Afronauts: Fictional photos recall forgotten Zambian space program

Story highlights

In the mid-1960s, a Zambian school teacher wanted to send the first African to space

'The Afronauts' photo book is a fictional documentation of his endeavors

The work, by Cristina De Middel, has been shortlisted for the Deutsche Börse prize

CNN  — 

Half a century ago, with the space race in full swing, the heated quest for interplanetary exploration between the Earth’s superpowers gained a new, self-proclaimed, contender.

“We’re going to Mars!” audaciously declared Zambian schoolteacher Edward Makuka Nkoloso in a 1964 newspaper op-ed, revealing to the world his fanciful plans for his country to beat the United States and the Soviet Union in their fierce battle to conquer outer space.

“Our rocket crew is ready,” continued Nkoloso, explaining that his aspiring troupe of space explorers had been gearing up for their interstellar journey in the headquarters of the academy he’d set up on the outskirts of Zambian capital Lusaka.

Erik R. Trinidad,

From within what he called the “Academy of Sciences and Space Technology,” Nkoloso said, he’d been studying Mars through telescopes. He’d also been training his would-be astronauts by rolling them down a hill in oil drums, a technique aimed at getting his team acclimatized to the weightlessness experienced during space travel.

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“Specially trained spacegirl Matha Mwambwa, two cats (also specially trained) and a missionary will be launched in our first rocket,” wrote Nkoloso, a grade-school science teacher and self-appointed director of the space academy.

Unsurprisingly, the program, which was never taken seriously by the government of the newly independent Zambia, failed to take off; a $7 million grant Nkoloso said he’d requested from UNESCO never came, whilst the pregnancy of the 17-year-old spacegirl brought the proceedings to an end.

“The Afronauts”

Fast forward to 2010, when Spanish photographer Cristina De Middel was searching for “unbelievable stories” for a new personal project she was hoping to develop.

Whilst scouring the depths of the internet, she stumbled on a website listing the 10 craziest experiments in history.


“The first one on the list was the Zambia space program,” says De Middel who, after a decade of working as a news photojournalist, had decided to embark on a new career as a visual storyteller.

Fascinated by Nkoloso’s visionary and dreamy perspective on life, De Middel set about creating an imaginary documentation of his elusive endeavors some 50 years ago.

The result is “The Afronauts,” an arresting photo book that has been shortlisted for this year’s esteemed Deutsche Börse Photography Prize.