Central African Republic (CAR)
Congo, Democratic Republic of the
Congo, Republic of the
Eswatini (formerly Swaziland)
The Palm Wine Drinkard
Half of a Yellow Sun
Sao Tome and Principe
The Story of an African Farm
I’ve mostly read non-fictional books about Africa, and mostly about East Africa. I hope it is ok if I give you a list of my favourite books (in no particular order):
- Uganda: “Abyssinian Chronicles” by Moses Isegawa.
Fictional coming-of-age-story that better than any other book helped me understand what the people of Uganda went trough during the dictatorship of Idi Amin and Obote.
- Kenya/Uganda: “The Lunatic Express: The Magnificent Saga of the Railway's Journey into Africa” by Charles Miller.
This non-fictional book covers a lot more than the building of the railway line between Mombasa and Lake Victoria. In a very entertaining manner it gives you the background to how Europeans bit by bit managed to colonise East Africa in the late 19th century, and how different African cultural groups tried to resist their power.
- “The Blue Nile” (1962) and “The White Nile” (1960) by Alan Moorhead.
If you want to understand the history of the countries along the river Nile, these are the books to start with. The language is somewhat dated, and racial slurs appear here and there. But if you can set yourself above that and ignore that Moorehead was a racist, these books are by far the most comprehensive historical description of the colonisation of the Nile rivers and the countries surrounding them. Moorehead uses texts by early European travellers to describe the people living along the Blue and the White Nile before and during colonisation, and it will give you an in-depth description of the fight between different Europeans countries and the Ottoman Empire to gain control of the Nile, and a background to the conflicts that are still until today (!) disrupting this area of the world.
- South Sudan: “Emma's War: Love, Betrayal and Death in the Sudan” by Deborah Scroggins.
A true story describing what can happen when an aid-worker from the global north starts meddling in local politics. Also a comprehensive description of South Sudan’s fight for independence from North Sudan. If you read Moorehead first, you will notice how contemporary conflict have its roots in the past. And that history is constantly repeating itself.
Zanzibar: “Memoirs of an Arabian Princess from Zanzibar” by Emily Ruete born Sayyida Princess of Zanzibar and Oman.
- South Africa: ”Agaat” by Marlene van Niekerk
A must read; a novel describing the strained relationship between a white woman and her African housemaid. Sort of an illustration of the complex ties the “master-slave-relationship” creates. Who is most dependant of whom? Especially as the master/mistress ages.
- Nigeria: ”Half of a Yellow Sun” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
- Democratic Republic of Congo: ”King Leopolds Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa” by Adam Hochschild
Just as the transatlantic slave trade this is a part of our history that everyone needs to know about; what happened in Africa after slave trade was made illegal in the rest of the world.
Thanks for the list. I've read most of them, but not Abyssian Chronicles, Agaat or the Zanzibar one.
The two Moorehead books on the Nile are excellent. Emma's War gives a good background to the conflict in Sudan, and the author Deborah Scroggins was in Sudan and knows what she is talking about, although it's a pity that the book has to be tied to a young white woman falling in love with an African rebel leader. I suppose it wouldn't sell well to European and north American audiences if it didn't have a leading white character. I was in Sudan during that period and I knew both Scroggins and Emma's husband Riek Machar, although I never met Emma. She was actually on her way to our Nairobi office when she died.
Lunatic Express is an excellent popular book on the Uganda Railway. I'm a railway enthusiast and I own plenty of other African railway books but they are mostly highly technical and wouldn't be of much interest to a general audience!
King Leopold's Ghost is also excellent, albeit not a pleasant subject matter. It should be read by anyone who tries to argue that colonialism had a positive side to it, and yes, there are people who still try to argue that.
Adichie is a great writer and I've enjoyed her books, but I've lived in eastern and southern Africa so I don't claim any great insights into west Africa.
Looks like you've got a good starting list there.
The Man-Eaters of Tsavo and other East African Adventures by J H Patterson - A very interesting account of the building of the Uganda Railway by the man who shot the famous man-eating lions at Tsavo. Reading it in the slightly archaic language of the time is fascinating. A good follow up to Lunatic Express.
Sir Apolo Kagwa Discovers Britain by Ham Mukasa - This is a nice book about the experiences of an African leader who went to England to meet Queen Victoria. I love the title, which is surely a play on the tendency for Europeans and north Americans to claim to have "discovered" places which of course had been well known for centuries to their own inhabitants.
