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Africa on the page

Andrew Harding | 11:57 UK time, Wednesday, 27 April 2011

So... what have you been reading?

I thought this blog might take an occasional unguided safari into the world of books that deal, in some way or other, with Africa. What's the best, worst, most original, factual, fictional page-turner that you've come across this year?

I don't (mercifully) police the comments section below, but how about we make an unofficial rule - no entry without a book suggestion tucked under your arm?

Anyone with an interest in development and Africa will probably have heard of Dambisa Moyo's provocative and highly enjoyable Dead Aid. But while she rolls a grenade into the boardroom of Western "do-gooding," Stephen Ellis wields a scalpel. I would urge you to dig out his book, Season of Rains. Behind the rather fragrant title lurks a hard-headed, big-picture, bang-up-to-date analysis of the big themes confronting the continent. The chapters on China, on the challenges and definitions of "statehood," and on Africa's overlooked indigenous structures, are particularly strong. A good starting point for reassessing places like Somalia. Mr Ellis offers a view from the treetops, in a region where too many of us are stuck in ideological ruts.

Speaking of ruts, and having noted all the vehement pro- and anti-Western comments on my recent blogs from Ivory Coast, I've just been reading Adekeye Adebajo's The Curse of Berlin - Africa After the Cold War. Mr Adebajo has more axes to grind than Mr Ellis and a choppier narrative, but his historical analysis is sharp and shrewd, and so is his dissection of "Afrophobia," and the new institutions struggling to build "security, hegemony, and unity," on the continent.

On a different note... the best thriller you'll ever read has finally hit foreign bookshops, three years after it was first published here in South Africa.

In a Different Time tells the story of four members of the ANC's armed wing, captured after carrying out a series of assassinations and bombings, and put on trial during the dying days of the apartheid regime. Will the men be executed before democracy arrives? And what of the government death squad's own bomb-making plans, which punctuate the narrative with a tick-tock tension?

Peter Harris's book is chilling, profoundly insightful, and heartbreaking. It is also true. Mr Harris was the lawyer representing the "Delmas Four" during their sensational trial. He tells a murky tail with economy and clarity. In a Different Time now has a new, but equally unsatisfying title: A Just Defiance.


  • Comment number 1.

    Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's novel about the Nigerian Biafra civil war, 'Half of a Yellow Sun' is a riveting and emotionally charged read.

  • Comment number 2.

    I felt so compelled to make a comment that I registered myself for a BBC username.
    The best book I have ever read is John Reader's Africa - the biography of a continent. It's not everyone's cup of tea because in parts it is a little dry and scientific, but I found it to be a fascinating historical and anthropological perspective on how the continent evolved the way it did. It's a neutral account which acknowledges different arguments and I have to say it was one of those life changing books which was one that inspired me to change careers.

    I have read Half of a Yellow Sun and agree that it was moving.

    Thanks for the suggestions, will give them a shot. Am keen to read Sudan: everyone's favourite war by Rob Crilly - so keen on hearing from those who have read it.

  • Comment number 3.

    I having been reading 2 books in tandem..
    the first is ”Red Strangers…The White Tribe of Kenya” by C.S. Nicholls an informative history of the white settlers of Kenya by a lady who grew up in Kenya and so writes with the authority of an insider’s first hand experience.
    The other “When We Began There Where Witchmen” by the American academic Jeffrey A. Fadiman’s this book through 300 years of Meru history (Mt Kenya). In 1969 as a Fulbright scholar he recorded 314 oral histories of the Kiramana and Murungi age-sets who were in the 70’s and 80s. And so he has done humanity a great service and gives us a rare glimpse into an African past that was evaporating as he recorded their words. After having read his book I have the beginning of a clue of how the Meru viewed their world, creation and the coming of the modern world in the form of the British. Anyone who wants to understand how these two African tribes functioned, their beliefs and culture before and after the Conquest of Kenya should read these fascinating, informative books.

  • Comment number 4.

    Deon Meyer is pretty good (in English translation - I wouldn't know what the Afrikaans original is like) but only if you've lived in Africa. People who haven't think that the way his characters behave is unbelievable.

  • Comment number 5.


    What an excellent idea! Certainly some books here that I plan to buy and read. Books on Africa cover a wide range of issues, but books on Africa's history can all be controversial - not least as the choices may be interpreted as saying something about the proposer! But a few books which I have found enjoyable are:

    "Tip and Run: The Untold Tragedy of the Great War in Africa" (Edward Paice) tells a remarkably gripping story of the First World War as fought oh so ineptly by Europeans in East Africa. Sounds dry but is amazingly easy to read.

