Magazine cover, Awa: la revue de la femme noire, issue 11, January–February 1965 (Cover photograph by Baïdy Sow; this photograph: Ruth Bush, 2014)

Digitising militant glossy magazines in francophone Africa

Awa: la revue de la femme noire was a glossy magazine produced in Dakar, Senegal by a pioneering network of women between 1964 and 1972. This magazine is currently being digitised at the Institut Fondamental d’Afrique Noire (IFAN-Cheikh Anta Diop, part of the Université Cheikh Anta Diop) in Dakar as one strand of a recently launched project on African reading cultures and popular print in francophone Africa. The project will include an exhibition at the Musée de la Femme-Henriette Bathily in Dakar later this year, along with conferences and publications.

During our first official project meetings in January, the magazine’s founder, Annette Mbaye d’Erneville, and one of its early contributors, Professor Fatou Sow, spoke of Awa’s role as part of a broader, collective movement dedicated to the position of women in Senegalese society in the period of the independences. The magazine features poems, short stories, political reportage, and essays, alongside recipes, fashion, home-furnishings, and readers’ letters pages. Its editors hoped it would become ‘an object of entertainment […] a work tool […] a vehicle for our ideas’. As I’ve argued elsewhere, Awa was not a feminist magazine in any explicit sense. Some of its contributors openly refused the term feminism, pre-empting ongoing debates surrounding that term’s translatability between cultural contexts.

Awa presents women’s everyday lives as citizens, mothers, workers, and consumers. Space is also made for allusions to internationalism, with reports on women’s conferences and glimpses of the Cold War context, notably through the international readers’ letters page. We can be mindful here of the federating role played by women’s associations in Senegal during this period, as well as the role of the UN as a forum for relations between African, Asian, and Latin American women in the years preceding the UN Decade for Women (1975–1985). Readers’ letters published in Awa come from men and women living in Senegal, Niger, Congo, Canada, the UK, Israel, and elsewhere. There are numerous letters of support from women’s associations and publications in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe expressing political solidarity. These publications include Femmes de nos jours, Commission féminine de la Société des Amitiés (URSS-Afrique), La Revue Polonaise, Solidarité, and Femmes du monde entier (publication of the pro-Soviet Women’s International Democratic Federation based in Berlin). Though not mentioned in Awa, the Afro-Asian Women’s Conferences which began in Cairo in 1961, played a key role in ‘confronting relations of feminist imperialism and creating new terms for solidarity’ in this period (Armstrong, 2016). Key political figures who attended those meetings, such as Guinean minister and permanent representative at the UN, Jeanne Martin Cissé, feature prominently in the pages of Awa. Awa’s editors’ curation of content reminds us that their readers were not empty vessels for commodified visions of domestic modernity, or political rhetoric from newly independent African nation-states. The magazine provided a space for dialogue and information concerning significant issues affecting women’s lives, while acknowledging — in particular through the readers’ letters — the relative elitism of the magazine format. Nonetheless, in full view of Awa’s conscious modernity, playful modesty, and moderate tone, we can sense its editors’ militancy. Their use of a mobile, printed medium which drew on the ongoing political work of women’s associations across francophone Africa, advocated a Pan-African ethos, and was entirely produced in Dakar, remains pathbreaking in the context of post-independence African print culture.

Magazines are not a new sources for cultural and historical research in the global South. From Drum and Zonk! in South Africa to African Parade in the Central African Federation, Hawwa in Egypt, and Souffles in Morocco, magazines have cast light on discursive and visual constructions of individual and collective identities. As argued in a landmark recent publication on African newspaper cultures, the colonial and post-colonial press can signal complex critiques of ‘official’ political ideas. Such critique is mobilised through cover art, advertisements, playful notions of authorship, and dialogue with readers, in addition to the main text and image content. Contemporary creative blogs and online literary communities originating on the African continent have drawn on this heritage, with online Pan-African hubs such as Chimurenga in South Africa pointing towards the library of African magazines. These historic collective print interventions continue to speak across time, inspiring literary activists at a time of rapid transition and fresh possibilities for print media.

In Dakar in 2017, the work of bringing together good-quality copies of Awa for digitisation includes handling a fragile and partly-nibbled bound copy of the first 15 issues in the founding editor’s home. Though intended for careful conservation, these bound volumes are notoriously difficult to digitise. Project partners at the Musée de la Femme-Henriette Bathily and IFAN-Cheikh Anta Diop have begun the task of tracking down unbound copies scattered across homes and institutions in Dakar. They are digging out issues stored in boxes at a military barracks following the recent relocation of the museum from Gorée Island to Dakar. Archivists at IFAN are producing high resolution scans and metadata, and our discussions concerning storing this data on the valuable digital repository housed on servers at the Université Cheikh Anta Diop (where IFAN is based) are ongoing. We hope to link this work to other digitisation initiatives based on the African continent when the digitised version of Awa is launched in October 2017.

Digitisation has become a standard part of the work of libraries and archives in the global North. Initiatives such as the Tombouctou Manuscript Project, the British Library’s Endangered Archives Programme, the Diasporic Literary Archives network, and the Biens Culturels Africains project (this link is to the previously mentioned and currently out-of-action digital repository in Dakar), have led recent efforts to make material available in partnership with comparatively under-resourced institutions on the African continent and elsewhere. Such projects signal the profound structural disparities that persist in ‘global’ knowledge production and preservation. They also enable broader engagement with these materials, while generating central questions concerning digital heritage work and future directions for African print activism.

Institut fondamental d’Afrique noire — Cheikh Anta Diop (Dakar) where AWA: La revue de la femme noire is currently being digitised (photograph: Ruth Bush, 2017).