Transition: a review tested by post-colonial Africa by Cédric Vincent* (translated by Kate Davis)

Introduction, by Mihaela Gherghescu: 

If one looks at the abundance of cultural and artistic press at the height of decolonisation and the emergence of a tri-continental conscience, it is impossible to miss the contradictory diversity, sprinkled with breakdowns, incoherencies, self-ascribed commitments and ambiguous political opinions. At the fore of the anti-colonial and anti-imperialist discussion, the newly re-drawn map of the areas and nation-states of the 1950s and 60s was revealed in a complex editorial landscape, criss-crossed by exceptional artistic and intellectual destinies. On the initiative of Marion von Osten, a research group made up of Lotte Arndt, Teresa Castro, Fanny Gillet-Ouhenia, Mihaela Gherghescu, Olivier Hadouchi, Susanne Leeb, Alain Messaoudi and Cédric Vincent was brought together last autumn in order to document and further the research currently underway on the heterogeneous and interconnected nerve centres where magazines played a pivotal role, a medium whose dissonant production these researchers question, working from different cultural perspectives. This will be the occasion for a critical, open debate, “Action! Painting/Publishing!” on 6 July 2012, followed by the opening of a research space at the Laboratoires d’Aubervilliers presenting a collection of these publications and magazines from the 1960s and 70s.

In 2011, in addition to the publication of a special edition, a number of events celebrated the 50th anniversary of the revue Transition. It was a chance to recall to what extent this review, despite its history full of twists and turns, born in Kampala in 1961, now edited by Harvard University, redefined the editorial landscape in Africa. In that period of fundamental changes across the continent, Transition rapidly became the rallying point as well as a sort of compass for certain intellectuals. Future literary giants such as Nobel prize-winners Nadine Gordimer and Wole Soyinka wrote for it, as did Ngugi wa Thiongo, Chinua Achebe, James Baldwin, Julius Nyerere and Ali Mazrui. The future president of Tanzania, Benjamin Mkapa was a member of the editorial staff and a contributor from the beginning. Nor should the “letters” section be forgotten, as it was a place for fiery ideological debates. Its dynamism did not escape the New York Times which in 1968 presented Transition as “Africa's slickest, sprightliest, and occasionally sexiest magazine. A questing irreverence breathes out of the pages of every issue”.

Rajat Neogy, writer and poet of Indian origin, was 22 when he returned to Uganda after five years of study in London and decided to found his review, Transition, “a journal of the arts, culture and society”, as stated in its subtitle. The presence of a large number of outstanding academics and intellectuals in Makerere, the academic centre of East Africa, and the country’s economic vitality lent energy to the undertaking. The initial goal was to “discuss matters of African relevance in an African context”. In the brief manifesto published in the first edition, Neogy gave the review a regional scope – in his own words “to provide an intelligent and creative backdrop to the East African scene”. He also wrote:
“This journal appears when East Africa is undergoing various and exciting changes. It is a time when idealism and action merge with various degrees of success. It is also a time for testing intellectual and other preconceptions and for thoughtful and creative contributions in all spheres. One of the questions this journal will address itself to is: ‘What is an East African culture?’”.¹

The success of another English-language African review was decisive in the creation of Transition; Black Orpheus spurred modern literature and cultural movements in Nigeria and more generally in West Africa, by uniting writers such as Christopher Okigbo, Wole Soyinka, Abiola Irele and Ezekiel Mphalele around it, writers who would go on to play a major role in developing Transition. This editorial project, subtitled “A Journal of African and Afro-American Literature” was founded by two German expatriates Ulli Beier and Janheinz Jahn in Ibadan, Nigeria in September 1957. It followed the path opened by the Parisian review Présence Africaine, and it took its title from the famous preface to Léopold Sédar Senghor’s work Anthologie de la poésie nègre et malgache (1948) ("Anthropology of black and malgache poetry") written by Jean-Paul Sartre. The fact that the star contributor to the first edition of Transition was Gerald Moore, one of the regular writers for Black Orpheus, made a clear claim to the direct connection between the two reviews, identifying Transition as the Black Orpheus of East Africa.

The regional orientation dominated the first editions, but the editorial line was only consolidated with some difficulty. Such a multitude of subjects and focuses was presented in such a diversity of styles – literature, intellectual economics, missionary religion and politics – that the review risked suffocating, less from the absence of reader response that it sought and more from drowning in its own eclecticism. But the magazine found its tone and progressively unbound its geographic attachments. Only the second characteristic as stated in Neogy’s manifesto “testing intellectual and other preconceptions”, remained a part of the magazine’s blueprint. Foreign aid and its implications, African literature, political responsibility, human rights, freedom of speech, the East African Federation and education were subjects frequently addressed in various formats, from journalistic reporting to literary fiction.

Over time, because Western commentators on African affairs were more inclined to give an expression to the continent’s ideas and concerns than Africans were, this review was saved from becoming a simple medium of self-reflection and self-contemplation by African intellectuals. Instead it became capable of providing a broad forum that went against the current of debates on immediate problems and fundamental questions that are almost always confined to communication in a limited, closed circuit of insiders and partisans.

