In the 19th century, as the nations of Europe rushed to grab ever-larger expanses of territory there, Africa was known as the Dark Continent. In some ways, that label is still apt. Everywhere else—Europe, Asia, the Americas—understanding of Africa and Africans is limited, and far too often wildly distorted. It’s time to cast a little light into the darkness. This list of the 20 top books about Africa will help do that.
Africa is richly diverse
Africa today is a richly diverse place. Its ethnic mix, the more than 1,500 languages spoken there, and even the genetic origins of its 1.2 billion people are more varied than on any other place on Earth. Politically and economically, too, Africa is a patchwork, encompassing a wide range of political systems and economic realities. The continent—the world’s second largest by land area—houses 54 nations, from the predominantly Arab Mahgreb of the Mediterranean coast to the resource-rich lands of southern and western Africa. Half of the ten poorest countries in the world are African; six of the fifteen fastest-growing economies on the planet, including the top two, are in Africa, too. Yet, despite all this diversity, a shocking number of Americans still think of Africa as a single country.
The continent’s abundant literary riches
The West has long recognized the abundant literary riches in Africa. South African writers have been celebrated in Europe and the US for decades, from Alan Paton, Chinua Achebe, and Nadine Gordimer to Athol Fugard and J. M. Coetzee. (Two of them—Gordimer and Coetzee—have won the Nobel Prize for Literature.) Their Nigerian contemporaries, Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka, have received comparable praise; Achebe won the Man Booker Prize and Soyinka the Nobel Prize for Literature. But more recently attention has turned to younger, black African authors, including Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Ben Okri, and Yaa Gyasi.
Listed below you’ll find titles and capsule descriptions of the 20 top books about Africa in two lists: the 10 top nonfiction books, and the 10 top novels. I’ve recently read and reviewed nearly all these books; in each such case you’ll also see the review’s headline and a link. Each of the two lists is arranged in alphabetical order by the authors’s last names. I’ve awarded each title I’ve reviewed a rating of @@@@ or @@@@@ (4 or 5 out of 5) in each of the two lists. At the bottom, I’ve added a number of other books about Africa, including some with lower ratings.
A British perspective on writing about Africa
The big English newspaper The Telegraph publishes lists of the “best” books in many categories. One is the “10 Best Novels About Africa.” (It’s a great list, featuring both celebrated authors such as V.S. Naipaul, Nadine Gordimer, Doris Lessing, Naguib Mahfouz, and J. M. Coetzee; familiar contemporary names such as Alexander McCall Smith and Barbara Kingsolver; and African writers less well known to Americans.)
The 10 top nonfiction books about Africa
The Looting Machine: Warlords, Oligarchs, Corporations, Smugglers, and the Theft of Africa’s Wealth by Tom Burgis – Who’s responsible for corruption in Africa?
Misconceptions abound in the public perception of corruption in Africa. Tom Burgis’ incisive new analysis of corruption on the continent, The Looting Machine, dispels these dangerous myths. For starters, corruption is mistakenly believed to reign supreme in every country on the African continent. (There are 48 nations in Sub-Saharan Africa, with a combined population of more than 800 million.) Yet three Sub-Saharan African nations rank in the top third of the 175 countries in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI): Lesotho, Namibia, and Rwanda, with Ghana close behind. Ghana scores better than Greece, Italy, and several other European nations.
Portfolios of the Poor: How the World’s Poor Live on $2 a Day, by Daryl Collins, Jonathan Morduch, Stuart Rutherford, and Orlanda Ruthven – Understanding the day-to-day reality of global poverty
Portfolios of the Poor reports the findings of a series of detailed, year-long studies of the day-to-day financial practices of some 250 families in India, Bangladesh, and South Africa, including both city-dwellers and villagers. The authors conducted monthly, face-to-face interviews with each family, focusing on money management and recording every penny spent, earned, or borrowed in “diaries” that formed the principal source for their observations. In the process, they made discoveries that may surprise you.
The Great Escape: Health, Wealth, and the Origins of Inequality, by Angus Deaton – How the inequality gap came to be
A veteran professor of economics and international affairs at Princeton explores inequality — between classes and between countries — with a detailed statistical analysis of trends in infant mortality, life expectancy, and income levels over the past 250 years. He concludes that the large-scale inequality that plagues policymakers and reformers alike in the present day is the result of the progress humanity has made since The Great Divergence (between “the West and the rest”) since the advent of the Industrial Revolution. “Economic growth,” Deaton asserts, “has been the engine of international income inequality.” (Deaton’s research backstops the work of today’s economics superstar, Thomas Piketty, who finds the data point to increasing inequality.)
