Debating Ideas aims to reflect the values and editorial ethos of the African Arguments book series, publishing engaged, often radical, scholarship, original and activist writing from within the African continent and beyond. It offers debates and engagements, contexts and controversies, and reviews and responses flowing from the African Arguments books.
Here we examine the role of the magazine AWA: la revue de la femme noire (English: Awa: the black woman’s magazine) (1964–73), launched by a network of women’s rights activists, in shaping the emergence of a pan-Africanist political consciousness through transnational organising. In addition, the magazine promoted women’s literacy and professional training to help contribute to nation-building efforts especially after independence. AWA was created by a group of women including the first Senegalese professional journalist Annette Mbaye d’Erneville. It was a platform connecting women in Africa, the diaspora and globally around gender and societal issues, using print media to express themselves, articulate their pan-Africanist thought, and reach a wider audience. This illustrates African women’s engagement in socio-political, cultural, and economic spheres and an awareness of how their interconnectedness impacted their lives, prompting them to mobilise and organise in associations and movements to fight against gender inequality and to transform patriarchal systems from within. Today AWA constitutes a rare archive that documents a rich parenthesis of the emergence of women’s political consciousness and their organising. The magazine’s editorial choices illustrate this commitment in the period between 1964 and 1976 in Senegal.
What was AWA?
Celebrating black womanhood and contributing to the emergence of a pan-African political consciousness in Africa and its diaspora was how AWA’s Editor in Chief Annette Mbaye d’Erneville described the main goal she advocated for through her journalism, writing and activism. In this, the journal follows the lead of many other magazines created in this vibrant period including Présence Africaine launched as a political, cultural and literary quarterly magazine in 1947 before becoming a publishing house. Indeed, in the immediate aftermath of independence, the task of nation-building went along with the need to promote female literacy and raise women’s political consciousness in order for them to contribute to the progress of the continent and its peoples. Against this background, Mbaye d’Erneville and a network of other women’s rights activists conceptualised the magazine “Femmes de Soleil” (English: Women of the sun) in 1957. The monthly magazine in French was subsequently renamed AWA: la revue de la femme noire. The name AWA derives from the mother Eve, Awa in Wolof. Mbaye d’Erneville, a Senegalese journalist and poet born in 1926 in Sokone, wrote the introductions to each issue highlighting the mission of the magazine: “Nous dirons à toutes nos sœurs d’Afrique et du monde, Voici notre fille! Qu’en ferons-nous? Awa deviendra ce que toutes nous déciderons qu’elle soit.” (We will say to our sisters from Africa and the world: this is our daughter! What will we do with it? AWA will become what we all want it to be.)
The magazine launched in 1964 and was published until 1973. The journal was printed thanks to the benevolence of the private and independent printing press Abdoulaye Diop. It was funded through memberships, subscriptions and advertisement as well as receiving a contribution from the then President of Senegal, Léopold Senghor. When it started in 1964, the magazine used to publish issues every month. In 1965 publication was reduced to four, then in 1966 the editorial team only issued one edition. After that there was a pause until 1973 with only two editions published due to financial issues.
AWA’s editorial choices: literacy, transnational black femininity and pan-African politics in women’s organising
AWA’s editorial team comprised a group of women including Annette Mbaye d’Erneville, Marie-Anne Sohai, Henriette Bathily, Virginie Camara and Marie-Thérèse Diop, among others, who were also known for being either artists, women’s rights activists, or journalists. The editorial team was committed to highlighting the experiences of black women.
AWA was not just a reflection on the lives and experiences of African women, it was also a platform for black woman around the world to network and embody solidarity and sorority. Their goal in creating AWA was to highlight the different spheres of action of women’s movements in relation to the struggles they faced due to gender inequalities.
The statement below is from the editorial of the first issue of AWA in 1964 under Annette Mbaye d’Erneville’s direction:
“AWA se propose seulement simplement d’être une raison de nous rencontrer, de nous retrouver pour mieux nous connaître et nous apprécier, nous femmes d’Afrique, femmes du monde entier.”
“AWA wants to simply be a reason for us to meet, to renew ourselves to know each other better, to appreciate one another, us African women, women from all over the world.”
The use of the pronoun “we” in this statement underscores the magazine’s invitation to all black women to get involved in the growth of the magazine. The magazine’s advocacy for female education, professional training and promotion of literacy is preeminent. As Ruth Bush makes clear in her article “Mesdames, Il Faut Lire!” (English: Ladies we must read!), which borrows the title from an article by a contributor writing under the pseudonym “Sim” in the second issue published in February 1964, AWA editors “played a significant role in defining in specific local settings the value of literacy itself as a means for self-improvement and collective identification”.
