A big round of applause for the State of Israel for demonstrating that a small country can have big dreams, and reach for the stars! Beresheet has evoked memories and emotions I would like to share.
As a boy, growing up in Zimbabwe, then a showcase for post-colonial Africa, science-fiction books, TV shows and movies fuelled my vision of a Zimbabwe that would soon send a rocket into space. Until I was about 14, my answer to the question what do you want to be when you grow up was invariably “astronaut.” My brother, Kudzai, and I conducted experiments with rockets that, when I look back now as a 43-year old (he’s now 41) man, were quite dangerous. One of these entailed puncturing an aerosol can and boiling some water in it till the steam built enough pressure to rip the bung off and propel the can into the air. I don’t want to think of the hiding I would have received had any of the adults found out about this.
However, we were surrounded by people who held that such dreams were not for children in a Third World country. Space Exploration was for crazy Americans and Soviets, who were going to get the whole world blown up the same way Kudzai and I were going to blow up our grandparents’ backyard. Zimbabwe, like any other non-western country could never launch a rocket. We did not know how, we couldn’t even possibly learn to know how. Our grandfather made us take apart the telescope we had built using old spectacles, after reading about Galileo, because he believed that looking into it would make us blind.
Many people from southern Africa may not know this, but an interest in space exploration predates colonialism and post-colonialism. A story sometimes cited as attesting to a history of at least the ambition for space exploration by Zimbabwe’s pre-colonial society and indicating yet another field of human endeavour that Africans could have embarked on without the initiation and supervision of Europeans is that of the Nhururamwedzi (“Bring down the Moon”) Project. During the reign of Changamire (Emperor) Chirisamhuru (c.1830), the Kalanga/Rozvi are said to have tried to build a tower of logs bound with leather thongs to reach the moon, and bring it down as a gift for the monarch. It is said that they toiled for a year before the logs began to rot and the tower collapsed, killing many workers.
Today, many scholars agree that the story of the Nhururamwedzi is fiction, made up by the Kalanga/Rozvi to impress others and sustain their image as a daring and innovative people. Like the more mythical parts of Zimbabwean history, it is not backed by archaeology or other more credible means of recovering history. Nevertheless, it has inspired a few artists, such as sculptor Jonathan Mhondorohuma, who carved Reaching for the Moon, and novelist NM Mutasa, who wrote Misodzi, Dikita NeRopa. (“Sweat, Blood & Tears”). This year, I will be revisiting the legend in a steampunk short story.
Perhaps more cringeworthy than inspiring was the Zambian Space Program of the 1960s. This was the brain-child of one Edward Festus Makuka Nkoloso (1919-1989), World War II veteran and nationalist who helped lead Zambia to independence from colonial rule and became a science-teacher. Despite his role in the liberation of Zambia, Nkoloso complained that the independence celebrations were stealing his thunder, as he was already fours years into an ambitious program that would beat the Americans and Soviets to not only the Moon, but also Mars.
While the Kalanga/Rozvi enterprise was based entirely on the level of knowledge about outer space in the kingdom at the time, the Zambian Space Program appeared to have cared little for the progress that the United States and the Soviet Union had made in aeronautics. His Zambia National Academy of Science, Space Research and Philosophy had applied for funding from UNESCO, but the Zambian Government had publicly distanced itself from what was widely seen at home and abroad as a crackpot enterprise. In a recent interview, former President Kenneth Kaunda recalled the project as being “more for fun than anything else.”
Undeterred, Nkoloso trained his “afronauts” for the rigours of space travel by rolling them downhill in a barrel. His lead cadet was a young lady, who also spent time looking after the ten cats they were going to let out of the spaceship first on Mars to see if the planet could support terrestrial life. Nkoloso subsequently announced that he would include a Christian missionary to the trip to Mars to instruct the natives, but only if they wanted to embrace the religion. The project, however, fell apart. Nkoloso blamed the lack of financial support, his cadets prioritising romantic liaisons over their training (the young female afronaut fell pregnant) and sabotage by foreign agents. Looking back, I could have quite easily ended up becoming Zimbabwe’s answer to Nkoloso- sans all the romantic liaisons and acting the village idiot for the media, of course.
In all seriousness, though, there have been a few strides by African nations towards venturing into space. In 1970, Kenya launched a satellite, followed by South Africa in 1999. Egypt, Algeria and Morocco have also launched satellites. Nigeria has announced a project to put a man (or woman) in space by 2030. These satellites have been used to monitor natural disasters and environmental degradation, saving Africa millions in managing the costs of those disasters.
Israel has surpassed the endeavours of so many small nations and showed that it can be done. My personal interest in space travel was rekindled by this single event. Sadly, this is not an opinion that has been widely aired. Many African and “pro-Black” online outlets expressed delight that Beresheet failed to land, as if Fate had delivered a blow against Zionism. It is lamentable how a political ideology of hate will now guide so many small nations against achieving their own ambitions, if such an achievement can be realised from at least watching and appreciating what Israel has accomplished.
Mazal Tov, Israel, from this space geek.