With so many thousands of memoirs, travelogues, novels, histories and anthologies about Africa to choose from, it is near-impossible to compose a short list of the most inspired — and inspiring — great books about Africa. So here is a somewhat randomly chosen selection of books — some classics from centuries past, some just published, and most falling somewhere in between — that get under the skin of Africa, for those planning a trip, or just curious about the continent.
1) “Dark Star Safari,” by Paul Theroux (2002)
Dark Star Safari is an account of Theroux’s ultimate African road trip: an overland journey from Cairo to Cape Town via boat, train, truck and foot. Along the way he gets stranded on the side of remote highways, reconnects with old university colleagues, kayaks with tribal chiefs, and dines with fellow authors, while staying true to form and skewering foreign aid workers, garish American tourists, and disdaining modern telecommunications. Part travel narrative and part commentary, Theroux’s most astute observations relate to the political and economic evolution of the countries he lived in more than 40 years prior (he was a Peace Corps volunteer and teacher in both Malawi and Uganda). A good follow-up piece to Dark Star Safari is Theroux’s most recent book about Africa, Last Train to Zona Verde, in which he traces a route from Cape Town up the west coast of Africa, all the way to Angola.
2) “Palace Walk,” by Naguib Mahfouz (1956)
The first of Mahfouz’s three Cairo trilogy books, the milieu of “Palace Walk” is Egypt’s principal city in the two years leading to the 1919 revolution. This is a portrait of a family set in rich detail to time and place: al-Sayyid Ahmad al-Jawad, the father, is a pious Muslim at home but exactly the opposite in public. His submissive but comforting wife Amina, and his five children all have their own issues, emotional trajectories, and imminent conflicts. The reader both suffocates and ululates as the conflicts heighten and diminish, as we sit in the house feeling generational differences, and venture outside to see the country changing rapidly. It’s a remarkable novel published in 1956, yet only available in English after Mahfouz won the Nobel Prize in 1988. We recommend the entire trilogy!
3) “Death and the King’s Horseman: A Play,” by Wole Soyinka (1975)
Soyinka, the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986, the first person from Africa to bear the honor, was a prolific playwright and poet. Death and the King’s Horseman is an emotional play that provides an intimate look into the soul of the Yoruba culture. It is based around the character of Elesin, whose ritual suicide is stopped by a British colonial ruler after the death of a Yoruba chief, so that the cosmic balance of the universe can remain in balance. The results of this intervention are damaging to the community. Elesin and his son take much of the blame for the events, later spiraling out of control to their eventual deaths.
4) “Tour of Duty,” by Pelu Awofeso (2013)
Most travel writing about Africa is written by non-Africans, with some notable exceptions. Nigerian-born Pelu Awofeso has been slowly gaining a reputation by way of his guidebooks, articles, and online travel magazine, which celebrate and demystify his home country. In March 2009 he set out on a solo “voyage of re-discovery” across Nigeria with just a backpack and a camera. He crisscrossed 18 states in eight months, wandering the cities, chatting up total strangers, learning from the locals, and finding hidden treasures. The result was Tour of Duty (published in May 2013), a fascinating firsthand insider account of a country that deserves more respect and attention from travelers.
5) “One Day I Will Write About This Place,” by Binyavanga Wainaina (2011)
This coming-of-age memoir was written by a self-described bookworm-ish Kenyan boy who eventually grew up to be a prizewinning author and professor. Set in middle-class Nairobi in the 70s and 80s, it offers a portrait of an urban childhood far removed from the wildlife, poverty and corruption that many Western readers associate with Africa. With rich, evocative writing, Wainaina explores issues of class, religion, politics, family and community in modern Kenya from the microcosm of his own world.
6) “Blood River: A Journey to Africa’s Broken Heart,” by Tim Butcher (2007)
In this captivating story a British journalist sets out to retrace the steps of a legendary explorer Henry Morton Stanley through the Congo. The book delves into the history of the early explorers, hunters, missionaries, and even the narrator’s own mother’s Congo trip in 1958. In the book, Butcher is critical of Stanley, calling him a “cocky chancer,” yet he has enough self-awareness to recognize his own shortcomings. Butcher also provides interesting insights into modern-day central Africa, such as the connection between the city of Katanga and the atomic bomb.
7) “The Shadow of the Sun,” by Ryszard Kapuscinski (2001)
The late, great Kapucinski spent 40-odd years covering Africa as a journalist, from the 1950s to the 1980s, a time of great transformation on the continent. His series of vignettes and essays jumps from country to country while making astute observations on the politics, people and problems that he encountered along the way. Kapucinski delves into issues such as the origins of the genocide in Rwanda and the military coups in Nigeria, but also lets the reader live vicariously through him as he wanders the Sahara with nomads, wrestles a cobra, and suffers from malaria. Most importantly, he conveys a sense of the everyday lives of Africans without prescriptiveness or pity via his descriptions of ordinary encounters on buses, in Arab coffee shops, and in the slums of Nigeria. A great book for those who want to explore the complexity and nuances of life on the continent beyond the stereotypes and misconceptions promoted by the headlines.
