The man who made Africa’s first chopper

‘Inventor’ returns with Africa’s answer to AK-47

By Lenin Ndebele

BULAWAYO- DID you know that long before Zimbabwe’s current economic challenges, the country so nearly became a major player in the aerospace industry by manufacturing its first helicopter?

Well, I bet you didn’t. Whether the “Zim-Copter” – a scrap metal and car-engine-made chopper – really took off the ground in 1994 is still subject to speculation, but its creator, a former Zimbabwe Air Force Flight Lieutenant Barnabas Sibanda, 60, is back but this time with an assault rifle.

A visit to his workstation in Zimbabwe’s second city Bulawayo, in the Kelvin North industrial site, opened a window into the life of a man whom some call a loony, while others see a genius living ahead of his time with little or no means to achieve his hopes and dreams.

“I was young, but I really saw the helicopter take off the ground,” says his daughter, MaDawu, 28, as she grabs her phone to call her father to tell him about our presence.

Archived information from as far back as 1992 portrays Sibanda as a controversial and eccentric man.

When claims surfaced in 1993 that he had actually flown his helicopter for 65km, his story attracted worldwide attention.

The Civil Aviation Authority of Zimbabwe, the authority in charge of the country’s airspace, was not too impressed though. If true, Sibanda would face the wrath of the law for violating aviation regulations, it warned. There were no witnesses, so they let it slide.

Other than him and his children, no-one can testify to having seen the chopper – a patchwork of scrap metals with a Citroen engine – fly. The first of many public exhibitions held was in 1995 and reports say its engine roared to life and the propeller rotated but the helicopter remained static.

Since the turn of the millennium, his helicopter production line – which was never embraced by government officials – has gone rather quiet. His prototype, still on display outside his “factory”, has taken a hit from the elements and a visitor would take some convincing that it was ever intended to fly.

Never the one to be held back, Sibanda has a new product for the world: an assault rifle called Ixhwa or simply African Rifle which he insists can rival other international killing machines such as the AK47.

“From where I see things, the whites had superior weaponry that’s why they easily colonised Africa. A spear could not rival a machine gun or the cannon,” Sibanda says as he gives a pitch of his latest invention.

Unlike the helicopter which took him nine months to build, the gun is a work of five years.

He says he is inspired by the story of a gun that became a symbol of African resistance against white colonial rule: the AK47 which Mozambique even has in its national flag.

“I used scrap metal to make this supreme weapon. As you can see, it looks simple and straight-forward. Just like an AK47, this should be a mass production weapon,” he adds.

A veteran of Zimbabwe’s armed struggle for Independence and trained by Russian instructors in combat and aviation for the Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army (Zipra) in 1976, Sibanda’s designs draw heavily from the influences of the former Soviet Union.

“Bullets that are compatible with my gun are the 7.62×25mm Tokarev,” he says.

The bullets and others in their range are Russian-made.

The gun is, unsurprisingly, nothing special and its controls are unsophisticated.

“Its simplicity is what fools the enemy,” explains Sibanda as he takes this reporter through a mock drill on how to cock and shoot with the African Rifle.

Sibanda is a dejected man. He feels there is no government buy-in into his ideas and those of other innovators.

“I fund my projects using my pension. There’s no money to help me – I only see politicians when it’s time to show off the projects. As it is, I’m working on a small paraffin making machine. When done with it, I will see politicians coming to give speeches about ground breaking things happening here, then they are gone,” he said.

The only notable recognition that he got was last month when the Ministry of Higher and Tertiary Education, Science and Technology Development invited him to the RIO SET expo at the National University of Science and Technology.

RIO SET is a government to spur scientific and technological research and innovation. It ran under the theme, ‘Growing the Zimbabwean economy through innovations’.

Sibanda’s problem, say some, is not only convincing others that his innovations are viable – he must first prove that he is still in charge of his faculties. Those close to him, like his daughter MaDawu, think Zimbabwe is missing a trick.

“My dad is just like your father, except he is an exceptionally gifted innovator whose genius you people will discover long after he is gone,” she says.