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It’s almost a crime that this list has only 20 books on it, but you have to start somewhere, right? This compilation includes some well-known literary icons such as Out of Africa and Long Walk to Freedom, but there are far more books about Africa than just those two. In no particular order, here are our top 20 picks:
This novel is set in Addis Ababa at the end of an era: It’s 1974 and Emperor Haile Selassie’s reign has come to an end and the rule of the military junta is just beginning, told through the voice of one family as they explore the political and emotional upheaval in Ethiopia in the seventies. Author, Maaza Mengiste, was born in Ethiopia and has lived in Nigeria and Kenya before finally settling in the United States. Beneath the Lion’s Gaze was shortlisted and made a finalist for several awards after its release in 2010.
A series rather than a novel alone, the No 1. Ladies Detective Agency details the adventures and mishaps of Mma Precious Ramotswe who starts up her own detective agency in Botswana’s capital, Gaborone, with inheritance money from her father. So great was the success of the series by Rhodesian-born Scottish author, Alexander McCall Smith, that it was adapted for television and radio. Humorous, light-hearted, but dwelling on serious issues, this is a great addition to any reading list.
The chasm that exists between the communities who live in the Niger Delta and the multi-billion dollar oil companies that work there is a large one, a topic explored in Nigerian author Helon Habila’s Oil on Water. Written in the form of a classic detective novel, this book dwells on a topic prevalent on the continent today through the voice of an enthusiastic, young journalist, Rufus, as he follows his idol, once-acclaimed journalist Zaq, in search of a British woman kidnapped by militants hoping to protect the environment from greedy oil companies. Desperately searching for truth, Rufus finds himself wrapped up in a story he could be implicated in.
As the first English novel to be published by an East African, Weep Not, Child had a resounding effect on writers in the region and the African literary field at large. The novel follows Njoroge as he attends school, the first person in his family who has been able to do so. His life unravels as political unrest strikes Kenya, later known as the Mau Mau Uprising, with his family implicated in attacks on community members.
This epic is surely in need of no introduction but we’ll give one nonetheless. Long Walk to Freedom is Nelson Mandela’s autobiography mapping out his early life, adolescence, experiences in The Struggle, his 27-year prison sentence, and his culmination as the first democratically-elected president of Post-Apartheid South Africa. Translated into numerous languages, this work won the Alan Paton Award, part of the Sunday Times Literary Awards, and is an emotive and compelling account of one man’s life and the struggle for the Rainbow Nation.
The Translator is a love story centred around a Muslim Sudanese widow, Sammar, working as an Arabic translator at a Scottish university. After her husband’s death, Sammar’s young son is sent to Khartoum to be raised by relatives, leaving her alone in the grey, cold city of Aberdeen. Her life takes a turn when she begins to work with a Scottish secular Islamic scholar who challenges her faith and her heart.
Through a series of central voices, Half of a Yellow Sun details the Nigerian Civil War (1967 – 1970) through everyday characters: Ugwu, a 13-year-old village boy who works for a man named Odenigbo, in a household prone to intellectual conversation. Things take a turn when Odenigbo’s girlfriend moves in and readers are introduced to her twin sister and her twin sister’s English lover. Half of a Yellow Sun has won numerous awards, including the 2007 Orange Prize for Fiction and Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction.
Elizabeth, a mixed-race South African living under Apartheid, flees South Africa with her young son in tow and ends up in the village of Motabeng, Botswana. Here, she makes a new life for herself, but the past continues to knock at her door. This semi-autobiographical work details many experiences from Bessie Head’s own life as the daughter of a white woman and her black servant at a time when such relationships were illegal. Bessie Head is considered an icon of African literature and one of Botswana’s most celebrated writers.
Set in Zimbabwe, this heartbreaking memoir documents political change in the Southern African nation through its white Zimbabwean protagonist while touching on the dynamics in his own family. Set in a tumultuous time where a conflict between two political parties, the MDC and ZANU-PF, is rife, as are land invasions and corruption, the novel is particularly poignant in that Godwin discusses his own revelation that his grandfather was a Polish Jew who fled Europe in World War II.
