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Another World? East Africa, Decolonisation, and the Global History of the Mid-Twentieth Century

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  27 December 2021

Ismay Milford
The University of Edinburgh
Gerard McCann
University of York
Emma Hunter
The University of Edinburgh
Daniel Branch
University of Warwick
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This article proposes that there is a gap in our current understanding of the globalising and deglobalising dynamics of mid-twentieth-century East Africa, one that might be addressed by consolidating and taking forward recent developments in the historiography of decolonisation. Recent work by international historians has recovered the connected world of the 1940s to 1960s: the era of new postcolonial states, the ‘Bandung moment’, pan-African cooperation, and the early Cold War. Yet East Africa is less prominent in these histories than we might expect, despite the vibrancy of current work on this period in Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania. Bringing these two fields into dialogue, through an explicitly regional East African framework and with a particular focus on individual lives, expands our understanding not only of the ‘globalisation of decolonisation’ but also of the deglobalising dynamics of the following decades that are frequently reduced to a history of global economic crisis.

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Written from a world that appears to be deglobalising, this article revisits a period in which global connections proved to be both powerful and fragile. Our focus is the mid-twentieth century, the period from roughly the 1940s to the 1970s, viewed from East Africa. It was a time, the then-Makerere student Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o writes, when ‘the impossible seemed possible’.Footnote 1 The era of decolonisation opened up new forms of political community and new terms of engagement with the wider world; it was not merely a new stage in a history of external dominance indistinct from the colonialism that preceded it or the marginalisation that followed in the age of global markets and capital.Footnote 2

A growing body of work by international historians recovers the connected world(s) of the first part of this period, from the 1940s to the early 1960s, which saw the birth of new postcolonial states, the ‘Bandung moment’, pan-African cooperation, and the early Cold War. Exciting new scholarship traces the networks of solidarities, built through personal connections as well as through print, which bonded individuals, communities, and organisations across oceans and continents.Footnote 3 As the Afro-Asian Networks Research Collective writes, this was ‘not just an era of postcolonial diplomacy, but a period of intensive social and cultural interaction across the decolonizing world’ as ‘African and Asian women, socialists, communists, trade unionists, intellectuals, activists and revolutionaries conversed’ and imagined new and different futures ‘across national, linguistic, and ideological borders’.Footnote 4 Nor was this effort solely one of the radical left; networks of non- and anticommunists were just as influential.Footnote 5 If decolonisation was ‘globalising’, inasmuch as it went hand in hand with the building of international and transnational connections, then we are beginning to understand the processes and individuals that made it so.Footnote 6

East Africa, and East Africans, have been less prominent in these new connected histories of decolonisation than are other world regions and peoples. This, we suggest, is the result not of a less connected history, but of historiographical developments which themselves grew out of the specific postindependence contexts of East African nations. As we explain below, however, an emerging body of scholarship on East Africa during this period demonstrates that an attentiveness to global connections need not come at the cost of ‘deep-rooted’ histories of the region.

In this article we ask what bringing new histories of East Africa into dialogue with recent international histories of decolonisation might tell us about globalising and deglobalising dynamics in mid-twentieth-century East Africa — and indeed about the fragile nature of global connections more broadly. As we know, the connected worlds of the decolonisation era, and the associated sense of excitement that such connections provoked among those who lived through it, proved to be fleeting.Footnote 7 Many connections in social, cultural, and intellectual spheres that had defined the process of decolonisation faltered; visions for a radically different postcolonial world proved untenable. These are the dynamics — neither absolute nor uniform — that we describe here as deglobalising.

Such dynamics, we contend, cannot be fully captured by retrospective narratives of global economic crisis and the inherent structural failures of postcolonial nation-states. It is for this reason that it may be productive to think about the 1940s to the 1970s in terms of global connections. If historians’ understanding of the globalising dynamics of the years immediately before and after independence has been expanded by looking beyond the state, then the same is likely to be true when studying deglobalising dynamics. The first half of this article sets the historiographical scene for this intervention, explaining why we argue for a consciously regional East African framing and a focus on individual lives which shows the conditions in which these global connections fractured. The second half asks what this might look like by exploring various types of global connection and their limits across the period through a series of thematic case studies.

Part I: Histories of East Africa and East African global histories

Power of national historiographies

While studies of East Africa's environmental, cultural, social, and economic history have long been transnational and global in scope, historical research on the region's varied experiences of decolonisation remains commonly segmented by territorial nation-states. Furthermore, the historiographies of decolonisation in each East African state have developed their own modes of framing: kingdoms and the emergence of military rule in Uganda, ethnicity and the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya, the nation and party in mainland Tanzania, the 1964 revolution and the preceding violent electoral politics in Zanzibar.Footnote 8 The result is that the historiography risks overemphasising the differences between decolonisation in these three countries and overlooking the insights that come from posing the same questions to each. To take one example, the new ‘political tribalisms’ that were famously forged in late colonial Kenya were also being forged in late colonial mainland Tanzania, but the latter have received less attention from historians and not solely because ethnic divisions played a less central role in the workings of the early postcolony.Footnote 9

Historians of Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania are well aware of — and increasingly reflect upon — the trappings of the respective national historiographies that grew around particular themes during the intertwined processes of establishing new nations and institutionalising the discipline of African history in each country from the 1960s onwards. This conscious deconstruction of nation and nationalism has produced highly innovative and influential scholarship on East African decolonisation, particularly through explorations of popular and textual cultures, gender and sexuality, and youth, often engaging explicitly with the field of global cultural history.Footnote 10 The city has been one important mode of framing such histories.Footnote 11 However, even where work is undertaken on cross-cutting themes, for example development, studies often remain within the boundaries of particular nation-states.Footnote 12 And as Gregory Maddox has recently emphasised in relation to Tanzania, even where historians set out to challenge the national framework, the concerns of national historiographies — in Tanzania's case concern with nation and party — can continue to shape their scholarship.Footnote 13

