Sunday, 17 February 2013

The absurdity of the Zambian Space Programme

I used to love Horrible Histories ( a series of books and  BBC programme that is for children, but is also a kind of People's History of the UK). The writer, Terry Deary, said that he wrote it to make history interesting and relevant to all people, with a focus on the social and cultural history of the underdog. Fabulous.

Then he has to go and spoil it by attacking Britain's public libraries (which are already under attack from a philistine government) and that“no one has an entitlement to read a book for free, at the expense of the author, the publisher and the council tax payer. This is not the Victorian age when libraries were created to allow the impoverished to have access to literature.”

In my mind, Deary 's reputation has  taken a nosedive, and by extension, so has Horrible Histories.  It's a bit fickle and rather unfair, but that is the kind of knee-jerk reaction that I work with. I'm trying to compensate for my fickleness and like Horrible Histories again, but it still comes with a bitter taste, the idea that such a great programme should be made by such a big fool! How can that be!

By the same token, the same thing happens in reverse. So Julia Donaldson, who I always loved anyway, lifts my spirits with this article, and goes up a notch in my estimation. She says,  "I think it's brilliant that libraries are free. Not only do library users also buy books, but if some users genuinely are too poor to buy books, then it's great that we've got libraries for those people … [And] If libraries have any bearing on bookshops, it's the other way – libraries are creating readers," said Donaldson, who has "never met" a bookseller who believes libraries are putting them out of business.

 We make allowances and  over-compensate for those that we like. I do it all the time, and being aware of it doesn't really make it any better. It happens all the time with photography. Somebody's pleasant and kind and we like their work better. Someone's an asshole it goes the other way.

I wonder if that isn't what happened with Cristina de Middel's Afronauts. She is such an engaging speaker and livewire of a personality that we believe what we want to believe in her work because she's worth it. I think it's a great fun project, and an exercise in making things happen and improvising, but I don't think it has a depth to it. It's part of a long, long line of science fiction projects that connect to space and Africa
and it is entertaining for all that - that has value in itself. Political, a commentary on African development or our perceptions of the continent - not really. It's more of a depoliticisation than anything..

Not everyone agrees: this is what the inestimable John Edwin Mason said about the Afronauts. 

Cristina said that she was signifying?  Well, not precisely.  But darned close.  She told Pete that 

The Afronauts, in other words, is about us -- we non-Africans -- and the stereotypes and prejudices about Africa that we carry around in our heads.  It's about challenging those stereotypes and beliefs, on the sly, with humor, and with a sleight of hand.

It seems to me that this is Cristina's strategy as well.  She takes what seems to be a playful look at the silly idea that Africans can build rockets and lures her readers into wondering why the idea seems so absurd.

I don't know but I think the whole premise of the Zambian Space Programme was absurd (and it was always the brainchild of an individual rather than a national programme). An article in the . the Lusaka Times reproduces this article from Discovery, which details how the Programme chief, Edward Nkoloso, unilaterally declared his eccentric ideas to the press.

In a newspaper editorial,  Nkoloso claimed to have studied Mars for some time from telescopes at his “secret headquarters” outside Lusaka, and announced that the planet was populated by primitive natives. (He graciously added that his missionaries would not force the native Martians to convert to Christianity.) In fact, he said, he could have achieved the conquest of Mars a mere few days after Zambia’s independence had UNESCO come through with the funding. Oh, he also called for the detention of Russian and American spies trying to steal his “space secrets” — and his cats.
It’s hard not to like Nkoloso, based on what little we know of him today. Here’s a grade school science teacher setting up his own national space program with a small group of trainees who had to roll downhill in a 44-gallon oil drum as part of Nkoloso’s plan to simulate the sensation of rushing through space. Zero gravity? He simulated that by having them swing from the end of a long rope, cutting the rope when they reached the highest point so they went into freefall. He also taught them how to walk on their hands, “the only way humans could walk on the moon.”

Naive? Ignorant? Sure. Especially in light of his less than dedicated volunteers: “They won’t concentrate on space flight; there’s too much love-making when they should be studying the moon,” he complained. Indeed, the much-touted girl astronaut, Matha, became pregnant and her parents brought her back to their village.

You can read more of Nkoloso's proposal in the article. Is it absurd? Well, yes it is, clearly and obviously, to everybody involved in the case. We don't just have absurd people in Europe and America, there are absurd people in Africa as well and Nkoloso, as all Africans of sane mind would and do recognise, was top-grade absurd, as nutty as a fruitcake, as fruity as a nutcake.


Stan B. said...

We also got some pretty crazy ass people here in the states who believe some pretty crazy, way out things. And they're not anywhere near as humorous or imaginative. They're called Republicans- and unlike Nkoloso, they actually wield power.

colin pantall said...

Thanks Stan - you thinking of things like basing your economy on the arms industry, or having a mindset that thinks that having a prison-based economy is good for the system, or... or... the list is endless.

You're absolutely right. Nkoloso was bonkers but he never destroyed people's lives for fun.

He was still bonkers though, and his space programme was a joke, just as my attempts to buiild a dokodemo door in the kitchen are doomed to failure.

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