It’s always nice to read a novel about the country or continent you are visiting while you are travelling there, as it becomes part of the experience of learning about the culture, history or politics of the region, and enhances the overall experience you will have by nurturing a greater understanding. Here is a “Top 20” list of African novels that comprises of a variety of books for you to choose from – from historical to cultural and political – to suit all reader’s tastes.
African Novel: “Long Walk to Freedom” Nelson Mandela
If there is one African novel that would be widely considered an ‘essential read’ for visitors to Africa (or even those who just want to learn more about Apartheid), then this would most likely be the one. The late revolutionary, hero and noble-peace prize winner was a huge catalyst for change in Africa, and arguably without this determination, Apartheid, institutional racism and white-supremacy in South Africa (and other African nations) would still be firmly in place today. This masterpiece autobiography is also an inspiring story of a long road to freedom in the face of torture, long-term imprisonment and grave injustice.
African Novel: “The Memory of Love”, Aminatta Forna
This is actually a sequel to Forna’s memoir: “The Devil That Danced on the Water”, about a daughter’s search for truth about her father’s last days before being murdered during Sierra Leone’s brutal civil war. This sequel, however, takes place in peacetime in the capital, Freetown: An English psychologist hears of a confession of a dying man named Elias Cole. This African novel unwinds into an intense love-story, but also a tale of betrayal and trauma that really does a phenomenal job of showing how this horrific civil war affected so many ordinary, innocent people and leaves emotional and psychological scars still to this very day.
African Novel: “Children of Gebelawi”, Naguib Mahfouz
This African novel was actually first published as a series in a Cairo newspaper, before being published into a full novel in 1981. It is essentially a testament to the religious and cultural melting-pot of Jews, Muslims and Christians living in relative harmony in an alleyway in Cairo. Mahfouz won the Nobel Prize for this novel and sadly an assassination attempt on his life by Islamic Extremists, who undoubtedly did not like the fact it portrayed three religions living side-by-side peacefully on one street together.
A fictional book based on the main character Salim, who is an East African Indian. He leaves the east coast of Africa to find better fortunes in an unnamed country deep in central Africa. However, he suffers great misfortune and failure to set up a shop in his new home as the country falls into utter ruin. Although the central African country is unnamed, this perhaps draws parallels to the conflicts and human rights abuses in the Congo and the horrific conflict that is known now colloquially as the “African World War”. Despite this dreary backdrop, the African novel is very compelling and resonates with the many problems and conflicts in Africa’s modern history.
African Novel: “Half of a Yellow Sun”, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
This African novel won the Orange Prize for fiction in 2007 for its depiction of the Biafran War in the late 1960’s, showing the impact of the civil war on the innocent people. It is considered a Nigerian modern classic, so probably essential reading for those visiting Nigeria.
African Novel: “In the Country of Men”, Hisham Matar
An enticing story of a 9-year old named Sulaiman growing up in Colonel Gaddafi’s Libya. His father is a dissident and so Gaddafi’s secret police are closing in on the family, while his mother struggles with a hard-drug addiction that threatens to tear the family apart. Another gloomy yet powerful and engrossing African novel that shows the contrasts between the old Libya under Gaddafi’s regime and Libya today in total anarchy with jihadists factions, ISIS and a weak government vying for control of the nation.
The tale of this African novel is set mostly in the world of pre-independence-era northern Sudan in the 1950’s, but also takes a tour of postwar life in Egypt and Britain following the life of Nur, a cosmopolitan son of a wealthy businessman, who sadly finds his dreams crushed following a tragic accident. It’s essentially a story of family feuding between Nur’s traditional mother and the urbanised Egyptian co-wife whose arrival threatens the stability of the family. Aboulela writes with a poetic prose that perfectly balances the time of turmoil and upheaval she is describing.
African Novel: “The Hairdresser of Harare”, Tendai Huchu
Hunchu takes the reader on a socio-political and life-sapping economic journey through contemporary Harare, following Vimbai, a female hairdresser who struggles to make a home and a living for her and her young son. She lost her brother to the diaspora as he fled overseas in search of a better life like millions of other Zimbabweans during the economic crisis. And to make matters worse, when a new male stylist joins her salon, it looks as if she will lose all her best clients and perhaps even her job, spelling a disaster for her and her young son.
African Novel: “Looking for Transwonderland”, Noo Saro-Wiwa
Noo Saro-Wiwa is the daughter of murdered environmental and political activist Ken-Saro-Wiwa. But with this African novel, she truly establishes herself as one of the best contemporary Africantravel writers; An honest contemporary account of Africa through African eyes, travelling through the mayhem of Lagos in Nigeria to look at this fascinating land.