The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith - A good, gentle, easy to read private detective novel with a feel for Africa. Nice to see a fiction book that is sympathetic to and paints a positive picture of Africa. There's a whole series of these No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency books.
The Scramble for Africa by Thomas Pakenham - A good overview of the history of the colonial project in Africa.
The Black Man's Burden - Africa and the curse of the nation-state by Basil Davidson - An excellent book challenging some of the sterotypes about the problems Africa faces today. It also challenges a common modern perception that the "nation state" is the norm, whereas in fact it is a fairly modern European invention.
The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver - Excellent book set in Congo around the time of independence. Although fiction, following the life of a US missionary family, it deals with some deep issues.
A History of South Africa by Frank Welsh - An interesting history of South Africa, at least since colonial times, by an English speaker. It challenges some of the myths, notably that there was nobody in South Africa except the San people (formerly known as bushmen or Hottentots) when white settlers first came. According to this myth, black Africans migrated into South Africa no earlier than the whites and therefore have no more historical claim to the land than the whites do. Welsh demonstrates that it was only in the current Western Cape Province where the whites first settled that the land was "empty" except for the San people; the rest of what is now South Africa was indeed already populated by black Africans by the time the whites expanded there.
No Future Without Forgiveness by Desmond Tutu and Mpilu Tutu (his daughter) - This is an excellent book and I was struck by a number of key themes. 1. The sense of fear that hard-line elements within the white security forces would refuse to accept the negotiated agreement and might launch military action which would be disastrous for everybody. This fear largely accounts for the huge concessions that the ANC made to the former security forces, concessions which are still controversial within the majority population. 2. His treatment of restorative and retributive justice. The latter, which dominates western cultures, is punitive and individualistic. The former is far more common in Africa (Tutu links it to ubuntu) and involves restoring harmony to the community and seeking the greatest good for all in the community. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission may have been the pragmatic result of the fear of military action by hard line whites, but its spirit was that of restorative justice. 3. Tutu almost seems more sympathetic towards the torturers and murderers who stood up and admitted, "I did it!" than to the huge number of whites who benefited from the apartheid regime but, when it fell, rushed to claim they never supported it and didn't know how bad it was. It is a lesson in collusion which is repeated again and again where people benefit from the abhorrent or illegal actions of governments which claim to act in their name.
That's enough for today, and I'm only on page 3 of 11 pages of my library under the tag "Africa"!
A Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela - An excellent work by one of the world's all-time greatest statesmen, giving a great deal of interesting detail and background about South Africa's liberation struggle. I was quite surprised to read that in the 1960s Mandela and the ANC were open to compromise. He relates that they told the apartheid regime that they knew it would be politically impossible to give them majority rule at that time, but they asked for just a few seats in parliament, to be reviewed and increased gradually every few years. How different the history of southern Africa might have been if the white regime had had the common sense to accept that remarkable offer then!
The Root Causes of Sudan's Civil Wars by Douglas Johnson - He is one of the best writers on Sudan, combining academic rigour (especially in anthropology and history) with a sense of the current reality on the ground. This is an excellent summary of the root causes of Sudan's oft-oversimplified civil wars.
Africa: A Modern History by Guy Arnold - A truly monumental work, this is the history of post-colonial Africa. Arnold is very sympathetic towards Africa. He analyses various influences on newly-independent African states, including the Cold War, and neo colonialism - the unwillingness of the former colonial powers to give up economic power even though they had surrendered political control. His analysis of the emergence of the one-party state is very good. He is critical of the aid industry, a position I agree with wholeheartedly. He makes some errors in his treatment of Sudan, which is my own area of specialist expertise. On p649 he refers to the 1985 overthrow of Numayri as a "coup", whereas it is generally regarded as an intifada (popular uprising) - I was on the streets of Khartoum and witnessed it first hand. More seriously, on p650 he attributes the 1989 coup (which was a coup) to "army officers who had been pressing for peace in the South". This was erroneously believed by many during the first few days after the coup, particularly as army officers had issued an ultimatum to the government shortly beforehand demanding peace in the south. However it quickly became clear that this was an Islamist coup by a different group of officers, deliberately intended to pre-empt moves towards peace which resulted from the earlier ultimatum. I was in Sudan during all these events and witnessed all of this first hand. "Western aid agencies... pulled their operations..." (p841) during the infamous Memorandum of Understanding dispute in 2000 is a gross over-simplification and reproduces the propaganda of those same agencies. In fact, as I documented at the time, only around six out of forty or so agencies actually withdrew. The section on Sudan on pp838-843 is actually one of the weakest in the whole book. It reads like a list of short facts with no real attempt at analysis. A more general criticism is that the book could have benefited from a little more editing for continuity. In many instances successive
paragraphs seem to have been researched separately and put together without regard for repetition of some facts and phrases. But for all this, it remains an excellent book.