The special editions are noteworthy. Issue number 17 was dedicated exclusively to the subject of love. It presented a series of ethnographic texts from around the world on a subject that was then infrequently discussed. Ali Mazrui’s article on “Political Sex” and Oko p’Bitek’s on demonstrations of love in Acholi culture were quite innovative. Issue number 21 dealt with contemporary signification of violence – state-sponsored violence, revolutionary violence, mob violence… Transition didn’t need to devote an issue to literature as it was already a predominant presence in all its forms, fiction, poetry and plays, as well as through the exacting literary criticism that developed in its pages. Consequently, it could allow itself cover titles that were both provocative and ironic such as the cover of issue number 18 – “African literature: Who Cares?”. And as was often the case in English-speaking Africa, Négritude, or a claim to an essential black identity, was always roundly rejected.

The least that can be said is that Transition did not hold up a glorified image of Africa. Apartheid, the Biafran war and authoritarian power were regularly dealt with in its pages. A provocative article by English lawyer Ivor Jennings set the tone from the very first issue; in it he asked “Is a party system possible in Africa?”. The question is its own answer he seemed to say. The article by American writer Paul Theroux “Tarzan is an Expatriate” (no. 32), with his merciless critique of the sometimes arrogantly, sometimes unconsciously racist behaviour of the white community in East Africa was a bombshell. Ali Mazrui’s article “Nkrumah: the Leninist Czar” (no. 26) also unleashed a storm among critics, in particular because Mazrui’s portrait appeared in newsstands just a few weeks after the military coup d’état that overthrew Ghanaian president and Pan-Africanism theorist Kwame Nkrumah. For several months, the magazine received letters accusing Mazrui of complicity, ignorance, betrayal, racism and neo-colonialism, the last one being the favourite reproach for the review’s critics. Far from combating the stereotype of Africa as a continent of wars, corruption and illnesses, the review supported it.

The magazine’s innovative graphic design also contributed to its renown. From the beginnings with naïve design, somewhat random page layout and typography and the white cover printed with an interchangeable calligraphic seal, to the mid-60s when the covers provided a place for illustrations or images that reflected the theme of each issue. The majority of them were designed by Michael Adams, an Englishman. Photography also fully found its place in these pages. Paul Theroux’s attack on expatriates was illustrated with images of Whites in compromising positions, captioned with quotations from the article revealing the irony of the situations. Horrifying images of the Biafran war, bodies ripped apart by bombs, a severed head in the hands of a Nigerian soldier, accompanied Neogy’s interview of Chinua Achebe. Then there were the illustrations and comic strips that poked fun at targets that remain a mystery by Italian artist Franco Giacomini and those by Ralph Steadman, the English caricaturist best-known for his illustration of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1972).

In short, Transition never shied away from controversy and frequently sought to be provocative with articles on literary politics, sex, stereotypes or attacks on the regimes in power, opening its pages to forceful replies. Neogy had a very clear idea of what a cultural review should be. He wrote that literary reviews must constantly plumb the depths where cultural activity, as a cultural process, took root and hold up a truthful image of the world: but without creating a readership, the magazine would sink, he added. He surely did not imagine that he would test its limits.

Milton Obote, Ugandan president enjoying his aura of “father of independence” could not indefinitely tolerate the magazine’s frequent attacks on his policies while his regime was becoming more and more authoritarian. At the same time, it came out in 1967 that the Congress for Cultural Freedom, the sponsor of Transition and other cultural reviews (Partisan Review, Encounter, etc.) was secretly funded (and directed) by the CIA. That was a powerful argument for Uganda to send Neogy to prison, which they did. When the magazine’s offices were searched by police and its editors thrown in jail, Transition had reached the respectable circulation of 12,000.

Upon his release from prison in 1969, he moved the magazine to Ghana. Kofi Abrefa Busia, the president, was a close friend of his. But the government was overthrown by a coup in 1972. Fearing a repetition of his experience in Uganda, he abandoned the editor’s position, leaving it to Nigerian playwright and writer Wole Soyinka. The name of the magazine, then based in London, was changed to Ch’indaba² and it was ostensibly dedicated to the idea of “Black Revolution”. Interviews with black American leaders such as Eldridge Cleaver, head of the Black Panthers and Beat poet Ted Joans, the heritage of Caribbean thinkers like Frantz Fanon and C. L. R. James, or the coverage of the 6th Panafrican congress in Dar es Salam, Tanzania in 1974 marked this period in the magazine’s history.

Under Neogy, the magazine evoked a modern, liberal African framework, while Soyinka gave weight and force to the idea of a Black diaspora. However only seven editions of Ch’indaba were published due to a lack of funding. In 1976, publication stopped and was later started up again in 1991 by a former student of Soyinka, Henry Louis Gates, with the support of Kwame Anthony Appiah. From then, headquartered in the United States at Harvard University, the magazine ceased to be a pulpit for African intellectuals and it lost its vibrancy when it fitted itself into the mould of university reviews dedicated to the diaspora.

Neogy certainly chose the right time to start Transition, accompanying the emergence of a euphoric cultural scene and the independence of nations in the early 1960s followed by the disenchantment of the 1970s. The most striking point is the extent to which this innovative, committed magazine, an outpost of the events in contemporary African societies with its both imaginative and demanding style, experienced and expressed the upsets of an era.

Texte publié dans le Journal des Laboratoires de mai-août 2012

* Cédric Vincent is an anthropologist doing postdoctoral research in the Anthropology of writing laboratory (IIAC-EHESS, Interdisciplinary Institute of Contemporary Anthropology with Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales) where he co-directs the “Archive of Panafrican festivals” program supported by the Fondation de France.

¹ “Culture in Transition”, Transition no. 1, 1961, p.2. The author of the text is not given, but it could certainly be attributed to Neogy.

² A port-manteau invented by Soyinka of cha – “stand up” in Swahili, and indaba, “a great assembly” in Ndebele.