Buying Guide: 15 Modern Books About Africa, And By Africans

To get the most out of the cultural immersion you’ll experience while traveling in Africa, it’s a good idea to pick up a book and do some advance reading. Not only will this help you get a feel for the issues and cultures of the local people, but your brain will be tickled.

The continent has a great literary scene, which has produced engaging and innovative authors from Algeria to Zimbabwe. So whether you are curling up under a blanket in your hotel room or reading under a palm tree, here are some modern books about Africa and Africans you must read.

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1. “Ghost Eater and Other Stories” by Diane Awerbuck

In 2004, Diane Awerbuck’s “Gardening at Night” won the Commonwealth Award for Best First Book. It’s safe to say that Awerbuck is talented. In her most recent work, “Ghost Eater,” Awerbuck has compiled a collection of stories by 31 writers from across South Africa.


2. “False River” by Dominique Botha

“False River” is a nostalgic semi-autobiography about siblings growing up on a farm during apartheid. Because of their parents’ leftist politics, the children are sent to boarding school in Natal. The narrator is Dominique, but the focus of the story is her rebellious older brother. Fed up with the oppression, he runs away to London, only to meet with tragedy. The book does an excellent job of looking at the complex situation through a child’s eyes.


3. “The Bull From Moruleng” by Molefe Pheto                         

When Nelson Mandela was released from prison on Robben Island, some South Africans were hoping for an armed rebellion. One was the former political prisoner Molefe Pheto. In this story, he tells about his politically-active exile in the U.K. and U.S., and his return to South Africa 20 years later. Upon returning home, he finds a new South Africa — one that perturbs him.


4. “The Story of Anna P, as Told by Herself” by Penny Busetto

“The Story of Anna P” is a tale which will confuse and intrigue you from the outset. It tells of a South African woman living on an Italian island who cannot remember how she got there. Through her strange actions (which include hiring a female prostitute just to cuddle with her), we start to question things like what it means to have no identity, no memory, and the implications of making ethical decisions without a sense of self.


5. “Dance with A Poor Man’s Daughter” by Pamela Jooste

In this book, eleven-year old Lily tells the story of the culture of the Cape Coloured community at a time when racial segregation plagued South Africa. When Lily’s mother returns to Cape Town determined to fight for justice for her family, Lily’s past and future unfold. Lily also shares how fear silenced others and how often community members would help to enforce apartheid laws.

6. “Maid in SA: 30 Ways to Leave Your Madam” by Zukiswa Wanner

Wanner dives deep into the gritty details of relationships between domestic workers, particularly maids, and their madams in South Africa. Despite the book taking on such a serious yet little-talked-about topic, the story is still quirky and fun.


7. “Broken Monsters” by Lauren Beukes

South Africa-born Lauren Beukes is one of the top novelists in the country and combines elements of surrealism with wit, darkness, and a whole spectrum of emotion in this detective story. The tale takes place in Detroit (the purported symbol for the death of the American Dream) where Detective Gabriella Versado finds a body which is half boy, half deer. As the story unfolds, stranger things are discovered and a nightmarish killer is on the loose. Though the subject matter is not South African, this author is worth checking out if only for her vivid prose.


8. “Zebra Crossing” by Meg Vandermerwe

“Zebra Crossing” is a chilling, suspenseful story of an albino girl named Chipo from Zimbabwe. The night before the World Cup, Chipo and her brother come to South Africa for a better life. What they don’t realize is how dangerous the city is for illegal immigrants. Chipo has the double stigma of also being albino.  They hatch a plan to make money exploiting gamblers’ superstitions about albinism. This isn’t just a story about tragic naivete, but what it’s like to live in someone else’s skin.


9. “The Hairdresser of Harare” by Tendai Huchu

“The Hairdresser of Harare” at first seems to be a funny story about competing hairdressers who eventually team up to make a thriving business. But after a secret is revealed, you realize that this book is about overturning stereotypes and injustices in Zimbabwe today.


10. “Betrayal” by Adriaan van Dis

The protagonist in this story is Mulder, a former anti-apartheid Dutch activist. After 40 years, he returns to South Africa to reconnect with a fraternity buddy. What Mulder finds is a country still segregated and bursting at the seams with tension. When Mulder and his friend try to help a local kid strung out on meth, their good intentions are misconstrued.


11. “Beneath the Lion’s Gaze” by Maaza Mengiste

Published in 2010, this novel is set in Ethiopia during the years of the Red Terror (the name given to the violent upheaval following the communist revolution in the 1970s). The tale follows the lives of two brothers and their father: Dawit, the student revolutionary, his elder brother, Yonas, who seeks solace in tradition and prayer, and their father, Hailu, a surgeon who is summoned to save the life of a young woman who has been horrifically tortured by the secret police. His task is to heal her just enough to send her back to prison. The choices he makes will change the course of the family’s life.

12. “Broken Glass” by Alain Mabanckou

Published in 2009, this novel has a scatological humour and a biting wit. The narrator sits in a bar in the heart of Congo and writes about the convicts, con men, cuckolds and dispossessed who join him in the bar called Credit Gone West, while all the time nursing his own secrets.

13. “Looking for Transwonderland” by Noo Saro-Wiwa

Noo Saro-Wiwa is the daughter of the murdered environmental and political activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, and here she establishes herself as an important travel writer, her subject being Africa as seen by Africans. Travelling from the mayhem of Lagos across Nigeria, she brings family history and the sometimes conflicted eye of an African raised away from the motherland to look at this vast, fascinating land. Only one who calls the country home could write such an honest account of contemporary Nigeria.

14. “Lyrics Alley” by Leila Aboulela

Published in 2010, Aboulela’s third novel is set in the 1950s, in pre-independence Sudan. The protagonist, Nur, is a cosmopolitan son of a powerful businessman who journeys to Egypt and post-war Britain.  This is also the story of the conflict between Nur’s traditional mother and the city-bred Egyptian co-wife whose arrival threatens the stability of the family. Though set mostly in the world of the northern Sudanese, Aboulela’s gentle, poetic prose is a perfect counterpoint to the time of turmoil and upheaval she chronicles.

15. “Mama Miti” by Donna Jo Napoli and Kadir Nelson

This is a beautifully illustrated tribute to the Kenyan Nobel laureate and environmentalist, the late Wangari Maathai. In poetic prose, the book tells of women who bring their problems to Mama Miti: we have no firewood; the cows are sick; the water is polluted. Instead of advising how to get NGO grants, Mama Miti reveals a bush whose leaves can heal livestock, a species of tree whose roots will purify the water and another that will meet their needs for fuel.

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