One way in which a growing number of historians are breaking out of national containers is through a regional approach. In his 1994 call for new histories of the late colonial period, Frederick Cooper wrote that ‘politics in a colony should not be reduced to anticolonial politics or to nationalism: the “imagined communities” Africans saw were both smaller and bigger than the nation, sometimes in creative tension with each other, sometimes in repressive antagonism.’Footnote 14 Recognising this has allowed historians to rethink the geographical scope of their research. A growing body of East Africanist work crosses national territories to think about how ideas of community were formed, political boundaries were contested and created, and how sovereignty was subsequently experienced by those who found themselves minorities in new states.Footnote 15 Others have returned to the projects of regional integration which characterised the 1960s, articulated first in terms of the doomed East African Federation, then in the less ambitious form of the East African Community.Footnote 16

Such a regional, as opposed to national (or subnational), framing allows us to recognise parallels across the region. This does not mean taking for granted the coherence of an ‘East Africa’ encompassing Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda: rather, it means taking seriously the region as described by a range of East African actors operating in the political and public spheres during the period of decolonisation.Footnote 17 Definitions of East Africa were always contested, especially from places at the region's ‘edges’.Footnote 18

Employing this East African regional frame also allows us to address an unintended consequence of the ‘imagined communities’ approach to the recent scholarship on decolonisation: an emphasis on ‘communities’ that can obscure histories of processes, groups, and individuals that exist wholly or in part outside such categorisations, or cut across them, as many did.Footnote 19 Historians of South Asians in East Africa, for example, have captured the significance of lives that are otherwise largely ignored in work on 1940s and 1950s anti-imperialism, given fractious Afro-Asian relations in East Africa, such as that of G.L. Vidyarthi, editor of the prominent Nairobi-based anticolonial newspaper The Colonial Times and the first Kenyan South Asian tried for sedition.Footnote 20

Enabled by the strength of scholarship that has ‘deconstructed’ East Africa's nations and their borders in the last decade, there is, we contend, scope for going further in demonstrating the significance of the region during the mid-twentieth century for understanding processes where the nature of global connections change over time — to explore both globalising and deglobalising processes. In this endeavour, we turn now to new trends in international and global history.

Global history from East Africa and East Africa in global histories

Recent international histories of the era of new postcolonial states, the ‘Bandung moment’, pan-African cooperation, and the early Cold War have shown the extent to which the mid-twentieth century world was a connected world. We can now see far more clearly than was once possible the ways in which the ideas of this period were exchanged across seas and oceans, as well as across land borders, in the period of decolonisation.Footnote 21 Yet East Africa is not as prominent in such histories as we might expect.

One reason for this is structural. Much of the recent interest in decolonisation and global connections is concentrated outside East Africa, notably in the European and North American academy. Hostile visa regimes, costs of travel, and a host of other challenges have resulted in significant injustices and barriers to the engagement of Africa-based scholars with globalist academic agendas.Footnote 22 These dynamics are amplified when tracing global connections that appear in (sometimes recently opened) archival collections across several continents. The fact that the authors of this paper enjoy the privileges that come from employment at wealthy, Western universities is not incidental.

But beyond these structural questions, there are important intellectual reasons for the relative marginality of East African historical actors in new international histories of this period. One is that historians exploring global connections in the mid-twentieth century often look outwards from spaces already established as being globally connected. Thus, for example, while the canon of anticolonial thought from the Black Atlantic world receives increasingly rigorous scholarly attention, far less attention is given to exploring the political ideas of East Africa in this period beyond national spaces and nationalist thought.Footnote 23

Related to this is a question of language. While thinkers from across the African continent contributed to Anglophone, Francophone, or Lusophone literary spheres, publishing in Indian Ocean lingua francas such as Swahili or Arabic has made a section of East African thinkers less immediately visible to global historians, particularly to Western scholars. More broadly, as recent critiques of global history have emphasised, global histories have often privileged ocean- and continent-crossing elites at the expense of the many more people who did not move, but who were nevertheless connected to a wider world through print and other media.Footnote 24 Most mid-twentieth century East Africans were not members of internationally mobile elites, but many did write about and consume worlds beyond in a multilingual world of print: their words need to be carefully explored, and the importance of African-language newspapers, pamphlets, and archives in particular appreciated.Footnote 25

The Indian Ocean has long played an important role in understanding global connections from East Africa, often with diasporic ‘Greater Indias’ set as drivers of connection up until the mid-twentieth century. The recent resurgence of interest in oceanic histories has, in general, served East Africa well.Footnote 26 However, histories of the Indian Ocean have only very recently extended into the period of decolonisation and even then rarely go far beyond the East African littoral.Footnote 27 But the Indian Ocean's historical networks continued to shape East Africa's engagement with the rest of the world throughout the twentieth century, a dynamic visible not only in episodes like the 1964 Zanzibar Revolution but also in Nairobi's anticolonial struggles of the 1950s.Footnote 28

Another factor shaping the forms of global history written from East Africa has been a lack of articulation between traditions of global history writing focused on the economy and those traditions of international and global history writing focused on politics and ideas. A key strand in global history writing from East Africa from the 1960s lay in a concern with East Africa's position within the global economy and a desire to explain the roots of a deeply unequal world.Footnote 29 The University of Dar es Salaam was a hub of radical leftist thought and activism, and its scholars produced an important body of research exploring why, in spite of national independence, East Africa's place in the global economy remained marginal. If the University's history department was home to historians pioneering the new traditions of national historical writing noted above, it was also home to Walter Rodney, author of, among other important works, the powerfully argued and hugely influential book How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. Footnote 30 For Rodney, this question could not be answered solely from within Africa, but rather by exploring ‘the relationship between Africa and certain developed countries and . . . recognizing that it is a relationship of exploitation’.Footnote 31

