Christopher Ouma Explores Pan-African Imagination

Chris Ouma
Associate Professor of English Christopher Ouma joins the Duke faculty this year. (John West/Trinity Communications)

For Christopher Ouma, Pan-African thinking is second nature.

Newly arrived at Duke from a professorship at the University of Cape Town, Ouma grew up in Kenya, leaving his home country in East Africa after earning his bachelor’s degree to pursue graduate studies in South Africa. His Ph.D. thesis, “Childhood in Contemporary Nigerian Fiction,” led him into the world of West African literature.

The associate professor of English’s current book project, “Small/Little/Literary Magazines and Pan-African Imagination, 1955-1975,” examines how literary ideas spread across the continent during the period when many countries were gaining independence.

Disseminated through small magazines, sharing these visions helped forge Pan-African visions in the latter half of the 20th century.

“This project combines my personal intellectual contexts of formation, an interest in the continental identity of Africa and the importance of imagining that identity through forms of cultural production,” Ouma said. He stressed the unique nature of the small literary magazine: “They’re not like novels, or poems, or plays. They circulate differently. They’re collective forms of intellectual labor and imagination.”

The years 1955-1975 were fertile ones for both artistic and political thought. The independence of Ghana in 1957 coincided with the advent of one of the seminal magazines, Black Orpheus, published in Nigeria.

“1955-75 was a really incredible moment of possibility,” Ouma said. “There were all of these currents of thinking, and people moving around the continent and really being idealistic. The possibility of Pan-Africanism was quite alive during that period.

“South Africans who had been exiled by the apartheid regime were involved in the production of the arts in East and West Africa, and were really influencing the way other parts of Africa thought about their own ideas of freedom. There was a cross pollination of anti-apartheid imagination, decolonization and civil rights from the U.S. in the 1960s.”

In addition to political thought, African writers and artists were sharing ideas about what a postcolonial African literary canon would look like. “Black Orpheus was a very loose collection of writers and artists who were interested in creating a platform for modern African literary production,” Ouma said.

The magazine quickly inspired intellectuals from other countries.

“After Black Orpheus, a magazine called Transition, came up in Uganda. The Classic was set up by South Africans in exile, and a number of other magazines began to appear all over the continent,” he said.

Ouma points out that, because of Africa’s size and diversity, deciding what language to publish a magazine in had both practical and philosophical dimensions.

“Many of these magazines really grappled with the question of language. Transition had a couple of issues that reflected on what it means to express African literature in colonial languages. What does it mean to write poetry and novels, or plays, in English? What does it mean for the multilingual audiences in Africa?”

The small literary magazine is still alive and well in Africa, although most are now fully digital, or at least hybrid, publications. The ability to translate digital works effortlessly into any number of languages has its own implications, which Ouma will explore in Fall 2024, when he teaches a class called Small Magazines and African Literary Modernity, which will consider the literary magazine from its beginnings in the 1950s to the present day.

Ouma will also offer two classes in Spring 2023: Contemporary African Novelists: Adichie and Her Contemporaries and Black Archival Imagination, which will be cotaught with Khwezi Mkhize, a new assistant professor in the Department of African & African American Studies. Ouma became interested in the social and political aspects of archives while researching small literary magazines.

“To be able to understand how those magazines circulated and why they had the ideas they had, you have to go back to the archives of the organizations that published them,” he said. “These archives give you the background as to why these magazines were important, who was moving ideas around the world to put them together, what were some of the ideological and political motivations for them.

“Our class, Black Archival Imagination, tries to center the concept of the archive in relation to hierarchies of access and other ways of rethinking the archive from experiences of people in the continent and the Black diaspora. Who could access archives during the colonial period? How do we think of oral traditions in relation to the archive?”

Working closely with students as they explore Duke’s archival holdings and grapple with what they discover there is something Ouma is looking forward to.

“I'm excited about being able to really have this intimate moment of engaging in material and sharing and being part of that experience,” he said. “I hope students expand their humanity through my classes. You don't just want to fill yourself up with information. You want to be able to enlarge, diversify and expand the way you interact with the world.”