The bittersweet pursuit of liberation

Ismay Milford

Ismay Milford’s new book takes us into the world of anticolonialism, giving us a rich account of the struggles of a cohort of activists from east and central Africa.

Kwame Nkrumah Memorial Mausoleum in Accra. Image credit GCIS via Flickr CC BY-ND 2.0

Interview by
Faisal Ali

When we think of the anticolonial struggle in Africa, iconic names such as Julius Nyerere, Kwame Nkrumah, Ben Bella, and Amilcar Cabral immediately come to mind. These influential figures, celebrated for their unwavering determination and bold acts of resistance, have left an indelible mark on the collective memory of the continent. But what about those unsung heroes who fought against colonialism in less glamorous but still very impactful ways?

In her recently published book, African Activists in a Decolonising World, Dr. Ismay Milford, a historian at Leipzig University, attempts to expand our understanding of what constitutes anticolonialism by turning our attention away from these larger-than-life figures and telling the story of a generation of activists from Malawi, Zambia, Uganda and mainland Tanzania, who adopted notably different tactics in their attempts to liberate their countries.

Through her meticulous examination of archival materials and personal accounts, Milford weaves together the stories of activists such as John Kale, Abubaker Kakyama Mayanja, and Kanyama Chiume, whose efforts to see their countries liberated saw them travel the globe, publish everything from pamphlets to articles and organize on a national and international level to raise aware of their goals. African Activists sheds light on the ties between a generation that came of age in the 1950s and 1960s, and how their anticolonial ideas related to the less rewarding everyday practice of anticolonial work.

In this interview conducted by Faisal Ali, Dr. Ismay Milford speaks about her new book:


Your book sheds light on the way activists from several East and Central African countries created what you call an “anticolonial culture.” Can you explain what you mean by that phrase?


I wanted to explore the anticolonial thought of the activists I was researching and the day-to-day practices of activism they were involved in, so I used the term “culture” to describe the relationship between thought and practice. I’m not referring to culture in the sense of the arts (which is a whole different, exciting story), but instead in the sense of certain beliefs or assumptions that underpin what we do. That means that when I read, say, an article by an East African activist in a newsletter of the Asian Socialist Conference, I’m just as interested in this activist’s convictions about the significance of this newsletter and its readership as I am in what they advocate for in their article—probably even more interested.

The anticolonial culture I describe in the book placed high value on mechanisms that assumed particular publics had some leverage to effect change, notably the circulation of printed information across borders, participation in non-state-based organizations and conferences abroad, international student politics, and access to anticolonial patrons and sympathizers. Encompassing these ideas was a conviction in a regional-generational role for this group of men, many of whom were connected to one another through regional educational networks of schools and colleges, like Makerere in Kampala.

Of course, these things are not unique to this cohort of East and Central African activists. The useful thing about the notion of an anticolonial culture is the proposal that there are multiple, overlapping anticolonial cultures, and this helps us see what changes over time and space. One thing that I was often asking myself is how the activism of the 1950s fits into a longer picture of 20th century anticolonialism, from the interwar League Against Imperialism to protests against Apartheid or the US war in Vietnam later in the century. Of course, practices change in terms of the media used; where writing on paper dominates the story I tell, photography was much more important in Lusophone African struggles just a few years later, for example. But so do less tangible convictions about what effective activism looks like. Thinking through anticolonial cultures offers a history of anticolonialism with different contours to one that focuses on political thought or armed struggle.


You note in your book that the “Third World spatial imaginary” centered the Congolese, Algerian, South African and Angolan struggles more than others. This influenced what we think anticolonial work is, but also took our attention away from other figures like Kanyama Chiume, John Kale and Munu Sipalo. What drew you to these figures and their story?


For a long time I was unsure if there was a story to tell about these activists—there was no single place or institution or Cold War camp to tie them together. I began researching the Committee of African Organisations (CAO), an umbrella organization for London-based African activists and students, formed in 1958. The historical narrative of anticolonialism didn’t really account for this organization, which was quite informal and unglamorous, and left no extensive archive.