    "Mimi and Toutou Go Forth: The Bizarre Battle of Lake Tanganyika" (Giles Foden) relates the mad idea of one individual in the War Office in London to defeat the German navy on Lake Tanganyika.

    "The State of Africa: A History of Fifty Years of Independence" (Martin Meredith) offers a useful round up of issues in Africa - a good primer for those needing to read in to the subject.

    "Green Oranges on Lion Mountain" (Emily Joy) tells the tale of a young volunteers eye opening experiences in Sierra Leone.

    "Lost Lion of Empire: The Life of 'Cape-to-Cairo' Grogan: The Life of Ewart Grogan DSO, 1876-1976" (Edward Paice) details the life of an extraordinary thorn in the side of British colonial authority.

    All the best.


  • Comment number 6.

    Three great books on politics and corruption in Kenya, one non-fiction and two fictional, all thoroughly true:

    It's Our Turn to Eat, by Michela Wrong - the definitive story of modern Kenyan politics.
    A Guide to the Birds of East Africa (a novel), by Nicholas Drayson - deceptively gentle but packs quite a punch.
    The In-Between World of Vikram Lall, by MS Vassanji - no book has ever explained better how the rot of corruption grows and spreads.

    And for those who are tired of the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, an alternative inspiring novel on Botswana:
    Far and Beyon', by Unity Dow.

  • Comment number 7.

    Great idea!

    I had heard of Half of a Yellow Sun before, I think I will find it and read it.

    For some insight into Southern Africa the following three books are really good:

    Dinner with Mugabe, by Heidi Holland
    A good introduction into what went wrong in Zimbabwe.

    19 with a bullet, by Granger Korff
    The Angolan/Namibian bushwar seen through the eyes of a South African paratrooper.

    The Maputo connection, by Nadja Manghezi
    Insight into the second ANC hub in Africa during apartheid (after Lusaka) and into ANC life in exile in general.

  • Comment number 8.

    devil on the cross by n'gugi wa thiong'o
    god's bits of wood
    the house of hunger
    the beautiful ones are not yet born
    things fall apart
    i write what i like
    seasons of migration to the north
    the collector of treasures
    a savage war of peace

  • Comment number 9.

    Finding myself holding back on nominating one of cartoonist Zapiro's graphic exploits on South African politics. Anyway, am just glad nobody has mentioned Wilbur Smith in the must-read category... yet!

    For me one of the best books has to be Palace Walk written by the Noble Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz. It's an essential read for anyone interested in modern Egypt The book is about a merchant living in Cairo, who makes his family conform to strict religious rules which he quite happily breaks himself..

    Olga (Czech on Africa blog)

  • Comment number 10.

    Hi there,

    this is an old book, but worth reading:
    Banda by Philip Short (Routledge & Kegan Paul, London 1974) - a very good biography of Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda, who ruled Malawi for 30 years.
    The Fear: The last days of Robert Mugabe by Peter Godwin
    Untapped, the Scramble for Africa's Oil by John Ghazvinian
    Lords and Lemurs (Mad Scientists, Kings with Spears and the Survival of Diversity in Madagascar) by Alison Jolly -


  • Comment number 11.

    Dear Andrew, I regularly read your blog but this is the first time I have been moved to comment. I read Ms Moyo's excellent book a few months ago and look forward to reading the other recommendations. The book I want to recommend is "Say You're One of Them" by Nigerian writer Uwem Akpan. The book consists of 5 fictional short stories, each written from a child's perspective. Although fiction these stories are clearly based on reality which made reading emotionally difficult at times however it is so important that the impact on children is highlighted.

  • Comment number 12.

    Top of the list of young African writers is IMMACULEE ILIBAGIZA with her three riveting books LEFT TO TELL (discovering GOD amidst the Rwanda Holocaust) and LED BY FAITH and OUR LADY OF KIBEHO.

    Immaculee writes honestly about her environment without the cheap-immorality that has become ever so common among modern African writers. She stands in the same class as WOLE SOYINKA and NGUGI wa THIONG'O.

  • Comment number 13.

    @#11 ACP_EU_Brenda - I've read Akpan and have to agree, it's a great read!

    Thanks for a great post Andrew - looks like I'm going to be doing some shopping on Amazon this weekend!

