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.