by Jonas Bakkeli Eide

Ismay Milford is a Marie Skłodowska-Curie postdoctoral fellow at the Friedrich Meinecke Institut at Freie Universität Berlin. Her research focuses on twentieth-century Eastern Africa, and she is particularly interested in the region’s role within global histories of information, environment, and technology. Her broader research interests include social and intellectual histories of print, religion, education, activism, and regionalism. She is currently working on East African engagement with calls for a New World Information Order in the 1960s-80s, particularly via the training of librarians, journalists, technicians, amongst others.

In her first monograph, African Activists in a Decolonising World: The Making of an Anticolonial Culture, 1952–1966 (Cambridge University Press, 2023), Milford follows a cohort of East and Central African anticolonial activists through their work spanning from Delhi to Cairo, London to Accra. Approaching these activists’ encounters with the anticolonial world as both a social and an intellectual history, Milford depicts the constitution and character of the “anticolonial culture” these activists created and lived by.

Jonas Bakkeli Eide: How did you get into the subject of East African anticolonial activism? When did you first encounter it, and what prompted your interest in the subject?

Ismay Milford: I have always been interested in the history of activism and of social movements—in how people go about effecting change. As for African history, I first became interested in it during my bachelor’s degree, in large part by way of Francophone African literature—we were reading authors like Mariama Bâ and Assia Djebar. But it was really my research on the Committee of African Organizations (CAO) that sparked my interest in the subject of the book. The CAO was a small group in London, a kind of informal umbrella organization of African students and political representatives, formed in 1958. It had not been studied much previously, in part because it was targeted by fascists in an arson attack, and what existed of a formal archive was lost. As I was researching CAO, I realized that for these activists, London was not the center of their world, it was not at the center of their anticolonial networks. I was keen to follow up on that, and to study the different constellations that CAO was a small part of.

JBE: Your book is a study of one particular “anticolonial culture.” What kind of people was this culture made up of? What kind of tenets or practices did it involve?

IM: I have wondered whether culture is the right word to use. There is really good work on cultures of decolonization, including a volume with that title edited by Ruth Craggs and Claire Wintle, which focuses on the arts, literature, and material culture—aspects easily dismissed because they look less “political” on the surface. In contrast, although with shared aims, I use the word “culture” in the sense of norms and practices. A script, you might call it—the symbols and discursive elements that inform how people act.

I should note that I am talking about an anticolonial culture with the assumption that there would be many others—there is no single universal anticolonial culture. In the anticolonial culture I write about, one central tenet would be its approach to information and communication as a primary means of doing anticolonial activism or politics. Another tenet would be its connection to the international sphere. What is specific about this anticolonial culture I describe, that would not apply so much to other political figures from the same region, is this belief that there is something to be gained politically by making international contacts, by practicing internationalism. Finally, there is an almost self-reinforcing belief in a certain political role of their generation, a sense of responsibility in a way.

Fig. 1. The travel trajectories of Abu Mayanja, John Kale, Kanyama Chiume, and Munu Sipalo. © Kate Fawcett Design 2022, reproduced with permission.

JBE: Let us talk a bit more about this perspective on internationalism—which I guess you could describe as cosmopolitanism—this belief in the political value of being international. It is a common trait of historical actors, especially on the left, to call themselves internationalists whilst in practice remaining mostly nationally minded. Yet to actually see internationalism as a means of making tangible political change, as your actors did, is quite striking.

IM: Definitely! That is an interesting point, because “cosmopolitanism” comes with a lot of connotations that have been hotly debated in African history. Academics are typically internationally oriented people, and cosmopolitanism often seeps into our methodology without us noticing it. “Cosmopolitan” was certainly not a word these activists would use, they did not describe themselves as cosmopolitan. That is why I do not use that word to describe them. Rather, they talked about their interest in and role in the “international” and “world” spheres but did not translate that to something about their political identity.

It is also interesting that you bring up this fact of looking to the international sphere to seek political change. In a situation where the national is colonial, and where actors had little political leverage in these national institutions, it made a lot of sense for them to look to the international sphere. At the same time, actors like Munu Sipalo or Abu Mayanja had contemporaries as well as predecessors who did not think in those terms, and who did seek change via colonial mechanisms.