  • Comment number 14.

    while it may be hard - grating against the couple of centuries' old rivalry - to venture that a french language book may be 'the best book' about Africa, i would recommend Achille Mbembe's 'Sortir de la Grand Nuit' (published October last year) as a perceptive and anguished participant-user description of Africa between tradition and modernism, and lots of other in-between things. Then there's the trenchant Speaking truth to power - Selected Pan African Postcards by the late Tajudeen Abdul Raheem .... Achille from Cameroon, now in South africa, Taj was from Nigeria, worked in Uganda, Kenya and all over, died tragically in a car accident on Africa Day a few years back....

  • Comment number 15.

    My vote for best African reads definitely goes to Nobel prize winner VS Naipaul - A Bend in the River. It's on Idi Amin's Uganda and follows the story of an Indian trader trying to survive the political and economic turbulence of the newly independent East African country. It really is quite brilliant.

    I cannot wait for Naipaul's latest book on South Africa to be released - it's meant to be quite the expose on SA in the post-apartheid era.

  • Comment number 16.

    I recently read Spud, by John van der Ruit, about a schoolboy growing up during the South African transition from apartheid to democracy. Also very funny!

  • Comment number 17.

    Someone has sent me these suggestions on twitter (hardingbbc)... I'd add Autesserre's Trouble with the Congo, @bechamilton Fighting for Darfur, & @jasonkstearns Dancing in the Glory of Monsters

  • Comment number 18.

    "The Zanzibar Chest" by Aidan Hartley is the one I would recommend. It is part biography about him being a war correspondent covering various African conflicts in the early 90's, and about his father, who worked for the British government in Africa from the 1930's onwards. Hartley draws big lines and asks big questions about the white man's role and sense of belonging to Africa. Also, the ethical qualms a war correspondent is very interesting to read about.

  • Comment number 19.

    These are the best African books. posted in My Continent website by African writers.

  • Comment number 20.

    "Black Mamba Boy" by Nadifa Mohamed is the breathtaking and gorgeously written true story of a Somali man's (the author's father) remarkable journey from boyhood to adulthood. Beginning in his childhood, he sets out traveling across Africa and the Middle East in search of his long lost father and ultimately finds himself. Through this story and the relationships of its characters, one learns about the colors, the rhythms and flavors embedded in Somali culture.

  • Comment number 21.

    "Infidel" by Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Hirsi Ali writes about her youth in Somalia, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia and Kenya, her personal experiences and thoughts about having been Muslim, her election to Parliament in the Netherlands and the controversy regarding her citizenship, which helped bring down the Dutch government.

  • Comment number 22.

    "So Long a Letter" by Mariama Ba. This strong exploration of feminism makes the novel a strong voice for the oppressed woman in Africa. The Senegalese woman who is the focus of the book is oppressed by culture and by virtue of her position.

  • Comment number 23.

    things fall apart by chinua achebe is really great, i have read it.

  • Comment number 24.

    "A civilization that proves incapable of solving the problems it creates is a decadent civilization.
    A civilization that chooses to close its eyes to its most crucial problems is a stricken civilization.
    A civilization that uses its principles for trickery and deceit is a dying civilization."
    Discourse on Colonalism, by Aimé Césaire
    ...welcome bad memories, afterall you are my lost youth!

  • Comment number 25.

    Indian Online may have a memory "bend". Naipul's brilliant book "A bend in the River" did not take place in Uganda but in the (then Zairean) town of Kisangani where the Congo River "bends" from running Nort to run West

  • Comment number 26.

    Some of the books about Africa that I have read and liked are:

    1. Focus Africa- a Photojournalist's Perspective by Marion Kaplan
    2. The Shadow of the Sun : My African Life by Ryszard Kapuscinski
    3. Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Cape Town by Paul Theroux
    4. Mukiwa by Peter Godwin

  • Comment number 27.

    Ake--Wole Soyinka
    Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight--Alexandra Fuller
    Nervous Conditions--Tsitsi Dangarembga
    The Bride Price--Buchi Emecheta
    Paradise--Abdulrazak Gurnah
    The Man-eaters of Tsavo--John Henry Patterson

  • Comment number 28.

    As a child of empire the son of a miner (gold, copper, nickel, uranium) I am drawn to biographies of others who experienced the exquisite pleasures and pain of growing up in Africa.
    Once under your skin Africa never leaves you.
    So yes “Don’t Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight” by Alexandra Fuller and “Mukiwa” by Peter Godwin are on the list. A less well known book is “Casting a Fragile Thread” by Wendy Kann a poignant bitter sweet autobio of 3 Rhodesian sisters growing up in Rhodesia as their world ripped itself apart.

