Where fate and human glory lead, we are always there’ was the motto of the National Academy of Science, Space Research and Philosophy, founded by Edward Mukuka Nkoloso. Nkoloso had a grand vision for his Academy—but underpinning this was a vision for his country. He wanted to see Zambia explore the fields of science, mathematics and space science as actively as Western countries did. This grand vision is inspirational to me. His execution may not have been perfect, but the passion and desire are what cling to me about Nkoloso’s story.
I wrote this story to express that passion. His story can be found in the archives and modern pieces of film and literature; my story reinforces that some people need new ways to be introduced to our history, and that we never stop learning our history. The biggest gift this story has given me is that history teaches us different things at different times, with our differing needs. So, in a way, I wrote it for myself, too.
There was a heaviness on their shoulders when they walked up the path to the front door. Celia opened it, and her two children slid past her up the stairs, mumbling greetings to disappear behind the deep thud of bedroom doors. Later, Celia curled beside her daughter and stroked her braids.
“Can you tell me what happened at school today?”
Naomi burrowed into her pillows. “Oh, Mum.”
Celia felt the panic rising. “Tell me.”
“Ugh, what difference does it make? There’s nothing you can do.”
“Remember, we say talking about it helps us solve it.”
Naomi scowled, her eyes angry and flickering with hurt. “It was on the bus. Kids kept on at Lucas and me.”
“Sorry, baby. But what was going on?”
Naomi pulled her duvet closer around her, shielding herself from the memory. “It was stupid.”
Celia knew not to push, but was worried. In the same moment, Lucas stood in the doorway. “Mum, did you sign that permission slip?”
“Hey! Don’t you knock?” barked Naomi.
“Both of you calm down.” Celia repositioned herself on the bed. “Lucas, come here a minute.”
He kissed his teeth and dumped himself on the bed.
“I just want to check what happened earlier today. What was it?”
“Nuffin, Mum. Just kids being stupid.”
“Then why did it upset you so much?”
Naomi and Lucas looked at each other. A silent conversation. An agreement. Celia waited until Lucas broke the silence.
“Kids started off teasing Naomi that she doesn’t know about her country. I jumped in. It just got worse.”
“‘Got worse’, how?”
“I didn’t have a defense. They know all about Fela Kuti, Nkrumah, Achebe and all them from their countries. But we don’t know that stuff.”
“You know Kaunda and Kapwepwe.”
The children sighed heavily. “Yeah, but they’re not really famous in the way those other guys are, Mum.”
“Fame isn’t important. What’s important is that you know them and what they achieved.”
The looks on their faces told Celia that it wasn’t enough.
“Look, I should share more of what I’ve learned with you guys, but it isn’t a reason to fight with your friends.”
Naomi tucked her braids into her headscarf while Lucas traced the pattern on the duvet with his finger. Celia read the emptiness of their movements, felt the discontent.
“We’re tired of hearing about freedom fighters, Mum.” Lucas’s scowl was identical to Naomi’s earlier. So was their passion and their hunger.
“Okay. I know one. He was a freedom fighter, but so much more. A scientist. Fascinating. And misunderstood. You like intrigue, don’t you?” She poked Lucas and he painfully obliged his mother’s playfulness.
“His name was Mukuka Nkoloso, but he also had an English name—I forget right now. I’ll check. He was young when the British drafted men to fight in World War Two, probably around twenty, and was posted to what we now know as Ethiopia and Myanmar . The war made an incredible mark on Nkoloso because that’s where he was introduced to the microscope. See, school then was different. They didn’t learn all the subjects in depth like you do. Most of the schools were run by missionaries and the pupils learned the basics: mathematics, literacy, and theology. In the army, Nkoloso learned a bit of science and this inspired him. The war ended in 1945 and he returned home to Zambia.”
Celia checked if she had the children’s attention. She was met with their bored expressions.
“The British had made a promise to the Zambians that after the war, they would be free to govern their own country—but that promise was not kept. Many, including Nkoloso, felt disappointed and angry with the British. Nkoloso decided to open a school to teach science, but the colonial government didn’t allow him to do that and shut it down. Because of the promise that was never kept, the school, and how Zambians were treated, Nkoloso began to agitate for the freedom and rights of his people. Now he was a freedom fighter! He met Kaunda and supported the fight for independence, often appearing at rallies with the future president. Like many other activists at the time, Nkoloso was arrested—from 1956 to 1957—and eventually banished to his home village in Northern Zambia. But he didn’t stop his political activity. He taught villagers to build bombs.”
Lucas stretched and rose off the bed to grab the chair at Naomi’s small desk. He brought it close to the bed and slouched into it.