JBE: Towards the end of your book, as Tanganyika, Uganda, Malawi, and Zambia become independent, it feels to me as though the space closes down a bit. National politics becomes more central with the establishment of the new states, and these international activists seem to become almost “stranded,” if you will. Was there something like a “culture clash” between nationally and internationally minded activists?

IM: There is some ambivalence in the final chapter of the book about what the moment of national independence meant. In my book, and in a lot of the historiography in general, there has been a shift away from the idea that the day of flag independence is really central, both because of the extent of thinking and planning that came before that moment, as well as because of the continuities that came after. With the final chapter of the book, I wanted to give a sense of the ambivalence and complexity that came with the achievement of nation-statehood. But there were a lot of loose threads that I wanted to follow afterwards. I have been able to do that to some extent in my postdoctoral role in a larger project, “Another World?”, led by Emma Hunter. We have really been thinking about, and trying to locate, this apparent “closing down of possibilities”, which was not always experienced as such by the actors involved, and which happened in very different ways across different institutions. We are interested in institutions whose relationship to the state was not direct, in education, in trade unions, in the literary publishing sphere, for example.

As for the potential culture clash you mention, for a variety of reasons the tenets of the anticolonial culture I follow did somehow become less relevant or less workable with the advent of statehood. This was not simply a question of them losing their raison d’être, or because of authoritarian nationalism in some states—some practices and networks continued precisely in order to limit that authoritarianism. One important point is the rise of a new generation of activists and students—we see that in chapter five already. The actors that I follow were no longer the political vanguard, with a new generation of radical youth emerging and making their voices heard. And they were no longer the organ of the highly educated elite, as the education system opened up and the number of graduates increased.

JBE: One thing I appreciated about your book is the way you highlight the generational dimension of politics. There is a clear sense of coherence to the generation of activist you describe, with John Kale, Abu Mayanja, Kanyama Chiume, and Munu Sipalo at the center. How did you end up centering your book on these four guys in particular? Did you start out with a set of actors you wanted to follow as a group, or did the group emerge from the source material?

IM: I am glad you read it as a coherent cohort, because it troubled me for a long time whether or to what extent I could call this group a cohort, and what kind of study I was doing: Was it a collective biography or prosopography, was it the history of a generation? It was certainly never about a particular organization because, although I started out with CAO, I always felt that that was not the center of this story. Ultimately, I would say that the actors emerged from the source material I had. I came across these individuals separately, and I was always very excited when I found that they had been at the same meeting or had been living in a city at the same time, or that they shared connections to a third individual. What I had initially thought might be a disconnected group of people had something connecting them. Which is not to say that they necessarily shared a political vision.

At the same time, a lot of other activists feature in the book, and it was only at a late stage that I decided to pick out these four as the “main characters”. Even for these four central individuals, from my sources I still only have a limited understanding of their personal biographies. My book is not a collective biography, and I am not trying to give a comprehensive account of what their lives were like or their political biographies. That would certainly be very interesting though—A. B. K. Kasozi has just published a biography of Abu Mayanja that I’m very much looking forward to reading.

Fig. 2. Office of the Union of Democratic Control, 1959. Hull University Archives. Photograph by Cyril M. Bernard, reproduced with permission of Miriam Bernard

JBE: There seems to me to be a certain kind of liminality to these actors. They are educated elites by background, but once they go out into the world of anticolonial politics in Accra or Cairo or London, they take on a relatively peripheral role. I think this has a lot of echoes in international history, where someone who has the opportunity to go out into the world is often privileged or of high status where they come from, but when they go out into the world they end up in a much more peripheral position. Do you think that this sense of liminality is something your actors experienced?