8) “The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency,” by Alexander McCall Smith (1994)
<This best-selling series of novels, set in Botswana, follows the first female private investigator in Gaborone as she solves her cases Agatha Christie-style while navigating her personal life and fending off the competition. We chose this as something of a counterbalance to some of the heavy, serious titles above, and also because it appeals on many other levels: The author is a white Zimbabwean writing about a black Botswanan woman — a literary feat not often accomplished with such skill and accuracy — and the books are pleasantly feminist (without being overtly so) on a continent that is still largely male-dominated.
9) “The Poisonwood Bible,” by Barbara Kingsolver (1998)
A landmark work of late 20th-century fiction, Kingsolver’s sprawling novel transports us to Belgian-colonized Congo in 1959 where a family of American missionaries sets up camp. The novel follows the stream-of-consciousness narrations of the father, mother, and their four daughters as they go through the process of adapting to the uncompromising environment. Kingsolver’s haunting, brilliant prose is unforgettable and intense, while the book’s set pieces are so epic they’re almost biblical.
10) “The Conservationist,” by Nadine Gordimer (1974)
Gordimer, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1991, is one of South Africa’s most well-known and beloved writers and social/political activists. She has written a huge number of novels and stories in her 90 years, but The Conservationist perhaps best captures the contradictions and ironies of life in South Africa under apartheid. The novel (which won the Booker Prize in 1974) is the portrait of a rich white farmer whose alienation from his family, friends and workers is symbolic of the white minority’s waning moral authority in the country. It doesn’t have a grand narrative arc, but rather grabs the reader with its imaginative prose and astute observations of the different strata of South African society.
11) “Out of Africa,” by Isak Dinesen (1937)
Probably one of the best-known memoirs of life in Africa, “Out Of Africa” chronicles Karen Blixen’s 20-plus years overseeing a financially-doomed coffee plantation in the Kenyan foothills. Isak Dinesen was the nom de plume ofBlixen, a Danish baronness who settled in British East Africa in 1913.Her interactions with other liberal-mined Europeans (including Denys Finch Hatton, who became her lover), as well her developing friendships with some of the Kikuyu people who worked for her, are beautifully rendered in this wandering memoir. It was made into an Academy-award winning film of the same name in 1985.
12) “What Is The What,” by Dave Eggers (2006)
One of today’s most renowned writers, Eggers is adept with both creative memoir (he is best known for “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius”) and multicultural non-fiction novels (“Zeitoun”). In this story, Eggers collaborated with real-life Sudanese refugee Valentino Achak Deng, who becomes displaced during the brutal civil war and is forced to walk to Ethiopia. The book describes his trials with dysentery, crocodiles, and the continuous slaughter of his family and fellow refugees. We follow the protagonist all the way to his shaky arrival as a resident alien in Atlanta. It’s a mix of creative fiction and heartbreaking real-time accounts from one of the 20,000 “lost boys” of Sudan.
13) “Heart of Darkness,” by Joseph Conrad (1899)
This classic novella is required reading in most college Literature 101 courses and has long been part of the Western/European literary canon. In it Conrad tells the story of Charles Marlow, a British sailor who makes an arduous journey up the Congo River to find the mysterious Kurtz, an ivory merchant. In doing so the multi-layered tale wrestles with themes of good vs. evil, civilization vs. “savagery,” colonialism, racism and morality that are still being debated today. This brooding, moody, unforgettable, cathartic novella was also the basis for Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 Vietnam War movie, “Apocalypse Now.”
14) “Things Fall Apart,” by Chinua Achebe (1958)
A tragedy of Greek proportions, “Things Fall Apart” is as much of a classic in Africa as “Heart of Darkness” is in the Western world. In fact, Achebe’s novel was a ferocious response to “Heart of Darkness,” and a neo-colonial call for fellow writers of African birth to write outside the white colonizers’ perspective. Set in the 1890s, it’s about Okonkwo, a proud but flawed Nigerian village leader and wrestling champion who tries to rule his village fairly despite obstacles from within, while contending with the arrival of white Christian missionaries. It’s a sad and powerful classic that touches on themes of colonialism, family honor, and traditional tribal values.
15) “The Sheltering Sky,” by Paul Bowles (1949)
For those with thesoul of a wanderer, this book is a must. Bowles, an expatriate living in Tangier with his writer wife Jane, gives us Port and Kit, an unhappily married New York couple who attempt to fix their marriage by going on a trip to Morocco, accompanied by their strange friend Tunner. Not so much a clear, linear story, Sheltering Sky is a famously cloudy, sad existential tale of the inability to fit into the world. Bowles takes us around Morocco as if in a dream: the cafés, the banging clanging marketplaces, the relationships with Moroccans, the loneliness and beauty of the Sahara — a visionary achievement!Mark Rausch contributed to this article.