While early accounts focused on economic drivers from outside the region and external forces that appeared to be acting on East Africa, Jeremy Prestholdt and others have shown in recent work on nineteenth-century East Africa that the much-reduced room for manoeuvre which East African economic actors experienced in the later nineteenth century — and which lasted into the twentieth — was not typical of the nineteenth century as a whole, when the decisions of individual East African consumers were able to shape global processes and flows.Footnote 32 This same recognition of economic agency is visible in recent anthropological accounts of responses to structural adjustment across Africa since the 1980s and helpfully directs our attention to East African actors in the global economy.Footnote 33

Attention to how individuals interacted with and shaped global structures can extend beyond the economic sphere and into the chronological gap of the mid-twentieth century. There is much more to be said about the social, cultural, and political — not only economic — engagements of East Africans with the wider world, particularly for the era of decolonisation with which we are concerned, when it seemed possible to at least imagine new structural economic relationships beyond the restrictions of colonialism, and when the opportunities for social, cultural, and political engagement across borders dramatically increased before closing down again.Footnote 34

Indeed, historians of East Africa are becoming increasingly attentive to decolonisation's global connections and their limits precisely because the subjects of their research — East African citizens of the mid-twentieth century — were themselves occupied with these same connections. One research area where the excavation of East Africa's global connections during the era of decolonisation has successfully attended to both the specificities of the region and the agency of East African political actors is the Cold War.Footnote 35 Africa's Cold War was initially understood through settings where the conflict ‘turned hot’, such as Lusophone Africa and the Congo, but attention is now turning to countries such as Kenya where diplomatic Cold War jockeying provided accumulative opportunities for elite politicians and their nonelite supporters.Footnote 36 New transnational histories of socialism centre the important connections between East Africans and the countries of the Eastern bloc, for example, with a growing literature on students abroad in particular.Footnote 37 Similarly, transnational historical approaches to the civil rights movement and transatlantic pan-African networks lead to influential studies of the intimacies between African-American and East African political actors.Footnote 38 Attentive to the risk of fitting these African histories into Cold War frameworks devised largely by historians of international relations, this scholarship collectively demonstrates that East African actors shaped the social, cultural, and intellectual networks they participated in. This can be taken further: an increased willingness of regional specialists of other parts of the continent to put their work into dialogue with the field of international history has produced scholarship read far beyond the field of African history.Footnote 39

Globalisation and deglobalisation

There is, we contend, a gap in our understanding of what happened in mid-twentieth century Africa. The twentieth century witnessed important shifts in how global connections were limited and concomitant practices adopted. Although the colonialism practised in East Africa in the first half of the twentieth century did not necessarily reduce flows of migration around the region, it certainly channelled and controlled subjects’ mobility to an unprecedented extent to serve the labour demands of colonial economies. Moreover, colonialism inhibited the ability of East Africans to engage with the world on their own terms through exchanges of objects and ideas, even as they pursued new connections, through churches for example.Footnote 40 In the changed post-1945 world, East Africans were increasingly in a position to challenge the colonial horizons imposed upon them. They seized opportunities created by the emergence of new infrastructures such as the postal service and air travel, regional and international institutions, and the growth of lingua francas. Recognising the potency of global vistas and ambitions is to recapture lost categories of understanding generated by East African citizens in the era of decolonisation. East Africans believed that their anticolonialism and their engagement with the world beyond empire would not simply lead to the creation of new nation-states, but also remake global political and economic structures. Kenyan students exiled in Cairo wrote in 1960 that ‘history has passed its sentence on colonialism, imperialism and settlerism . . . We, the African people of Kenya — nay Africa — are now the executors of the sentence passed by history now!’Footnote 41 As Adom Getachew has shown, an appreciation of the importance of the international sphere to political thought and action during decolonisation may also, in turn, help us to better understand when and why the once seemingly possible came to appear impossible.Footnote 42 Getachew's pan-African statesmen engaged with international institutions as ‘worldmakers rather than solely nation builders’ — or, we might add, rather than solely monarchists, majimboists, irredentists, or autochthons.

Debates about East Africa's future during decolonisation were not neatly bounded by nation, state, or indeed by region, but were deeply entangled with Afro-Asian solidarity, pan-Africanism, world civil rights struggles, and liberal and communist internationalisms — each of which had its own internal tensions.Footnote 43 The worlds that East Africans imagined at the time of independence were many and contradictory. The Afro-Asian world was brought into homes through Radio Cairo and African students returning from India.Footnote 44 North American trade unionists trained African workers in union organisation.Footnote 45 East African cooperative workers trained in Israel.Footnote 46 Gikuyu schoolchildren caught in the midst of the Mau Mau War hoped for rescue by American civil rights leaders or South African anti-apartheid campaigners.Footnote 47 African youth leaders shaped the discussions of youth internationals in Copenhagen and Budapest.Footnote 48 Goans in Nairobi joined the struggle for Lusophone African independence.Footnote 49 Across the region, East Africans, whether or not they considered themselves ‘global’ citizens (and some certainly did), engaged sincerely with worldly practices and ideas that constitute our understanding of this period.

