Intellectual magazines flourish in Africa
THEAST OCTOBER young Nigerians took to the streets to protest police brutality. At first, “none of the mainstream media companies covered it,” Wale Lawal recalls. A few years earlier, he had launched the Republic, a quarterly magazine of ideas and analysis, and now its readers wanted to discuss the movement that was growing around them. So he and his team in Lagos published a series of articles online about the protests, later collected in a special print edition. This kind of in-depth coverage of underreported stories was “exactly what we were supposed to do.”
Mr Lawal says he hopes the Republic will one day become “a New York Times for Africa ”. But in temper, it’s more like the protest movement itself – young, tech-savvy and decentralized, its freelance editors tackling topics as diverse as modern slavery or the sexism of Fela Kuti, a revered musician. The publication is one example of the new intellectual spaces that have opened up in Africa over the past decade, from long-standing journalism to literary magazines, in an efflorescence of political commentary, criticism and fiction.
African intellectual journals have an illustrious history. The independence era of the 1950s and 1960s produced titles such as African presence and Transition. “A good literary magazine is like a blind man’s stick,” wrote Rajat Neogy, the Ugandan founder of Transition; “It helps you feel the way. He has published works by such luminaries as Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Ngugi wa Thiong’o and James Baldwin. But in 1968, he was arrested for sedition after publishing an article criticizing the Ugandan government, a harbinger of the authoritarian cloud that would stifle free speech in many African countries.
In 2000, speech became freer again and the new century saw the birth of publications such as Chimurenga, a literary magazine named after a Shona word for Zimbabwe’s liberation struggle. But it is on the Internet that the constraints have really disappeared. “For many African countries, the digital space is the freest,” says John Githongo, a Kenyan anti-corruption activist and former writer for the Economist. In 2016, he was part of a group of Kenyans who founded the Elephant, an outspoken political website that registered 3.2 million views in 2020. (Online freedom can be fragile: government Ugandan blocked the site during last year’s election campaign, after covering up killings by security forces, among other sensitive issues.)
New online outlets are experimenting with podcasts and videos and embracing social media. Some of the better known, like the Africa is a Country analytics site, or the Brittle Paper literary site, started out as personal blogs. They generally reject both the stilted habits of major African newspapers and the narrow preoccupations of most Western writing on the continent. Many are more cultural than political, but most lean to the left. The perspective is typically pan-African, finding both solidarity and difference with activists elsewhere. Through a series of essays on “The Black Atlantic”, Mr. Lawal hopes “to change the perspective on darkness in the world”. The accent, he thinks, tends to be narrowly American.
These outlets also emphasize the universal interests of African writing. Jennifer Malec, editor of Johannesburg Book Review, says it aims “to give the floor to African writers to comment on important literary works from around the world”. Its latest edition deals with both Manyano, a women’s prayer movement in South Africa, and the influence of Charles Dickens. Bakwa, a literary magazine from Cameroon, collaborated with a newspaper in Mexico and published a series of essays on traveling as an African, with contributions from across the continent.
“If we hadn’t lived in the internet age, I don’t think we would ever have started Bakwa», Explains Dzekashu MacViban, its founder. While funding is an ongoing challenge for small magazines, the Internet makes it less expensive to reach a dispersed readership. Increasingly, says Bwesigye bwa Mwesigire, founder of the Network of Art Directors and Literary Activists in Kampala, African intellectuals are building the platforms that make cultural commentary possible. “It’s not just that people are interested in writing, now they are also interested in being the publishers.”
This spirit is starting to spread from African mega-cities to quieter places. In 2019 Rémy Ngamije co-founded Doek!, a Namibian literary magazine. Contemporary Namibian writers, he says, explore the legacy of colonialism and “the unspoken losses of the liberation struggle” against white-led South Africa. “We basically do the groundwork to start a literary tradition. ” ■
This article appeared in the Books and Arts section of the print edition under the title “Open Letters”