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:
1. Beneath the Lion’s Gaze, Maaza Mengiste
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.
2. No 1. Ladies Detective Agency, Alexander McCall Smith
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.
3. Oil on Water, Helon Habila
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.
4. Weep Not, Child, Ngugi Wa Thiongo
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.
5. Long Walk to Freedom, Nelson Mandela
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.
6. The Translator, Leila Aboulela
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.
7. Half of a Yellow Sun, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
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.
8. A Question of Power, Bessie Head
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.
9. When A Crocodile Eats the Sun, Peter Godwin
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.
10. Nervous Conditions, Tsitsi Dangarembga
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.
11. The House of Hunger, Dambudzo Marchera
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.
12. So Long a Letter, Mariam Bâ
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.
13. Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe
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.
14. Butterfly Burning, Yvonne Vera
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.
15. Black Mamba Boy, Nadifa Mohamed
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.
16. Abyssinian Chronicles, Moses Isegawa
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.
17. Out of Africa, Karen Blixen
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.
18. The Famished Road, Ben Okri
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.
19. Fiela’s Child, Dalene Matthee
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”.
20. Cry, the Beloved Country, Alan Paton
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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