However, after independence many of the individual connections of this period, often sustained through letters and print, with varying degrees of state or international institutional sponsorship, systematically broke down, especially in social, cultural, and intellectual spheres.Footnote 50 For Getachew, projects of political ‘worldmaking’, confronted with ‘the kinds of states decolonization had created’, ultimately ‘culminated in projects that reinforced the nation-state’ with all its ‘majoritarian, homogenizing, and exclusionary tendencies’.Footnote 51 Yet deglobalising dynamics extended beyond the state as a player in international relations. These deglobalising dynamics did not develop in isolation from East African actors and events, in the diplomatic corridors of the UN and World Bank, but in interaction with them.

If we want to capture the multiple worlds imagined by East Africans in this period, we need to build on and take further recent scholarship which has combined the insights of area expertise with an attention to internationalisms, mobility, and print cultures. This will allow historians to explore how different types of connections, especially those outside of the sphere of trade and economics, were forged from East Africa. Crucially, it will also, in due course, allow us to account for how those connections suffered from, adapted to, or fed off the narrowing repertoires of political possibility in the 1960s and the global economic crisis of the 1970s.

Part II: Global lives

One way of exploring this moment, we argue, is through the life histories of individuals whose work and thought constituted the cross-border connections in which we are interested. Miles Ogborn refers to ‘global lives’, which we find helpful in drawing our attention to ‘the ongoing organisation of different and partial relationships, networks and webs’. As Ogborn has shown, the use of life-writing as historiographical tool enables us to identify some of ‘the variety of lives through which multiple worlds can be told’.Footnote 52 The instructiveness of these ‘global lives’ does not depend on each individual having moved across East Africa or the globe — or indeed on them having understood their lives through such categories. Rather, the ensemble of practices they pursued enables the recovery of lives that fell entirely or partly outside a ‘linear story of modernization and nation-building’, in Jean Allman's words, and thus of stories of other ways that these same individuals perceived and engaged with the dynamics and possibilities of the twentieth-century world.Footnote 53 James Brennan's use of the ‘lives’ of Nyasa-Tanzanian Dennis Phombeah to rewrite the history of international intelligence-gathering provides a fruitful model of such an approach to the decolonisation era.Footnote 54 Taking three different themes — Afro-Asian and pan-African internationalism, trade unionism, and literary culture — we suggest what this approach reveals about the shifting nature of global connections and their utility for narrating East Africa's decolonising moment.

Afro-Asian and pan-African internationalisms

In December 1958, Bibi Titi Mohamed, a leading voice in Julius Nyerere's Tanganyika African National Union (TANU), left Tanganyika for the first time to attend the All India Women's Conference at Kanpur. A recent reappraisal of Bibi Titi argues that the trip was not a ‘defining moment’ in her political thinking.Footnote 55 Indeed, when Bibi Titi's life history was recovered through interviews in the 1980s and 1990s, historians were interested to reinsert women like her into the ‘metanarrative’ of nationalist organising in Tanganyika, from which they had been eclipsed.Footnote 56 Thus, the importance (or irrelevance) of Bibi Titi's India trip was the potential for it to influence her activism on her return. However, if our driving interest is in the nature and variation of global connections, rather than of women's or nationalist mobilisation, we might ask different questions and turn to different types of sources.

For example, the African Students Association in India, largely comprising East African students on Indian government scholarships, wrote to Nyerere after hearing about Bibi Titi's trip to India.Footnote 57 They hoped to send a copy of a book on Indian nationalism to TANU, via Bibi Titi. Viewed through this letter, her trip to India in the late 1950s maintained connections between a body of students, who were operating through older colonial connections revived (thanks in part to Nehru's foreign policy) in a pan-African and Afro-Asian sphere, and political leaders at home. We have a growing understanding of the experiences of such students, but the letter about Bibi Titi reminds us that ‘students abroad’ were not a separate story: they must be integrated into a fuller understanding of the changing roles of educational connections across independence.Footnote 58 Bibi Titi herself, even with her travel limited by external sponsorship and TANU fundraising, became a means for literature to enter late colonial East Africa, where the list of proscribed publications was growing.Footnote 59 Her mobility allowed East Africans to engage with politics in newly independent countries without physically travelling. Immediately after independence, such a role, and thus this particular type of connection, was less urgent.

Simultaneously, the significance of such sojourns overflows the category of anticolonial mobilisation and the cutoff point of independence. In Kanpur, Bibi Titi spoke about the paucity of scholarships to study abroad available in Tanganyika and how this disproportionately affected girls.Footnote 60 She did not describe in interviews the conversations that her speech provoked with other delegates — presumably, these did not seem salient to the category of women's mobilisation on which she drew to narrate her life. Yet these sorts of conversations are part of the prehistory of international developmental discourses, accounts of which continue to obscure the diversity of their participants, which included Muslim women like Bibi Titi.Footnote 61 These developmental discourses appeared to reach a peak of intensity, in terms of international organisations and conferences, in the 1960s, just when Bibi Titi more or less disappeared from public political life. Her political career, and any lasting connections she might have made with Kanpur delegates, were victim to personal-political conflicts surrounding the prescriptions of the 1967 Arusha Declaration.Footnote 62 This deglobalising dynamic coincided with growing educational links for Tanzanians in the 1960s, a lag of sorts in the connections that Bibi Titi had called for in the 1950s.Footnote 63

This overarching chronology — from 1950s internationalist conferences to 1960s incarceration — was not uniform, a fact illustrated with the story of one of Bibi Titi's contemporaries, Ugandan economist and political philosopher Boloki Chango Machyo W'Obanda. Machyo was abroad during the second half of the 1950s, when East African anticolonial campaigns intensified. He was invited to the United States in 1956 by Moral Re-Armament (MRA), a pan-denominational evangelical movement preaching individual moral reform as the alternative to anticolonial and Cold War violence. MRA was global in reach, prominent in Japan, Australia, Morocco, and India during this period, yet socially conservative in its internationalist and multiracialist vision.Footnote 64

