In 1964, Nkoloso wrote an Op-Ed about his space program that read to me like a parody of British colonialism in Africa, refracted through a paranoid Cold War sensibility. “We have been studying the planet through telescopes at our headquarters and are now certain Mars is populated by primitive natives,” he wrote. “Our rocket crew is ready. Specially trained spacegirl Matha Mwamba, 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 on the people if they do not want it.” Nkoloso accuses American and Russian operators of trying to steal his space secrets: “Detention without trial for all spies is what we need.

Perhaps the question is not whether the Zambian Space Program was satirical but why so few have imagined that it could be. Zambian irony is very subtle. “We don’t have a yes and a no,” a painter observed to me on a visit to Zambia last year for an artists’ workshop. “We have two yeses, and one of them means no.” The study of the history of black culture is full of theories about doubled or split identity, what W. E. B. Du Bois famously described as “the peculiar sensation” of “always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” Nkoloso seems to have possessed a comic version of this condition, the ironic dédoublement—the ability to split oneself—that Charles Baudelaire saw in the man who trips in the street and is already laughing at himself as he falls.

A couple of years after my first encounter with the Afronaut, I came across a 1988 interview with him in a Zambian magazine. In the interview, Nkoloso makes no mention of the space program; instead, he reminisces with evident relish about his days as a freedom fighter in Kaunda’s United National Independence Party, the nation’s ruling party until 1991. On the eve of Zambia’s independence, in 1964, Nkoloso says, he and his unip; comrades pulled a particularly seditious prank. They broke into the Lusaka mortuary, bribed an attendant with a five-pound note for the corpse of a white woman, smeared goat’s blood on it, and transported it to the crowded whites-only bar at the Ridgeway Hotel, in Lusaka. The lights went out just as they tossed the corpse on the floor. Nkoloso says, “I shouted to the whites who were busy dining, drinking and laughing, ‘White men, your time is limited! We have killed the wife of [Prime Minister] Welensky and we shall soon pounce on you!’” The expats reportedly scattered. Nkoloso and his men took their prize—beer from the bar—and sang “militant songs in favor of the political struggle.”

As I discovered when I next travelled to Lusaka, to visit family, Edward Festus Mukuka Nkoloso is most famous in Zambia as a revolutionary. He was born in 1919, in the north of Northern Rhodesia, a prince of the Bemba warrior tribe; as a child, he received the distinctive scars to the cheekbones that denote royal status. Nkoloso met Kaunda as a young man; like the future President, he had a missionary education, learning theology, Latin, and French. Nkoloso wanted to join the priesthood but was drafted to serve in the Second World War, for the British, as a member of the Northern Rhodesian Regiment. Over the course of stints in Abyssinia and Burma, he was promoted up through the ranks in the Signal Corps, the communications branch of the military.

Nkoloso’s education and military service receive short shrift in Western reportage from the sixties. I learned more about both from his son, Mukuka Nkoloso, Jr. (I’ll call him Mukuka to distinguish them), during a long conversation at his ancestral home, a sky-blue one-story house in Lusaka. A jolly, voluble man of seventy, Mukuka was wary—“they write false stories about my father, they don’t tell the truth”—but keen to set the record straight. He told me that his father’s interest in science had begun during the war, under the tutelage of “a certain Mr. Montgomery, a white man,” who told him how to operate a microscope. But when Nkoloso returned from the war, the colonial administration denied him a permit to found his own school. He opened it anyway, and was prosecuted. Like black veterans around the world, Nkoloso had discovered that fighting for white men did not grant him a better life back home. “We are entirely forgotten,” he wrote, on behalf of African ex-servicemen, in a letter to the editor of The Northern News.

Nkoloso drifted between secondary schools around the country, teaching Latin, science, and math. One day, Nkoloso and some fellow-teachers were having lunch at his home when a new British education official came by. A kerfuffle ensued about whether the Africans had the right to take a lunch break. According to Mukuka, Nkoloso overturned the lunch table in anger, saying, “You are now hindering our human rights.” He led his entire school on a protest march to the Education Office. He was fired.

Nkoloso’s next job was as a salesman for the pharmaceutical company Lever Brothers, in Ndola, the boomtown of the copper-mining district. At the time, the Copperbelt was one of the most politically contested parts of the colonial territory then known as the Federation. The second Prime Minister of the Federation, Roy Welensky, was determined to hold onto the valuable mines in the north rather than handing power over to the blacks. The veterans and miners in the Copperbelt had other ideas. Nkoloso, already the head of a local veteran’s group, joined the Ndola Urban Advisory Council, one of the few institutions that gave Africans a voice, if not exactly a say in their governance.

