Until the last few years, I had read exactly three novels set in Africa:
- “The Heart of Darkness” (1899), a novella by the Polish/British sea captain/author, Joseph Conrad
- “Cry, The Beloved Country” (1948), by the South African writer, Alan Paton
- “A Bend in the River” (1979), by Conrad’s modern heir, the Jamaican/Indian/English author V. S. Naipul.
They are all by white guys of European ancestry. They are all bleak and sometimes frightening.
Each of the authors is considered a master of storytelling and all three books bring Africa palpably alive as a central character.
I read “Heart of Darkness” in high school and I still remember how the story gripped me as it moved slowly upriver, dense mystery and foreboding lining both banks.
Paton’s novel was published just before apartheit became officially recognized policy in South Africa. It ends with the main characters’ children being executed.
Naipul doesn’t do Africa any favors either. A well-intentioned outsider tries to get by in a society always on the edge of erupting into chaos and violence. Reviewing the situation from exile at the end, his mentor is explicit that there is no hope.
My non-fiction reading was even more limited. For some reason I read, and was fascinated by a well-known pair of travelogue/histories of Europeans penetrating Africa:
- “The White Nile,” Alan Morehead, 1960
- “The Blue Nile,” Alan Morehead, 1962
I only knew the broad outlines of African history, as a sub-section of ‘western civilization.’ I was aware that Hegel had referred to Africa as a place without a history and for me and many others, it was.
Recent Reading: Non-Fiction
I decided to focus on Africa in my reading about two years ago because of a friend I made in Kenya. I’ve stayed with it because of what I’m learning and how much I have left to learn.
This is not a recommended reading list. I don’t know enough to make one. It’s the path I took to learn some history and to get lost in a few stories. Maybe some of my steps will speak to you,
David Abulafia, The Boundless Sea: A Human History of the Oceans, 2019
This gigantic volume is not just about Africa, but it is a very detailed treatment of how people mastered the oceans and connected all the continents. I read it to help figure out when and where and how people in Africa came into contact with people from other places.
Ishmael Beah, A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, 2007
A rivoting and deeply moving biography of a life lived during Civil War in Cameroon in the 1990s, with the protagonist eventually becoming a boy soldier. Not-being a boy soldier any more was much harder.
Caroline Elkins, Legacy of Violence: A History of the British Empire, 2022
A powerful reappraisel of British methods for achieving dominance around the world and its long term consequences.
Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, 1961
This is the classic psychoanalysis of colonialization — an early treatise on the personal and national mental health implications of the dehumanization of Africa.
Howard French, Born in Blackness: Africa, Africans, and the Making of the Modern World, 1471 to the Second World War, 2021
A paradigm-shifting book by an award-winning journalist, who draws on extensive research and reporting to retell the history of Africa as a central to western ambitions, not an afterthought on the way to Asia — and as the economic foundation of the modern world.
Paul Kenyon, Dictatorland: The Men Who Stole Africa, 2018
A long-time journalist and author focuses on a few major personalities, such as Milton Obote and Robert Mugabe, who turned their countries into kleptocracies. He tells the story effectively, even though it is not an uplifting tale.
Martin Meredith. “The Fate of Africa: A History of the Continent Since Independence” 2005
A well-reviewed tour de force that traces the arc of almost country in Africa since the late 1950s, through political independence and into the early 21st century. It is not an optimistic telling. It was informative but relentlessly negative in its portrayal and hard to read for the violence and suffering.
David Veevers, The Great Defiance: How the World Took On the British Empire, 2023
A worldwide account of resistance to British domination — and how the shape of the Empire was more about what could be conquered than any kind of master plan.
Susan Williams, White Malice: The CIA and the Covert Recolonization of Africa, 2021
The laregly untold story, based on original research and declassified documents, of significant covert efforts to push newly independent African nations into pro-US/anti-Soviet positions during the Cold War era. If you wonder why so many African leaders of the late 20th century were brutal autocrats, this book discloses a big part of the reason.
Recent Reading: Fiction
History is just a form of storytelling. I still don’t know how people in Africa see their own history, but reading novels set in Africa starts to give me an idea. I have a long way to go.
Imbolo Mbue, “How Beautiful We Were,” 2021
A constantly surprising story of a small village versus Big Oil, full of memorable characters, male and female. It draws deeply on daily village life, but always skates above it, covering long periods of time with rich detail.
Ngugu wa Thiong’o, “Petals of Blood,” 1977
An epic story disguised as a murderr mystery about a newly independent nation channeling all the hopes and violent forces that led to freedom into a new society held together by local elites and more violent forces. Unforgettable characters. A rare window into post-revolutionary power dynamics.
Wanjiru Koinage “The Havoc of Choice,” 2014
The story of a family at the peak of political power when violence erupts during the 2007 national elections. When people in Kenya refer to, “what happened back in 2007,” this is what they mean.
Abdulrazak Gurnah’s novels are almost all set in what was once German East Africa and is now, mostly, Tanzania.
He’s a great storyteller and he takes us back to early colonial times — and then forward to independence and after, when many Africans from that part of the continent relocated to the UK, including Gurnah.
He won and a Nobel Prize for Literature in 2021 — reading his work is an excellent way to develop a feel for the generations of different kinds of people who lived in that part of Africa during the 20th century.
I have written more about Gurnah and the novels of his I have read so far:
Paradise, 1994; By the Sea, 2001; Desertion, 2005; Gravel Heart, 2017; Afterlives, 2022
Tom Nickel writes about new media technologies and other topics he has little if any standing to write about, such as Africa.
Tom and Abdulrazak Gurnah were both born on December 20, 1948. They both went to went to London to study in 1968. Abdulrazak went on to become a Professor and a Nobel Prize winner.
Tom holds a Black Belt in Learning and loves writing. More here.
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