Who will sing a truly East African song or write the new East African book?

Saturday July 29 2023

A photo illustration. PHOTO | NMG

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

At the start of July, a new journal called The Weganda Review launched in Kampala. It should have been a more remarked event than it was because it was the first launch in print of such a journal in East Africa in over 50 years.

One could sniff elements of Kwani? which was founded in Kenya in 2000 and had a fabulously famous run until its life ended with a whimper on Nairobi’s unforgiving alleys in 2015.

But it wasn’t until it had given us a generation of worthy prize-winning East African authors, from Kenya’s rebellious Binyavanga Wainana and Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor to Uganda’s Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi.

Read: Kenyans are reading, who is writing?

Kwani? however, was a purist literary journal, while Weganda Review casts its nest wider as a journal of art, culture, and ideas, and is more eclectic. It is perhaps closest to Transition Magazine, which was founded in Kampala in 1961 by Uganda-Asian writer and poet Rajat Neogy.

Transition, however, aspired to greater literary intellectual heights, and became far out the leading East African and African journal of its generation – and perhaps since. No politician in East Africa who thought he had unappreciated talents as a philosopher, didn’t write in it. Uganda’s President Milton Obote was a regular, doing battle with intellectual foes and friends alike.


Leading intellectuals from, mostly, Anglophone Africa, were staples. Ali Mazrui and Wole Soyinka did their thing there, as did European academics and American figures, including US civil rights leader Martin Luther King.

Obote, however, soon wearied of intellectual combat and following a scathing article in 1968 by acid-tongued opposition MP Abu Mayanja decrying a pivot toward authoritarianism, Neogy and Mayanja were arrested and charged with sedition.

Neogy was acquitted, but after the January 1971 military coup in Uganda, he moved Transition to Ghana. In 1973, he handed over the editorship to Wole Soyinka, who transferred the magazine to Nigeria.

It shut down in 1975 and was revived in 1995 by Henry Louis Gates Jnr, Anthony Kwame Appiah and Wole Soyinka under the WEB Du Bois Institute at Harvard University, from where it is still being published.

Transition’s other unsung role was that it was the intellectual soundtrack of the first East African Community. Since it went into a coma, then exile when it woke up, East Africa hasn’t had a true replacement.

The EastAfrican weekly does a good job telling the region’s news stories, but it doesn’t surface its rage, the raw centripetal forces pulling it together, or the sounds to which it moves.

During the first EAC, it wasn’t its bureaucracy or the national governments that held it together. Music was one of the leading glues. The Tanzanian-Kenyan band Simba Wanyika (later Les Wanyika and Super Wanyika Stars), laid down an East African sound.

Read: Ugandan sounds rock the show on World Music Day

There was Les Mangelepa and Super Mazembe, both Kenya-based. They were some of the great Lingala music bands of the time, with rich casts of Kenyan, Congolese, Tanzanian, Ugandan, and other musicians. They ruled the region.

As little children, ensconced away in the Eastern African hinterland, we thought all these were Congolese bands. I learnt after I had started growing beards that they were East African.

They fashioned a collective East African music experience. It helped that East Africans travelled on the same railway (East African Railways), and flew the same carrier (East African Airways), exported and imported off the same East African Harbours, and the masses who couldn’t fly travelled on the same OTC bus company.

But when it all collapsed, it was the music that remained, and from Tanzania there were all these sibling sounds from Tabora Jazz, Morogoro Jazz, and groups like that.

To each time its own. A few heirs to the throne have threatened to emerge in this age. Kenya’s Sauti Sol looked like a promising candidate; from Uganda, Chameleone showed off his feathers and made a few breakthroughs, and more recently from Tanzania’s Diamond Platinumz looked like he might be The One. But none has taken the crown.

There remains nothing equal to Simba Wanyika’s 1980 East African and global hit Sina Makosa, which is still played today like it came out yesterday.

This is the soil on which The Weganda Review has been sown. Harvest time will reveal in a few months if it is a child from the Transition clan or a descendant of the Les Wanyika people.

East Africa is still searching for its uniting soundtrack and more.

It is looking for the true East African novel to inherit Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s A Grain of Wheat shelf space; a poem to inherit Okot p’Bitek’s Song of Lawino’s mantle; and creations to take over Ali Mazrui’s estate, with its The Africans book and documentary tour de force. No African since dares to try what Mazrui pulled off there. It is a lot, yes. The East African gods are greedy.

Read: Deconstructing the Ngugi wa Thiong'o mind

It’s not yet time to despair, though.

This collective nation is ripe for a Museum of East African Culture and History. It is not beyond possibility that in this lifetime we could have an East African symphony.

After all, the Nairobi Orchestra still lives, and there are the stirrings of the Kigali Philharmonic Orchestra.

There is no reason we can’t have a theatrical bonanza named the East African Lunatic Express. An East African Carnival can’t be ruled out. And, perhaps easiest, a grand East African festival. After all, the Nyege Nyege Festival in Uganda has already put one foot in the door.

Charles Onyango-Obbor is a journalist, writer, and curator of the «Wall of Great Africans» Twitter@cobbo3