Africa is a fascinating place. Perhaps because it is, as Paul Theroux has written, one of the last frontiers on our planet. A place that is still unexplored in some ways, a place where you can be lost to the world and discover yourself.
My “Africa Bookshelf” is an effort to share some of my fascination with this continent. These are books, in random order, that I recommend for you to learn more about Africa, with a special emphasis on southern Africa. There is much more to read, however. If you are interested in adding a new book and contributing a review in a guest post, please contact me.
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A must-read for anyone with an interest in South Africa, its history and its race relations. Set in a time before apartheid was conceived, it is about the culture clash between rural blacks and their counterparts in the cities, about the conflicts stemming from a lost way of life that cannot be replaced and the inevitable tragedy this loss of values brings about. What I most love about this book is the almost poetic style of the prose, incorporating the essence of the Zulu language very well even though it is written in English. Read more…
This memoir is set in 1930s British East Africa (today’s Kenya). I love this book for so many reasons. It’s beautifully written, for one, and it describes Africa so accurately, even though it was written such a long time ago. It’s a timeless classic. And if you read it, you should also read Paula McClain’s Circling the Sun, an excellent historical fiction account of Beryl Markham’s life. Read more…
If you could only read one book about South Africa, then I would say read this one. It was also made into a movie with Morgan Freeman, but it’s not nearly as good as the book. It’s comparable to the Kite Runner, revealing key aspects of a country’s history and culture through a compelling story you won’t be able to put down until the end. Movie: The Power of One
You have to be an ambitious reader to get through over 700 pages of this, but if you are, it is well worth the time to gain more insights into South Africa’s past, the anti-apartheid struggle, and Nelson Mandela’s life. As so often with historical figures, Nelson Mandela the man was much more complicated than one might think, given the status of near-sainthood he has achieved around the world. But he also had a good sense of humor, which shines through in these pages. Read more…
This haunting memoir offers good insights about township life in the 1980s, and what it was like for a black kid to grow up during the apartheid years. I feel a special connection to Mark’s story because it is set in Alexandra – where I’ve been helping a baseball club sustain itself during and after my time in South Africa – and features an underprivileged youth’s involvement in sports as the ticket to a better life.
I was made aware of this book by our two boys, who absolutely loved it. It’s actually a series of three books, all set in a South African boys’ boarding school shortly after the end of apartheid. It resembles the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, and, apart from its hilarity, makes you understand not only boarding school life but coming of age in this country. This is actually a rare instance where I think the movie (starring John Cleese) is at least as good or even better than the book.
Spud, the Movie
Another great read about growing up in Southern Africa. The setting for this excellent memoir is actually Rhodesia up until 1980, which of course is now Zimbabwe. But in those days Rhodesia and South Africa resembled each other in many ways and their history is intertwined. This book makes you sad about what was lost in Zimbabwe due to years of civil war and brutal crackdown, and hopeful that South Africa (so far, as some will fret) has chosen a different path.
I actually haven’t read this book yet, but put it on my list after reading the reviews, which all agree that the book is much more powerful than the movie (which I did see and liked). The story of the Rugby World Cup is just a thread linking various characters in this account of how South Africa managed to emerge intact from the dangerous years after the end of apartheid to become what it is today. I imagine reading it will further enhance (if that is even possible) my enormous respect for Nelson Mandela and his power not only to forgive but to convince others to do the same and come together as one. Movie: Invictus
Again a book I’m only recommending based on the excellent movie I’ve seen. There is no better way to understand what South Africa went through in the early 1990s after Nelson Mandela’s release before elections were held. Where Invictus shows the “good” side of that process, this book shows the “bad” side of it, through the eyes of a group of photographers who chronicled the violence. It’s a haunting story. Movie: The Bang Bang Club
Hauntingly beautiful, this story pretty much picks up where Cry the Beloved Country left off, when racial segregation is formalized into the policy of apartheid. It shows the struggle of someone who is trying to do good while working for an evil regime, becoming more and more conflicted about its morality and his own role in it. Read more…
I first read The Covenant in a previous lifetime, it seems, whenever it was that I was reading all the Michener books. So I had to read it again to be able to tell you about it. Like all Michener’s, it was a compelling narrative with lots to learn about South Africa’s history, so it should definitely be on this list. As usual, Michener does a good job of bringing a country to life, except that in this case I didn’t appreciate the introduction of an entirely fictional African country towards the end. Read more…
A sequel of sorts to Mukiwa – White Boy in Africa, chronicling Zimbabwe’s decline after the end of the Rhodesian civil war, all the way from the hopeful beginnings of majority rule to the bloody brutality of a dictator holding on to the last shreds of power, whatever the cost. Godwin’s writing once again is superb, interweaving bits of historic background with his personal story and that of his parents, who refuse to leave the country despite all the horrors engulfing them. Told without rancor or bitterness, it is nevertheless a tale of warning, especially for those in power in South Africa. Read more…
A very charming account of the author’s childhood in Botswana during the 1980s and 1990s, and a stark contrast to Mukiwa. Botswana, in those years and even now, is everything Zimbabwe is not – safe, peaceful, harmonious, a success story among African nations. But the story is a good read regardless of the locale, as the family Robyn grows up in is rather eccentric, with a mother who insists on home schooling the children so as not to stifle their creativity and a father who runs a series of flying doctor clinics throughout the countryside.
This is also a story about growing up in Rhodesia, though much darker than Mukiwa. It’s a fictional account of two sisters, little girls, the older of whom is the protagonist, and the magic of this book lies in the storytelling, the foreboding inevitability of this particular family’s decline moving along parallel to the decline of Rhodesia itself. It’s not a long read at all and will give you an excellent snapshot of this time and place in history.
