Suggestions for an Africa reading list

I got a great question via email from a reader a couple of days ago, asking what books I’d recommend for a Christmas break reading list for someone wanting to educate him or herself on Africa. I ended up suggesting a couple of my personal faves, as well as one book currently on my “to read” pile, George Ayittey’s Africa Unchained.

The others I suggested as great first reads:
– Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart
– Adam Hochschild’s “King Leopold’s Ghost
– Any number of Ryszard Kapuscinski’s books, including The Shadow of the Sun and The Soccer War.

It occurred to me, after sending off this brief list, that I’d be much better off with a list suggested by my readers. So, if you’ve got a moment, think about what three books you’d recommend to someone who doesn’t know very much about African culture, politics or history… and share that advice on the comments. If we get some good feedback, I’ll post a compiled list of suggestions… and it may help shape my holiday giftgiving as well. (And yes, I’m still shopping. A trip that extends until December 20 will do that to a guy…)

Thanks for the idea, Kevin – point me to your blog, will you?

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32 Responses to Suggestions for an Africa reading list

  1. Robert Kaplan – “The Ends of the Earth”
    David Lamb – “The Africans”
    Ousmane Sembene – “God’s Bits of Wood”

  2. Alex says:

    “The Fate of Africa”, by Martin Meredith.

  3. Alex Mallet says:

    Can’t think of 3 of them, but “The Fate of Africa”, by Martin Meredith, does a great job of covering the last 50 years of African history.

  4. Rachel says:

    – Richard Dooling’s novel “White Man’s Grave”
    – Alexandra Fuller’s memoir “Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight”
    – Barbara Kingsolver’s novel “The Poisonwood Bible”

    All three of these blew me away, when I first read them, and have stayed with me for years.

  5. Shelby says:

    1. Robert Guest’s “The Shackled Continent”
    2. Stephen Ellis’ “The Mask of Anarchy”
    3. And I second Rachel’s suggestion for Barbara Kingsolver’s “The Poisonwood Bible”

  6. Frankenstein says:

    V.S. Naipul’s “The Bend In The River.”

  7. Kevin says:

    Thanks for writing this up, Ethan.

  8. Kevin says:

    Also, I recently read the Wonga Coup by Adam Roberts, and I recommend it.

  9. Jakob says:

    I’ve always gone for the books more closely focused on regional conflicts.

    Eritrea/Ethiopia: “I didn’t do it for you” – Michela Wrong
    Congo: “In the footsteps of Mr. Kurtz” – Michaela wrong
    Rwanda: “We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families” – Philip Gourevitch

  10. David says:

    Ethan, I’d recommend most things by Athol Fugard (SA playwright) and (unsurprisingly) Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country. Above all else, though, Coetzee’s Disgrace — published 1999, but a better novel than any I’ve read in the last three decades. (The Observer recently wrote to “150 writers and ‘literary sages’ inviting them confidentially to nominate ‘the best novel (in English, excluding America) for the years 1980-2005.'”– see here. Top nomination for “best novel”? Disgrace.

  11. Drew says:

    Walter Rodney – How Europe Underdeveloped Africa
    Any Dambudzo Marachera
    Any Tsitsi Dangaremba
    Charles Mungoshi – Waiting For The Rain
    Franz Fannon – The Wretched of the Earth

    (Apologies for the spellings)

  12. Ian says:

    * Paul Theroux, “Dark Star Safari”

    * Mark Mathabane, “Kaffir Boy”

    * Alan Paton, “Cry, the Beloved Country” (of course)

  13. Frankenstein says:

    Er, that should be “A Bend In The River”.

  14. mj says:


    I would second all of the above mentions (save the ‘Poisonwood Bible’ — if you want fiction, perhaps substitute JM Coetzee’s Disgrace instead). For what it’s worth, imho the Kapuściński book to read first would be ‘The Emperor’.

    For those ‘new to Africa’, and thus looking for an outsider’s perspective to help you navigate things, at least initially (you may strongly disagree with some of these authors, and with this strategy in general, but novels by Africans appear to be a bit of an exotic find in most American bookstores) …

    Travel lit:
    – Paul Theroux, Dark Star Safari
    – Shiva Naipaul, North of South
    And then to break up the misanthropy …
    – Stuart Stevens, Malaria Dreams (a fun romp)

    The British expat genre (fiction):
    – William Boyd, A Good Man in Africa (fiction, and quite funny)

    The British expat genre (non-fiction):
    – Denis Boyles, Man Eaters Motel and other stops on the railway to nowhere

    The Foreign Correspondent genre:
    – Michela Wrong, I Didn’t Do It for You (about Eritrea)
    – Keith Richburg, Out of America

    – Stefan Kanfer, The Last Empire: De Beers, Diamonds, and the World

    OK, that’s more than three.

    (And of course reading books by Africans about Africa would probably be a little more enriching.)

  15. fontaine says:

    “My Traitor’s Heart” by Rian Malan is the best book on South Africa — or the entire continent, for that matter — I’ve read. “The Zanzibar Chest” by Aidan Hartley isn’t shabby, either.

  16. Abdurahman says:

    I just brought “Things Fall Apart” with me today to give it to a friend to read.

    I would highly recommend Nagib Mahfouz’s book “Khan Al-Khalili” which he wrote in 1945. The novel is set in Khan Al-Khalili, an area the heart of old Cairo during WWII. I can’t recommend this book highly enough. The book was written in Arabic, but there are good translations available.

