- The State Of Africa, Martin Meredith
- Long Walk To Freedom, Nelson Mandela
- Out Of Africa, Karen Blixen
- Born Free: A Lioness Of Two Worlds, Joy Adamson
- The Elephant Whisperer: My Life With The Herd In The African Wild, Lawrence Anthony
- Cry Of The Kalahari, Mark And Delia Owens
- In The Shadow Of Man, Jane Goodall
- Gorillas In The Mist, Dian Fossey
- Half Of A Yellow Sun, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
- We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families, Philip Gourevitch
- A Sunday At The Pool In Kigali, Gil Courtemanche
- Number One Ladies’ Detective Agency, Alexander McCall Smith
- A Guide To The Birds Of East Africa, Nicholas Drayson
I moved to Africa, more specifically, to Zambia, more than 25 years ago. Over the years, I’ve read hundreds of books about the continent, some fact, some fiction, some good, some bad, some well written, insightful and brilliant, and, frankly, some utter rubbish!
To inspire and motivate you, I’ve put together a handful of recommendations of what to read before you head out on your next African adventure. To be clear, I’m not talking about guidebooks or the like. You don’t need my recommendations to pick up a Lonely Planet or Fodor. However, if you’re looking for something to get your nose stuck into, then I have a few suggestions. Some will make you laugh, some will make you cry, some will fill you with joy, and others will have you questioning humanity.
Let’s get the heavy lifting out of the way first! The State of Africa is no light read, but, if you want to understand modern-day Africa and the challenges that the continent faces, there aren’t many better books. This is effectively a crash course in African politics. This book explains the history of many of the African nations from their birth to independence from Europe in the mid-20th century.
Despite its density, the book is enlightening, and the writer’s witty and insightful style keeps the reader’s attention. It’s thought-provoking and will likely shatter many preconceived notions. The subject matter is huge: dictators, war, famine, and corruption, yet the author manages to cover it very well in relatively few pages without being patronizing or preachy.
Nelson Mandela was one of the greatest and most inspirational political leaders of our time. A Long Walk to Freedom is his autobiography and covers his life up until he becomes president of South Africa. This is a riveting story of an extraordinary man and those who fought with him against apartheid. The book teaches us about the strength of the human spirit, and about standing up for equality. Inspirational and humbling.
Let’s take a turn now, toward the lighter side of life, with Out of Africa. Written in 1937 this is probably one of the most well-known memoirs of time spent in Africa. Written by Danish author Karen Blixen (under the pseudonym Isak Dineson), Out of Africa is a real-life romance of her time spent on her coffee plantation in Kenya. Blixen was a remarkable and unconventional woman, who spent her happiest years on the farm, and Out of Africa vividly chronicles her time in Kenya, her profound love of the land, her affection for the fading culture of colonial Africa, her romance with an English hunter, the eventual failure of the farm, and a way of life that has vanished forever.
Out of Africa was made into a movie in the early ’80s, and the film is well worth watching, too.
Moving on to the 1960s, we find Joy Adamson’s Born Free, in which she describes her adventures and experiences raising a lion cub called Elsa. While working in a Kenyan national park, husband and wife team Joy and George Adamson adopted three orphaned lion cubs (after George had killed their mother). Two of the older cubs were shipped off to a zoo, but the youngest remained at the Adamson’s home in Kenya, where they took on the task of raising a cub in captivity and teaching her to fend for herself in the wild. This is an amazing story about companionship and love in the African bush.
This book was also made into an Academy Award-winning film.
This is an endearing novel of loyalty, love, conservation, and mutual respect between man and beast. Conservationist Lawrence Anthony accepted a herd of “rogue” elephants onto his private game reserve in South Africa. The herd had been destined to be killed and this was their only chance of survival. It’s a heartwarming story, and the relationship the author forms with the matriarch of the herd will transform the way you understand animal intelligence and emotion. At times it will make you laugh, and at times it will bring you to tears.
If you enjoy The Elephant Whisperer, then Anthony’s next book, The Last Rhinos, is also worth reading.
