There is no other place on Earth more misunderstood than Africa. Arguably, then, there is no other place on Earth that deserves to be widely read about than Africa. Unlike nonfiction books, novels are uniquely capable of capturing the soul of a place and the spirit of its people. Reading a powerful novel is in many ways akin to traveling to a place and learning a bit about it. That’s why we went on the hunt for the 30 best novels about Africa.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
One of two novels by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie to make our list of the best books about Africa is Americanah. This critically acclaimed and bestselling novel follows Ifemelu and Obinze, a young couple in love who are each forced out of military-ruled Nigeria and given the opportunity to resettle in the West. While Ifemelu heads to America, Obinze lands himself in London. The two follow very different paths before reuniting in a newly democratic Nigeria a decade and a half later.
Ayi Kwei Armah
The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, written by Ayi Kwei Armah, is considered to be one of the most important novels written by an African author. First published in 1989, Armah’s book is about a railway freight clerk living in Ghana, and his attempts to hold out against the pressures that are corrupting his country and challenging his family.
Sefi Atta’s A Bit of Difference is a must-read novel that highlights and exposes the differences between foreign images of Africa and the realities of contemporary African life. The novel follows 39-year old Deola Bello, a Nigerian expat living and working in London, as she returns home to Nigeria in time for her father’s five-year memorial service.
Based upon African myths and tradition, Elechi Amadi’s The Concubine has been called a “masterpiece of African literature.” The novel focuses on Ihouma, a beautiful and hardworking woman who is admired by everyone in her village. But whenever someone professes their love to Ihouma, they are met with mysterious tragedy.
James Michener is an author well known for bringing to life the soul of a destination. In The Covenant, the destination is South Africa, and bring to life its soul he does. The novel follows three families — the Nxumalos, inhabitants of a peaceful and unchanged village; the Van Doorns, Java-born settlers to South Africa; and the Saltwoods, wealthy missionaries who come to influence — as they mirror South Africa’s history and carve out its future.
Published in 1948, Cry, the Beloved Country has experienced non-stop success since. A bestseller, a frequent school read, and an official Oprah Book Club selection, Cry, the Beloved Country is the deeply moving story of the Zulu pastor Stephen Kumalo and his son, Absalom, as they experience the heartache and devastation of Apartheid in South Africa.
A national bestseller, Cutting for Stone follows twin brothers, Shiva and Marion Stone, who are born of a secret relationship between a British doctor and a beautiful Indian nun. The two boys grow up in an Ethiopia on the edge of revolution. During this time they are orphaned, called to medicine, move to New York City, and experience everything from love to heartbreak.
J.M. Coetzee, winner if the Nobel Prize in Literature, is one of South Africa’s most beloved writers. In Disgrace, Coetzee paints the portrait of a new South Africa, one in which 52-year old professor David Lurie is fired, ridiculed, and shunned for carrying on an affair with a student. David retreats to his daughter Lucy’s smallholding, hoping to salvage his one remaining relationship. Unfortunately, father and daughter experience an unimaginable incident of terror and violence, and the two are forced to confront their strained relationship and the equally tangled racial complexities of modern-day South Africa.
Considered a modern classic, Andre Brink’s A Dry White Season offers readers a look at racism, morality, and the human condition through the eyes of fictional Ben Du Toit. As a simple white schoolteacher in suburban Johannesburg, Du Toit remains ambivalent about Apartheid until a school janitor is found dead. Unable to believe that the man’s death was an accident, Du Toit undertakes an investigation that threatens terrible consequences for his career, his family, and his own life.
Winner of the Man Booker Prize for Literature, The Famished Road is considered an African literary classic. Indeed, the novel has inspired art, politics, and was even referenced in an episode of The Simpsons! The book is about Azaro, an abiku or spirit child, who according to African tradition, exists somewhere between life and death. Born into the human world, Azaro ignores the pleas of his spirit companions to join them, and instead chooses to experience the joys and tragedies of life among the mortals.
Ngugi wa Thiong’o
A Grain of Wheat by Ngugi wa Thiong’o takes place amidst Kenya’s Mau Mau rebellion, on the eve of the country’s independence from Britain. The novel follows a group of villagers whose lives have been dramatically altered by the political turmoil. Woven throughout the riveting tales of specific villagers’ turmoil are fictionalized accounts of real figures like Jomo Kenyatta.
A riveting blend of storytelling and anthropology, Great Sky Woman follows the lives of Frog and T’Cori, two Ibandi who lived at the foot of Mt. Kilimanjaro more than 30,000 years ago. As an inevitable disaster approaches from the south, the tribe must decide if they remain in their current homeland, or depart north.
Green City in the Sun is a magnificent epic about two proud and powerful families living in Kenya in the early 20th century. The British Trevertons hope to bring medicine and industry to their new African home, while the nearly Mathenge tribe want nothing more than to maintain their land and traditions against the encroaching whites.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Half of a Yellow Sun is the second book by Chimamanda Ngozo Adichie to make our list of the best novels about Africa. This time, Adichie illuminates Biafra’s real-life struggle to establish an independent republic in Nigeria in the 1960s. He does this by introducing us to a 13-year old houseboy, a passionate and revolutionary professor, the professor’s beautiful young mistress, and a shy young Englishman. All together, the ensemble of fascinating characters brings to life the hope and disappointment of the momentous time in history.
Joseph Conrad’s classic novel Heart of Darkness revolves around Marlow, a sailor journeying up the Congo River to meet a supposed “idealistic man of great abilities.” Along the way, Marlow encounters widespread brutality, slavery of native inhabitants, and the harsh juxtaposition of imperial enterprise and the beautiful nature of the jungle.