IM: Yes, absolutely. I think liminality is a nice word to describe it. At times, I wondered if the book was really about the position of these four countries in the pan-African and Afro-Asian anticolonial world—the world of soon-to-be states and soon-to-be statesmen—and if I was using these individuals as representatives for the perceived peripherality of the region. In the end, I think the two issues are distinct, and these individuals should not be seen as representatives of that region. Still, I do think that the dynamic of imagined (and acted on) centers and peripheries is key to the book’s argument. The peripherality, to call it that, of these activists was something that I was initially disappointed to discover—that is, the limits of what they were able to achieve in places like Cairo. It was only gradually that I realized that this sense of limitation is precisely what is interesting about them, how through them we can understand the social dynamics that pervaded anticolonial spaces. Some people were inevitably more influential than others, and their level of influence depended on a whole range of criteria, in a racialized, Cold War world, which were very different from those that governed someone’s status in their home country. That is a kind of liminality.

JBE: I’d like to follow up on the question of East Africa’s place in the larger world of anticolonialism. What kind of relationship did the region have to central anticolonial hubs like Accra or Cairo?

IM: That is a question that still requires more research, I think. Eric Burton’s work is something to look out for. In my book, I ask how the idea of this region covering Uganda, mainland Tanzania, Malawi, and Zambia emerged. It is important to note that the region I talk about did not include Kenya, Zanzibar, or Zimbabwe. In the 1950s, East and Central Africa was talked about in terms of the potential for “multiracialism”—which perceptive and critical voices at the time interpreted as a model for a future in which the minority settler population could retain their disproportionate control over the political and economic spheres. This settler population was far larger in East and Central Africa than in West Africa, yet it was concentrated in Kenya and Zimbabwe.

This gave rise to various tensions behind the scenes in the pan-African world. Activists from Uganda, Tanganyika, and Malawi especially (but Zambia too) at times disassociated themselves from the problems of settler colonialism and at others tried to capitalize on the attention that settler “hotspots” gained, when appealing to anticolonial patrons like Kwame Nkrumah or Abdel Gamal Nasser. Even in London, in CAO for example, there was a sense that the much larger number of West African students, and their larger number of anticolonial publications and organizations, equated to unevenness on the pan-African anticolonial playing field. The Accra-led version of pan-African internationalism was very successful in projecting a united image of course, but that is not the whole picture. There is still more research to be done, but from the cohort in the book, we already get a sense of this concern about not being taken seriously by anticolonial patrons.

Fig. 3. Zambia Freedom Monument (1974), © Ismay Milford, 2017.

JBE: Early in the book, you provide a quite vivid picture of student life and activism at 1950s Kampala’s Makerere University, together with its links to anticolonial movements and parties across East Africa. What was the significance of the university and its alumni for the story of East African anticolonialism?

IM: In many ways, it is an obvious starting point, and I am certainly not the first to see Makerere as a hub of political thinking. What I wanted to show was that what was happening at Makerere, and particularly Abu Mayanja’s student strike in 1952, should not be limited to a history of student politics. That is why I was excited to be able to connect it directly with what was happening in Nairobi—I think that connection had previously not been made. I wanted to show how student politics at Makerere was connected to the political work of anticolonialism.

Although it is well acknowledged that Makerere began as a colonial institution very much governed by the norms of colonial education policy, I also wanted to understand the processes by which students and activists could make use of this institution for their own purposes. The reproduction of elites in a colonial setting and the development of anticolonial thought are two separate processes that overlapped in particular moments and places. That overlap between the colonial institution and the growth of an anticolonial culture is what I wanted to understand better.

JBE: The Congo Crisis and the assassination of Patrice Lumumba in 1961 was a particularly disturbing event for your actors and seems to mark a turning point in your story—it feels like the tone shifts and becomes a bit darker, a bit more paranoid. What did the Congo crisis mean to your actors, and how did it influence their political outlook? Would it be fair to see the Congo crisis as the birth of neocolonialism in the eyes of your actors?

IM: I agree that it was a turning point for these actors. That is what it seemed like to me from the way they wrote about it in various pamphlets, and when they held meetings or proposed resolutions about it. The Congo crisis became a concrete situation, internationally and globally discussed, to which these actors could attach their preexisting ideas, suspicions, and beliefs about neocolonialism. It tangibly changed the way a lot of people understood decolonization, and their idea of what decolonization would look like: who had stakes in decolonization, and who was going to steer the process. I think that is why the Congo crisis was so important for these actors; it was a really potent symbol as well as a shocking event. I do not know if it would have surprised them though, or if it would have just confirmed their worst suspicions – let’s put it that way.