Studying in London, Machyo took part in student activism through the Uganda Association and the Budapest-based World Federation of Democratic Youth (WFDY) but remained marginal to Ugandan party politics during the period when the question of Buganda's position in Uganda dominated debate. Yet this ‘colonial metropole’ trajectory obscures much broader intellectual links Machyo made beyond the Anglophone world: even from London he published in the Samia language as well as English, engaged with Francophone thinkers like Sékou Touré, and built contacts with fellow East African Marxists writing in Swahili, such as Zanzibari Abdul Mohamed Babu.Footnote 65 This is a prime example of how print cultures specific to the period — in this case cheaply produced pamphlets — allowed exchange of ideas in a pan-African, multilingual, leftist sphere.

Unlike many of the anticolonial thinkers of the early 1960s, Machyo's later life saw him move towards public politics rather than being excluded from it, assuming (after a period of persecution under Idi Amin) a prominent role in Yoweri Museveni's National Resistance Movement and benefitting from state-sponsored trips to, for example, North Korea. Some of Machyo's early writing, such as his 1964 critique of how UN structures favoured wealthy nations, found a political stage of sorts, yet Machyo is absent in intellectual histories of Ugandan decolonisation, written largely through the lens of its kingdoms.Footnote 66

From an East African perspective, there was nothing predictable about the fate of these various connections as the 1970s approached: Afro-Asian conferences discussing socioeconomic policy, like the one Bibi Titi attended, became far less frequent; thinkers on the left, like Machyo, rejected the conservative internationalism of MRA, even while the latter showed its films across the region with state support; as the WFDY pursued its anti-imperial agenda, East African youth group members struggled to maintain their independence from the state.

Trade unionism

Another ‘global life’ is the Kenyan trade unionist Hilda Otieno, a fleeting figure in the ‘shadow archive’ of decolonising East Africa.Footnote 67 Our knowledge of her life is limited to the period between 1961 and 1963. At the time, Otieno was the assistant director of education within the Kenya Federation of Labour (KFL), the umbrella organisation for trade unions led by Tom Mboya.

The labour movement was the primary arena in which grassroots political participants across East Africa engaged with global forces during decolonisation. Through Tom Mboya, the KFL was connected deeply to the global and Cold War politics of the international trade union movement. In line with Mboya's stance, the KFL was affiliated to the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), the international, stridently anticommunist labour organisation which included the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) and the British Trade Union Congress (TUC) among its affiliates. Under Mboya, affiliation to the ICFTU led to considerable funds flowing into the KFL's coffers.Footnote 68

The influence of the ICFTU and the AFL-CIO were, in fact, felt far more deeply than simply at an elite level. For Hilda Otieno, external funding was of great practical significance. AFL-CIO funds supported Otieno's effort to provide education and training to women in the Kenyan workforce and the wives of male members of individual trade unions. Otieno's programme began in April 1961, from when she organised and delivered the training sessions single-handedly for over a year.Footnote 69 Funded by both the ICFTU and AFL-CIO, Otieno taught her students home economics as well as English language and literacy classes.Footnote 70

Boosted by her grant from the AFL-CIO, in 1962 Otieno joined in the great movement of East Africans in this period. Otieno's travels took her to West Germany and Israel. She spent over two weeks in the Federal Republic visiting various women's organisations.Footnote 71 Her stay in Israel lasted six months, most of which was spent studying trade union organisation alongside women from across Africa and Asia.Footnote 72 West Germany and Israel were much more than proxies for American interests. Both countries paid keen attention to the course of decolonisation across Africa; the plethora of new states provided opportunities to both German states and Israel to win the support of independent nation-states in their respective struggles for diplomatic recognition and alliances.Footnote 73

Otieno's global life reminds us of the multiplicity of internationalisms at play in the era of decolonisation. But her story tells us how that range of international connections tapered quickly in the years that followed. Within a decade after Kenyan independence, Otieno's world had apparently crumbled. As the networks in which she participated disappeared, so did Otieno from the ‘shadow archive’.

The changes were partly exogenous. First, American interests in the Kenyan trade union movement cooled almost immediately after independence. The United States’ government was determined to shore up relations with Jomo Kenyatta and so halted funding provided to Mboya and his allies by the American labour movement.Footnote 74 But this money was also vital to Otieno's education project. Second, a decade later, Kenya severed diplomatic ties with Israel in response to the Yom Kippur War.

However, Otieno's global networks were dissolved as much by domestic politics as changes to the wider world. Her mobility and international sources of funds fell afoul of efforts by the Kenyatta government to exert greater control over the trade unions at home, for fear of their use as a political base by either Mboya or his rival on the left, Oginga Odinga.Footnote 75 With the KFL replaced with a new, government-controlled Central Organisation of Trade Unions, the links between Kenyan trade unions and other international bodies were subject to strict state control.Footnote 76 The mobility, the flows of finances, and the sense of common struggle that had characterised Otieno's engagement with the international trade union movement in the early 1960s — and which led to her presence in the archival record — were impossible to maintain.