In the 1970s Mark and Delia Owens, two budding zoologists, set off into the desolate and unforgiving Kalahari Desert in Botswana to study wildlife. Deception Valley became their base and home for the next seven years. They lived alone in the wild, studying lions, brown hyenas, jackals, and other desert predators. This autobiographical novel depicts the challenges and struggles of living in such a remote environment. It also demonstrates their incredible passion and drive to conserve this special part of the world. The book became a bestseller and continues to fascinate anyone interested in southern African wildlife and the experience of living far from human habitation. This was one of the first books I read about Africa, and it really inspired me to travel, read, and discover this continent more.
Another great read in the African wildlife genre is Jane Goodall’s In The Shadow of Man. This is one of my all-time favorites. Jane Goodall is probably one of the most recognized names in the world when it comes to conservation. A world-renowned anthropologist and primatologist, Goodall is known for her studies of wild chimpanzees in Tanzania. In The Shadow of Man is her account of primate research, and provides a detailed and absorbing account of her early years studying chimpanzees in Tanzania.
Last on my list of African animal inspiration memoirs is Gorillas in the Mist. This is one of the most insightful and important books about the African great apes. Fossey spent 15 years in the rainforests of Rwanda, studying the gorillas, and Gorillas in the Mist is full of her own close-up photographs and accounts of interactions and her efforts to ensure the safe future of the mountain gorillas. This is an incredible look at the early days of gorilla research. It’s informative, personal, surprisingly warm, and funny. In a cruel twist of fate, Fossey was murdered a few weeks before her 54th birthday in her cabin in the Rwandan mountains.
If you’re heading on a mountain gorilla trek in Uganda or Rwanda, this is the book to check out. You can also read fellow TravelAwaits writer Melissa Klurman’s “I Finally Went Gorilla Trekking In Uganda And It Was Worth The Wait” here.
Africa is not all wildlife, and there are some powerful books written about political turmoil and the resulting human suffering.
Half of a Yellow Sun is a disturbing but engrossing novel that takes readers through the Biafran War (Nigerian Civil War) in the 1960s. The book gives a haunting glimpse into the brutality of Nigeria’s civil war and portrays the hardships both sides endured. This is a powerfully honest book, beautifully written but harrowing in places.
They’ve made a movie from this book too, and it’s definitely worth checking out.
I’m a fan of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, so if you are looking for more of her work I’d recommend Purple Hibiscus, which takes place during a military coup in Nigeria.
A book about the slaughter of almost a million people is never going to be easy reading, but it is important that we understand what happened, how it happened, and why it happened. The book looks at why people did what they did, and the failings of the international community in the run up to and during the Rwandan Genocide of 1994. This is absolutely essential reading if you’re going to Rwanda. It’s the most detailed, thoroughly reported, excellently contextualized report of the 1993 genocide. Harrowing, but necessary.
This is a moving, passionate love story, full of menace and set amid the turmoil and terror of Rwanda’s genocide and the country’s AIDS epidemic. A sad, haunting novel about two improbable lovers (a weary Canadian journalist and a young Rwandan barmaid) trying to find happiness in a country teetering on the brink of turmoil. As they slip into an intense, improbable affair, the delicately balanced world around them erupts. The story has a lot of Rwandan history and politics but never feels weighed down with scholarly detail.
Remembering this is holiday reading after all, let me turn to some light entertainment and point you in the direction of the Number One Ladies’ Detective Agency series of books. This long-running series (21 books to date) tells the story of a women’s detective agency based in Botswana’s capital, Gaborone. The books follow Mma Precious Ramotswe and her detective agency. Humour, adventure, and life fill the pages of these novels. Africa can be a dark place in literature at times, so some fun and light reading should be celebrated. I’ve read and reread them all, and can guarantee you will enjoy them as much as I do.
Don’t be fooled by the title, this is no book for birding enthusiasts — it is in fact a novel, and a good one at that! Set against a lush Kenyan landscape, A Guide to the Birds of East Africa features Mr. Malik, a quiet widower, who is secretly in love with Rose Mbikwa, the Scottish widow of a Kenyan politician. Rose leads the weekly bird walks sponsored by the East African Ornithological Society. When an old rival arrives on the scene, a fierce bird-spotting competition ensues. The novel manages to be sweet yet gripping, and at the same time offers glimpses into Kenyan life and politics.
If you enjoy it, then let me recommend the engaging follow-up, A Guide to the Beasts of East Africa.
And there you have my suggested reading list for your first trip to Africa. Enjoy!