Afrofuturism Imagines: Exploring the 1969 Zambian Space Program

Afronauts - the term envisioning spaceman, Afros and charting the history of an ambitious space program…

By
Leah Abraham
July 1, 2017

Next up in our nostalgic segment on Afrofuturism is another Sundance premiere, the beautifully eerie “Afronauts” directed by NOWNESS affiliate Frances Bodomo. Shot entirely in Monochrome, the haunting short recreates the Zambian Space program that went undocumented in 1964; a time of great momentum with the US and Soviet union at the forefront of the race. Just after Zambia’s national independence zealous war veteran Edward Mkuku Nkoloso, dreamt up a mission that would launch 12 africans to the moon. Afronauts poignantly hones in on the narrative of 17 year old Matha Mwamba, who was the first cadet from the 1969 mission. Bodomo reels the audience into the extraordinary motions of Zambia’s voyage into uncharted territory. “Next stops, the moon”.

Afronauts, Frances Bodomo, 2014

“We’re seeing sci-fi “dominate” because it’s more fun, playful, and truthful to imagine/explore/express. It’s more discursive, more radical, to look at your creative peers and say, “What if?”  We create something new that way, not from explaining ourselves, but expressing ourselves.”

 

Over the span of 14 minutes we meet Matha (played by stunning Albino actress/model Diandra Forrest), the demure, pensive heroine, and the 1st African space-girl. Although heralded as the 1st cadet for the mission, she remains as distinctively outcasted as an oddity. Her blonde afro and powdery skin contrasts against dusky grainy landscape, and against her brown skinned peers. We watch Matha be put through her paces as she undergoes buoyancy, weightlessness training, and more crucially Isolation. In amongst the reverential chanting of “Matha, Matha, Matha…” we question the integrity of her fated destiny. Who's dream is Matha in pursuit of, and is she aware of the gravity that it carries..?

Afronaut’s traverses between fantasy, history, and surrealism; facets of its historical factuality are spliced, and reworked with new projections of narrative. In a similar vein to Pumzi, Bodomo recreates the camp of the Zambian Space explorers in remote, stark landscapes - stills of the rubble surface and its craters serve as mysterious reminders of the moon’s surface. The Bantu 7 Rocket spacecraft is even already erected, so questions begin to register. Has she already landed...? Bodomo creates a tipping off point for investigation, the sci-fi genre enables her to conjure up a fictional narrative and still retain its credibility as a fantasy. What we see unfold is somewhat of an insinuation that the events that follow, take place once spaceship reached its destination. Bodomo ingeniously melds this trajectory into the main plot.

Photo series by Cristina de Middel

In the real life account, 17 year old Matha allegedly fell pregnant, unable to continue on with the mission, she was sent back home to her parents. Bordomo constructs a new tension wrought in the loosely suggested framework of a maternal relationship between Forrest and actress Yolonda Ross. At points, themes of danger and hostility inscribe themselves in shadow, stilled moments of subdued introspection. Martha's mother, (Ross) warns her daughter of her apprehensions, “..they’ll just blow you up and turn you into fireworks..” raising some serious alarm bells for impending peril. Viewers are confronted with the foreboding that Martha's fate may be a self-sacrificial enterprise. But as the moon illuminates, overhead, pictured as within grasp between Matha's hands, we consider that ambitious pursuit for the moon is a dream still viable.

The screenplay is enduring and at times electrifying, as much as it is sparse, steely and otherworldly. Bodomo masters the technique of restrained tension building. “Mother of the exiles, tell them we are all coming” urges the war veteran Nikoloso (played by Hoji Fortuna). As he continues to imbue his cadet with the propaganda fuel that drives his own dreams for national glory, Matha accepts her deliverance. Through Matha’s veil of placid, muted, and at times sombre vessel, lies an intangible web of her internal world. One that hardly surfaces in duration of the screenplay, as if fated to remain masked until the full feature release. We’ve got all our fingers and toes crossed for that one to come through soon. Afronauts projects its female space explorer as the living breathing manifestation of fascination, intrigue and continuing legacy.

A film by Frances Bodomo

13  min | B&W 

USA, 2014

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