Transition Magazine

A review tested by post-colonial Africa

Cédric Vincent about Transition Magazine.

Covers from 1966 and 2012. © Transition Magazine

By Cédric Vincent
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In 2011, in addition to the publication of a special edition, a number of events celebrated the 50th anniversary of the revue Transition.[1] 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’s W.E.B. Dubois Institute, 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 influential intellectuals. Future literary giants such as Nobel prize-winners Nadine Gordimer and Wole Soyinka wrote for it, as did Ngugi wa Thiongo, Chinua Achebe, V.S. Naipaul, 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 (1938-1995), writer and poet of Indian origin, was 22 when he returned to Uganda after attending university 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 major 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 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?’. [2]

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 [3]. 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 [4]. 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, 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 publication’s pages were soon filled with a diverse array of writers with a variety of backgrounds, reflecting the dynamism and transnationalism it embraced.

The special editions [5] 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, popular 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 cover of issue number 37 contains a detail that speaks volumes on the subject. The picture is of a demonstration, and one of the slogans reads: ‘Présence Africaine is Présence Coloniale Now!’

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 piece 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 tended to support 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 cover of issue number 25 asks the question: ‘Does America Love Africa?’ and invites readers to check a box next to one of several answers, multiple-choice style, with the final box referring them to the article itself. Most of the covers 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 by Italian artist Franco Giacomini and 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. In his article ‘Do Magazines Culture?’ (no. 24), he writes: ‘Magazines are also like cultures : they are progressive, conservative, radical, puritanical, slowmoving, or vigorous. At their most aware, they reflect the qualities or weaknesses of their societies; at their blindest, they are showcases for the imbecilities of their editors.’ He surely did not imagine then to what extent he would test these assertions.

Milton Obote, Ugandan president enjoying his aura of ‘father of independence’ but whose regime was becoming more and more authoritarian could not indefinitely tolerate the magazine’s frequent attacks on his policies. At the same time, it came out in 1967 that the Farfield Foundation, and through it the Congress for Cultural Freedom, sponsor of Transition and other cultural and literary reviews (Partisan Review, Encounter, Quest, etc.) was secretly funded (and directed) by the CIA. That was another 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.

After his release from prison in 1969, he moved the magazine to Ghana. Kofi Abrefa Busia, the president, was a close friend of his and a former contributor to the journal. 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’indaba [6] and it was ostensibly dedicated to the idea of ‘Black Revolution’. Interviews with 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 Jr., with the support of Kwame Anthony Appiah.

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.


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.


This is an updated and expanded version of an article that was published by Les Laboratoires d’Aubervilliers, in the frame of Marion Von Osten’s research project Architectures of Decolonization.


[1] In addition to a special issue, festivities included events at Harvard and at the New Museum in New York sponsored by the New Museum and the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University.

[2] ‘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.

[3] On the history of the relationship between Black Orpheus and Transition, see: Peter Benson, Black Orpheus, Transition and Cultural Awakening in Africa, University of California Press, 1986.

[4] On the first twelve years of Transition, see: Stephanie Jones, ‘Rajat Neogy’s Transition 1961-1973′ in Moving Words, 4,2, 2007.

[5] All the back issues are available on JSTOR.

[6] A port-manteau invented by Soyinka of cha – ‘stand up’ in Swahili, and indaba, ‘a great assembly’ in Ndebele.