What I tried to do in chapter five was to follow the repercussions of this and show that ideas of conspiracy gave the actors a sense that the process of decolonization could be sabotaged from within or from without—from anywhere, really. And then in chapter six, I tried to show that that sense of pervasive danger was not necessarily derived from the Cold War, that it was rooted in the politics of the region and in what was happening in Accra and Cairo too—basically that state sponsorship of anticolonial organizing looked less worthwhile after around 1961, as organizations like the Afro-Asian Peoples Solidarity Committee faltered together with the idea of a single, legitimate, nationalist party for each country.

JBE: Besides famous landmarks like the 1958 All-African Peoples’ Conference in Accra, you also delve into a few more obscure and idiosyncratic initiatives. My personal favorite is the Swiss-based Christian conservative anticolonial movement “Moral Re-Armament” (MRA) with its rituals like “quiet time”—during which participants were supposed to commune with God privately. At one point, you recount how the visiting Abu Mayanja was told that his wish to return to London was Satan tempting him. This is a very different kind of anticolonial politics than the more well-known socialist and pan-African types. First, how did you come across this group? Second, are odd-looking groups such as the MRA just historical curiosities, or do they warrant serious scholarly attention?

IM: I first came across it by way of Abu Mayanja. I was looking into the correspondence between Mayanja and Michael Scott’s Africa Bureau in London, and his account of his time at the MRA headquarters was there. I had never heard of the MRA at that point, and it was just fantastic to read his account; not least because Mayanja was such an evocative writer. Initially, I thought that it did not really fit with the narrative, this kind of regressive or reactionary group. I was unsure whether it should be included in the book. In the end, I found that it was important to include it because the distinction we today draw between progressive or radical anticolonial groups and this kind of socially and culturally conservative organization—which nevertheless did nominally advocate independence for African states—would not have looked the same in 1958.

In that way, the MRA helped me illustrate a larger point; namely, the situatedness of categories like “radical” when we talk about anticolonialism. I have since written an article on Moral Re-Armament with that account by Mayanja at the center, where I try to use the MRA in East Africa as a way to think about the role of religion and religious internationalism in decolonization. I think that just to have that account is so valuable because it allows us to imagine that Mayanja may well have had a similar kind of derision for organizations that we would consider more mainstream, like the Africa Bureau—which itself had Christian roots.

JBE: One thing I particularly appreciate about your book is the methodological approach, or approaches. How did you go about balancing social history with intellectual history? Was that a challenge for you?

IM: Yes, that was challenging. I was always apprehensive as to whether I was doing intellectual history in the way I had been taught that intellectual history is done. I was also unsure whether I was doing social history in the classic sense. But this theme of the making of a generation, I suppose that is the social history aspect of it. In a way, I think the balance between social history and intellectual history developed organically from the sources. I was really interested in the materiality of all these bits of paper preserved in the archive, the way they had been produced, what assumptions lay behind their production, and what had been lost as actors transferred their thoughts onto paper. What that meant was that I often derived certain beliefs or convictions of my actors not only from what they wrote, but just as much from the fact that they wrote it down on paper at all, with the intention of circulating it among a particular group of people in a particular place and time. Because that in itself conveys a certain worldview about what activism is and how political change comes about.

JBE: The book makes use of a “micro-spatial approach,” through which, as you write, “[s]cale becomes not an analytical tool nor a descriptor of how lives were lived, but a social and historical construction.” What does this entail? What’s the significance of scale to your narrative?

IM: This micro-spatial approach, coined by Christian de Vito and Anne Gerritsen, was something that, once I read about it, a lot of the challenges I had been having began to make sense to me. This was after I had written the first draft of the monograph. Before that I had sort of assumed that I was not “doing” microhistory because the mobility of these actors was so far-reaching, so connected to the grand personalities and events of anticolonialism. But that was just a complete misconception on my part. That was made clear to me when I read Christian de Vito’s article “History without scale”, which explains that microhistory is not about small geographies or the agency of “ordinary” people. In the Italian tradition, the microhistorical approach is about connections made visible through a close reading of certain types of sources. Then, as a point of dialogue with global history, de Vito’s micro-spatial approach asks how scale is constructed by historical actors, by using these methods from microstoria. I realized that a micro-spatial approach was precisely the way I had been treating my source material. I guess we all have our own dispositions when it comes to reading source material and making sense of it.