David Schmahmann’s Ivory From Paradise offers readers a glimpse at life in South Africa in the post-Nelson Mandela years. The novel revolves around a family of Jewish expats who become torn over possessions and by emotional conflicts as they struggle to let go of the past and find their place in this new country of theirs.
Emmanuel Dongala’s Jazz and Palm Wine is a collection of short stories that include the Congo and Kongo culture. The first half of the collection takes place in Africa during the corrupt years following the end of colonial exploitation. The second half takes place during the turbulent Civil Rights movement of 1960s America.
Initially published in Africa, Nervous Conditions by African author Tsitsi Dangarembga has been called “a modern classic in the African literary canon” and named as one of Top Ten Africa’s “100 Best Books of the 20th Century.” The critically acclaimed novel tells the story of Tambu, a 13-year old girl living in a rural Zimbabwean village in the 1960s. Tambu has a thirst for knowledge, but is kept out of school and on the family homestead with directions to be more respectful. As Tambu grows up and finds ways to educate herself, her story begins to resemble an important commentary on colonialism, race, and gender.
Alexander McCall Smith
Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series has taken the world by storm, and even inspired a hit television show. Start from the beginning with this novel, and meet “the enormously engaging” Precious Ramotswe, who sets up her own detective agency in a Gaborone storefront. Precious’s business takes off almost immediately. She is tasked with exposing a conman, tracking a wayward daughter, finding a missing husband, and searching for an 11-year old boy who may have been kidnapped by witch doctors.
Nobel Prize-winning author Naguib Mahfouz is the author of the Cairo Trilogy, a “magnificent” saga which begins with Palace Walk. The novel looks at three generations of the family of al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad, a tyrannical patriarch who rules his household with an iron fist. The family endures a series of trials and tribulations which mirror those of their turbulent home country during the years between the two world wars.
In Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, Evangelical Baptist missionary Nathan Price moves his wife and four daughters to the Belgian Congo in 1959. Each of the four women take turns narrating this powerful novel. Over the course of three decades living in postcolonial Africa, the family realizes that everything they brought with them from their comfortable American home is transformed on African soil. Indeed, they are transformed.
Bryce Courtenay’s The Power of One takes place in 1939 South Africa — far from the reach of Hitler, but right in the shadows of another villain known as Apartheid. That same year, a boy named Peekay is born. Over the course of the novel, Peekay is humiliated and abandoned, challenged and victorious. The Cleveland Plain Dealer called The Power of One “unabashedly uplifting,” while the Los Angeles Times Book Review described it as “totally engrossing” and “the metamorphosis of a most remarkable young man and the almost spiritual influence he has on others.”
Abubakar Adam Ibrahim
Set in a conservative Muslim village in Nigeria, Season of Crimson Blossoms tells the story of the illicit love affair between a Hassan, a 25-year old street gang leader, and Binta, a 55-year old widow and grandmother. Both yearn for intimacy in a community racked with sexual repression and violence, and heavy under the weight of age, class, and religion.
Written by award-winning African novelist Mariama Ba, So Long a Letter is a must-read portrait of Senegal’s passage from colonialism to modern Muslim country. The novel was named one of Africa’s 100 Best Books of the 20th Century. It’s written as a long letter from recently widowed schoolteacher Ramatoulaye to her lifelong friend Aissatou. Ramatoulaye’s letter recounts her emotional struggle to survive as an educated woman in a world dominated by men.
Edgar Rice Burroughs
The novel that has inspired films, television shows, and stage productions deserves to be read on its own. It’s is widely considered to be one of the best novels about Africa. Written by classic novelist Edgar Rice Burroughs, Tarzan of the Apes opens with John and Alice Clayton, two 19th-century travelers to equatorial Africa, giving birth to a baby boy. When tragedy strikes, and the baby is orphaned, an ape named Kala adopts the little boy and names him Tarzan.
Barack Obama called Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, “A true classic of world literature.” Indeed, the kickoff novel of Achebe’s African trilogy has sold more than 20 million copies around the world. The novel captures life in a pre-colonial Nigerian village, as narrated by a wealthy and fearless warrior called Okonkwo. As the British invade Okonkwo’s land, they bring with them various political and religious forces to which even a warrior like Okonkwo is powerless.
Fiston Mwanza Mujila
Fiston Mwanza Mujila is the author of Tram 83, about two friends who meet up in the most notorious nightclub in a war-torn city state somewhere in Africa. The debut novel, which was nominated for the Man Booker International Prize in 2016, is colorful and exotic. Most importantly, it provides a modern portrait of what has been called the current “African gold rush.”
Upon its release, Dave Eggers’s epic novel, What is the What, was named both a New York Times bestseller and a New York Times Notable Book. What is the What novelizes the true experiences of Valentino Achak Deng, one of the “Lost Boys” forced to flee his village in Sudan. The book follows Deng’s expulsion from home at age seven, his on-foot trek while being pursued by wild animals and wilder militias, and his settling in America, where he finds a whole new set of challenges.
When the Lion Feeds is the first novel in Wilbur Smith’s “riveting saga” of the Courtney brothers. The book introduces Sean and Garrick Courtney, two brothers born into the wilds of Natal in the 1870s. As history unfolds, the brothers are brought together and driven apart by women, adventure, and war.
The Witch Doctor’s Wife is the first book in author Tamar Myers’s Belgian Congo Mystery series. The novel — which has been called “exciting, evocative, charming, and suspenseful” — takes place in 1958, when 23-year South Carolina native Amanda Brown first steps off the plane into the diamond mining community of Belle Vue in the Belgian Congo. She quickly makes friends with Cripple, one of two wives of the local witch doctor. But that friendship is threatened to be cut short when Cripple is charged with murder.