In time, Kenyans forged connections with new forms of global politics in their efforts to reform and topple authoritarian rule. Indeed, Otieno's legacy lived on amidst a very different form of global politics than that in which she engaged in the early 1960s. She used her ICFTU connections to help finance the Kenya African Women's seminar at Limuru in 1963.Footnote 77 The seminar produced few immediate results but helped lay the foundation for new types of political engagement by Kenyan women in the decades to come. The global politics of anticolonialism and the Cold War may have been pushed to one side in the 1960s, but new transnational politics centred on issues of the environment and social justice eventually emerged to take their place.Footnote 78 Specifically, the seminar helped forge new relationships between prominent Kenyan women and American counterparts, most notably Margaret (‘Peggy’) Snyder. The network formed at Limuru was of critical importance to was Snyder's role twenty years later in supporting the establishment of the Green Belt Movement, led by Nobel laurate Wangari Maathai.Footnote 79

Literary culture

The shadows of the Cold War are also routinely cast over our final East African global life, that of Rajat Neogy. His tragic demise signalled the fragility of transnational cultural connections in the 1960s and the potency of dominant ruling elites in asserting their own competing political and economic internationalisms.

Born in Kampala to an immigrant Bengali family, in November 1961, at just 22 years of age, Neogy founded Transition, the boldest literary magazine of Africa's 1960s. It ran for 50 issues: 37 published from Kampala (1961–8) and 13 from Accra (1971–4). At its height, 12,000 copies were printed quarterly; half consumed across Africa and half overseas, particularly in Britain and the US in recognition of the international Anglophone networks in which Neogy flourished.

Transition would become a focal point for emerging East African creative writing and political commentary. Neogy, as editor, placed young writers honing their craft in vibrant East African university journals like Penpoint (Makerere) or Nexus (Nairobi) — Ngũgĩ was published, as a Makerere student, in Transition — alongside established European and American allies such as Gerald Moore and Martin Luther King Jr. Transition's contributors comprised a who's who of pan-African creative talent — from Langston Hughes and James Baldwin to J. P. Clark, Okot p'Bitek, and Wole Soyinka.

The success of Transition rested on Neogy's personal relationships built in Kampala and across the world. In 1962, on the recommendation of Seth Spaulding of the US Office of Education, who had served on a UNESCO mission in Kampala, Neogy asked the prominent American poet James Laughlin to finance Transition through Laughlin's experimental New Directions press to ‘find and encourage East African writing . . . [and] also to provide a link to international cultural streams, to widen perspectives and exchange ideas and not get stuck in an East African community alone’.Footnote 80

Neogy finally secured funds through the South African writer Ezekiel (later Es'kia) Mphahlele, who, in 1961, became Africa Director of the Paris-based Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF), a Euro-American institution founded in 1950 to combat the cultural influence of the Soviet Union. Mphahlele, who had worked at the CCF-sponsored Mbari Cultural Centre in Nigeria and became founding director of Kenya's partially CCF-funded Chemchemi Cultural Centre, worked closely with Neogy to develop East African artistic capacity.

Neogy's close friend in Kampala, the American writer Paul Theroux, proclaimed that ‘Transition was more than a magazine; it was a movement, a vehicle for change . . . global, risk-taking, abrasive’, driven by Neogy ‘flying by the seat of his pants’.Footnote 81 Its literary contributors ‘repurposed modernist versions of aesthetic autonomy’ to forge freedom from colonial institutions and, increasingly, from authoritarian postcolonial states.Footnote 82 But Neogy failed spectacularly. In 1968, he was incarcerated for sedition by President Milton Obote after publishing two articles by the opposition MP, Abu Mayanja, which lambasted the repressive turn of Uganda's government.

At a sensational trial, prosecutors stressed the neocolonial threat underpinning Transition. In 1967, a global exposé revealed covert CIA support for the CCF much to the consternation of Neogy, who denied knowledge of the link.Footnote 83 Obote decreed Neogy a foreign agent after the discovery of a Swiss bank account in the name of Neogy's wife Barbara.Footnote 84 At the trial, it also emerged that Neogy had not officially renounced his UK citizenship, acquired by his Indian descent under the 1948 British Nationality Act, due to an oversight. British officials noted Obote's emotional ‘morbid preoccupation’ with the case when he publicly castigated Transition as ‘manned by non-Ugandan interests and citizens’ and during a gruelling seven-hour private meeting with Barbara Neogy about Rajat's future.Footnote 85 In February 1969, the chief magistrate rejected the prosecution's assertion that Mayanja's intervention had ‘a subversive effect on the mass of the Ugandan population’, and Obote eventually released a brutalised Neogy from Luzira prison.Footnote 86 CCF relationships proved critical to Neogy's defence, notably through family friend and CCF officer David Goldstein, who liaised with Amnesty International to secure a legal team.Footnote 87

Cold War structures of cultural sponsorship and gatekeeping cannot be dismissed. A ‘Cold War paradigm’ of finance, publishing regimes, marketing, institutional awards and canonisation in African literature helped influence who could be heard and who could not over the latter half of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first — a hawkish ‘politics of visibility’ that privileged particular western definitions of ‘dissident’ writers, in the words of Bhakti Shringarpure. How texts and authors entered the world clearly mattered in the 1960s and over the long term.Footnote 88

However, to centre Cold War drama and stricture at the high-water mark of Transition's power in the mid-1960s cannot entirely capture the role of international cultural institutions in Neogy's world and their significance for East Africa. The CCF provided a material lifeline for Transition, but not its only one. CCF leaders never dictated Neogy's editorial stance and never greatly shaped Transition's notably brash and politicised content, despite subtle attempts to do so. Top CCF officials came to regard Neogy as a somewhat tricky partner, ignoring deep engagement with schemes of CCF outlet cross-promotion and repeatedly failing to balance his books.Footnote 89