This point about the construction of scale helped me make sense of this peripherality and liminality we mentioned. These are not my analytical categories but ones I derived from the way this cohort described their experiences on pieces of paper that ended up in archives. I do not see these actors working at a pre-existing global, regional, national, or local “scales,” nor did I have any notion of the geographical scope of the story when I began my research. These actors made scale through their practices and connections, and the narrative takes its cue from precisely those practices.

JBE: I guess it is a question of getting rid of a particular kind of ontological hierarchy or distinction between “local” and “global” spaces. Is that right?

IM: Exactly, yes. And yet, their perception of being somewhere peripheral in certain moments, when they were not able to go to conferences or travel to cities to study, for example, that perception of being peripheral was real and it did matter. But that is my analysis of their worldview, not my analysis of their definitive position in the world.

JBE: In your approach to intellectual history, you focus on socially constituted and material practices, and the situatedness (for lack of a better word) of the political ideas involved. As you write, “To talk of an anticolonial culture is to grapple with a process in which the quotidian experience of carrying out anticolonial work itself informed the assumptions, convictions and principles that also guided this work—a process at once self-reinforcing and inherently unstable.” Could you expand on this? How did the practical mundanity of activist work inform the political principles and convictions of your actors?

IM: I was a bit apprehensive about how to approach this topic because I did not want to be wedded to a particular theory of how ideas and practices interact. To put it in concrete terms, let us take as an example an attempt to organize a conference, like Munu Sipalo tried to. You try to organize an international conference and it is simply not possible, and that leads you to become interested the various forms of immobility enforced by colonial rule. You become more inclined to write about these particular political issues, but it is because you tried to organize a conference that you are interested in that. This question of colonial border regimes or proscribed publications is not something abstract to you, it is a tangible problem. More to the point, it is not something you necessarily read from an anticolonial tract written by a famous Black Atlantic intellectual. It is much more concrete.

That makes it sound quite simple, and ultimately, I think it is simple. What I wanted to emphasize is that the tenets of this anticolonial culture were not necessarily grasped through purely intellectual channels. I felt this was important, because it shows that anticolonial thought did not have a natural or given center in the Black Atlantic, or in intellectual currents in India or China in the early twentieth century, for example. It had multiple origins in the variety of practical, day-to-day problems faced by activists all over the world.

JBE: In the last few years, several works on anticolonial thought have been published, from Adom Getachew’s 2019 Worldmaking after Empire to Frank Gerits’ The Ideological Scramble for Africa; not to mention your own book! It seems that the intellectual history of anticolonialism is flourishing. Where do you see the field going in the next few years?

IM: I’m happy to even hear my book in the same sentence as these! Getachew’s work has been transformative to the field, not least because it has been read across disciplines and across regional specialisms. Both her work and Gerits’ have shown not only that we as scholars must take seriously the world-making ambitions of Black thinkers, but also that these thinkers forced the highest echelons of global governance to take them seriously. This is an important foundation for research on actors whose ambitions do not fit so easily into a celebratory canon of anticolonial thought, either because they were marginalized at the time or have been in the historical record. For example, the thinkers behind campaigns for self-determination that were unsuccessful—there’s exciting work on this coming out by scholars like Yusra Abdullahi, Emma Kluge, and Lydia Walker. I would like to see more discussion on anticolonial internationalism outside of secular UN or Comintern frameworks too – on theological and spiritual positions, for example, like we mentioned—that has come up again in my current project as well.

Jonas Bakkeli Eide is a PhD Researcher at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy.

Edited by Artur Banaszewski

Featured Image: Chango Machyo (left) and Dennis Phombeah (right) at a pro-Lumumba protest in London, 1961. Photographer unknown. Chango Machyo family collection, reproduced with permission of Peter Obanda Wanyama.