Awarded the 1989 Commonwealth Writer’s Prize, Nervous Conditions deals with feminist and postcolonial politics in 1960s Rhodesia. An impoverished girl, Tambu, is given the opportunity to study at a missionary school in her brother’s place after his untimely death. She excels but struggles to find balance between her old life and her new one, faced with the dilemma of what it means to belong to more than one culture.
The House of Hunger is a short story collection surrounded by smaller satellite stories written by Zimbabwean author Dambudzo Marechera. Published after he’d left Oxford University, the book centres around his memories of life growing up in a township in Rhodesia, and later, independent Zimbabwe, as well as his experiences at Oxford where he was an intelligent, extroverted scholar who remained an outsider because of his background. The House of Hunger was instantly acclaimed, winning the 1979 Guardian Fiction Prize the same year it was published.
Written by Senegalese author, Mariam Bâ, So Long a Letter is quite literally written in the form of a long letter from its mourning protagonist, Ramatoulaye Fall, to her lifelong friend, Aissatou Bâ. The occasion is her husband’s death, which occurs near to Senegal’s independence, but the letter sees her recount major events throughout their lives, including the anger she felt when her husband took a second wife after 25 years of marriage.
A giant among African literature, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart has received critical acclaim the world over since its publication in 1958 and is now a standard set work in schools across the continent. The narrative follows a Nigerian wrestler and village leader, Okonkwo, as he navigates pre- and post-colonial life in the country in the late 1800s. Traditional customs and ways of being collide when Christian missionaries and other influences part and parcel of British colonialism arrive.
Set in 1940s Rhodesia, Yvonne Vera evocatively displays the limited career choices available to women through a romance between Phephelaphi and her much-older lover, Fumbatha. Phephelaphi is crucially aware that education, of which she’s had very little, is the key to her own freedom, and she is thrilled to discover that she is awarded a coveted spot in a prestigious nursing school. Tragedy strikes when she discovers she is pregnant and no longer eligible to attend.
A tribute to her father, Jama, Nadifa Mohamed documents his life in this African odyssey beginning in a Yemeni port city where his mother dies leaving a young boy impoverished. With nothing left, Jama begins to search for his absent father across an African continent torn by poverty and war in the 1930s. Whispers take him to Eritrea, where his father is said to be, and straight into territory occupied by Mussolini’s army.
Through three male protagonists, a grandfather, father, and son, Abyssinian Chronicles navigates the turmoil and uncertainty pervasive in the 1970s and 1980s in Uganda, a country recovering from colonial rule only to be thrust into the hands of Milton Obote and, later, Idi Amin.
A classic whose film adaptation spawned the term ‘safari-chic’, Out of Africa is a memoir compiled by Karen Blixen as she mused over her colonial life in British East Africa in what is considered to be the last decades of the British Empire. This novel is a poignant take on life in Kenya from a colonial perspective as Karen Blixen documents anecdotes of her time living on a coffee plantation at the foot of the Ngong Hills.
Winner of the 1991 Man Booker Prize, Nigerian author, Ben Okri, skillfully weaves the spiritual world into the literal with his masterpiece, The Famished Road, displaying elements of magical realism. Azaro, a spirit-child hailing from a slum in West Africa, finds himself harassed by sibling spirits from other realms who are intent on him leaving his mortal life for the one beyond. The boy cites his love for his aspiring-boxer father and street-hawker mother as his reasons for wanting to stay while his anecdotes provide insight into post-colonial Africa and an impending election between corrupt parties.
Set along South Africa’s Garden Route and in the forests surrounding the town of Knysna, Fiela’s Child follows the story of a 19th-century Cape Coloured woman who adopts a white child found abandoned on her doorstep. Years later, a census results in Fiela’s adopted son being taken from her and placed with a poor, white family of woodcutters nearby where his living conditions are much worse despite South African racial standards at that time depicting coloured people as a lower class. The New York Times has described the novel as “a parade that broadens and humanises our understanding of the conflicts still affecting South Africa today”.
