The man behind ‘Uganda Renaissance’

How an experimental periodical led by an individual editor thrived in Nasserist Cairo even though it never joined the canon of revolutionary print.

Cairo, 1960s. Postcard from the U.A.R. government printing press.

Uganda Renaissance was something of a one-man magazine. This little-known political periodical, published in Cairo between 1958 and 1961, was largely the initiative of its founder and editor John Kalekezi, or Kale. An activist in his 20s from the Kisoro district of western Uganda, Kale was responsible for most of the dense articles and energetic opinion pieces on African anti-colonial struggles that greeted Renaissance readers. These pieces formed a conversation between subjects discussed in Cairo during the city’s heyday as a radical Afro-Asian hub and Kale’s own experiences of colonialism from his home near Uganda’s border with present-day Rwanda, as well as during his student days in Kampala.

John Kale, impression by an unknown artist. Family collection. Reproduced with the kind permission of John Kale’s family.

But who was part of this conversation? The close relationship between editor and publication—between Kale and the Renaissance, the man and the magazine—raises questions about how we can use the revolutionary papers of the past to understand anti-colonial movements. Historians often ask how the circulation of newspapers and magazines could stimulate or consolidate a political, social, or cultural movement, but sometimes such a movement is difficult to discern in periodicals and their archives. Uganda Renaissance is not cataloged in major libraries in Egypt or Uganda—only scattered issues are publicly consultable in a few US libraries, and it is unclear how they got there. There is little evidence of an extensive community of contributors and readers, and the magazine is not part of the canon of revolutionary publications of the era cited in memoirs and scholarly accounts. What does this mean for the significance of the Renaissance, today and in its own time?

We can begin where Uganda Renaissance itself did: in the Uganda Office on Ahmad Hishmat Street in Zamalek. Headed by Kale, this was one of several offices for sub-Saharan liberation movements housed in Cairo by the end of the 1950s; a joint opening ceremony was held with that of the Cameroons, under Félix Moumié. Resident activists shared meals and debates with Egyptian intellectuals through the infrastructures of solidarity surrounding the recently formed African Association. The publication of a periodical was an obvious activity for such an office: Gamal Abdel Nasser’s government provided office equipment and financed printing at Mondiale Press, and from 1957 the multilingual periodical Nahdatu Ifriquiah (African Renaissance) served as a model for budding editors such as Kale.

Kale was no stranger to publishing when he arrived in Cairo in late 1957. He had spent the previous months working for the Uganda National Congress (UNC) at their office in Katwe, Kampala, where Ugandan press ventures like Uganda Eyogera were struggling to inform readers of the fast-moving political scene amid repressive permit laws under British colonial administration. Kale had been involved in publishing at Makerere University College too, where student magazines were launched and banned recurrently in the 1950s, until he was expelled in 1956 for attending a conference of the Soviet-sponsored International Union of Students. Uganda Renaissance was quickly added to the list of proscribed publications in British colonial East Africa. It became a periodical in exile with limited readership in Uganda beyond copies smuggled in the suitcases of students passing through Cairo.

The circulation of Uganda Renaissance was therefore likely concentrated in Cairo itself. Most of Kale’s articles elaborated on the politics of Uganda nationalism, comparing the UNC’s campaign for democratic elections to others on the continent. The Renaissance thus served to convince patrons like Nasser and potential allies like Moumié that the UNC (embroiled in factional disputes) was the most legitimate vehicle for the aspirations of Ugandan people toward self-government, and simultaneously that the situation in Uganda warranted discussion on international platforms, just like the armed struggles in Kenya and Algeria. In this sense, the one-man editorial voice and limited readership were no failure: this act of lobbying in magazine form only needed to reach small, influential circles. It may have played a role in securing Kale two hearings at the UN Fourth Committee on the Trust Territory Ruanda-Urundi—a rare feat for someone from a colonial country in the 1950s.

Uganda Renaissance, January 1960. Hoover Institution Library & Archives. Reproduced with the kind permission of John Kale’s family.

Yet Uganda Renaissance had significance far beyond its pragmatic functions. Its pages demonstrate the editorial experimentation that was possible in an ecology of print where the usually prohibitive start-up costs of publishing were met by an anticolonial patron. Far from simply reproducing dominant anti-imperialist slogans, Kale cut and pasted material from his own pamphlets and brought together eclectic content to follow his interests: the 1916 poem “Africa” by Rabindranath Tagore and a liberation song from central Kenya; an account of the plight of Batutsi refugees in East Africa, and a copy of the Sanniquellie Declaration that was the basis for the Ghana-Guinea federation.

The non-canonical status of Uganda Renaissance, its confined readership, and the pivotal role of an individual editor do not indicate that this periodical was aloof from the broader anti-colonial movements of the era, or that it was insignificant. Far from it. The few surviving copies show the breadth of publications that were sustainable because of and in spite of Nasser’s top-down (often prescriptive) anti-colonial patronage. In the end, the magazine outlived the man. When Kale was tragically killed in an air accident in August 1960, two Ugandan students pledged to “finish the battle he left unfinished,” reproducing Kale’s regular features and iconic cover design. But they only managed to keep it afloat for a few issues.

Further Reading