downthetubes contributor Richard Sheaf has looked at African comics created and packaged in Britain many times on his Boys Adventure Comics blog, mainly Powerman and POP, which include art by the likes of Brian Bolland and Carlos Ezquerra – but Orbit, a title created for Zambia featuring art wasn’t a title he was familiar with, although it was published in the country in one form or other for forty years and early issues feature a splendid SF strip, “Space Safari” written by Sydney Jordan with art by Martin Asbury.
Alerted to Orbit‘s existence by comics archivist Phil Rushton, Richard discovered Hurley Books, a wonderful bookshop I’ve visited in Mevagissey, Cornwall which often has children’s book gems for sale, was selling a number of issues on eBay, which has led him to assemble cover galleries of early issues of the title on his own blog.
The Origins of Orbit
Launched in 1971, Orbit magazine reflects a passion for science and technology of Zambians such as Edward Mukuka Nkoloso, a grade-school science teacher and the director of Zambia’s National Academy of Science, Space Research and Philosophy, who claimed the Zambia’s independence from Britain in 1964 interfered with his space program to beat the United States and the Soviet Union to the moon.
According to a contemporary article in TIME magazine, Nkoloso was training twelve Zambian astronauts, including a curvaceous 16-year-old girl, by spinning them around a tree in an oil drum and teaching them to walk on their hands, “the only way humans can walk on the moon.”
News of this nascent space program caused a minor sensation in 1964, and has since been documented many times; this 2017 article for New Yorker magazine by fellow Zambian by author Namwali Serpell provides an excellent starting point for anyone curious to know more.
The failed Zambian Space Program has also inspired a number of art projects, including, in 2012, artist Cristina de Middel‘s series of surreal photographic re-creations of Nkoloso’s space program, models in raffia skirts and Afro-patterned space suits meandering across a desert fitted with rusted machinery and impassive elephants; and Frances Bodomo’s short film Afronauts (2014), set in 1969, portraying a group of exiles trying to beat Apollo 11 to the moon.
Orbit: The Launch
The Zambian Observer notes Orbit was the brainchild of the late Valentine Shula Musakanya, who played a leading role in Zambia’s first post-independence government as Secretary to the Cabinet and Head of the Civil Service. His life story, which includes his alleged involvement in a 1980 coup, for which he was later acquitted, is documented in a posthumous autobiography, The Musakanya Papers.
Title details from The Europa World Year note the title as being published nine times a year by Lusaka-based Printpak Zambia with an initial print run of over 65,000 copies. Despite initial funding problems, economic issues in Zambia forcing a change of format and paper stock after its first six issues, Orbit is considered one of Valentine Musakanya’s early achievements for education and the culture of reading by young Zambians.
Valentine initiated the project while Minister of State for Technical Education between 1969 and 1970, at the same time, he was instigating the creation of technical colleges to address the country’s skills gaps. The title was edited initially by teacher Wendy Bond, between 1970 and 1973, who was also the first editor the Wildlife Conservation Society of Zambia’s Chongololo Magazine.
Wendy was the partner of Mick Bond, a District Officer and a District Commissioner, who actively participated in the demise of the colonial regime and then served as a civil servant in independent Zambia who recalls in his memoir, From Northern Rhodesia to Zambia, that Valentine wanted to lay a really secure technical foundation for every child.
“Wendy was summoned to recommend to him a good science magazine for circulation in schools,” Mick recalls. “It very quickly became clear to her that no one in Europe was producing such a thing, at least not one that could make sense to Zambian children, including those in villages whose only experience of electricity, for example, was at most in a torch.
Valentine said: “When science and technology replace witchcraft here, as they must, everyone should have the knowledge to understand them and not just to believe blindly, replacing one superstition by another.”
Orbit: The British Connection
Education, then, was the driving force behind this new 32-page, advertisement-free science magazine created for children, with Valentine’s encouragement. He negotiated with London-based Geminiscan, a subsidiary of the Gemini News Service, to provide art and design for the title, working from editorial copy provided by the Zambia-based team.
Geminiscan’s Managing Director, Peter Clarke, later better known as a cartoonist for The Guardian, who had worked all over Africa in the 1960s as a photographer, who became the de facto third member of the core editorial team.