  17. Andrew says:

    It’s tempting to say Chinua Achebe, Chinua Achebe, Chinua Achebe. In other words:

    ‘Anthills of the Savannah’
    ‘Things Fall Apart’ (Trilogy)
    ‘A Man of the People’
    [All Nigeria]

    Two good ones by a non-African are:

    ‘I Didn’t Do It For You – How the World Used and Abused a Small African Nation’ [on Eritrea]
    by Michela Wrong

    ‘In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz: Living on the Brink of Disaster in the Congo’ [on DRC]
    by Michela Wrong

    I’ve heard great things about ‘Wizard of the Crow’ by Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, but haven’t read it yet.

    Then there’s

    ‘Notes from the Hyena’s Belly: An Ethiopian Boyhood’ by Nega Mezlekia


    ‘The Texture of Dreams’ by Fasil Yitbarek [again Ethiopia]

    Ooops, just re-read your post. You only wanted three choices. Too late …

  18. paul says:

    This is a good idea, I look forward to the result. The Scramble for Africa is a bit of a slog, but covers the history from Livingstone to the end of colonization in better detail than anything else. We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families, though describing a very specific historical event, is a great microcosm of Western intervention in Africa, and extremely readable.

  19. Cos says:

    I actually like Chinua Achebe’s books outside of the Things Fall Apart series, much better, and I also think they’re more useful for understanding Africa. Particularly Anthills of the Savannah and Man of the People.

    I see someone else has already suggested Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, which was the next book to come to mind.

  20. Cat Laine says:

    1. Petals of Blood – Ngugi Wa Thiong’o (Kenya)
    2. Malaria Dreams – Stuart Stevens (?)
    3. The Stranger – Albert Camus (Algeria)

  21. These are great suggestions. Hope you don’t mind, I have put most of the books that have been listed so far under appropriate categories in the Swahili Bookstore, . The bookstore provides a convenient place for people to find Africa-related books, and Amazon kicks back a percentage of the sales to benefit the Kamusi Project.

    If you have any other suggestions for books that should be in the bookstore but not on your “Africa Top 3”, please feel free to send them to me at swahili at yale dot edu!

  22. Janet says:

    For interactions between Europeans and Africans, read Thomas Parkenham’s Scramble for Africa and The Boer War — neither light reading (particularly the BW, yeesh)– but well worth it. And of course, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the original Europeans-in-Africa novel is always worth picking up again. Also for fiction, I second (or third?) Rachel’s suggestion of The Poisonwood Bible.

  23. Joanne says:

    Hello Ethan.
    Interesting blog, and great idea! I’m off to Africa for the first time next month – to Ghana. Would you have any Ghanaian books to recommend?
    Many good suggestions here; I’ve enjoyed /learned from Achebe, wa’ Thingo, Kapuscinski, Wrong, Gourevitch. I’d add –
    a) Wole Soyinka’s memoir Ake, The Years of Childhood b) Anything by Camara Laye, a Guinean writer. His best-known books are the novel The Radiance of the King and the memoir The African Child – but I would particularly recommend his wonderful retelling of the Malinke epic, The Guardian of the Word (Le Maitre de la Parole – Kouma Lafolou Kouma). All these books have been published in English.
    c) Amos Tutuola’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. By far the weirdest book I’ve ever read, it reveals something of the Western African world of magic and witchcraft.
    If I can squeeze in a fourth, the Somalian Nuruddin Farah (Gifts is the one I’ve read)

  24. Tracey says:

    I would also include Zakes Mda (South Africa), Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Nigeria), and Binyavanga Wainaina (Kenya).

  25. Lars Smith says:

    Sembene Ousmane’s God’s Bits of Wood is excellent. I don’t understand why it isn’t famous.

  26. sipakv says:

    From the point of view of French speaking African women, I recommend
    -the classic “So Long a Letter” of MAriama Ba (Senegal)
    -“Le ventre de l’Atlantique” (The belly of the Atlantic) of Fatou Diome
    – “Segu” of Maryse Conde (Well she is not an African technically but this magnificent novel is set in Mali…)

    And also novels by the great Tanzanian writer, Abdulrazak Gurnah, especially “Desertion”

  27. kifimbocheza says:

    The Gunny Sack, by M G Vassanji.

  28. I Laugh so I Won’t Cry: Kenya’s Women Tell the Stories of Their Lives is based on oral histories of women from all the major ethnic groups. They discuss family life, work, the government, women’s self-help groups, genital cutting.

  29. Makokha says:

    The Case of the Socialist Witchdoctor by Hama Tuma (Ethiopia)

    The In-Between World of Vikram Lall by Vassanji (Kenya/Tanzania)

    Paradise by Abdulrazak Gurnah (Zanzibar)

  30. Helena Halperin says:

    Your list, while quite good, is heavy on Western perspectives. I urge your readers to look harder for indigenous perspectives, too.

    ASnd, once again, I suggest “I Laugh so I
    Won’t Cry: Kenya’s Women Tell the Stories of Their Lives”

  31. Aminah Sijaya says:

    I will add: “Gatekeepers: The Quest for Clues to an Age-Old Rddle”, by Kobina Fynn. Interesting religious fiction set in Ghana. Available in all major bokshops around the world.

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