In 2015, I went to the National Archives of Zambia, to see the records from the council’s monthly meetings. The typed notes, held together with rusty staples, reveal a young Nkoloso eager to promote his progressive ideas and showcase his education. He spoke against raising the Native Tax and asserted that the colonial federation protected “the interests of the white people” while Africans remained “drawers of water and labourers.” He advocated for a maternity clinic, a welfare hall, and an industrial and technical college that would lead to “equal pay for equal work.” In 1955, one year after Brown v. Board of Education in the U.S., Nkoloso proposed “an Inter-Racial School in this country as an experiment in this multi racial society.” He suggested that it was “inevitable destiny for this multi racial society to become dialectic in the struggle for survival.” Somewhere along the way, the Afronaut had been exposed to Marx.

Nkoloso soon gained a reputation as a political agitator in the Copperbelt. As the Zambian historian Walima T. Kalusa notes in an article about colonial conflict in the area, in 1956, Nkoloso stormed into the district commissioner’s office to protest against a European foreman’s exhumation of African graves. Having established himself as a troublemaker, Nkoloso later got caught up in a sweeping arrest of trade unionists. Upon his release, he was designated a “restricted person” and sent back to his home district, Luwingu, in a rural part of the country. There he became a district president of the African National Congress, a political party that was formed in 1948 to represent African interests in the colonial protectorate.

Mukuka painted a fierce portrait of the cult of personality that sprang up around his father as a freedom fighter. Nkoloso wore a blood-red robe and long dreadlocks as emblems of mourning for those slain under colonial rule. His followers compared him to Jesus, “who never cut his hair when he was preaching,” to John the Baptist, to Elijah. Nkoloso, a former seminary student, would perform baptisms, after which, Mukuka said, he would hand the newly converted membership cards to his political party. M. R. Mwendapole reports in his personal history of the Zambian trade unions that he and Nkoloso disguised themselves as women to avoid detection. Mukuka confirmed this, saying that Nkoloso, having “camouflaged” himself as a woman, would walk up to colonial officers and query them about this Nkoloso fellow, much to the amusement of the villagers in Luwingu.

On a hunch, I asked the archivists for a folder catalogued as “Luwingu Disturbance 1957.” It contained a jumble of original and photostatted letters and reports from the British government, A.N.C. officials, the colonial administration, and Nkoloso himself. The records, compiled for an official inquiry, revealed that Nkoloso had organized a large-scale civil-disobedience campaign against both the colonial administrators and the rural chiefs (the so-called Native Authorities). Africans refused to work as carriers, food servers, and census takers; they ignored orders to cultivate their fields. The local chief issued a summons for Nkoloso’s arrest. Nkoloso disappeared into the bush. After a six-day manhunt, witnesses said, he finally walked toward the officers and “straightened his arms forward ready for hand-cuffing.” But his supporters interfered, a riot began, and Nkoloso fled again. He was captured in the dambo, or wetlands.

The documents I read suggested starkly conflicting versions of what happened next. Nkoloso claims that an officer “deliberately, and willfully, grabbed and took me by the neck and thrust me into the river pool with his full intention to drown me.” Black kapasus injured him, he writes, when they shaved his head and beat him “with sticks on the lumbar side of my body causing internal batteries and very injurious internal maims, lacerating the nerves.” The colonial administrators deny these accusations, saying that the cuts to his head and his tumble into the water were accidental, and that he had merely fallen into “a state of collapse.” They call Nkoloso “well-educated but unbalanced” and a “puppet dictator.”

Nkoloso’s letters from prison display both his education and his flair for rhetoric. (In one, he reports that the district commissioner, “unlike the pure English blooded Englishman,” had commanded a group of school children “to sneer, and jibe, and jeer” at him, enacting “a political mockery drama like that of, ‘Ecce. Homo—Behold the Man, behold your Congress Chief!’ ”) He made sure that these reports of his arrest reached Kaunda, who was in England at the time, sponsored by the British Labour Party to learn about the parliamentary system. The A.N.C. telegrams that arrived on Kaunda’s desk in London alleged that Nkoloso had been taken in “nearly dead,” his parents “beaten to death,” and his female supporters physically and sexually assaulted. His aunt, who was arrested alongside him, had died in prison about two weeks after her arrest. Kaunda placed these reports, with all their incendiary details, into the hands of British officials in London. A rebellion in a small African village had exploded across the world and landed messily in the lap of the Empire.

Kaunda told his friend’s story in his pamphlet “Dominion Status for Central Africa?,” published in 1958 by the left-wing Union of Democratic Control. Soon after, Kaunda founded the new United National Independence Party (unip) responsible for the so-called Cha-Cha-Cha uprising (“we will make the imperialists dance to our tune”), a civil-disobedience campaign involving protests, arson, and road blockages. During this contentious period, the British repeatedly arrested unip leaders, including Nkoloso. Mukuka told me that, during one stint in prison, his father had dumped a bucket of urine and ashes on a prison guard’s head. Nkoloso became the self-anointed “camp kommandant” for unip’s meetings in the bush to plan the new government. Later, he was appointed the party’s “National Steward,” serving as a kind of hype-man for Kaunda at rallies as the country moved toward independence.