Reverend Kumalo is called from his remote village in KwaZulu-Natal to Johannesburg where his sister has fallen ill and where his son went missing years before. This intricate tale gives insight into the divides in South African society that would later give rise to Apartheid. Cry, the Beloved Country attempts to paint a picture of the country at that time from contrasting perspectives.
Do you have any favourites that we’ve left out of the list? Let us know in the comments section below!
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Jozi-born, Knysna local, and recovering yachtie, Melanie decided that she missed being land-based after 18 months sailing the seas. Now that she lives in the most beautiful city in Africa (she is adamant about this fact), you will find her trying out new things around Cape Town, dreaming about her next holiday, and using Wikipedia to enhance her skills as an encyclopaedia of useless information.
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There is so much to read, thanks for sharing this list. The most unforgettable (south) African books I’ve read were: “Bitches’ Brew!”, by Fred Khumalo (each chapter is titled after a Miles Davis song, so you can imagine how jazzy it is!) and “Disgrace”, by J. M. Coetzee (still need to watch the movie!).
I know! So much to read, so little time. I’m a fan of ‘Disgrace’ myself. Will be sure to keep an eye out for your Fred Khumalo suggestion. Thankyou!
I just finished “Homegoing” by Yaa Gyasi and would definitely add it to the list! And of course Cry of the Kalahari!!
Thanks so much, Lauren! Duly noted and added to my reading list 🙂
Thanks for sharing. Its great.
Suggesting you add late Margret Ogola, one of Kenya’s greatest with two of her works:
“The River and the Source, a novel which is a set book used in Kenya schools and has won the Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature in (1995) and the 1995 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book in Africa. It has been translated into Italian, Lithuanian and Spanish. The book describes the changing lives of 4 generations of Kenyan women…
Place of Destiny, a novel about a woman dying of cancer and the rise to recognition of a former street child as well as issues of poverty. Won the Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature…”.
(cited from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Margaret_Ogola)
Thanks for this Klaus. Had a look at her Wikipedia page and definitely adding her to my list.
I like the Alexandra Fuller books – about her life in Zimbabwe , Don’t Let’s Go To The Dogs Tonight, Scribbling the Cat etc. Very good read about that tormented country
Ooooh yes, I’m also a fan, Moira!
Kuki Gallman’s book ‘I Dreamed of Africa’is another favourite
Oh yes , loved Kiki Gallmans I Dreamed of Africa . Also Out of Africa …….have watched the movie 5 times . Another very interesting book – Blood River , about the Congo River . Disgrace too !!! Any one read Africa House ? Zanzibar Chest ?
Speak Swahili Dammit – James Penhaligon, another really good read about an African childhood
Yes, I have heard of this one. Thanks for the reminder. Will be adding it to my ‘to-read’ list. 🙂
20 chickens for a saddle and shaking hands with the devil. Both great African centric books.
Thanks, Joanna! Duly noted 🙂
My latest novel, The House Called Mbabati, is set in Kenya and Cape Town. It has had some pretty good reviews, so for all you lovers of stories set in Africa, here is a taster.
The Mother Superior crossed herself quickly. “May God have mercy on you, and forgive you both,” she murmured, as she locked the diary and faded letters in the drawer.
Deep in the bush in Kenya, stands an abandoned house. On the top floor, shrouded under years of dust and cobwebs, stands a magnificent Steinway Concert Grand. In an antique shop in London, a nun recognises a photograph of a grand house she once lived in. The house is called Mbabati. The photograph has come from a package sent by the elderly family retainer, Luke, who has looked after the deserted house since both sisters, disappeared without trace more than twenty years ago. The package exposes a story that has fascinated the media, and the police, for decades. Thousands of miles away, in Cape Town, a journalist Alex Patterson goes to the aid of a dying woman, her last words to him are her name, Nicola, and one word – Mbabati. Sensing a good story, and intrigued with what he has discovered, Alex heads for East Africa in search of the abandoned house. He is unprepared for what he discovers there; the hidden home of a once famous classical pianist whose career came to a shattering end; a grave with a blank headstone and the old retainer called Luke – the only one left alive who knows the true story about the two sisters and what happened at the house. Alex unravels a story spanning forty years, a story of love, passion, betrayal and murder – and a lost child.
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