‘Nigerian Astronaut on a Soviet Missile’: A Response to Kantarama Gahigiri’s ETHEREALITY

By Abiba Coulibaly


Kantarama Gahigiri’s Ethereality starts with a plea: over email, a Nigerian man asks the film’s anonymous narrator for ‘only’ 3 million US dollars to rescue his cousin Abacha from space. Having traveled to a military space station in 1989 as part of a secret Soviet mission, Abacha was left behind when the Soviets returned to earth afer the dissolution of the USSR. As the narrator ponders  this deserted, potentially fictive astronaut’s predicament, she reflects on the meaning of home and, in documentary footage, has nocturnal conversations with West African migrants—patrons of a community bar somewhere in Zurich. These docufiction narratives form Ethereality’s two main threads: one otherworldly, the other firmly down to Earth, both exploring themes of alienation, migration and belonging.

The solicatory email received by the narrator is based on the infamous Nigerian 419 scam email, yet its premise is not inconceivable.  The convergence of the ‘decolonisation’ period and the Cold War saw a close allegiance develop between many newly independent African nations and the USSR—part of a wider ‘Third Worldist’ ecology featuring Cuba and most of Asia, whose nations had spearheaded the Bandung Conference. This militant rapprochement set the scene for a scenario in which a Nigerian astronaut on a Soviet missile would not be out of place. The camaraderie spawned progressive and multidisciplinary cross-cultural exchange: Malian musicians developing new genres after receiving scholarships to study in Havana, Maoist propaganda posters with an unprecedented African presence, and Soviet-inspired publishing endeavors in the Arab world. But perhaps this new allegiance caused the most significant cultural impact in the world of cinema. The list of directors invited to study film in the USSR reads as a who’s who of radical African filmmaking; Ousmane Sembène, Sarah Maldoror, Souleymane Cissé and Abderrahmane Sissako all received financial aid from the Soviet state to attend Moscow’s Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography (VGIK), the world’s oldest film school, spawning what film journalist Basia Cummings calls ‘a cinegeography of socialist friendship.’

During its existence, 60,000 African students studied in the USSR, which might explain how Abacha got there, but not why he is unable to return. The reason for Abacha’s isolation, we are told, is that his place on the earth-bound aircraft ‘was taken by return cargo’. This statement, read matter of factly by the narrator, possesses a stark resonance with the current situation of Africans studying and working in Ukraine who are denied exit as their white counterparts leave, and pundits lament the fate of ‘blue-eyed’ and ‘blond-haired’ refugees. As with the stories emerging during the resurgence of the Taliban, of animals prioritised over Afghan refugees for places on chartered flights out of the territory, these practices highlight that even during times of absolute crisis, the ability to pause and make preferential choices rooted in racial discrimination is not suspended. Both Abacha’s abandonment and the ongoing border politics in Ukraine expose the fragile and conditional nature of the solidarity once extended to African nations by former Soviet states.  

Abderrahmane Sissako's October starts to hint at these tensions. His second film, made in his time as a student at the VGIK, it depicts the strained relationship between Idrissa, an African student in Moscow, and Ira, his pregnant Russian lover. While agonizing over whether or not to keep the child, Ira disregards Idrissa’s role as father, stating, 'He'll leave either way', hinting at the inevitably finite nature of their romance, futile and ill-fated despite mutual desire, serving as an allegory for the relationship between the home countries of the two protagonists. Unlike Abacha or today's migrants blocked in Ukraine, Idrissa has the ability to return home, but what remains constant is the limited, contingent and policed mobility of Africans in the (former) USSR.

These freedoms and restrictions all essentially come down to a question of perceived threat; the exit of Abacha and today's migrants is perceived as jeopardizing the safety of other entities, be they cargo or fellow humans, deemed more precious. Idrissa's departure does the opposite: protect what was then valued—racial and demographic purity. While Idrissa is free to leave the country, one place he cannot go is the cinema, where he is refused entry for reasons unclear to the viewer. Denied access from the anonymising, dim-lit refuge of the movie theater, much of his narrative takes place in the stark, snow-clad Moscow cityscape, where he is highly visible and easily identifiable as the film examines how comings and goings are politicized and policed.

As Ethereality’s narrator recounts Abacha’s predicament, she asks, ‘Are you the Rosa Parks of space?’ His situation also echoes a different kind of racialised exclusion—solitary confinement. However, the narrator pushes back on the idea that returning to Earth might offer Abacha a solution, pausing to ask, ‘Do you have any idea how it is down here?’ I can’t help but think of the passage in Summer of Soul that explores the Harlem community’s indifference to the concurrent moon landing, particularly Redd Foxx’s quip: ‘Black man wants to go to Africa, white man’s going to the moon. Imma stay in Harlem with the Puerto Ricans and have me some fun’. But the narrator’s central question prompts a sobering reflection on the state of the world: what kind of scenario might Abacha be returning to? When Ethereality came out in 2019, wildfires devastated the Amazon at an unprecedented rate, the US federal government ground to its lengthiest halt and anti-government protests raged from Hong Kong to Venezuela, France to Algeria. And yet, somehow, this was a less troubled time than today—a world in the throes of pandemic-induced trauma, contemplating the possibility of nuclear conflict. Having departed from Earth just as nuclear tensions were dying down, Abacha would find himself in a warzone of unprecedented volatility if he was to return to his USSR airbase today.

Part of the intrigue of Ethereality is that it dwells on an email that most people would disregard in an instant—sending it swiftly to the spam folder. In addressing the ‘junk’, a fictitious and debunked fabrication, Gahigiri avoids pointlessly hypothesizing, and instead grounds the viewer by provoking a critical engagement with themes spanning geopolitics, mobility and hospitality that render the veracity of the email obsolete. USSR-Africa relations deteriorated following the dissolution of the former, as did much of the Third Worldist unity for various reasons. The relationship that has emerged at present between African countries and Post-Soviet states is an ambivalent and shifting one, marked by wariness on behalf of the former as the intentions and allegiances of the latter are fickle and unclear.

When the narrator asks, ‘are you sure you want to come home?’ her question is loaded, implying a deterioration of the spirit of mutual aid that Abacha had come to know during what was an apex of radical cross-continental exchange. Her tentative question, and all that it provokes, makes me think of Ray Barretto’s delivery of a final, improvised verse of Together at the Harlem Cultural Festival—performed the same week as the first moon landing. Half-spoken, half-sung, bookended by trumpets, it ends with a plea.

I said everybody get together

Got to do it all if we gonna live

Not on the moon, right here on Earth, baby

We got to do it all together

Before it's too goddamn late