“So here comes the good part. In 1960, he set up Zambia’s space program. He began to train astronauts to go to the moon. And Mars!”
Naomi and Lucas snickered.
“Honestly. I can’t remember exactly when this happened, but Nkoloso was once on a flight and asked the pilot—you could talk to the pilots in those days—if he could get out of the plane and walk in the clouds. Of course, the pilot said no, but this inspired Nkoloso. He decided right then that he would go to the moon! He established the National Academy of Science, Space Research and Philosophy. He recruited eleven cadets, including his eldest son, and trained them to go to space. This was before the moon landing, so Nkoloso’s Space Program joined the U.S. and Russia in the space race to put a human on the moon. Nkoloso named his cadets Afronauts—African astronauts.”
Celia grinned, liking the name. “The cadets were all young people. One girl was only sixteen! Nkoloso wore a helmet and a red cape as his uniform, and built flight capsules for his experiments. I remember seeing pictures of these aluminum and copper rockets painted in a variety of colors—blue, yellow, orange, red and white stripes. He built one rocket named the Cyclops that was designed to be propelled into space like a catapult.”
“Mum, c’mon. You can’t be serious!”
“I am! It was a real program. The problem with the Cyclops was that he didn’t have enough money for the fuel required for the propulsion. Nkoloso fundraised and tried to get support for the national program, but unfortunately, he never received any funding. Only ten rupees from a young Indian well-wisher. Nkoloso used unique methods. To get his cadets used to weightlessness, he swung them around in oil drums. He rolled them down slopes and if they became too dizzy, they would be eliminated from the training camp. They studied the principles of space flight and some astronomy. Nkoloso nominated the female cadet, Matha Mwamba, to go to Mars, along with two cats. The cats had two functions: firstly, to keep her company, and secondly, as test subjects—when the rocket landed on Mars, Matha was to toss a cat from the window. If it survived, then the conditions would also be suitable for Matha.
“Nkoloso’s headquarters were at a remote farmhouse outside Lusaka, and some people said this location was for security reasons because the Space Program was a ruse for the freedom movement. There were rumors that his cadets were being trained to carry out bombing missions to advance the independence struggle. Nkoloso wanted the rocket launch to be included in the independence celebrations on October 24 at Independence Stadium. At the last minute, officials decided not to include the launch in the festivities. Some suspect it was because the launch would scare people or put them in danger. Instead Nkoloso decided to launch a small rocket on a hill outside the stadium. This rocket was named D-Kalu 1. Nkoloso’s idea was to show the white people that the Zambians had the capacity for science and knowledge.”
“Like a dare?” Naomi asked.
“No. More like a show of strength. Like, ‘We can do it, too’. To be honest, many thought the whole activity was mad. Nkoloso wrote to several governments and institutions for support and soon his program gained attention. A television news crew from right here in the U.K. went to interview him and document the training, but those reports paint Nkoloso as a bit of a lunatic.”
“Edward Mukuka Nkoloso.” Lucas raised his hand, holding a phone.
“What? Yes. That was his name. Edward.”
Celia leaned back against the bed and sighed. “I’ve seen those reports. No matter whether you think he was insane or a genius, what stands out is how passionate this man was. Very few took him seriously, but he was driven and believed in our greatness. Even after independence, when everyone was focused on the business of building the country, Nkoloso continued to pursue this dream. The American government invited him to watch one of the Apollo launches, which must have been a huge drive for him. He continued pushing the Zambian government for support. He would often appear at the Cabinet Office for meetings to seek funds dressed in his military uniform, many medals pinned to his jacket. Nkoloso thought that the Russians and Americans underestimated his intelligence, but he was also very optimistic about achieving his goals. He was even willing to share his technology to advance the collective goal of a moon landing—on one condition, which I think was a bit excessive: that the Zambian flag be planted on the moon first.”
“Mum … he sounds mad.” Naomi raised her eyebrows at her mother.
“But think about what he did. He pushed for Zambia to do something no other African country was doing, even if he wasn’t equipped or knowledgeable enough to do so. He tried. Passionately.”
“But he was mocked!”
“Yes. And that’s why I said he was misunderstood. I think he was too intelligent and didn’t know how to express that intelligence. The Space program became his channel, but his execution was poor and people thought he was insane. He was incredibly smart. He went on to get a law degree and ran for mayor. He’s inspired many people in Zambia. Documentaries. A short film. An author, Namwali Serpell, wrote him into her novel, The Old Drift. Look it up.”
She nudged Lucas. “Revolutionary.”
“Is that someone you could talk to your friends about?”
The kids grinned.