28 Books for Your Africa Reading List – Safaris, Politics, Culture, History, and More

190186_769531525572_8117934_41522996_463687_n

In February, I traveled through South Africa and Tanzania, taking part in a few safaris while exploring Cape Town and unwinding in Zanzibar. Along the way I also spent a night in Nairobi, Kenya and got a brief tour of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. To prepare for the trip and expand my horizons while away, I read about 30 books on Africa. As I've done before with reading lists for Egypt and South America, your reading list for Africa is below, this time with 28 reviews and recommendations. Feel free to share other recommendations in the comments.

I need to thank two sources in particular that helped with this list. One is Amazon, from its references to the Kindle. With the flights to Zanzibar I could only take 33 lbs of luggage for a 17-day trip through varying climates, and the Kindle made reading so many books possible. Highlighted passages below all come from Kindle versions. The other is Idlewild Books, a Manhattan bookstore specializing in international books, and I picked up at least 10 books there from this selection alone; most aren't available on the Kindle, and the staff there is extremely sharp.     

South Africa

Long walk
Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela
If you only read one book about Africa, this is it. Mandela's the hero, the change agent, the revolutionary, the larger than life inspiring figure you want him to be. The only thing more incredible than his autobiography is that when reading anything else about Africa, Mandela remains unblemished. This is also a book that anyone interested in leadership needs to read. 

Highlight:Of so many great quotes from Mandela, here's one that stands out: "Education is the great engine of personal development. It is through education that the daughter of a peasant can become a doctor, that the son of a mineworker can become the head of the mine, that a child of farmworkers can become the president of a great nation. It is what we make out of what we have, not what we are given, that separates one person from another." 

Country of My Skull by Antjie Krog
This one will rank up there in terms of books that keep you up at night. Krog covers the Truth and Reconilliation Commission hearings in South Africa in the 1990s, and you feel the torture Krog endures by hearing and relaying the horrors and atrocities that happened in her country.  

Highlight: We all want to resign. We all yearn for another life. At Tzaneen a young Tswana interpreter is interviewed. He holds on to the tabletop; his other hand moves restlessly in his lap. “It is difficult to interpret victim hearings,” he says, “because you use the first person all the time. I have no distance when I say ‘I’ . . . it runs through me with ‘I.’ ” “Now how do you survive it?” “I don’t. After the first three months of hearings, my wife and baby left me because of my violent outbursts. The Truth Commission provided counseling and I was advised to stop. But I don’t want to. This is my history, and I want to be part of it—until the end. 

Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton
This is one of those books that I felt so privileged to read. If I hadn't gone on this trip I might never have found it, and it's undoubtedly one of the world's great works of poetry.What makes it chilling is that it was written right before the advent of apartheid, so it's this snapshot of South Africa before the country spirals even further downhill.

Highlight: We do not know, we do not know. We shall live from day to day, and put more locks on the doors, and get a fine fierce dog when the fine fierce bitch next door has pups, and hold on to our handbags more tenaciously; and the beauty of the trees by night, and the raptures of lovers under the stars, these things we shall forego. We shall forego the coming home drunken through the midnight streets, and the evening walk over the star-lit veld. We shall be careful, and knock this off our lives, and knock that off our lives, and hedge ourselves about with safety and precaution. And our lives will shrink, but they shall be the lives of superior beings; and we shall live with fear, but at least it will not be a fear of the unknown. And the conscience shall be thrust down; the light of life shall not be extinguished, but be put under a bushel, to be preserved for a generation that will live by it again, in some day not yet come; and how it will come, and when it will come, we shall not think about at all.

Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee
All you really need to know about this one is that it's like reading a Philip Roth novel set in South Africa. It's about a professor who can't control his prick (a term Roth would use, so it fits) and whose attempts at escaping his problems only cause more misery. It's less about South Africa than human nature, but that's also part of the fun of it – reading a book that's not a history lesson.

Favorite African Folktales edited by Nelson Mandela
You can often learn a lot about a country from its folktales, and the scope here is far wider than a country. It's a fun mix, but nothing here is as striking or well written as Kalila and Dimna from the Egypt roundup. If you're at all interested in folklore, go with Kalila – and if you're not, you might be after reading it.