Mukuka had been a member of the unip Youth Brigade in the early sixties, and said that his father had started recruiting his space cadets from this organization, as well as from local schools. Mukuka had briefly participated in the space program as a teenager and remembered rolling downhill in an oil drum. “I was scared because you feel sometimes you can suffocate,” he told me. He seemed to take his father’s program seriously: “People were saying no, he’s mad, exaggerating. But, no, he’s a scientist, this is science.” Mukuka claimed that his father wasn’t just training the cadets for space travel, though; Nkoloso was also testing their “readiness for independence” in a political sense. “He was teaching for the program, but hidden from the British government. Teaching the youth so they could be active.” Before they had become astronauts, Mukuka said, Matha Mwamba and Godfrey Mwango had travelled to Tanzania to broadcast political propaganda when it was censored during Cha-Cha-Cha. “The Youth Brigade, you’d find in the morning ‘Vote unip’ written in paint on the tarmac,” Mukuka said. They even used explosives: “making bombs, burning bridges,” using “black cloth—they would put it in a sack, then they would mix it with petrol or paraffin, then they burn it.”

Describing all this subversive political action, Mukuka grew animated. “Miss Burton,” he said, snapping his fingers. “In Ndola, she was killed.” He was referring to one of the most famous moments of the Cha-Cha-Cha campaign. On May 8, 1960, a group of unip cadres in the Copperbelt had attacked a white British expatriate, Lilian Margaret Burton, by stoning her car and setting it on fire. Despite her deathbed appeal against retaliation, the accused were hanged for murder. “You know who killed her?” Mukuka said. “The astronauts, the scientists, the people who made bombs and some other things.” He imitated the sound of an explosion. “A bomb in her car. So when you wanted to jump in the car? Explodes!”

The space program, Mukuka seemed to suggest, was both a real science project and a cover. After independence, Nkoloso served as President Kaunda’s “Special Representative” at the African Liberation Center, a safe house and a propaganda machine for freedom fighters in other still-colonized nations on the continent: Angola, Southern Rhodesia, Mozambique, and South Africa. His son said that, beyond his management duties, Nkoloso gave military training to “those freedom fighters, they used to call them guerrillas,” in Chunga Valley—the erstwhile headquarters of the Zambian National Academy of Science, Space Research and Philosophy. Zachariah Zumba, a colleague of Nkoloso’s at the Liberation Center, confirmed that freedom fighters had been trained “in the bush,” and that his astronauts had been drawn from the Youth Brigade. Zumba hinted that they may have served as bodyguards for Nkoloso, who was “a very feared man.”

Andrew Sardanis, a Greek-born journalist and businessman who participated in the independence movement, remembered Nkoloso differently. In the early sixties, Sardanis said, “everybody loved him, but at that stage, he was not being taken seriously . . . He was insane. Not a normal person.” Sardanis attributed this to what happened in Luwingu. “He was arrested and tortured. The Northern Rhodesian police tortured him. And after that, he lost it.” The Zambian ambassador to the U.N. at the time, Vernon Mwaanga, recalled that the reporters who flocked to interview Nkoloso “looked at him more in jest than in seriousness.” But he felt that the older members of unip respected Nkoloso as a veteran freedom fighter, and that the younger ones were inspired by his passion. “He was a very intelligent man,” Mwaanga said. “He was not a fool. He knew what was happening. He knew what was going on. Although my wife still thinks that he was crazy.” Mwaanga had a notion that Nkoloso had been invited to visit a nasa base, which lent some credence to a 1974 letter I’d found in the archives from Nkoloso, thanking the government for sending him “to witness the launching of Appollo [sic] 16.” (In the margins of the letter, there is a hand-scrawled note saying that his words appear “conceived in the realms of fantasy and imagination.”)

Last June, I interviewed former President Kaunda in his personal office, in the Leopards Hill neighborhood of Lusaka. Kaunda, who is ninety-two years old, was dignified and sharp, if a little hard of hearing. Nkoloso had been “quite politically active when we were fighting for independence,” he said, and “a useful servant to the nation.” When I mentioned the space program, Kaunda laughed. “It wasn’t a real thing,” he said. “He wasn’t a scientist, as such. But he used to do some—I can’t say ‘funny things,’ but many people enjoyed themselves in what he was talking about . . . It was more for fun than anything else.”

Once unip was established as the ruling party of the new nation, Mukuka said, Nkoloso was gradually relegated to the outskirts of government. “He was supposed to be Minister of Defense in the new government,” Mukuka said. “Now, unfortunately, they sidelined him.” Nkoloso drifted through what amounts to a series of sinecures. In his sixties, he went to law school at the University of Zambia, but the degree he earned, in 1983, did not yield better circumstances.

A year later, Nkoloso was working as the chief security officer for an industrial-development company outside of Lusaka. “It is too low for me and I don’t want to talk about it,” he told a Zambian reporter in one of his last interviews before his death, in 1989. He was more eager to discuss his “scientific madness” for space travel. “I have not abandoned the project,” he said. “I still have the vision of the future of man. I still feel man will freely move from one planet to another.”