But CAO presented more questions than answers. The group ebbed and flowed as different members came and went: clearly London was not the whole picture or the “center.” East and Central Africans had prominent roles in CAO, despite West African pan-Africanism being more prominent in postwar London. I also struggled to characterize these activists as “radicals” or “moderates,” especially when I later followed them to the International Union of Socialist Youth or the evangelical spiritual movement Moral Re-Armament, with whom they developed quite ambivalent relationships.

I was doing this preliminary research during the months when Rhodes Must Fall in South Africa gained international media coverage in 2015. It was an interesting moment for thinking about how ideas resurface in activism across time and space, and about what prompts people to identify with or become invested in the struggles of those elsewhere—questions that I always come back to. The activists in my book were thinking about these same questions, about how to capture the attention of distant audiences. Yet they haven’t served as reference points for new activists since, not in the same way that Patrice Lumumba has for example. It was this tension that drew me to them, as well as the eclecticism of their work.


Why do you think these activists and the type of anticolonial work they were involved in is overlooked?


I should start by qualifying by whom they have been overlooked, and that is by historians interested in the global and connected nature of postwar campaigns for political decolonisation. In contrast, historians interested in the national picture in each of these four countries (and not only professional historians) have written about these figures to some degree, but not collectively and, like you suggest, not about these aspects of their work.

There are reasons for each. Firstly, historians looking to understand the global dynamics of decolonization understandably look to processes where it appears that an “external” factor (such as the involvement of the UN or the provision of arms from allied states) was determining, like in Algeria or Congo. My point is not just to show that struggles in this area of East and Central Africa were also involved in that world; in the end, you can find global entanglements wherever you look in the 20th century, so that’s no surprise. Rather, I argue that transnational activism looked different for activists from places that weren’t global hotspots in the period of decolonization, so they help us revise the bigger picture.

Meanwhile, for historians of African nationalisms—and there is a body of excellent scholarship exploring the constructed and contested nature of these nationalisms—the activity of mobile activists looks more like an addendum to what is happening within national borders, rather than a story of its own. By taking a regional lens, rather than a national one, and following activists outside of that region, a more coherent picture emerges. This is not to say that nationalism is not important (it certainly was for the activists in this book), but simply that it’s at the edges of the particular story I’m telling.

Whether or not these activists are known names outside of specialist scholarship (particularly in the countries of their birth) also depends a lot on how their careers aligned with politics after independence. Some activists were forced into exile (like Kanyama Chiume from Malawi), others fell out of favor (like Munu Sipalo from Zambia), some had long careers (like Abu Mayanja from Uganda), or died before seeing political independence (like John Kale also from Uganda). Their reputations have been rehabilitated by descendants, or sometimes appropriated by politicians, in very different ways and at different moments, so it doesn’t seem obvious that there was once a regional-generational cohort.


Throughout the book you argue that the short-lived NGOs, uncoordinated initiatives, magazines and the types of people involved in this work (activist young professionals, often students and teachers in this case) were more typical of anticolonialism than eye- catching Bandung declarations and UN assembly motions, armed struggles and high diplomacy. You write that we need to move away from “singular thinkers and their heroics and towards a social history” approach to understand decolonial processes. Why do you think that is important?


It’s important intellectually and politically. Intellectually, it better reflects the archival record that has been preserved. The material I used to piece together these activists’ work centered around a small, scattered collection of things they wrote: letters, pamphlets, invitations, newspaper articles, leaflets, meeting minutes, manifestos, including texts never accepted for publication. These pieces of paper are preserved by the archives of organizations, institutions, individuals, and states, in East and Central Africa and Western Europe, and I supplemented them with interviews, memoirs, and colonial intelligence reports.

Multi-archival work relies on passport privileges and funding; it also makes messiness and eclecticism more apparent. If you had a single extensive personal archive of diaries and a portfolio of publications then you might get the impression of a clear trajectory of political thought and action without even being pushed to look elsewhere. But even if you had access to such an archive it would be incomplete too, in the sense that it misses the surrounding activity which lent significance to, say, a particular speech by Franz Fanon. Making sense of all this messiness is a task best suited to collaborative work, as the Afro-Asian Networks Research Collective has shown. My book can only present a thin segment of it.

