Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Life on Mars

While the process of completing a doctoral thesis may be wearisome (and in my case almost unbelievably protracted) there are some slight compensations. In my case it is the chance to elaborate just a little on the story of Edward Mukaka Nkoloso, a science teacher and once head of Zambia's National Academy of Science, Space Research and Philosophy.

His story has previously been used to demonstrate the unreadiness of Zambia for independence, as well as to show the optimism and 'can do' atmosphere of a new country. But the main point is that it is extremely funny. Nkoloso was disappointed that he wasn't able to fire his rocket (developed with reference to a catapult system) on independence day itself, October 24 1964.
It is 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 the Independence Stadium and Zambia would have conquered Mars only a few days after the independence. Yes, that is where we plan to go - Mars. We have been studying Mars from our telescopes at our headquarters and are now certain Mars is populated by primitive natives. Our rocket crew is ready. Specially trained spacegirl Mata Mwambwa, 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 to the people if they do not want it.
Training for the mission was fierce and highly professional.
On the outskirts of Lusaka he assembled four young men, his first trainee astronauts, or afronauts as Matshikiza put it, dressing them in drab overalls with some old British army tin helmets. Then, in front of the press, they would take it in turns to climb into an empty 44 gallon oil drum which would be rolled down a hill bouncing over rough ground. 'This, Nkoloso explained to the fascinated gentlemen of the press, was to train young men in the experience of weightlessness and get them used to the feeling of landing on the ground on the return of their mission, the way the Russians did it.'
I’m getting them acclimatised to space-travel by placing them in my space-capsule every day [said Dr Nkoloso]. It’s a 40-gallon oil drum in which they sit, and I then roll them down a hill. This gives them the feeling of rushing through space. I also make them swing from the end of a long rope. When they reach the highest point, I cut the rope—this produces a feeling of free fall.
Unfortunately, Nkoloso was unable to see his dream fulfilled; the Zambian flag was fated never to fly on Mars; it never even reached the moon. There were two reasons for this: the rocket couldn't get off the ground because of money...and love. Dr Nkoloso explained:
To really get going we need about seven hundred million pounds. It sounds a lot of money, but imagine the prestige value it would earn for Zambia. But I’ve had trouble with my space-men and space-women. They won’t concentrate on space-flight; there’s too much love-making when they should be studying the moon. Mata Mwambwa, the seventeen-year-old girl who had been chosen to be the first coloured woman on Mars, has also to feed her ten cats, who will be her companions on the long space flight…
They weren't her only companions either. Mata had to cancel her moon studies when she became pregnant and her parents took her away. The cruelest blow fell when the Zambian Government, clearly alarmed by the white heat of technology, distanced itself from Dr Nkoloso's agency. Nkoloso tried to keep the flame of African space research alive, but given the unaccountable absence of funding, it was doomed to a premature end. Bad news for everyone, except possibly the afronauts themselves, who would otherwise have been blasting off into space in a 10ft by 6 aluminium and copper rocket.

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Blogger Unknown said...

That story cracks me up, superb. Its so beautiful to imagine that innocent optimism. The world needs more Edward Makaka Nkoloso's.

11:55 pm  

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