The Pickup by Nadine Gordimer
This is an odd book by one of South Africa's best known writers. Here, Julie falls for a Muslim mechanic and leaves her Sex and the City set for a life of Islam, Arabie, and destitution. While it's an interesting story at times, I never really got why Julie was acting the way she was – it seemed a little forced at most major junctures.

 

Zanzibar

Revolution zanzibar
Revolution in Zanzibar: An American's Cold War Tale by Donald Petterson
If you go to Zanzibar, or if you love Cold War history, you have to read this. You meet divinely inspired coup leaders, womanizing ambassadors, and world leaders as Petterson shares his first-hand experience from serving in the American consulate on Zanzibar during these revolutinoary days.

The Sultan's Shadow by Christiane Bird
Zanzibar's a surprising, even magical island, albeit with quite a few dark spots in its history. It was the capital of East Africa's slave trade, which picked up once the scion of an Omani dynasty discovered the riches from the islad's spice plantations, and slaves were needed to supply the island. The most ambitious of the island's sultans had a daughter who was quite the renegade, as running off with German men wasn't exactly de rigeur at the time for an Omani Zanzibari princess. Along with following the sultan and princess, we meet infamous black African slave trader Tippu Tip, British Christian anti-slavery crusader David Livingstone, and other leading figures of the day. While the narrative is all over the place, as a reader I felt enriched by having it cover so many angles. 

Paradise by Abdulrazak Gurnah 
While the book isn't set in Zanzibar, the author hails from there. Though you won't see this in the Amazon description, the story is remarkably similar to the biblical story of Joseph. The protagonist is even named Yusuf, and he's similar to his namesake in appearance and can interpret dreams. His father sells him into bondage (instead of Joseph's brothers – but really, it's the same plot line), and you know you can expect trouble when you meet the woman who resembles Potiphar's wife.  

 

General History: Colonial Period (starting around 16th/17th centuries) until Independence (around 1950s-60s)

Leo
King Leopold's Ghost by Adam Hochschild
Belgium's King Leopold II is one of the world's least known genocidists, a mass murderer few can compare to, and one few heard of before Hochshild's best-seller. Edwin Morel, the hero of the book, was a British shipping executive who noticed a disparity in some records that led to a global anti-slavery crusade. Horrifying through and through, Hochshild is such a great storyteller that perhaps it's a little too much of a page-turner. 

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
I hadn't read this until this trip, and by the time I did, I had read so much about it that the novel itself was anticlimactic. Real life villains like King Leopold II are far scarier than anything in here. While the story itself's essential reading, I'm more impressed by what Conrad did and inspired than the work itself.   

Exterminate All the Brutes by Sven Lindqvist
Lindqvist journeys into Africa to explroe the meaning of the Heart of Darkness phrase, "Exterminate all the brutes." Where did that ideology originate, to treat people as animals or lesser evolved humans? How did it influence Hitler, and why do we focus on the Holocaust while ignoring other mass killings? There aren't easy answers but it's a thouhtful thought experiment.  

First Footsteps in East Africa by Sir Richard Burton
Sir Burton is clearly an outsized personality. Often, he's intoerably bigoted, putting down anyone and any tribe he meets with as he shares his theories of civilization. And yet, he has his moments, such as his understanding the dangers of pitting one tribe against another – this kind of action caused irreperable harm as the colonial powers left africa. It's great to have access to this work, but tough to swallow.

Highlight (well, more of a typical passage – hardly a highlight): The natives of the country are essentially commercial: they have lapsed into barbarism by reason of their political condition–the rude equality of the Hottentots,–but they appear to contain material for a moral regeneration. As subjects they offer a favourable contrast to their kindred, the Arabs of El Yemen, a race untameable as the wolf, and which, subjugated in turn by Abyssinian, Persian, Egyptian, and Turk, has ever preserved an indomitable spirit of freedom, and eventually succeeded in skaking off the yoke of foreign dominion

Diamonds, Gold, and War: The British, the Boers, and the Making of South Africa by Martin Meredith
While well reviewed, this book of the Dutch history of South Africa was a bit of a slog for me. The basic history is important, and I enjoyed the character sketch of Cecil Rhodes, among others, but perhaps I was a little historied out by the time I read this. 