The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good, by William Easterly
This is the best book that explores the ways and means of promoting economic development in poor countries. Easterly finds most traditional methods to be sorely lacking. The author, a former World Bank economist who is now an economics professor, emphasizes grassroots development. He writes about the necessity of involving people who will be affected by change in the process of planning and executing it — beginning with the selection of what is to be changed. A large proportion of Easterly’s experience and of the examples he cites come from sub-Saharan Africa.
The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor, by William Easterly – Why economic development happens (or doesn’t)
A decade after The White Man’s Burden, the author explores the history of economic development and finds that professionals in the field have gotten it all wrong. They present themselves as experts with technocratic solutions that suppress the rights of those they pretend to help — and almost invariably go awry. In fact, he asserts, democracy, rooted in local history and local customs, is the key to successful development. It’s a fascinating and surprising analysis and displays great insight.
The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Creating Currents of Electricity and Hope, by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer – A young man from Malawi points the way to hope for Africa
This is the astonishing story of a brilliant, self-taught young Malian man who demonstrated the vast human potential that underdevelopment leaves behind. Barely in his teens, Kamkwamba built a working windmill to generate electricity on his parents’ farm, based on reading decades-old Western textbooks on physics that turned up in a tiny nearby library.
The Shadow of the Sun, by Ryszard Kapuscinski – How Africa came to be what it is today
The Shadow of the Sun is a treasure-chest of incisive reporting by a 27-year veteran of Africa about the continent’s recent past, featuring vivid and disturbing accounts of the antecedents of Liberia’s ghastly civil wars, the origins of the Rwandan genocide, and the roots of recurring famine in the nations of the Horn.
The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty, by Nina Munk – The quest to end poverty: Jeffrey Sachs unmasked
Though commercial trade is far and away the dominant feature of the economic relationship between Africa and the so-called West, most of the attention in the new media tends to focus on aid — the decades-long project of the world’s richest nations to end poverty on the continent. Economist Jeffrey Sachs’s ill-advised and egregiously expensive Millennium Villages Project stands out as a symbol of just how badly wrong those efforts have gone.
The Bright Continent: Breaking Rules and Making Change in Modern Africa by Dayo Olopade—An optimistic view of economic development in Africa
Few who follow news from abroad can fail to have noticed that economic development has accelerated in many sub-Saharan-African countries in recent years. This book catalogs an impressive number of innovative businesses, social sector ventures, and even an occasional government initiative that contribute to the fast growth of this long-underestimated region — and explains the cultural norms that make innovation so natural for Africans.
It’s Our Turn to Eat: The Story of a Kenyan Whistle-Blower, by Michaela Wrong
No view of contemporary sub-Saharan Africa is complete without taking official corruption into account. This story, which focuses on one courageous Kenyan man who tried to expose some of the most blatant examples of embezzlement by senior government officials, brings to light the complexity of the issue and its impact on African society.
The 10 top novels about Africa
Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimanada Ngozi Adichie – Love, loss, and war in post-independence Africa
Half of a Yellow Sun movingly recounts the events of the 1960s that culminated in the lopsided Biafran war of independence (1967-70) that pitted the ill-equipped Igbo (Ibo) people of southeastern Nigeria against the massive forces of their national government, actively backed by the British.
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – Race, without blinders on
Following up her extraordinary novel about the Biafran war of independence, Half of a Yellow Sun (reviewed here), with an even more personal story, Adichie tells the story of Ifemelu, a young Nigerian who emigrates to the United States to complete her education and returns to Nigeria thirteen years later. Americanah — the word appears to be Nigerian slang for a person like Ifemelu who returns home with American habits and expectations — is, above all, a love story. The focus throughout is on her relationships with men — from her high school sweetheart to the “rich white hunk” to the African-American professor.
