for emerging talents that otherwise wouldn’t have other ways to develop their films. 

Flavia Ferrucci

Flavia Ferrucci

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