Requiem for the Sudan: War, Drought and Disaster Relief on the Nile by J.Millard Burr and Robert O. Collins - This is an excellent book. It gives a detailed account of the relief effort in Sudan during the 1980s and into the early '90s, including the genesis of Operation Lifeline Sudan (OLS). As one would expect from a historian of Collins' stature, it also gives a very comprehensive treatment of the war and politics. It's a period I lived through in Sudan, and I was personally involved in and/or witnessed at first hand much that is recorded in this book. To be harsh, I have only found a couple of small errors of fact, and rather more typographical errors than I would have expected, but these do not detract from an excellent book. The authors are probably a bit more fulsome in their praise for OLS than I would be, but it was a remarkable and unique operation and deserves credit.
Acts of Faith by Philip Caputo - Much to my surprise, this is a very good book. I read it expecting to be disappointed, because I was there during the period and events in which this book is set and they are rarely described accurately. I was the director of one of the independent aid agencies working outside the UN umbrella in Sudan, although fortunately not one of those described in the book. Despite the routine disclaimer that all characters are fictitious, I recognise many of them. I have often flown in the Cessna Caravan with "Tara" and sat in the jump-seat of the Gulfstream with "Wesley". I've drunk too much with the "defrocked Catholic priest". I've landed at Zulu 2 and visited many of the real locations named in the Nuba Mountains. I helped the real German Emergency Doctors with their logistics when they first moved into Sudan. "Quinette" has echoes of Emma, and it was "Doug" who first told me about this book when I bumped into him in one of his coffee shops in Nairobi. I tend to read books about places and events I know very critically, looking for errors, but in this case I found myself giving it the benefit of the doubt. The general background was very good indeed and the fiction seemed to grow easily from it. Most of the general scenario is true, almost true, or at least plausible. It's only in the last fifty pages or so that the book moves into areas which are pure fiction. Of course there are errors. No non-UN operator could ever have landed in government-controlled Malakal without being arrested, even with a damaged aircraft. We had engine problems once on a flight to the Nuba Mountains on an ancient DC3 but fortunately were able to land in Panyagor, which was SPLA-controlled, where our South American crew patched up the offending engine and eventually got us to Zulu 2. I remember the hump in the middle of that airstrip rather than the rough patch at one end in the novel. Caputo's treatment of the SPLA is very shallow. Interestingly he has tried to understand the murahiliin more than most observers. He ascribes far more professionalism to "Friends of the Frontline" than I would to their real life counterparts. His treatment of the slave redemption business is very good. I like the way he has portrayed the contradictions of the aid industry. It is very dysfunctional indeed, and yet few are inclined to really challenge it. Evaluations and assessments tinker around the edges, make superficial changes, expose occasional scandals or wrong-doing which can be dealt with self-righteously, but it is rare to find challenges to the aid culture as a whole. In my oft-expressed view, the aid industry needs fundamental and radical change. It won't happen - there are too many vested interests, mixed motives and keen young aid workers, as depicted in Caputo's book.
Tip and Run - the Untold Tragedy of the Great War in Africa by Edward Paice - A good comprehensive study of the Great War in East Africa - not "Africa" as the sub-title suggests. Paice only touches briefly on the war in other parts of the continent. It makes interesting reading. Although it is mainly a book about Europeans, Paice includes some discussion on the effects of the war on the indigenous populations, and has taken the trouble to interview one of the last African survivors.
Dark Continent My Black Arse by Sihle Khumalo - It's very refreshing to read an African travel book written by an African. This book is amusing and informative, without being as patronising as most travel books about Africa. It tries to look at Africa differently, and succeeds to some extent. Nevertheless, it is clear that an urban black South African is still somewhat removed from the experience of most Africans throughout the continent. Well worth reading.