  • Comment number 29.

    many excellent recommendations so far - some familiar, some brand new to me. no mentions yet of the beguiling nuruddin farah or the discerning eye of south africa's jonny steinberg
    and then there's j m coetzee of course, with his cool, enraging prose. life and times of michael k still haunts me.

  • Comment number 30.

    Some of my favourites…

    Non fiction:
    (Rwanda) ‘A Thousand Hills’ by Stephen Kinzer (a revealing biography of Paul Kagame)
    (Kenya) ‘A Primate’s Memoir’ by Robert Sapolsky (quite fun)
    (Kenya) ‘It’s Our Turn to Eat’ by Michela Wrong
    (Botswana) ‘The Lost World of the Kalahari’ by Laurens van der Post

    (Uganda) ‘Abyssinian Chronicles’ by Moses Isegawa
    (Kenya) ‘A Cockroach Dance’ by Meja Mwangi
    (Kenya) ‘Coming to Birth’ by Oludhe-Macgoye
    (Kenya) Anything by Ngugi Wa Thiong'o (of course)
    (South Africa) ‘Bitter Fruit’ by Achmat Dangor
    (South Africa) ‘Burger’s Daughter’ by Nadime Gordimer (or anything by her)
    (South Africa) ‘Cry the Beloved Country’ by Alan Paton (of course)
    (Zimbabwe) ‘An Elegy for Easterly’ by Petina Gappah
    (Zimbabwe) ‘House of Hunger’ by Dambudzo Marechera
    (Zimbabwe) ‘Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight’ and ‘Scribbling the Cat’ by Alexandra Fuller
    (Mozambique) ‘Sleepwalking Land’ by Mia Couto (a little hard going)

  • Comment number 31.

    Sorry - couple of corrections above: Alexandra fuller is non-fiction. And it's 'Nadine' Gordimer.

  • Comment number 32.

    Thanks to everyone for giving me such a great reading list for the next year. May I suggest to Andrew H that BBC somehow provide a sumamry list classified into fact and fiction like RexL's contribution (and possibly country or region to make it manageable) ?

  • Comment number 33.

    There was a time when the African writers Series held pride of place on the bookshelves of many homes.

    Andrew Harding, thanks alot for this. Perhaps you can continue this by way of an virtual library on African writers. In the same vein as Shelfari. I will sign up in a heartbeat. And I know lots who will also.

    If you liked Half of a yellow sun, you'd love her short stories in "That thing around your neck"

    Then there are:
    Not with Silver by Simi Bedford on the slave trade and the establishment of Liberia. Makes you feel like you were on the boat for the liberated slaves;

    Unbowed, Wangari Maathai. Loved it.

    Beautiful Feathers, Cyprian Ekwensi

    I do not come to you by Chance, Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani. Hilariously written book on the not funny 419 in Nigeria

    Measuring Time, Helon Habila

    Mine Boy, Peter abrahams

    One man, one matchet, T.M. Aluko

    The Concubine, Elechi Amadi

    The poor Christ of Bomba, Mongo Beti

    Jagua Nana, Burning grass, al by Cyprian Ekwensi

    The Detainee, Legson Kayira

    Efuru, Flora Nwapa

    Houseboy, Ferdinando Oyono.

    I could go on and on and on

  • Comment number 34.

    L.S.B. Leakey's three volumes entitled The Southern Kikuyu before 1903 provide real insights. Wangari Maathai's Unbowed is seminal and so is Ryszard Kapuscinski's The Shadow of the Sun. I have also recently enjoyed Maggie McCune's Till the Sun Grows Cold, a memoir of her daughter Emma's love for Riek Machar Teny-Dhurgon and Missionaries, Mercenaries and Misfits edited by Rasna Warah (in the Dambisa Moyo mode)

  • Comment number 35.

    NaAnna - please do!

  • Comment number 36.

    These were recommended to me for Angola:
    A Geracao da Utopia – Pepetela (translated)
    The Book of Chameleons – Jose Eduardo Agualusa (translated)

    On my bookshelf but not yet read… thought a bit of crime fiction might be fun:
    Nairobi Heat – Mukoma Wa Ngugi (son of Ngugi Wa Thiong'o)
    My Life in Crime – John Kiriamiti (criminal turned writer)


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