Top 15 Books to Read Before your Next Trip to Africa

Updated: Jul 24, 2019

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

“…me sitting, the butt of my rifle on my foot, the barrel in the crook of my left arm, a flask of whiskey between my knees, pouring the whiskey into a tin cup … drinking this, the first one of the day, the finest one there is, and looking at the thick bush we passed in the dark, feeling the cool wind of the night and smelling the good smell of Africa, I was altogether happy.” Ernest Hemingway, Green Hills of Africa, a novel everyone should read just to appreciate (and then be jealous of) the richness of Hemingway’s prose. 

Some people get ready for travel by reading travel books, the kind issued by Frommer’s, Fodor’s, Lonely Planet, and so on.  Other people spend time learning the language of the place they plan to visit. However, whatever tools you use to prepare you before traveling by reading about and imagining the places you are about to visit we hope they are good. Here are 15 of our recommendations:

1- Africa’s Great Stories by E. C. Osondu; Chika Unigwe; Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie; StoryAfrica; Wole Soyinka. A quarterly collection of the VERY best short stories and poetry by some of Africa's best writers. It is a selection of the best of African literature from Africa's finest writers. In this first volume, we feature heartwarming stories by some of Africa's most renowned writers such as Noble-Prize laureate Wole Soyinka, Orange Prize winner, Chimamanda Adichie, Caine Prize finalists Sefi Atta, EC Osondu, Chika Unigwe, Muthoni Garland, and Jude Dibia among other equally awesome writers. These are storytellers from the gods, telling a diverse range of stories, under varying circumstances. Just for your delight!Their stories will make you laugh, cry, grin, wish, reflect, reminisce and curse (not). Let these stories keep you company while lying in the comfort of your bed, on the subway on your way to work or when having a cup of tea.

2- Ernest Hemingway, Green Hills of Africa. His second major venture into nonfiction (after Death in the Afternoon, 1932), Green Hills of Africa is Ernest Hemingway's lyrical journal of a month on safari in the great game country of East Africa, where he and his wife Pauline journeyed in December of 1933. Hemingway's well-known interest in -- and fascination with -- big-game hunting is magnificently captured in this evocative account of his trip. In examining the poetic grace of the chase, and the ferocity of the kill, Hemingway also looks inward, seeking to explain the lure of the hunt and the primal undercurrent that comes alive on the plains of Africa. Yet Green Hills of Africa is also an impassioned portrait of the glory of the African landscape, and of the beauty of a wilderness that was, even then, being threatened by the incursions of man. Hemingway's rich description of the beauty and strangeness of the land and his passion for the sport of hunting combine to give Green Hills of Africa the freshness and immediacy of a deeply felt personal experience that is the hallmark of the greatest travel writing.

3- Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Fifteen-year-old Kambili's world is circumscribed by the high walls and frangipani trees of her family compound. Her wealthy Catholic father, under whose shadow Kambili lives, while generous and politically active in the community, is repressive and fanatically religious at home. When Nigeria begins to fall apart under a military coup, Kambili's father sends her and her brother away to stay with their aunt, a University professor, whose house is noisy and full of laughter. There, Kambili and her brother discover a life and love beyond the confines of their father's authority. The visit will lift the silence from their world and, in time, give rise to devotion and defiance that reveal themselves in profound and unexpected ways. This is a book about the promise of freedom; about the blurred lines between childhood and adulthood; between love and hatred, between the old gods and the new.

4- Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible. “Once every few years, even now, I catch the scent of Africa. It makes me want to ken, sing, clap up thunder, lie down at the foot of a tree and let the worms take whatever of me they can still use. I find it impossible to bear.” Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible.

5- Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton. An Oprah Book Club selection, Cry, the Beloved Country , the most famous and important novel in South Africa's history, was an immediate worldwide bestseller in 1948. Alan Paton's impassioned novel about a black man's country under white man's law is a work of searing beauty. Cry, the beloved country, for the unborn child that is the inheritor of our fear. Let him not love the earth too deeply. Let him not laugh too gladly when the water runs through his fingers, nor stand too silent when the setting sun makes red the veld with fire. Let him not be too moved when the birds of his land are singing, nor give too much of his heart to a mountain or valley. For fear will rob him of all if he gives too much. The eminent literary critic Lewis Gannett wrote, "We have had many novels from statesmen and reformers, almost all bad; many novels from poets, almost all thin. In Alan Paton's Cry, the Beloved Country the statesman, the poet and the novelist meet in a unique harmony." Cry, the Beloved Country is the deeply moving story of the Zulu pastor Stephen Kumalo and his son, Absalom, set against the background of a land and a people riven by racial injustice. Remarkable for its lyricism, unforgettable for character and incident, Cry, the Beloved Country is a classic work of love and hope, courage and endurance, born of the dignity of man.

6- Mistaken Africa - Curiosities and Inventions... by Curtis A. Keim. "For most Americans, the mention of Africa immediately conjures up images of safaris, ferocious animals, strangely dressed "tribesmen," and impenetrable jungles. Few think to question these perceptions.”

7- Into Africa - The Epic Adventures of Stanley and Livingstone. Although the adventure this story tells of is fascinating, I can't say that I liked any of the people involved in the course of this tale. The never ending stories of cruelty, slavery, and the lack of regard for human life only pissed me off. Strong emotions usually accompany good books. This one kept my attention and got me thinking.

8- Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. WINNER OF THE BAILEYS PRIZE BEST OF THE BEST Winner of the Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction 2007, this is a heartbreaking, exquisitely written literary masterpiece Ugwu, a boy from a poor village, works as a houseboy for a university professor. Olanna, a young woman, has abandoned her life of privilege in Lagos to live with her charismatic new lover, the professor. And Richard, a shy English writer, is in thrall to Olanna's enigmatic twin sister. As the horrific Biafran War engulfs them, they are thrown together and pulled apart in ways they had never imagined. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's masterpiece, winner of the Orange Prize for Fiction, is a novel about Africa in a wider sense: about the end of colonialism, ethnic allegiances, class and race - and about the ways in which love can complicate all of these things.

9- When Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. Chinua Achebe is an accomplished Nigerian writer. "Things Fall Apart" is reputed by Wikipedia to be the most widely read book in modern African literature and has made Achebe the most widely translated African writer of all time. The book deals with the impact of a foreign culture (the British Empire expanding into Nigeria) on the traditional ways of life and tribal beliefs of the Ibo people of Nigeria. History tells us who inevitably won that "clash of civilizations". In the book the destruction of a tribal community comes at the hands of well-meaning, but fundamentally arrogant, Christian missionaries, supported by the "civilizing mission" of government officials. Many of the old Ibo beliefs and customs (at least as described by Achebe) were violent and superstitious. The superstition should be no problem for any objective reader - after all, it is simply a different form of spiritual belief to that which most Western readers will be used to, no worse and no better than any of the major religions, just different.

Unfortunately for the Ibo, it was these very beliefs that the christian missionaries found repugnant - perhaps more so than the violence. However, it is the violence of men towards one another and towards women and children that will appeal most modern readers. Of course, this is a work of fiction and the non-Nigerian reader has no hope of knowing how realistic is the traditional village culture portrayed. Nigerian readers will immediately be able to put it into the correct perspective. Without any other cultural background or context, books like this in the hands of the unthinking reader can perpetuate stereotypes and even do harm. There is already too much ignorance of, and intolerance to, the customs of other people.

10- I Want to Go Home Forever : Stories of Becoming... Thirteen true stories about xenophobia and belonging in Johannesburg. Generations of people from across Africa, Europe and Asia have turned metal from the depths of the earth into Africa's wealthiest, most dynamic and most diverse urban center, a mega-city where post-apartheid South Africa is being made. Yet for newcomers as well as locals, the golden possibilities of Gauteng are tinged with dangers and difficulties. Chichi is a hairdresser from Nigeria who left for South Africa after a love affair went bad. Azam arrived from Pakistan with a modest wad of cash and a dream. Estiphanos trekked the continent escaping political persecution in Ethiopia, only to become the target of the May 2008 xenophobic attacks. Nombuyiselo is the mother of 14-year-old Simphiwe Mahori, shot dead in 2015 by a Somalian shopkeeper in Snake Park, sparking a further wave of anti-foreigner violence. After fighting white oppression for decades, Ntombi has turned her anger towards African foreigners, who, she says are taking jobs away from South Africans and fuelling crime.

Papi, a freedom fighter and activist in Katlehong, now dedicates his life to teaching the youth in his community that tolerance is the only way forward. These are some of the thirteen stories that make up this collection. They are the stories of South Africans, some Gauteng-born, others from neighbouring provinces, striving to realise the promises of democracy. They are also the stories of newcomers, from neighbouring countries and from as far afield as Pakistan and Rwanda, seeking a secure future in those very promises. The narratives, collected by researchers, journalists and writers, reflect the many facets of South Africa's post-apartheid decades. Taken together they give voice to the emotions and relations emanating from a paradoxical place of outrage and hope, violence and solidarity. They speak of intersections between people and their pasts, and of how, in the making of selves and the other they are also shaping South Africa. Underlying these accounts is a nostalgia for an imagined future that can never be realised. These are stories of forever seeking a place called 'home'.

11- Africa in My Blood: Jane Goodall's Autobiography in Letters... is an extraordinary self-portrait, in letters and commentary, of Jane Goodall's early years, from childhood to the landmark publication of IN THE SHADOW OF MAN. It reveals this remarkable woman more vividly and clearly than anything that has been published before, by her or about her.

12- I Dreamed of Africa by Kuki Gallmann. The memoir ranges from her childhood's fascination with the continent (whence the title) to her 1972 decision to relocate to Kenyato run a farm in the Laikipia plain with her husband and son. Gallmann published the book in 1991, twenty years after moving to Kenya, and she chose to write it in English as this was by then her adoptive language. The book is often compared to Karen Blixen's Out of Africa, as the subject has several traits in common, and the setting is, in both cases, the savannahs of Kenya, in the Great Rift Valley area. The 2000 movie of the same title, starring Kim Basinger and directed by Hugh Hudson, is based on the book.

13- Out of Africa and Shadows on the Grass by Karen Blixen, is a memoir by the Danish author Karen Blixen. The book, first published in 1937, recounts events of the seventeen years when Blixen made her home in Kenya, then called British East Africa. The book is a lyrical meditation on Blixen's life on her coffee plantation, as well as a tribute to some of the people who touched her life there. It provides a vivid snapshot of African colonial life in the last decades of the British Empire. Blixen wrote the book in Englishand then rewrote it in Danish. The book has sometimes been published under the author's pen name, Isak Dinesen.

14- The Mottled Lizard by Elspeth Huxley. In this sequel to The Flame of Thika, Elspeth Huxley takes up her story after the family returns to Kenya after the First World War. Her family and friends, their home and their travels, the glorious wildlife and scenery, described in rich and loving detail, all spring to life in this enchanting book.

15- African Laughter : Four Visits to Zimbabwe... A highly personal story of the eminent British writer returning to her African roots that is "brilliant . . . [and] captures the contradictions of a young country."--New York Times Book Review

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