Above all, such international connection opened up pan-Africanist space for creative citizens to debate the pathways of postcolonial culture on their own terms. Transition worked closely with Mbari's Black Orpheus, as well as with the CCF-supported South African magazines The New African and The Classic. Africa's most anthologised poet, Christopher Okigbo, who met Neogy at the 1962 Makerere Writers’ Conference, became Transition's West Africa correspondent. However, such community-building was not only about the participation of the subsequent big names of African literature. The importance of the worlds opened up by Neogy and his comrades was also concerned with the ways in which hundreds of forgotten young people — who once studied arts or wrote in East Africa's university publications but moved onto alternative careers — engaged with the world through Transition or Mbari to conceive their own ideas about culture, freedom, and equality. It was about people like Hilda Rwabazaire, who sat on the editorial board of Makerere's Penpoint in 1968 to, like Neogy, give voice to those ‘who feel restricted by traditional patterns of literary expression — who feel that what they have to say can be put differently, and must be put so’.Footnote 90 After university, Rwabazaire became a broadcast journalist in Uganda, followed by a 25-year career in the communications department of the United Nations Development Programme, a champion of women's empowerment and HIV/AIDS awareness across Uganda and the world in the 1990s.

Neogy's work was not a simple story of reinforcing comfortable pan-African cosmopolitanisms. Fissures formed between East Africa and West Africa around views on race and liberty. Mphahlele was outspoken against Negritude creating animosity with Présence africaine and his predecessor as CCF Africa Director, the African-American scholar and diplomat Mercer Cook.Footnote 91 Neogy followed suit. In 1962 he declared,

I do not like to think of it [Transition] as a magazine which has even to think in terms of or be conscious of the racial composition of its contributors. . . . Negritude as a concept I'm afraid cuts absolutely no ice in East Africa.Footnote 92

His was a call for East African belonging alive to inclusion and the future rather than autochthony rooted in ethnic divisions solidified under colonial rule.

Internationally hyperconnected, Neogy's was a project also rooted in the local, in particular multicultural Kampala where he conversed in English, Swahili, and Hindi. In 1958, Neogy agitated for a nonracial public sphere and common roll through the Uganda Action Group alongside fellow young Ugandan Asian activists Gurdial Singh and Natoo Karia. Neogy liaised with Uganda National Congress leader Ignatius Musaazi but was frustratingly denied party membership on grounds of race. Equally, Neogy lamented that Asian elders could not see past communalism in thinking about the independent future.Footnote 93 In 1959, he lauded a ‘an intellectual breakaway from the feudalism of Asian thinking in Uganda in the past’ through new print cultures ‘not restricted on racial lines’.Footnote 94

His 1966 editorial ‘Do magazines culture?’ took this further as he argued more floridly that interventions like Transition could drive forward an accommodative, dynamic East Africa to expunge the remnants of colonialism. He drew a dichotomy between ‘do cultures’ and ‘don't cultures’. The latter were ‘akin to frustrated spinsters in a family. They are censorious, opinionated, smug, complacent, and intent on preserving the “tradition” . . . indicative of a dying out phase’. He celebrated East Africa's new ‘do culture’, which was ‘permissive, experimental, vigorous and challenging’. The success of the ‘do culture’ depended on ‘how hospitable it is to ideas from outside, and how freely it delves into itself’ as a result.Footnote 95 Neogy's was a cry of the young, who grew up in the city and for whom ossified concepts of ethnicity did not have to be the grammar of a new East Africa. Transition was a window, carefully opened by Neogy, through which the world was presented jostling ideas about African decolonisation, while Neogy's connections drove one version of progressive change.Footnote 96

Such conceptions of the ‘do culture’ were not shared by Uganda's leadership. This is not to suggest that Obote's castigation of Transition's foreignness sprang from the shunning of internationalism. As Transition was proscribed, Obote welcomed Tiny Rowland's Lohnro conglomerate, which bought the Standard Group newspapers in 1967 and gave favourable coverage of the government for profit.Footnote 97 Obote's condemnations of Transition served as proxies for differing visions of Ugandan state and society — for example on the role of capital or ethnicity within nation building. They also revealed the multiplicity of competing internationalisms at play, with certain forms of cultural connection and literary output increasingly throttled by authoritarian states. In the 1970s, the repression of Idi Amin's regime compelled Ugandan poet Taban Lo Liyong — who studied at Howard University, was the first African graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and wrote provocatively in Transition in the mid-1960s — to find haven at the University of Nairobi over Makerere.

Neogy's world quickly crumbled. Traumatised by his incarceration and increasingly mentally ill, Neogy left Uganda for Ghana in 1971 in an abortive attempt to restart Transition with his friend Soyinka.Footnote 98 Neogy finally emigrated to the US, ‘where he ended his days in poverty . . . very fragile, dazed looking’, lamented Theroux.Footnote 99 Neogy died in San Francisco in 1995 four years after Transition was revived in the diaspora under Henry Louis Gates Jr. Published from the Hutchins Center for African and African-American Research at Harvard University, Transition remains a globally significant forum for pan-African intellectual and cultural debate, one of Neogy's durable legacies.Footnote 100 Neogy's short career underlined the significance of internationalist cultural networking in building stages on which young Africans debated the nature of postcolonialism and the methods of its attainment on their own terms in the 1960s. It also exposed the brittleness of these connections. His demise in exile embodied the disappointments and fractures that followed.

These glimpses of global lives that inhabited worlds of Afro-Asian and pan-African internationalisms, trade unionism, and the sphere of literary culture allow us to start thinking differently about the globalising and deglobalising dynamics that characterised the 1940s to the 1970s. Viewing the connections that these individuals forged from an explicitly regional perspective, rather than through the lens of the themes that have driven recent histories of decolonisation in Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania, confirms that East Africans did indeed participate in the early Cold War ‘Bandung moment’ in ways that were specific to the region's longer histories of labour, migration, education, and religion. More importantly, asking what happened to these lives, collectively, suggests how much we are missing by thinking about the end of this period primarily in terms of global economic crisis and the state. Individual lives do not obscure structural factors but rather reveal patterns about why these factors mattered.