Khartoum: The Ultimate Imperial Adventure by Michael Asher - A very readable history of the Mahdist period of Sudan, albeit written from the British point of view. Asher knows Sudan and the Sudanese, as well as deserts, camels and the military, and is able to write with colour and insight. He is very generous to those British officers whom he admires, but equally critical of the officer class in general. His warmest praise is reserved for the ordinary British soldiers - and their Sudanese and Egyptian allies under British officers and British training. The beginning and end almost let the book down. I almost stopped reading it when I found 'screaming dervishes' on the second page. At the very end, perhaps in an attempt to make it relevant to today's post-9/11 world, he makes a couple of errors. Ja'afar Nimairi's regime was overthrown by intifada (popular uprising) in 1985, not by a coup in 1989. The 1989 coup overthrew the democratically elected government of Sadiq al-Mahdi, so it is unlikely that he was 'the power behind the coup', as Asher claims. Asher also states that Osama bin Laden made his home in Sudan from 1994 to 1998. I am ready to be corrected, but I believe he arrived earlier than that and left in 1996. Small but significant errors. And the maps... I have rarely found a book that gives maps in the detail which I would like, and which show every single place mentioned in the text. These maps are no exception.
Rereading it in 2018 I was much more charitable. I wrote: I found it very readable, a good narrative style, pretty good on detail, good maps. A very competent account of the entire campaign from Sheikan to Omdurman, with some interesting background. Asher does a good job of presenting both sides fairly sympathetically (and, when needed, fairly caustically). His own knowledge, experience and understanding of Sudan, its peoples, its geography, its deserts, the Arabic language, the Nile, stands him in good stead. For example, he goes into far more detail about the cultural background of groups such as the Baggara and Beja than most writers do, and this sheds light on their behaviour in battle. He rejects the catch-all phrase "religious fanatics", and examines the multiple reasons why people joined the Mahdist movement (some as simple as self-preservation or profit) and the non-religious reasons why certain groups were fanatical warriors. On this re-reading of the book I gained more insights from him into the British military tactics of the time. Apparently the greatest compliment you could give a British regiment was that they were "steady". I was interested by his argument that in the camel-mounted troops who spearheaded the march across the Bayuda Desert from Korti to Metemma, "the special forces concept had been born. It would be another thirty-two years before T.E. Lawrence developed modern guerrilla warfare, and another sixty before the special forces idea would come into its own" (p 169).
Theology Brewed in an African Pot by Agbonkhianmeghe E Orobator - For anyone interested in theology, and particularly the inculturation of Christianity into non-European cultures, books like this are important.
Last Orders at Harrods: An African Tale by Michael Holman - This book has been likened to Alexander McCall Smith's delightful series, and has been positively reviewed by him. In some ways it is. It is a good story, written by someone with an understanding of Africa, with humour and insight. However it is more cynical than Smith's works, and foreigners feature more prominently in the plot. Few authors seem to believe that a novel about Africa will sell unless it contains some significant European and/or north American characters. The fictional country of Kuwisha gives itself away with the simple transposition of letters in names like "Kireba" and "Thumaiga". "Mungiki" apparently defied attempts to change it. But I wonder why so many authors feel the need to create fictional African countries? When was the last time you read a contemporary novel set in a fictional European country? The author's cynical treatment of NGOs and the media is refreshing. However his assumption that the president of Kuwisha would concern himself personally over the schemes of a single fairly junior foreign correspondent doesn't stand up. The real "Kuwisha" has moved beyond that. Well worth reading, and some good insights, but somehow the author hasn't quite got it right.
Karari : the Sudanese account of the battle of Omdurman by ʿIṣmat Ḥasan Zilfū - History is written by the victors, they say, and Hilaire Belloc reminded us that, "Whatever happens we have got the Maxim gun, and they have not", so it is rare to find a history of a colonial war written by a descendant of the losing side. This is a superb history of the Battle of Karari, as the Sudanese call the battle fought in the shadow of the hills of the same name which is more universally known as the Battle of Omdurman. Touted at the time and since as a great British victory, it might be more accurately described as a massacre, as state of the art modern weaponry was deployed against horsemen with spears. This book tells the story from a different viewpoint, and gives a much more rounded account of the Mahdists.
A Deadly Trade by Michael Stanley - At one level this book reminds me a bit of the The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series. It is set in Botswana and it presents a very sympathetic view of the country, savouring the delights of Africa and Africans rather than perpetuating the negative stereotypes which are found all too often. It's also a detective story with African protagonists, but here it parts company from its more demure ladies' counterpart. Violent death and political intrigue are at the heart of the story, but even so they are investigated with a simple goodness which one does not find in most detective thrillers. A thoroughly good read.
African Religion: The Moral Traditions of Abundant Life by Laurenti Magesa - Another look at Christianity in an African context by one of the great African theologians.