In addition, their advocacy for the improvement of black women’s lives is pragmatic, based their everyday experiences. Many articles, songs, poems and other aspects of black women’s life were published between 1964 and 1973 showing the multidimensional talents and roles of women in society. The magazine’s vision was to reach women and celebrate their achievements as well as their contributions in societies which the patriarchal environment tended to overlook. Plural definitions of femininity and black womanhood and pan-Africanist consciousness are two important editorial themes of interest. AWA advocated for black women’s agency and amplified their voices in every aspect of their communities’ socio-cultural, political, and economic realities. To do this, AWA celebrated the achievements of women in leadership such as members of parliament: Caroline Diop, Awa Dia Thiam, Lena Dianne Gueye and Marie-anne Sohai Sambou. Caroline Diop, from Mbour, for instance, was the first woman MP in Senegal, elected amongst 69 men. She was part of the Women’s branch of UPS, the Democratic Bloc of Senegal (BDS). Similarly, AWA also celebrated the achievements of other women such as Suzanne Diop, the first Senegalese female magistrate.
In doing this, AWA purposefully centred biographies of women in public life and their role in nation-building. The commitment to be part of nation-building struggles was crucial in this post-colonial context as illustrated by these words from the first Senegalese female member of parliament Caroline Faye Diop:
“Nous voulons participer au développement de notre nation, avoir une part entière aux responsabilités. Aux heures importantes de notre histoire, nous avons toujours été à vos côtés, souvent même devant vous.”
“We want to contribute to the development of our nation, to have a full share in these responsibilities. At important times in our nation’s history, we have always been by your side, often even taking the lead.”
As a result, AWA discussed among other themes: professional and reproductive roles, the condition of female workers (as secretaries, MPs, or fighters in Guinea in May 1964, in Moscow, September 1964 and Senegal, May 1965).
Pan-African consciousness was key to AWA’s contents because some of its editorial committee members were also women’s activists who took part in key continental initiatives of women’s organising. As a result, AWA documented and took part in the many crucial steps of pan-Africanist movement-building and anti-colonial struggles. A defining moment was their participation in the first African women’s conference: the International Conference of African Women (CAF) on 31 July 1962 in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania (then Tanganyika) where a few women’s rights activists including Aoua Keita, Jeanne Martin Cisse, Virginie Diallo Camara and Pumla Kisosonkole played a key role. This conference was instrumental in the establishment, the following year, of the Organisation for African Unity (OAU). In fact, it might have constituted the “building block” for women’s political activism at a continental level contributing to pan-African consciousness. After a congress held in Dakar Senegal in July 1974 including 14 independent countries, and 10 national liberation movements, the African Conference of Women was to become the Pan African Women’s Organization (PAWO) with a lasting nickname: “La panafricaine des femmes” (English: Women’s pan-Africanism). At the same meeting, it was decided that 31 July would symbolically become African Women’s Day.
Transnational politics of black womanhood is another critical focus of AWA’s editorial line. This is for instance the object of the magazine’s sections “Echos” and “À travers le continent” (News from the continent) since the magazine’s main readership was Francophone Africa and black worlds. In other words, the journal highlights an aesthetic and a vision of blackness featuring the lived experiences of black women. This is illustrated by the fact that the journal spotlighted beautiful pictures of black women symbolising a certain vision of femininity and Afro-modernity with pictures of landscapes where black women evolve. These were assumed to be the first things that attracted readers, curated with the aim of challenging single narratives on African and black women. Indeed, such visual representations contribute to the deconstruction of negative stereotypes and misconceptions about African and black women’s realities and articulate instead an alternative image of their agency. Those images go along with beautiful and dense texts that reflect the lives and experiences of African women. Some of the headlines include “Oumar et la calebasse” (Oumar and the calabash), “Petits Problèmes Scolaires” (Small issues with schools) and “Les Femmes et l’expérience de la journée continue au Sénégal” (Women and their experiences with all-day school in Senegal).
AWA: a platform for femininity or feminism?
AWA did not have the ambition to publish revolutionary or feminist content, which at the time was far from being singular in Africa or globally. As the editorial of the first edition of the magazine presenting the objective of AWA makes clear, the magazine does not aim to “serve feminism”, but rather to be a platform to emphasise “our possibilities, our femininity …. It is out of question to use AWA either to launch a crusade for the equality between men and women or claim the emancipation of the African woman. All this is already passé as everywhere, women have shown their abilities” (AWA, January 1964). Rather, the magazine’s focus was mainly to educate women to be good citizens, housewives and mothers. AWA did so by providing its readership with insights ranging from literature to health, trends in fashion and decor, to news on women’s organising and recipes, to highlights of key female figures.