“They wanted to raise the expectations and ambitions of the young readers of the magazine, so its front cover had a space adventure serial starring two young Zambians!” notes Mick Bond, referring to “Space Safari” drawn by Martin Asbury, who, among other things, would go on to draw strips such as ‘Battlestar Galactica’ for Look-In and the ‘Garth’ newspaper strip for the Daily Mirror.
“No one was left in any doubt that this was the magazine to be reading, because it was so exciting… The quality was very high with a standard of colour illustration rarely seen in Africa.”
“I did all the episodes of ‘Space Safari’, for my sins,” artist Martin Asbury told downthetubes, “and each episode was written by Sydney Jordan, of ‘Jeff Hawke’ fame.
“Syd was a long time friend of Peter Clarke and I got to know Peter through him and together we created a potential daily adventure strip for The Sun newspaper called ‘EuroCop’ – I guess in deference to the new Common Market then – which, disappointedly, after I had drawn about a projected month’s worth went down the tubes.”
“It was after that that Peter asked me if I would draw the lead strip on the front (in colour ) and the back pages (in monochrome) for each edition and episode.”
Early issues of Orbit were designed in Britain by John Egglesfield, who joined GeminiScan in late 1970 – and has fond memories of the project. “I had known Peter Clarke from my childhood and I think it can be said that he had a major influence in me becoming a graphic designer,” he told downthetubes.
“Orbit was then in its final development stage and I worked on the pilot and then the production of the first issue. Peter, then being busy on various other projects, offered me the job of art editor … so at the age of 23 and less than a year out of art-college, I had a recognised NUJ salary, far higher than I could ever have expected, and a most exciting and interesting job.”
Based in an office in Carmelite Street, John found himself briefing, and becoming friends with, some of Fleet Street’s finest cartoonists and illustrators, and coming up with a wide variety of creative and interesting ways to get across science and technology subjects to an ever growing, and loyal readership.
“I also learned valuable lessons in print production, shipping and the importance of schedules and copy dates,” he tells us. “Every month we had a ‘no fail’ deadline to fly that month’s litho films out to the printers in Ndola.
“I visited Zambia late in 1971, staying mainly in Lusaka but also going up to Kitwe to stay with Wendy and Mike Bond. They were determined I saw some of rural Zambia, so took me on a memorable trip up to Lake Mweru. A journey that entailed getting our vehicle over a river crossing on a floating pontoon, crossing ‘the Pedicle’ – that part of then Zaire that juts into Zambia – and my first encounter with dirt roads. It was all very exciting. I also met Valentine Musakanya, having previously been introduced to him in London.
“One of the many things Peter insisted on was that there should be no indication to the young reader that Orbit was being produced in the UK,” John reveals. “We wanted all the focus to be on Zambia.
“After three years I moved on from Gemini – I was offered a new job through my friendship with Martin Asbury – but remained in contact with Peter. Three years later, he again influenced my career by putting me in touch with the MD of the Zambia Publishing Company, which resulted in me taking my wife and two young children back out to Lusaka for three years.”
Orbit: Its Other Comic Strips and Stories
“Space Safari” was not Orbit‘s only strip or fiction element. The magazine also included the aspirational “Mike Chanda, Charter Pilot“; and a popular text story, “The Extraordinary Adventures of Ackson“. These were funny and intelligent tales written by Robert Baptie, and were considered much more believable that “Space Safari”, illustrated by Neville Colvin (who’s perhaps best known for his run on “Modesty Blaise” newspaper strip by Peter O’Donnell).
Also collected separately, they centred on a highly enterprising young Zambian boy who would find himself caught up in all sorts of adventures.
Some of the strips featured echo the educational content of material created for Nigeria’s comic titles: “Jenny Moonga, Health Inspector“, drawn by Peter Ford, for example, has echoes of “Sister Mercy” drawn by Ron Smith for POP, a magazine packaged out of Guildford by Pikin Press, previously featured here on downthetubes.
