A quick Google search will tell you that Africa is the second-largest continent with 54 sovereign countries and over a billion citizens. All important facts, but Africa is more than the sum of its facts and figures. Rather, it’s the the embodiment of a complex history and vibrant cultures. The following books are recommendations from staffers in the West, Central, and North Africa desk at Mercy Corps’ Global Headquarters. We hope they offer you a jumping-off point for your exploration of Africa.
Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe
“There is no story that is not true, [...] The world has no end, and what is good among one people is an abomination with others.”
Achebe’s literary classic depicts the culture of the Igbo people and the influence of British colonialism through the life of Okonkwo, a respected village leader.
King Leopold's Ghost, by Adam Hochschild
Listen to the yell of Leopold's ghost,
Burning in Hell for his hand-maimed host.
Hear how the demons chuckle and yell,
Cutting his hands off, down in Hell.
- The Congo by Vachel Lindsay.
Hochsild’s bestselling book explores the repugnant exploitation of the Congo Free State by King Leopold II of Belgium.
Madame President: the Extraordinary Journey of Eleanor Johnson Sirleaf, by Helene Cooper
"One has to look at my life story to see what I've done. I've paid a heavy price that many people don't realize."
Madame President offers us the privilege of exploring the remarkable life of Eleanor Johnson Sirleaf, Africa’s first female elected head of state and a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.
And Still Peace Did not Come: A Memoir of Reconciliation, by Agnes Fallah Kamara-Umunna
“Over time, I have come to believe that there is a killer and a saint in all of us. But...I choose to focus on the future and the potential in people.”
Agnes Fallah Karmara-Umunna recounts her return to Liberia after years of exile, and convincing the victims, warlords, government officials and child soldiers who fought in the Liberia’s brutal civil war to tell their stories on her radio program.
The Fate of Africa: A History of the Continent Since Independence, by Martin Meredith.
“Indeed, far from being able to provide aid and protection to their citizens, African governments and the vampire-like politicians who run them are regarded by the populations they rule as yet another burden they have to bear in the struggle for survival.”
Martin Meredith’s sweeping historical narrative depicts the tumultuous history of Africa.
Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa, by Jason Stearns
“As so often happens in politics, what appears to be politically expedient for those in power rarely overlaps with the public interest. The lesser evils of the regime become entrenched, while the greater good is never realized.”
Jason Stearns draws attention to the devastatingly complex Congo war, an ethnic genocide that resulted in more than 5 million deaths.
The Icarus Girl, by Helen Oyeyemi
“Once you let people know anything about what you think, that's it, you're dead. Then they'll be jumping about in your mind, taking things out, holding them up to the light and killing them, yes, killing them, because thoughts are supposed to stay and grow in quiet, dark places, like butterflies in cocoons.”
Jessamy, the child of an English father and Nigerian mother, befriends the mysterious TillyTilly on her first trip to Nigeria.
Also, by Helen Oyeyemi: Boy, Snow,Bird.
Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
“If you don't understand, ask questions. If you're uncomfortable about asking questions, say you are uncomfortable about asking questions and then ask anyway. It's easy to tell when a question is coming from a good place. Then listen some more. Sometimes people just want to feel heard. Here's to possibilities of friendship and connection and understanding.”
Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie tells the story of two lovers who, after fleeing military-ruled Nigeria, are reunited after 15 years.
Also by Adichie, Half a Yellow Sun.
One Day I Will Write About this Place, by Binyavanga Wainaina
“It is an aspect of Kenya I am always acutely aware of - and crave, because I don't have it all. My third language, Gikuyu, is nearly non-existent; I can't speak it. It is a phantom limb...”
In his memoire, Wainaina recalls growing up middle-class in Kenya.
Long Walk to Freedom, by Nelson Mandela
“I am fundamentally an optimist. Whether that comes from nature or nurture, I cannot say. Part of being optimistic is keeping one's head pointed toward the sun, one's feet moving forward. There were many dark moments when my faith in humanity was sorely tested, but I would not and could not give myself up to despair. That way lays defeat and death.”
In his inspirational autobiography, Mandela describes his upbringing in South Africa and his 27 years in prison.
Every Day is For the Thief, by Teju Cole
“But also, there is much sorrow, not only of the dramatic kind but also in the way that difficult economic circumstances wear people down, eroding them, preying on their weaknesses, until they do things that they themselves find hateful, until they are shadows of their best selves."
A young Nigerian living in New York returns to Lagos and reconnects with his family, friends, and culture.
Also of note:
Exterminate All the Brutes: One Man's Odyssey into the Heart of Darkness and the Origins of European Genocide, by Sven Lindqvist
The Mountain People, by Colin Turnbull
The Forest People, by Colin Turnbull
All our Names, by Dinaw Mengestu