At its inception, the magazine’s focus was to create a platform for women in Francophone Africa to mobilise, and to organise. For instance, the editorial of its third issue (3 March 1964) was “let’s unite”. In this call for unity, they invite women to put together their experiences, intellectual contributions, community organising skills and encourage all women to celebrate the different values that enrich their pan-African and black political consciousness. They cite the International Council of Women and the Pan-African Women’s conference as examples of women coming together to build stronger alliances and resist patriarchal societies. The team of the magazine also included men (though they were limited as the focus was mainly to amplify women’s voices) which reflected the will to bring together the voices of all in society on the understanding that gender inequality is a societal issue, not just women’s responsibility. By publishing and by organising and mobilising politically, AWA’s editors were radical. The magazine hosted the musings of an overtly feminist generation including sociologist Fatou Sow and MP Caroline Faye Diop. For instance, about the celebrations of Women’s fortnight, Caroline Diop said: “the baobab may be strong and tall, it was mothered by a little grain”. And about feminism, she said: “I am a feminist. I am for equality between men and women, but I am not talking about mathematical equality. But one which subsumes itself in the complementarity between genders” (AWA, March 1964, p. 32).
This ideological positioning on the issue of women’s liberation as one which required the “complementarity of sexes” would be constant as was illustrated by the editorial of the last issue published in May 1973 featuring the female fighters of the African Party for the Liberation of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC) co-founded by Amilcar Cabral in Guinea Bissau (Cabral died in January 1973): “Cette complémentarité dans l’action favorise justement l’émancipation de la femme du maquis” (This complementarity in action is crucial to women’s emancipation).
Unsurprisingly however, the male contributors often used the magazine to convey patriarchal messages such as Joseph Mathiam’s contribution in the first issue defending polygamy and calling African women to be ”less irresponsible and more mature” (issue 1, p. 29, 1964). Such recurrent positioning has been the object of criticism even within the magazine. For instance, consider a response by Helene Pillote to an editorial by Goor Gu Mak (a frequent contributor) against the paternalism (and sexism) of some of AWA’s opinion writers. In her response, Helene Pillote called out Goor Gu Mak’s sexist article that reduces women to the position of submission by wanting them to have to stay in their place of servitude and as a source of inspiration. Pillote replied by stating that emancipation is possible and has been the sole struggle for women who advocate for liberation in opposition to what the article (which Pillote seeks to respond to) claims. It is up to men to challenge that advancement if they are scared that their privileges and comfort are being threatened by emancipated women.
Another challenge for the magazine was to connect to grassroots women and transnational organisations despite Awa’s ambition to represent women from all walks of life and social classes and publish content that would speak to all. For instance, under the magazine section “la lettre du mois” (Monthly letter) of AWA issue 8, October 1964, the letter titled “Awa : est-elle nationaliste ?” (Is Awa nationalist?) states: “Awa est un journal féminin qui s’adresse à toutes les femmes noires, de tous les milieux” (Awa is a feminist magazine dedicated to all black women, from all classes). Despite these declarations, the journal’s editorial line often contracted this vision and it struggled to really connect with the grassroots because of its elitism: “AWA doit être la revue de l’élite féminine” (Awa must be the magazine of elite women) (issue 1, p. 32, 1964).
Conclusion: AWA’s legacy
African women were invested in articulating thought around black womanhood and contributing to the rise of a pan-African political consciousness in the aftermath of independence as discussed here. They did so by resisting patriarchy and bringing forward their concerns for better recognition of their rights. In this sense, AWA sought to highlight women’s everyday experiences through promoting a black aesthetics and responding to more pragmatic contents through images, recipes and poetry and writings as well as celebrating intellectual achievements, political and social. In this, AWA contributes to transnational African feminisms in the past and today. AWA not only inspires the younger generation of women to focus on their realities but also to advocate for women’s rights in a changing context.
Today, Awa’s audience is a very-well educated class which might contrast with its initial motive to represent everyday experiences. Indeed, this is one of the motivations behind the decision by Ruth Bush and Claire Ducournau to digitise AWA and make it accessible as an online archive. This digitisation was achieved through the Global Challenges project of the Arts and Humanities Research Council (UK) in partnership with IFAN-Cheikh Anta Diop, Musée de la Femme Henriette-Bathily and the National Archives of Senegal. In our 2020 interview, Ruth Bush also mentioned the 2018 portrait made by artist Fahamu Pecou Jigeen bu bees fenkhna (Dawn of Woman) representing what AWA could look like if it existed today.
 Issue 1, p. 3, January 1964.
 Editorial, issue 1, p. 3, January 1964.
 Issue 3, p. 16, March 1964.
 Issue 4, p. 5, May 1973.