The New Magazines and Journals Shaping Africa’s Literary Scene

Lolwe, Doek and other digital publications are helping to amplify new voices from the continent.,

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KISUMU, Kenya — While he was finishing his master’s degree in creative writing in England two years ago, Troy Onyango remembers, he lamented with his friends about how few literary outlets were devoted to Black writers, poets and photographers like them.

For Onyango, he said, it was about, “How do we just find a space where we can all congregate?”

That question led to Lolwe, an online literary magazine he launched in 2020 with the aim of publishing Black people in Africa and around the world. Lolwe — which draws its name from the Luo name for Lake Victoria, whose waters hug this city in western Kenya, and means “endless lake or water body” — has published dozens of works of fiction, nonfiction, poetry and photography from over 20 countries.

In June, as the magazine prepared to release its third issue, it also bagged a coveted recognition: “The Giver of Nicknames,” a story about students at an elite Namibian private school, made the shortlist for the AKO Caine Prize for African Writing, awarded annually to the best short fiction by an African writer in English.

Onyango, 28, was also shortlisted for his story “This Little Light of Mine,” written from the perspective of a recently disabled man attempting to cure his loneliness with online dating apps. It was published last year in Doek, a literary magazine based in Namibia. Its founder: Remy Ngamije, the author of “The Giver of Nicknames.”

“When I got the news, I felt as if it was a prank,” Onyango said of the cross nominations. When Ngamije heard that both stories and both magazines received nominations, “it gave me a quiet comfort, because it let me know we were doing something right,” he said in a phone interview from Windhoek.

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Lolwe’s third issue, with a cover photograph by Teddy Tavan.

Given how new both publications are, the selections amounted to a “win because it goes to show that African literary publications are doing the work,” Onyango said, adding, “With the right support, more of this collaboration can help grow our literature.”

Across Africa, literary journals managed by young writers and artists are emerging with the aim of publishing both new and established voices, collaborating across geographies and using the internet and social media to reach their audiences. They are building on predecessors such as Transition, which shaped post-independence Africa, as well as Chimurenga, Kwani, Jalada, Brittle Paper and The Johannesburg Review of Books, which introduced powerful African storytellers to the global stage in the past two decades.

The new titles, which in addition to Lolwe and Doek include Isele Magazine, based in the United States, and Imbiza Journal for African Writing, based in South Africa, are often eliciting reactions just by their names.

Down River Road, for example, is a Kenyan journal that started last year and is named after Meja Mwangi’s 1976 novel “Going Down River Road.” Doek means a cloth or a head scarf in Afrikaans, but it is also a play on the name of Namibia’s capital, Windhoek. By linking the journal’s name to something familiar, Ngamije said, he wanted to present literature as a “visible and accessible thing” while fostering curiosity with readers beyond Namibia and southern Africa.

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Recent issues of Down River Road, a Kenyan literary journal that started in 2020.

“All you heard about Namibia was our sand dunes, our lions and black rhinoceroses,” Ngamije said. But with Doek’s focus on publishing work by Namibians, he added, he hoped to “bring not only Namibian writing to Africa and the world but to also bring a little bit of Africa to us.”

The magazines are also providing platforms for art forms beyond writing, and oftentimes subject matter or perspectives that wouldn’t get as much prominence in Western publications. Down River Road published an audio performance as part of its Ritual issue, featuring poetry by Chebet Fataba Kakulatombo and music and mixing by Petero Kalule and Yabework Abebe. Doek’s second issue included a photo series on workplace anxiety by the South Africa-based journalist Rofhiwa Maneta, while a photo essay by Layla Adjovi in the latest issue of Lolwe focuses on women in Senegal, Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso whose husbands have emigrated to Europe.

Nii Ayikwei Parkes, a Ghanaian writer and a trustee of the Caine Prize, said the editors and contributors of the emergent journals are less restrained by the demands of funders or “by the burden — real or imagined — of having to shape a post-independence identity for Africa that was couched in respectability.”

Because of that, he said in an email, they are “able to be more progressive, more radical, more expansive, more subversive.”

The Kenyan writer Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, who won the 2003 Caine Prize for a story in Kwani literary magazine, sees the publications drawing a new, young group of African writers, artists and readers. They “seem to enthuse a global typology-transcending generation, who identify with them, for whom themes, ideas, style and method supersede traditionalized politics and imaginings,” she said.

But even as they strive to give a voice to a new generation, the new journals face some of the same challenges as their forerunners. Key among them is financial constraints, with many of them relying on individual donations or their own money to stay afloat.

To remain sustainable, outlets like Down River Road sell in cities like Nairobi print copies of their publications with exclusive material that isn’t online, said Frankline Sunday, one of Down River Road’s founders. Lolwe has opted to organize writing workshops with African writers, while Doek has partnered with a local bank for support.

Another challenge nascent literary outlets risk is a high staff turnover, with founders at times getting poached by more established outlets or lured by better opportunities.

“They go to a publishing house, they go to a newspaper, they go to a communications department in an organization,” said James Murua, a journalist whose blog extensively documents the African literary scene. “And that’s typically the end of the magazine.”

But no matter the challenges, Murua believes this new generation of literary journals will pave the way for more publications and embolden young Africans to write the next best sellers.

“It’s only good for the future,” he said. “It’s a win-win.”

It’s this long-term vision that keeps founders like Ngamije going as he tries to put Namibia on the African and global cultural map.

“We are taking baby steps in this literary marathon,” he said, “and we always have to fight this feeling that we are late, that we are in the last place.”

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