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Memories of Apollo11 at a Kenyan Village School

Nile Journal

Weeks before Apollo11 mission began, a young science teacher at a village school linked up with Mission Control. They mailed him materials, kept him posted; he shared all, with his class and school. As the D day approached, through him by means of his desk top radio, the whole school and the little village were fired up. The community became as one with this most historic journey mankind had ever made. Here is the true story of Kersi Rustomji, the Science Teacher, who now lives in Australia.

When in 1969 Apollo 11 blasted into space, it created a rare moment of pure magic at an African school and its entire neighborhood in the little coastal town of Likoni opposite the famed Island resort of Mombasa in Kenya.

Nothing like this had happened before. Some were not sure whether to believe or not. In class Seven we talked endlessly about the forthcoming voyage to the Moon; the greatest voyage mankind had ever made. I taught science at the Likoni Primary School.

I had requested NASA to send to us every available information and educational material they had on Apollo 11. The arrival of the package that included plenty of pictorials was a great event at Likoni. We, that is the students and me, carefully mounted the display in class seven classroom under the headline Mtu na Mwezi, which is Swahili for Man and Moon.

After the school had viewed the display, we held an open session for parents and the people of Likoni and surrounding areas. That day the school became a busy teaching resource center for the entire neighborhood.

In the days leading to the launch, normal class work at the school, especially in class Seven where I was class teacher was relegated to the back burner. Students cared only and talked only about the moon and the journey to the moon. Class seven was like a people possessed.

Apart from the NASA printed material, class seven students had made clever wood carvings of the Apollo spacecraft, of the launch pad, and of the three astronauts in space suits. A paper moon hung from the ceiling, a starting string attached to the launch pad ran to the yellow grey moon that hovered over the classroom. Parents and village folks lined to view the exhibition. Including nursing mothers with babies strung to their backs.

The village chief and his officers arrived. Election was due. He gave a speech, praising the efforts of the school, and promised to obtain a grant for science equipment, if re-elected.

Excitement in the school reached high fever when the phone rang, telephones worked in Kenya, and the Municipal Education Officer announced he was on his way and would arrive shortly. A little black car soon approached the school yard and out stepped the city man, to a great reception. The official spoke of the changing world and of the importance of science in education and requested the headmaster to keep the exhibit open till launch time, two days hence..

D Day arrived. Class Seven was at school way ahead of the launch hour. No one could afford to miss a date with history. Boys wore colorful shirts and girls wore colorful blouses. Images of the moon, of the rockets, and of the astronauts were prominently inscribed, with felt pens, on everyone’s dresses. As launch hour approached, many parents arrived and sat on the grass by the classroom.

In the classroom there was an electric aura. When the radio broadcast started, I had brought my radio set along; the silence in the room was uncanny. The live broadcast came through clear in crisp American English. I was on toes, noting and ticking all the information against the headings I had listed on the blackboard. For half an hour, we listened to the flow of information.

Then Countdown began.

It seemed to stretch out forever, though in reality, these were minuscule moments. Then we heard the word: Lift off! I looked at the class. The kids were wide eyes, open mouths and utter silence. They stood up as though on cue and gave a mighty roar. Outside the parents stood and raised their arms. The day was abuzz with nothing but moon shot talk.

On the day of the landing, the excitement was if anything even greater. The schoolyard was again occupied by parents and village folks. They occupied the entire school grounds including playfields. Men sat quietly, and puffed thin cigarettes that had a strong whiff. Women chatted and retrieved small scampering children into their bosoms.

Everyone waited, to hear just the few words that would tell them, men had landed on the moon. Then came the word, Eagle has landed. The school came alive. Shouts, laughter, joy; but silence returned and we waited the next great moment. It was too far away. It seemed to take forever, while the astronauts rested in their spacecraft. Then came, Neil Armstrong’s eternal words: One small step for one man, a giant step for all mankind.

Never before had the small school in the remote Likoni village experienced such exciting days and moments. For the kids of the class Seven, it was to remain with them as the most memorable day of their lives. The men and women of the village stayed back, pumping me with questions. A festive mood pervaded the school, till at last the sun went down and the day ended.