Part III: Conclusion

In the era of decolonisation, when East Africa's global future was contingent and uncertain, competing visions of modernity, global citizenship, and African autochthony battled for ascendancy. But increasingly, connections were broken and vistas narrowed. By the late 1970s, Afro-Asian solidarity had faded into obsolescence, Kenyan trade unionism was neutered as a mass political movement, and Transition was in abeyance. Exploring global lives in this era tells us that global connections are fragile, that they exist unevenly across and between national contexts, and that they can disintegrate, even in very short periods of time. Not only do individual lives challenge assumptions of the linearity of globalisation, they help account for the unexpected ways that deglobalising dynamics emerged.

It is this fragility, retrenchment, and uneven distribution of global connections that makes an attention to such connections important, both for historians of East Africa and for global historians interested in other regions of the world. The very appeal of the wider world to East Africans in the era of decolonisation lay in the possibility of discovering alternative futures to those seemingly dictated by economic and political structures inherited from colonial rule. This was a space characterised by variation and connections across the East African region, and by plurality and competing visions, all of which are important to recover. But it is also important for historians to seek to account for the growing constraints which characterised what the historian Carolien Stolte has described as the ‘more closed and fractured world’ of the 1960s.Footnote 101

The chronology of postcolonial Africa is dominated by discourses of development or governance which stress continuity from the colonial past into the postcolonial present.Footnote 102 But approaching the period from the perspective we have outlined here suggests that we need to disrupt this emphasis on continuity and explore when and why one set of ideas and strategies won out over others. While this story must be understood in the context of the Cold War, global economic crisis, and the challenges of postcolonial state building, in East Africa, as elsewhere in the postcolonial world, it is not reducible to these dynamics. Putting East African histories into dialogue with global histories offers an important way forward in this endeavour.

At independence, East Africa was as favourable an environment for an embrace of the wider world as any region more commonly included in the canon of global studies, such as South and Southeast Asia or the Caribbean. But within just twenty years, many of the global connections built in this period were broken. This makes the retrenchment of global connections all the more dramatic and the poignancy of the East African case instructive for all interested in the study of the making and unmaking of worlds.


This article is supported by the Leverhulme Trust, through the grant RPG-2018-241 ‘Another World? East Africa and the Global 1960s’. The authors would like to thank project members Anna Adima and Daniel Heathcote, as well as the project's Advisory Board, and participants of project workshops in Nairobi, Edinburgh, and online. Thank you especially to Tom Cunningham for comments on an earlier draft, and to anonymous reviewers for critical and detailed reports that significantly improved the article.


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77 UMD AFL-CIO 18-1/3/1/10/19, H. Otieno to M. Springer, 8 Nov. 1962.

78 W. Kanyi, ‘Kenyan women's journey in their quest for affirmative action’ (Nairobi, 2016), 3.

79 Maathai, W., Unbowed: One Woman's Story (London, 2008), 169Google Scholar.

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84 International Association of Culture Freedom (IACF) Archive, University of Chicago, box 384b, B. Neogy to S. Stone, 27 Oct. 1968.

85 ‘The President's open letter’, Uganda Argus, 23 Jan. 1969; TNA FCO 31/491, W. Wenban-Smith, British High Commission, Kampala to East African Department, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, 13 Mar. 1969; E. Le Tocq, East African Department, Foreign and Commonwealth Office confidential memorandum, 25 Mar. 1969.

86 ‘Acquittals in Uganda’, The Times (London), 2 Feb. 1969.

87 IACF, box 50, D. Goldstein to B. Neogy, 12 Dec. 1968.

88 B. Shringarpure, Cold War Assemblages: Decolonization to Digital (New York, 2019), 136–8; 164–6; See also Popescu, M., At Penpoint: African Literatures, Postcolonial Studies, and the Cold War (Durham, NC, 2020)Google Scholar.

89 IACF, box 42, J. C. Hunt to Neogy, 14 Jan. 1964; John C. Hunt to Neogy, 3 Apr. 1964. IACF box 304, I. Kats to E. Mphahlele, 12 Feb. 1964; R. Farrand to I. Kats, 16 Nov. 1964.

90 Editorial, Penpoint, 24 (1968), 1.

91 M. Cook and E. Mphahlele ‘The African personality – two views’, The New Leader (New York), 24 Oct. 1960; G. Massé, ‘Cold War and Black transnationalism: Aimé Césaire and Mercer Cook at the first International Congress of Black Writers and Artists’, Palimpsest: A Journal on Women, Gender, and the Black International, 4:2 (2015), 115–34.

92 Interview with R. Neogy for African Writers Club (BBC radio), c. 1962, available at

93 E. Taylor, Asians and Africans in Ugandan Urban Life, 1959–1972 (unpublished PhD thesis, University of Michigan, 2016), 75–87; R. Gregory, Quest for Equality, 113.

94 ‘Party seeks those who ‘believe in Uganda’, Uganda Argus, 13 Feb. 1959.

95 R. Neogy, ‘Do magazines culture?’, Transition, 24 (1966).

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99 Theroux, ‘More than a magazine’, 19.

100 For a celebration of Neogy and his legacies, see ‘Fifty years: Transition celebrates its storied history’, Transition, 106 (2011). For a critical analysis of Transition's migration to the US and its ‘diasporadic nomadism’, see Echureo, ‘From Transition to Transition’, 135–45.

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