Mediation of Civil Wars - Approaches and Strategies: Sudan Conflict by Hizkias Assefa - Not only a rare and extremely useful review of Sudan's 1972 peace agreement, but also a superb practical handbook for conflict mediators. It should be required reading for all those who dabble in this complex field.
Biafra Story: The Making of an African Legend by the famous fictional writer Frederick Forsyth, who was there as a young journalist. A very good account of the war, countering much of the propaganda of the Nigerian and British governments.
A Guide to the Birds of East Africa by Nicholas Drayson - Not a bird guide but a charming tale set in Kenya.
Boma: Behind the Grass Curtain by Phil Snyder - Very interesting account of trying to set up a wildlife park in southern Sudan in the early 1980s, during the short period of peace between Sudan's two civil wars. It's a remote and inaccessible area which few people know anything about - indeed it is behind a "grass curtain" - so this is a very valuable addition to the literature on Sudan. I've been there myself so I know the area. The author suffers, as he says himself, from "Sudanitis". He was dedicated and committed, driven even, albeit perhaps a bit of a cowboy. While his understanding at the time was a little shallow and narrow, his later reflections are very valuable, and he captures the feel of Sudan in those heady days.
And while we're on conservation, The Cry of the Fish Eagle by Peter Molloy, now rare and out of print, is one of those delightful books by old colonial administrators. This book records the experiences of Molloy and his wife Yvonne in Sudan, where he was a game warden.
Wow, there are so many books I really need to read among your suggestions!
Since we share an interest for East Africa, maybe you know the title of a text or book I’ve been trying to find for the longest time:
Reading contemporary accounts about Emin Pasha and his governorship in Equatoria on the upper Nile in the late 19th century, in what is now (I believe) south-western Sudan, I get the impression that his diary was published some time after his death, by someone called Stuhlmann. But however much I search on the internet, I find no trace of or title on this publication. Do you know anything about it? For example if there is kept a manuscript in an archive somewhere?
Your endeavour inspire me to read more African books, too!
I have another suggestion, this time from Ghana: “Ghana must go” by Taiye Selasi (2013). The author is British-American, but she is of Nigerian and Ghanaian origin, and the plot of the book is set in Ghana.
Sorry for the delay in replying. I was in South Sudan where my internet access is not always brilliant. I'm not aware of Emin Pasha's diary being published - it would certainly be an interesting read. His area was indeed what used to be the south west of Sudan, but since the independence of South Sudan in 2011 it is now the south west of South Sudan. It's an area I have visited often, but not this time unfortunately. There's a lot of targeted killing going on there at the moment, widespread insecurity, and people fleeing from their homes.
A good source of material on Sudan is the Sudan Archive in the Palace Green Library of the University of Durham in northeast England. In a private comment on your profile page I've sent you the e-mail of the librarian there, who is very obliging and might be able to help you.
I don’t know how I could forget, but the book that anyone interested in Africa should start with is, I think “Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400-1800” by John Thornton. It cancels a lot of stereotypes that the global north has spread about Africa and it’s precolonial history. At leat for me it was a real eye-opener.
In a book club on Facebook that I am a member of, someone recently asked for suggestions on African fiction, so I now have a long long list of African authors to go through. I thought I share some with you, even though I have not yet read all of them them myself. Each of the authors have written several books; I just write one of the titles here.
Ben Okri: The Famished Road
Chigozie Obioma: The Fishermen
Oyinkan Braithwaite: My sister, the Serial Killer
Chris Abani: Graceland
Buchi Emecheta: The Joys of Motherhood
Teju Cole: Open City
Wole Soyinka (Nobel Prize 1986): Aké: The years of Childhood
Calixthe Beyala: How to Cook Your Husband the African Way
Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o: A Grain of Wheat
Abdulrazak Gurnak: Paradise
Yaa Gyasi: Homegoing (I really liked this one; only wished she wrote more about each person in the story, wanted to know more about their lives!)
Naguib Mahfouz (Nobel Prize 1988): The Cairo Trilogy
Nawal El Saadawi: Women and Sex
Tsitsi Dangaremga: Nervous Conditions
Petina Gappah: Brittle Paper
NoViolet Bulawayo: Hitting Budapest
Emmanuel Dongala: Johnny Mad Dog
Alain Mabanckou (Congolese-American): Broken Glass
Unity Dow: Far and Beyon’
Hisham Matar (Libyan-American): The Return
Scholastique Mukasonga: Our Lady of the Nile
This is just a few. I will continue another day!
Bliv medlem af gruppen, hvis du vil skrive et indlæg