Radiance of Tomorrow by Ishmael Beah – Hope lives on in the depths of hell
Beah tells the story of several inhabitants of a small town called Imperi in the African nation of Lion Mountain (Sierra Leone) after they return home following a long, horrific civil war that has taken so many of the members of their family, their neighbors, and friends. This novel encompasses a wide range of African experiences during the period following decolonization, conveying the terror, the injustice, and the disappointment as well as the optimism that swept throughout the region below the Sahara over the past half-century. Read this book, and you’ll gain a foothold on understanding life in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Running the Rift, by Naomi Benaron – A brilliant novel of love, hope, and the Rwanda genocide
The Rwanda genocide is the central event in Running the Rift, a remarkable novel that tells the story of a young Tutsi man, Nkuba Jean Patrick, a supremely talented runner who aspires to compete in the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.
The Death of Rex Nhongo by C. B. George – A satisfying thriller set in Zimbabwe
A complex plot lies at the heart of The Death of Rex Nhongo. The complement of principal characters includes two expatriate families, one British, the other American, as well as an extended Zimbabwean family and a thug who works for the Central Intelligence Organization that terrifies the populace. The author skillfully draws together their numerous individual stories in a series of intersections that climax in a satisfying conclusion. The action takes place after the death noted in the book’s title, though the story manages to come full circle in the end. Naturally, the plot is contrived, but it’s a satisfying read.
Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi – African Roots through African eyes
Yaa Gyasi’s extraordinary debut novel, Homegoing, traces the story of a Ghanaian family over more than two centuries through the lives of two branches of its descendants, one in Ghana, the other in the United States. The book opens in the mid-eighteenth century, when the slave trade was at its peak, follows the rollercoaster fortunes of the family through the turbulent years of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and concludes in present-day Ghana.
The Hairdresser of Harare by Tendai Huchu – Zimbabwe through the eyes of a single mother
You can read a dozen nonfiction books about Zimbabwe under Robert Mugabe’s kleptocracy and fail to get a more vivid sense of what life is really like there than from this recent novel by Tendai Huchu. In one short work of fiction, Huchu conjures up the sad reality of day-to-day existence in that beleaguered country: the 90 percent unemployment, the ubiquitous corruption, the hyperinflation, the ever-present shortages, the barely functional electricity service, the vicious eviction of white Africans from their farms and businesses, the rabid homophobia.
A Bend in the River by V. S. Naipaul—Nobel Prizewinner paints an unflattering picture of Africa
In 1960, the chief of staff of the army in the recently independent Belgian Congo led a coup that toppled the democratically elected government of Patrice Lumumba. Five years later he ousted the men he had installed in power and became the country’s dictator. His name was Mobutu Sese Seko. He remained in power until 1997, diverting somewhere between $4 billion and $15 billion in government funds into offshore accounts. His regime was notorious for corruption and human rights abuses. And that unflattering picture of Africa provides the backdrop to Nobel Prizewinner V. S. Naipaul’s celebrated story of the continent in the wake of colonization, A Bend in the River.
The Seersucker Whipsaw by Ross Thomas – A terrific novel for political junkies about Africa
An American campaign manager receives an immoderate sum of money to help elect a Big Man as president of a country resembling Nigeria. He’s a genius at dirty tricks—and the candidate’s advisers prove to be equally flexible about campaign ethics. For anyone with even the most casual experience in electoral politics, the ensuing campaign is a wonder to behold.
More books about Africa
In addition to these top 20 books about Africa, here are several others, including both nonfiction and fiction. I’ve inserted links to my reviews for those I read recently enough.
- In Their Own Hands: How Savings Groups Are Revolutionizing Development, by Jeffrey Ashe with Kyla Jagger Neilan
- My Sister the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite
- A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World, by Gregory Clark
- The African Equation, by Yasmina Khadra
- A Treacherous Paradise, by Henning Mankell
- The Missing American (Emma Djan #1) by Kwei Quartey
- Precious and Grace (No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency #17) by Alexander McCall Smith
- Nairobi Heat by Mukoma Wa Ngugi
- Assegai by Wilbur Smith
- Dead Aid: Why Aid is Not Working and How There Is a Better Way for Africa, by Dambisa Moyo
For further reading
After viewing this list of 20 top books about Africa, you might also be interested in:
- 20 top nonfiction books about history;
- Top 10 historical mysteries and thrillers reviewed here; and
- 20 most enlightening historical novels.
And you can always find all the latest books I’ve read and reviewed, as well as my most popular posts, on the Home Page.