Politically speaking, my focus on this cohort of “second tier” activists gives us a more dispersed view of the spaces and processes of activism. I make no claim to this being a history “from below” or one about popular social movements: the protagonists in the book were elites. But they certainly felt marginalized on the global stage of anticolonial activism. They confronted the fact that self-professed “sympathizers” (“allies” in today’s language) were often ignorant, apathetic, or distracted by the existential questions of their own organizations and the politics of their own locales. These histories are harder to pull from an intellectual biography of a figure like Julius Nyerere. It’s not for me to say whether these aspects of the book resonate with the challenges of activism today, but certainly carrying out this research has shaped my own thinking about different routes to change: declarations of solidarity only go so far when they are not accompanied by provision of resources.


Many of the activists whose lives you’ve followed often settled in anticolonial hubs, and developed complicated relationships with states which shared their goals. Kale settled for a period in Nasser’s Cairo after the Suez crisis, Sipalo spent time in Nehru’s Delhi & Nkrumah’s Ghana. How did their place within those networks impact their efforts?


One thing that emerges throughout the book is the ambivalence of anticolonial hubs. Of course, spending time in cities like Accra, Cairo, and Delhi was inspiring for these activists, but often they found that the resources promised to them were not available, or the organizational culture of institutions like Nkrumah’s Bureau of African Affairs in Accra was counterproductive, or that nominal supporters were racially prejudiced. These dynamics had a chronology, so we can see the rise and fall of various hubs throughout the period the book covers.

Looking through a group of arrivals, rather than outwards from a particular city, also shows us the political tensions they observed—Sebabatso Manoeli has shown the same for South Sudanese activists. New statesmen also had their own agendas, and foreign policy is always a domain for state-building, as cases like that of Algiers as a “Mecca of Revolution” have shown. This doesn’t mean we should read Third World solidarity projects cynically, but that we should read them critically, as the activists in my book did. They compared their own campaigns to ones that gained more attention in the press, like those in Kenya, Algeria, or Congo, and they used the idea of an East and Central African region to increase their representation, often muting conflicts between and within nationalist parties “at home.” When they found that statesmen were unwilling to raise their campaigns at the UN General Assembly, they pursued non-state routes to change, through press reporting or scholarly activity—essentially infrastructures of knowledge production (which came with their own problems).

In the end, these sorts of activists made hubs what they were, and at times they were able to shape the politics of anticolonialism in these cities, because their specialist knowledge and their voices were needed, like Priyamvada Gopal has shown of London.


An important part of the book is the limits these young men (usually) came up against in their efforts. They faced challenges crossing borders, struggled to hold large conferences, realized the limits to how far the distribution of pamphlets and articles could carry their ideas or the limits of protest within the rules. They often learnt lessons and adjusted their activities. Why did that process feature so largely in your book?


This is partly my response to a longer historiographical conversation. My training as a historian has coincided with the study of transnational activities from a global perspective moving very much into the mainstream of the discipline. There has been some very valid apprehension—especially among historians of Africa—about romanticizing “the transnational,” implying some inherent worthiness of physical mobility and the cosmopolitanism that sometimes accompanies it. The conversation often becomes confusing because we use the same terms (like global and transnational) to describe an analytical approach, and a characteristic of activities in the past, and the worldview of actors who carried them out.

The cases in my book have implications for this discussion. Going abroad to harness “world public opinion” in a hub of anticolonialism was not an obvious thing to do. This sort of transnational work was minor and short-lived compared to the campaigns of political parties within East and Central African countries, and what’s more it was often frustrating and unrewarding, as the book shows. Yet these activists pursued these modes of activism with enthusiasm. If we want to avoid romanticizing the transnational, then it’s worth explaining why.

About the Interviewee

Dr. Ismay Milford is a historian at Leipzig University and is the author of African Activists in a Decolonising World.

About the Interviewer

Faisal Ali is a multimedia journalist at The Guardian and a writer based in London.

Further Reading