“Peter Ford did a lot of stuff for us,” John Egglesfield recalls of the artist whose many credits also include “The Munsters” and “Bewitched” for the TV Century 21 and Lady Penelope annuals, “Motormouse and Autocat” and the “Super Mousse” advertising strip for Countdown, “Dad’s Army” for TV Action, and work for Commando, too. “He was a great bloke, really friendly and totally got the ‘Zambia’ thing.”
Early issues of Orbit also included science experiments, a detective story, puzzles, wildlife articles, competitions (including a notable Best Wire Car competition) and more.
There was material supplied by other Zambian ministries, too, including a “Young Farmers” page and a series on African history, as there was a new syllabus in the schools but as yet no materials.
“A middle-page spread on the waterborne disease, bilharzia, was notorious for its graphic illustration, but effective,” recalls Mick Bond. “The greatest success was the page where, after consulting all kinds of experts, she answered readers’ questions which arrived literally by the sackload at her tiny Orbit office.
“Young people all over the country were eager to get answers to all sorts of questions.”
“Yes, I well remember creating the centre page spread on bilharzia,” concurs designer John Egglesfield. “I was always rather proud of that!”
Orbit: Its Zambian Writers
Offering a unique mix of science, health advice, comic strip and more in the style of the original Eagle or Look and Learn, online documentation reveals contributors included Mapopo Mtonga, who was commissioned to write a number of articles about Zambian traditional dance for the title’s sixth volume in 1978.
Some articles, such as an item on Waste Disposal published in 1976, have been re-worked for modern Zambian school children as online educational resources, and Zambian cartoonist Kennedy Nkandu says he was inspired by the title as a child, along with the work of renowned cartoonist Peter Chama Kapenda.
“I saw my brother draw an underground mine accident, that intrigued me and from that time, I developed interest in art,” he told the Zambia Daily Mail in 2018. “I started reading comics, magazines such as Orbit, where there was a cartoon, ‘Fwanya’, and Icengelo magazine, where there was ‘Katona’.”
Behind the scenes, Orbit‘s countrywide distribution came to be handled by an energetic recruit from the Voluntary Services Overseas organisation who delivered the title everywhere a small van.
“They would also have arranged the details when two young competition prize winners were sent over to the UK, and when Wendy (with the rest of the family in tow) went to Nairobi to exhibit Orbit at the All-Africa Trade Fair,” Mick writes.
“There she tried in vain to persuade other countries to use her material for magazines of their own – but Zambia remained unique in having Orbit! And somewhere there must surely remain a store of re-usable material.
“Orbit continued to be produced for about forty years – long after we had left Zambia.”
The success of Orbit prompted the Wildlife Conservation Society of Zambia, who had started clubs in schools across the country to interest young children in all aspects of their wildlife, to launch Chongololo Magazine, with Wendy Bond’s help – and Chongololo Clubs continue to this day in many parts of Zambia.
Wendy remains immensely proud of her achievements as the founder, editor and driving force of Orbit and Chongololo. In an essay published in From the Cam to the Zambezi, she writes “It was all very exciting, because everyone was determined to make a success of the new nation after the restrained and measured progress of colonial days, and to do it fast! Doors were opening for everyone.
“… No job could have been more satisfying or such fun. I was very lucky and privileged to do it… under one umbrella or another, Orbit continued for forty years.
“Most of those original copies were passed around and read until they fell apart, but there are a few in the National Archives in Lusaka today. Originally a copy cost 5 ngwee. By 1996, the price was 250 kwacha. I have met people in the UK who had copied Orbit science material for their textbooks for other African countries.”
If anyone has further information about Orbit, please get in touch!
• Buy Northern Rhodesia to Zambia by Mick Bond from AmazonUK (Affiliate Link)
Mick Bond also recounts his Zambian experiences here on the British Empire web site
• The Guardian News and Media Archive holds the records of the Gemini News Service, 1966-2008. This includes articles; original graphics; promotional material; photographs for articles; photographs of staff and correspondents; newspaper cuttings; management files; financial records, including reports and accounts and lists of expenditure; correspondent files; project files and correspondence with subscribers. An initial search suggests they do not hold much relating to Orbit.
With much thanks to Philip Murphy, author of The Empire’s New Clothes: the Myth of the Commonwealth; John Egglesfield, Richard Sheaf, Phil Rushton, Shaqui le Vesconte and others