 

Modern Politics (post-colonial area, focused generally on 1950s-present)

Fate africa
The Fate of Africa: A History of 50 Years of Independence by Martin Meredith
This was the first sweeping work I read about Africa's modern history. You read the same story in country after country: Colonizing power props up a seemingly non-threatening but charismatic lackey; colonizing power makes a hasty exit before there are even a few hundred black Africans in the entire country with college degrees; former lackey pillages the country for his personal gain while playing Cold War rivals against each other to gain global standing; some kind of civil war, coup, and/or genocide ensues. A few break that pattern, usually with an educated leader who takes their responsibility more seriously (see Ghana, Botswana, Tanzania, and ultimately Mandela in South Africa) but not always successfully (Tanzania's Nyerere, for instance, took his socialist ideals too far, but at least he was one of few leaders to step down voluntarily when the economy crashed). This was the first such sweeping tome I read on Africa's modern history, and it was confusing to no end, but after a few such works I got the hang of it and can even put a few of these countries on a map. Yay.

Highlight: By the end of the 1980s, not a single African head of state in three decades had allowed himself to be voted out of office. Of some 150 heads of state who had trodden the African stage, only six had voluntarily relinquished power. 

The Challenge for Africa by Wangari Maathai
An incredible Kenyan woman who has served her country and continent in goverment, on foundations and through her writing, Maathai ultimately focuses on the Millennium Development Goals for Africa and why they won't be met by 2015. Especially powerful is when this 'green party' hero focuses on the environment and she makes a case for the positive ripple effects that stem from sustainability. 

Highlight: Before the arrival of the Europeans, Mount Kenya was called Kirinyaga, or “Place of Brightness,” by the people who lived in its shadow. The Kikuyus believed that God dwelled on the mountain, and that the rains, clean drinking water, green vegetation, and crops, all of which had a central place in their lives, flowed from it. When Christian missionaries arrived in the area toward the end of the nineteenth century, they told the local people that God did not live on Mount Kenya, but rather in heaven, and that the mountain and its forests, previously considered sacred grounds, could be encroached upon and the reverence accorded to them abandoned. The people believed this and were persuaded to consider their relationship with the mountain and, indeed, nature itself as primitive, worthless, and an obstacle to development and progress in an age of modernity and advances in science and technology. This did not happen only, of course, to the people who lived around Mount Kenya. Over the next generations, the reverence and spirit that had led the communities to preserve specific species of tree, like the wild fig, and the forests on Mount Kenya died away. When the white settlers and then the local communities themselves cut down the trees to plant coffee and tea and other agricultural products, encroaching farther and farther up the mountain, there was little resistance. From then on, they were seen as commodities only, to be privatized and exploited.

Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles by Richard Dowden
As great as this book is – the writer is a gifted wordsmith while focusing on many of the salient stories and perspectives that make this modern history lesson so memorable – I wish there were a few more ordinary miracles. As in so many of Africa's histories, they proved hard to find here.

Highlight: As John Robertson, a Zimbabwean economist, says, `We imagine corruption to be like a tick on a dog. There are some places in Africa where the tick is bigger than the dog.'

Highlight 2: Shakespeare would have found it easier to talk with modern Africans than modern Europeans and Americans who have no sense of anything beyond the physical realities of Western urban culture. Africans understand Shakespeare's woodland inhabited by sprites and fairies or by ghosts of dead fathers and other mystical apparitions. Living in harmony with the other world is important. 

China Safari by Sege Michel Michel Beuret
This was the first book I read in this crash course on Africa, and it's one of the best. It shows the complicated nature of the Chinese helping to build Africa while not letting morals get in the way of business decisions.

Highlight (proverbs): 
China: "When a tree is moved, it dies. When a man movies, he can make a fortune."
Mali: "If you see a goat at the mouth of the lion's den, fear the goat."

 

Memoirs

Crocodile
When a Crocodile Eats the Sun by Peter Godwin
Beautifully told, a reporter reminisces about his life primarily in Zimbabwe, where his parents survive endless diffuclties while staying attached to their country. There's also a memorable subplot, not to be disclosed here, as Godwin discovers the truth about his own heritage.

