14 February 2017

Zimbabwe: Making Million-to-One Chances Work

opinion

Ronald Reagan, the film star turned president, wanted to make America supreme in space. He must have been dreaming about a kind of Star Wars or War of the Worlds. Many things seem impossible until someone tries them. As with many things that we now take for granted, it all started as a speculative literature project - as Sci-Fi in comics! In the first Star Wars movie, a singer called Jeff Wayne with his War of the World's band, did an iconic song for the movie. The song predated today's digitised beats and, of course, the use of the keyboards. I found Jeff Wayne's song fascinating because of its implied defiance of the odds. Ominously, Jeff Wayne sang:

The chances of anything coming from Mars Are a million to one, he says. The chances of anything coming from Mars Are a million to one, but still they come!

When Ian Smith spoke of majority rule never coming to Zimbabwe in his lifetime and never in a thousand years, he forgot the golden rule of politics: Rank outsiders sometimes win, like Donald Trump! Statistical probabilities aside, we need to think about all those things that seem impossible and make them possible in our time.

When Rhodesian soldiers drove around the countryside in their monstrous Pumas, vehicles with four-inch walls of reinforced steel, with their awesome FN rifles and shiny boots, it must have seemed then that the chances of Zimbabwe ever materialising were a million to one or worse. But still, Zimbabwe came!

Indeed, the whole decolonisation process must have seemed impossible at some stage. What with the might exhibited everywhere by invincible Britannia! But decolonisation came, the neo-colonial template notwithstanding.

It didn't matter then that what everyone was getting was mere political independence, or that they had no idea that that was happening. And the wise old men in the countryside shook their heads and wondered how poor Africans on foot could ever fight these wizards flying above them in aeroplanes that spat fire. The chances were a million to one they might have said, but these things still came to pass.

Think back to those years way back when it was an offence for an African to walk on the pavements where he might somehow touch white madams, even inadvertently.

You were prosecuted for doing such a cheeky thing. You were, after all, a native and a savage to book. You could only watch and drool from afar. And that pint of lager was strictly a no-no. The brown bottle was not always accessible.

But someone was always going to challenge these iniquitous things, and BB Burombo did. He was a man of prestigious physical stature as well as intellectual prowess. He was always doing things he shouldn't have been doing and being taken to court for them.

Burombo was self-taught including in the area of the law and generally always successfully defended himself despite his adversaries in court being qualified white lawyers. Owing to his exploits and agitation, by 1960 Rhodesian natives could imbibe clear beer. Some had said this would never happen but it did, and we enjoyed our small victories and walked on the pavements without being molested.

Round about 1976 when I was an undergraduate student at the University of Rhodesia. I was one of several students tasked with collecting materials for publication in a magazine called Opus. We went from office to office asking and sometimes persuading lecturers to do articles for the magazine. Students too could submit materials for publication.

Shimmer Chinodya, now a literary icon, was a tall, lumbering young gentleman talking about wanting to write. The writer of what later became "A Harvest of Thorns" submitted a witty story about an illiterate old man on a bicycle who in English only knew how to say, "Good morning" cheerily as he passed by. And he said so to all the children playing on the street, no matter what the time was.

I have been begging Shimmer since then to make this story come alive as a novel, but to no avail. Nevertheless, while some of us on the editorial committees of Opus might have found Shimmer's talk about writing books nothing more than a pipedream, his books came, nevertheless.

One day I went to the office of a lecturer in the Faculty of Science and he gave me a story about the computer chip. I had no idea what on earth he was talking about, but took his story along and, to my surprise, we published it.

The things that the lecturer was claiming would happen in the next 20 years were to me quite inconceivable and definitely impossible. But the things happened. With "IT" being what it now is, some people even wonder how the world could have managed without the miracles of the computer chip. I find myself joining in that wonder.

When H.G. Wells wrote "The First Man on the Moon", it was all just fantasy, but as we now know, people have indeed been to the moon. There is even talk now of space tourism for those who have their money; it's going to be possible for them to travel into outer space on tour.

Imagine Leonardo da Vinci and his drawings of flying machines and helicopters as far back as the 16th century, long before the Wright brothers. He must have seemed to be nothing but a dreamer, an idle person with a lot of time on his hands. How a human being could possibly fly, must have been the overwhelming question of the day.

The world was reckoning without science and without imagination and, of course, George Bernard Shaw had not yet made his observation about the world owing a lot to the unreasonable person.

Eventually, someone was able to split the atom and suddenly the atom bomb was with us. The hydrogen bombs devastated Nagasaki and Hiroshima in Japan to end that country's interest in World War II.

Even more bewildering was the discovery of DNA by Watson and Crick at the University of Cambridge. Suddenly Frankenstein's monster did not seem such an improbability, now that the building blocks of life had been discovered.

More recently, cloning was used to produce a carbon copy of a sheep and Dolly the cloned sheep became a celebrity. One wonders where this is all going. But, once again, things that human beings previously thought impossible happened.

Zimbabwe is not new to trial and tribulation; neither is she new to innovation and enterprise. We just need to embrace our whizz-kids and support their enterprises. The idea of comfort zones should be least in our thoughts and reckoning. People should dream and dream big.

Many television viewers remain glued to their couches when there's a James Bond movie showing. In typical Einstein fashion, Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond, first played by Sean Connery on the big screen, let his imagination go overdrive in order to create in his mind many of the extraordinary gadgets that 007 uses.

Surprisingly, engineers were able to actually make many of these gadgets. Closer to home we can look at what happened in Zambia at independence.

A man called Edward Mukuka Nkoloso had this big dream to beat the United States of America and the Soviet Union to the moon and to Mars. On Zambia's Independence Day Nkoloso complained that the festivities were interfering with his space programme. Nkoloso said his astronauts would go to the moon, and then to Mars.

This was a wild boast since at independence Zambia's population was only 3,6 million people and the country had a mere 1 500 high school graduates and less than 100 college graduates. Nkoloso himself, the self-appointed Director of the National Academy of Science, Space Research and Philosophy, an unofficial institution, had little science education.

Nkoloso's astronauts never got to Mars, or the moon, and they never even got out of Lusaka. Nobody took Nkoloso seriously, and the Zambian government stayed aloof of the project.

But, whatever Nkoloso's shortcomings were, he foresaw that space travel was going to be a huge thing in future and wanted Zambia to be in stride with developments.

Fifty years or so after Nkoloso, Zimbabwe has had her own aeronautical engineers doing something along the lines of building machines that could fly. These include Sibanda Banda and his helicopter, Shingirayi Taruvinga with his fixed wing airplane and, of course, Daniel Chingoma's scrap metal helicopter. At some time, there was also talk about an air technician at Thornhill Airbase in Gweru who was able to extend the life of the M29 jets from China.

Now that Zimbabwe's new curriculum is taking off and we have both STEAM and STEM in place, what is needed is a new funding model to enable our engineers and others to evade the fate that befell Zambia's Nkoloso.

David Mungoshi, an applied linguist, is a social commentator, poet and novelist.

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