Considered one of the continent’s greatest writers, this African novel is refreshingly unique. Set in a bar in the Congo named ‘Credit Gone West’, the narrator is sat at a stool writing about the convicts, conmen, cuckolds and dispossessed who drink beside him. But all the while, he is drowning his own sorrows, nursing a broken heart over thwarted ambitions.
Definitely a book for architecture enthusiasts or professionals such as city-planners – or just for those who want to understand Africa’s cities better – this book is a mix of text and photographs about buildings and the spaces around them. It’s part of a 7-volume work, with a focus on how cities grow and have been shaped by the colonial past, the natural environment and the political structures that support them today. Definitely more of a reference book than a ‘coffee-table’ style book, this is nonetheless a fascinating read into the heart of contemporary urban African life.
African Novel: “Beneath the Lion’s Gaze”, Maaza Mengiste
Set during the Communist revolution in 1970’s Ethiopia, this African novel follows the lives of 2 brothers and their father: Dawit is a student revolutionary, whilst his eldest brother Yonas instead seeks solace in tradition, religion and prayer, while their father, Hailu, is a surgeon who is tasked with the job of saving a young woman’s life who has been tortured by the secret police. But his task is to heal her just enough to bring her back to prison: thus, the choices he makes will change the course of the family’s life forever.
African Novel: “Heart of Darkness”, David Zane Mairowitz, Jospeh Conrad and Catherine Anyango
An adaptation of Conrad’s infamous novel is full of striking illustrations by Anyango (of Swedish and Kenyan parentage). The drawings are dark and shocking, conveying the moral and ethical dilemmas of colonialism. Regardless if one is a fan of the original novel or not, this African novel is a brilliant example of the power of the imagination in forging new interpretations and bringing a whole new dimension to stories people thought they knew so well.
African Novel: “Mama Miti”, Donna Jo Napoli, Kadir Nelson
This is a beautiful illustrated tribute to Kenyan Nobel laureate and environmentalist Wangrai Maathai. This African novel tells us about the problems of a group of women who bring their problems to a woman named Mama Miti. The women lack basic amenities such as firewood and clean water, as well as the problems of having sick livestock. Instead of revealing to the women how to get NGO grants, Mama Miti instead reveals a bush whose leaves can heal sick livestock, a species of tree whose roots will purify the water and another that will provide ample firewood.
African Novel: “Don’t let go of the dogs tonight”, Alexandra Fuller
This African novel is based around the main character; a girl growing up in a white farming family during the Rhodesian war in the 1970’s. Fuller’s love and passion for Africa pulses through every page, despite the violence she encountered in her young life, and it is also essentially a read about the complexities of post-colonial Africa.
A breathtaking and inspiring African novel about the epic journey taken by Theroux overland all the way from Cairo to Cape Town via trains, planes, buses, canoes, cars and armed convoys. Having been a teacher in Malawi 40 years ago, he decided to take this epic journey in 2003 to see how much Africa had changed in those 4 decades, using only public transport. Definitely a travel book favourite.
This is a biographical account of Godwin’s experiences of growing up in a liberal white family in 1960’s Rhodesia. His fascination biography follows his journey through life as he grows from becoming an over-privileged boy to a reluctant soldier to an investigative journalist, all amidst the violent backdrop of the country’s transformation into Zimbabwe.
African Novel: “Ladies detective agency”, Alexander Smith
This is the first African novel in a series of 7 about Botswana’s first female detective named Precious Ramotswe. Written in the style of an Agatha Christie novel, but set at an African pace. It is something of a fictional masterpiece and a great companion if you are travelling in Botswana.
Ecott’s family became another part of the Irish diaspora when they decided to seek better opportunities in 1970’s Johannesburg. However, only 6 months after arriving they are struggling to survive after being bankrupt, evicted from their home and most of their possessions lost to bailiffs. This African novel is a story of survival where they enter a world where suddenly their truest friends in life were prostitutes, thieves and renegades. At times darkly humorous, other times deeply affecting, this is something that presents a very unique African memoir about how the darkest times of one’s life can eventually become the most valuable period of a person’s life.
African Novel: “The Bang-Bang Club: Snapshots from a Hidden War”, Greg Marinovich and Joao Silva
This African novel tells the true story of four combat photographers of whom 2 are the authors, bonded by friendship and their determination and drive to tell the truth. Constantly risking their lives using their cameras to show the world the violence associated with the first free elections in post-Apartheid South Africa.