Highlight: I feel like weeping. Weeping at the way Africa does this to you. Just as you’re about to dismiss it and walk away, it delivers something so unexpected, so tender. One minute you’re scared shitless, the next you’re choked with affection. 

Highlight 2 (because I love folkore, and hippos): Of all the theories for the hippo’s antisocial behavior, my favorite is the one offered by the San, the Bushmen with whom I have recently spent so much time for National Geographic. They believe that the hippo was the last animal to be created and was made of parts left over from the construction of other beasts. When the hippo saw its reflection in the water, it was so ashamed of its ugliness that it begged the creator — Kaggan — to allow it to live underwater, out of sight. But Kaggan refused, worried that the hippo would eat up all the fish with its huge mouth. The hippo promised that it wouldn’t eat any living thing from the water, and Kaggan relented. A deal was struck that the hippo must return each night to the land to eat and to shit so that the other animals could examine its dung to ensure that there were no fish bones in it. The regular humiliation of public fecal inspection could well account for the hippo’s irascibility.

The Zanzibar Chest by Aidan Hartley
This is two memoirs in one. Half of the book has Hartley recounting the story of his Scottish father who 'went native' in Arabia and then East Africa, where he came to feel at home. It's intertwined with the author's autobiography of surviving as a journalist in some of the most hellish, war-torn conflicts.

Whatever You Do, Don't Run – True Tales of a Botswana Safari Guide by Peter Allison
It's not saying much to call this the funniest book I read about Africa, and one of the least depressing. If I got any nightmares reading about this, then they were about Japanese tourists. While the book starts off rough, fortunately Allison matures just enough with his experience as a guide to strengthen the narrative while sharpening the humor.

Highlight: Honey badgers belong to a group of only four animals that lions tend to avoid. The other three members are elephants, rhinoceroses, and hippos. 

 

African Fiction (general)

Gods
Gods and Soldiers: The Penguin Anthology of Contemporary African Writing by Rob Spillman
This is a useful guide to modern African writers. I bought a few of the books in this roundup after reading excerpts here, including Minaret and Half a Yellow Sun. I guess the con of the book is also a pro – a lot of the works were underwhelming, but that also meant I didn't have to read more from every writer in here.  

Highlight (from an introduction to the section on Mozambique and Angola, by the former's Mia Couto): I am a biologist and I travel a lot through my country’s savanna. In these regions, I meet people who don’t know how to read books. But they know how to read their world. In such a universe where other wisdoms prevail, I am the one who is illiterate. I don’t know how to read the signs in the soil, the trees, the animals. I can’t read clouds and the likelihood of rain. I don’t know how to talk to the dead, I’ve lost all contact with ancestors who give us our sense of the eternal. In these visits to the savanna, I learn sensitivities that help me to come out of myself and remove me from my certainties. In this type of territory, I don’t just have dreams. I am dreamable. 

Petals of Blood by Ngugi Wa Thiong'o
A teacher, a socialist, and a prostitute walk into Abdullah's bar – no, not the beginning of a joke, but the setting for the Kenyan novelist's dark story about a fictional town that becomes a city, but with many sacrifices. We meet everyone from local robber barrons to colonialist missionaries. It picks up the pace considerably as it progresses. While I wound up loving this, I couldn't get into Thiong'o's other seminal work WIzard of the Crow, though if you read its reviews you'll see I'm in the minority

The Gunny Sack by MG Vassanji
Dubbed "Africa's answer to Midnight's Children, it's a fantastic romp through a couple family histories spannign India, Zanzibar, Eastern Africa, and a bit of teh west. And times it's too similar to Rushdie's work, and it lost me, but it's often lyrical and playful. While I enjoyed it, it wasn't as memorable for me as most of the others.

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
This was, I'm embarrassed to admit, the only book from this list I read before planning the Africa trip, thanks to my Mamaroneck High School teacher Shannon Turner-Porter (if you're Googling yourself, Mrs. Porter, thank you). The book itself takes a little while to get going, but once it lives up to its title and things really start falling apart in the second half, we see why antihero Okonkwo emerges as one of the most renowned protagonists in African fiction.