If you love the wild and if you love animals, this is a great book for you, but it is also a very interesting story regardless of those attributes. Among much else, it also shows yet another angle from which to better understand South Africa’s tribal culture. It’s set in the Kwa-Zulu Natal province of South Africa, where the author runs a game reserve in which he introduced a “troubled” herd of elephants some time back. The story of how he brought those elephants back from the brink to peacefully coexist with humans, as well as all the other challenges you face when running a game reserve, is nothing short of amazing.
Last in the trilogy following Mukiwa and When a Crocodile Eats the Sun, this is by far the most chilling account of what’s been happening in Zimbabwe, as it is the most recent, and the most brutal. It’s not easy to read this frank description of all the atrocities perpetrated by the murderous regime of Robert Mugabe, but it is nonetheless a must-read if you want to gain more insight into African race relations and politics. It’s all interconnected, and to me South Africa bears a great responsibility for what is happening to their neighbor in the North, something you can’t just close your eyes to if you live here. Read more…
We Are All Zimbabweans Now, unlike When a Crocodile Eats the Sun or The Fear, is a work of fiction. It’s a thrilling story about Zimbabwe in the early 80s, how Mugabe managed to hoodwink most of the West into believing he was great, how African politics is even murkier than the usual morass of politics, how it is impossible to know whom to trust, and how the choice between right and wrong is not always an easy one.
Without doubt Paul Theroux is one of the great writers of our time, and without doubt Dark Star Safari is one of the best travel books on Africa I’ve come across. It’s not your typical travel guide at all, more a description of Africa and all its quirks that will leave you laughing and crying at the same time. I’ve had many of those same experiences, without being able to put them into such eloquent prose, and of course I neither saw as many countries nor did I ever go quite into the hinterland like Paul Theroux did. My family would have likely killed me. Which is a pity, because those experiences off the beaten path, with bad transport, make for the best stories. You’ll find one after another of those in this book. Read more…
It is a collection of short stories that are all set in the time of Apartheid, all of them interconnected with each other in a clever way. They feature everyday people from all stations of life, of various racial backgrounds, and from all corners of South Africa, who sometimes resort to extraordinary actions to adapt to life under such arbitrary rules. Read more…
The setting of Little Bee is mostly England, but the narrator is a Nigerian girl, who in several flashbacks takes you back to her childhood in Nigeria as she tells her harrowing story. Despite of this, I wouldn’t necessarily call this book harrowing. There are flashes of humor in it, the characters are exquisitely drawn, and despite everything that happens, there is a hopeful note in it, one of survival and love and sacrifice. Read more…
Absolution is a good read about apartheid South Africa and the ongoing struggles of coming to terms with it. It’s set in both present and past, interweaving the story of what might have happened to Laura, a young South African anti-apartheid activist 20 years ago, with how much of that story her mother, Clare, remembers and is willing to share with her biographer, Sam. Read more…
This book has nothing to do with Africa per se but I consider it a must read for expats with children. It explores the virtues of an international education and diverging from the traditional or “old-school” path of learning. It’s mainly focused on the American school system and how to “escape” it by relocating abroad, but it has interesting parenting lessons for all of us. Read more…
Trailing is the memoir of a young wife who in the late 1990s gave up plans of her own professional life to follow her husband, a Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) doctor, to East Africa – first Kenya and then Uganda. For anyone who has followed a spouse to an overseas assignment and put their own career on hold, or even gave up on it altogether, this story will likely ring very true. Read more…
Follow Joe on his once-in-a-lifetime journey from Dakar to Timbuktu to fulfill a childhood dream. Traveling overland in Africa always seems a particular adventure, and this one is no different; from border crossings to almost-arrests for illegal, if innocent, photography to having to share a mattress with a self-proclaimed policeman, Joe paints wonderful scenes of his trip through Senegal and Mali that are so vivid that you believe you’re right there with him.
Newly released in 2016, this is a not-to-miss book for South Africa enthusiasts. Trevor Noah can charm any audience, and it’s no surprise that his memoir is a highly entertaining read (particularly if you get the Audible version narrated by himself). But it’s more than entertaining. Born a Crime is as good of an introduction to Johannesburg off the beaten track that you’re going to get, not in terms of its tourist attractions but in terms of its vibe and its people. Noah’s gift of observation and study of human nature brings the people he meets during his childhood in various impoverished Joburg suburbs to brilliant life, starting with his formidable and God-fearing mother. It also achieves what few writers do well: a scathing critique of the post-apartheid racial divide in South Africa that charms and shames at the same time. Read more…
Some of the books I have yet to read and add to the Africa Bookshelf:
- A Traitor’s Heart by Riaan Malan
- Country of my Skull by Antje Krog
- On the Back Roads by Dana Shyman
- Mma Ramotse series by Alexander McCall Smith
- Dance with a Poor Man’s Daughter by Pamela Jooste
- Red Dust by Gillian Slovo
- A Child Called Freedom by Carol Lee
- Call me Woman by Ellen Kuzwayo
- Bloodlines by Elleke Boehmer
- The World Unseen by Shamim Sarif
- The Smell of Apples by Mark Behr
- Eggs to Lay Chickens to Hatch Shirley by Chris van Wyk
- Goodness and Mercy by Chris van Wyk
- Diepsloot by Anton Harber
- More than Just a Game by Chuck Korr
- …and anything by Nadine Gordimer, J.M. Coetzee, Andre Brink, Marlene van Niekerk, Malla Nunn, Jassy Mackenzie, and Deon Meyer
Contact me if you’d like the review any of these – or other – books to help us grow the Africa Bookshelf!