Highlight: We approach a great man through his servants. But when his servants fail to help us, then we go to the last source of hope. We appear to pay greater attention to the little gods but that is not so. We worry them more because we are afraid to worry their Master. Our fathers knew that Chukwu was the Overlord and that is why many of them gave their children the name Chukwuka—“Chukwu is Supreme.” “You said one interesting thing,” said Mr. Brown. “You are afraid of Chukwu. In my religion Chukwu is a loving Father and need not be feared by those who do His will.” “But we must fear Him when we are not doing His will,” said Akunna. “And who is to tell His will? It is too great to be known.”

Murambi, The Book of Bones by Boubacar Boris Diop
This Senagelese writer joined a creative mission in the late 1990s to venture into Rwanda and tell its stories. His book is so haunting that I had several horrific nightmares reading it. It's a sort of As I Lay Dying, told from several perspectives of those grappling with the genocide, and it is one of those works that makes me appreciate how revealing fiction can be to elucidate actual events.

Highlight (referring to the calls for genocide broadcast casually over the radio – the "work" here means exterminating people): The radio says: "My friends, they have dared to kill our good president Habyarimana, the hour of truth is at hand!" Then there're some music and games. The host of the program, in brilliant form, quizzes his listeners: "How do you recognize an Inyenzi?" The listeners call in. Some of the answers are really funny, so we have a good laugh. Everyone gives a description. The host becomes serious again, almost severe: "Have fun, my friends, but don't forget the work that's waiting for you!"

Minaret: A Novel by Leila Aboulela
It's a sad story (surprise) as a Sudanese family falls apart following the father's demise in a regime change. It is an often wonderful portrait of life in different eras of Sudan's modern society, and of a wealthy heiress who finds herself barely scraping by. The protagonist is hard to pity too much though, making her own mistakes to the point where religion alone won't save her. 

Highlight: All the ingratiating manners, the downcast eyes, the sideway movements of the servants I grew up with. I used to take them for granted. I didn't know a lot about them – our succession of Ethiopian maids, houseboys, our gardener – but I must have been close to them, absorbing their ways, so that now, years later and in another continent, I am one of them. 

What is the What by Dave Eggers
Wow. This book, recommended by Joe Kutchera, was the last one I read on Africa and may complete my reading for awhile, though of course it'll never end. It's the true story of a Sudanese "Lost Boy" who survives one outbreak of the North-South civil war only to find that war was the new normal. It's a true story, but billed as fiction as the narrator, Valentino Achak Deng, had a few holes in his memory. The two make a gifted pair, and I constantly wanted to flip ahead pages and chapters when Eggers was leaving me hanging.

Highlight: What did she look like, my mother? I had only a shifting memory, as light as linen, and the longer I was with this woman Ajulo, the more distant and indistinguishable my vision of my mother would become. I told Ajulo I could not be her son, but she fed me still. I came once a week and helped how I could, bringing her water, portions of my rations, things she could not otherwise procure. I went there and she fed me and let me lie in her lap. During those hours I was a boy with a home.

That's a wrap. Be sure to leave your favorite picks in the comments or tweet me, and if there's a Kindle version of a book here that can be loaned (most I've found can't yet), I'm happy to do so.

2 thoughts on “28 Books for Your Africa Reading List – Safaris, Politics, Culture, History, and More

  1. Wow, thanks David! May I add my favorite?
    The Mind of South Africa: The Rise and Fall of Aparteid, by Allister Sparks. I read it before I went, then again later. I like these first-hand accounts by journalists — not boring like historians can be! Also, not as well written but still very interesting: The Bang, Bang Club. It’s about a handful of journalists who covered the violence in South Africa’s townships in the early 90’s.

  2. Thanks so much, Elli – really appreciate your additions. I saw Bang Bang Club just was turned into a movie, one that wasn't well reviewed but of course that has nothing to do with the book. These books do make you appreciate how good the best journalists are when it comes to getting you so deep into these countries and telling rich stories. Such writers were among my favorites in South America writing too, like Oliver Balch and Alma Guillermoprieto.

Comments are closed.