Thursday, 6 June 2013

My top ten favourite books about Africa

As some of you, my readers, may have gathered, I have a little bit of an obsession with Africa.  I’m not sure where, how or why the obsession started – it was probably ignited by TV images of migrating wildebeest, and flocks of brilliantly pink flamingo – but I know that towards the end of my PhD studies, planning my first trip to the content started to fill most of my waking hours (or at least those that weren’t occupied by PhD thoughts).  I also have an obsession with books.  And I’ve read quite a few books about Africa.  Here are my top ten.

1. Africa: Altered States; Ordinary Miracles (Richard Dowden)
This book was so good, that it took me three years to finish it; I really didn’t want it to end.  Each chapter looks at a different African nation, and in a part-autobiographical account, part-historical report, Dowden details that country’s plight against imperialism, poverty and/or civil war.  Over the course of the book he tries to piece together what makes Africa the continent it is today.  What makes the book so good is that it doesn't take sides.  It doesn't place blame; it just details how things are.  The colourful culture of the African people is vividly portrayed, and the series of mishaps and misfortunes they have endured, and overcome, are put into context of how they have shaped the Africa of today.  If you have ever wanted to find out more about the Dark Continent, this is a highly recommended starting point.

2. Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game that Shaped a Nation (John Carlin)
This is the book that I’m most likely to buy to give to somebody.  The book is even more powerful than its excellent onscreen adaptation (Invictus, starring Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon), and had me in tears towards the end.  Brilliantly informative, and perfectly emotionally poised, Playing the Enemy charts how Nelson Mandela utilised rugby, and specifically the 199? Rugby World Cup, to mobilise political sympathy and non-violent recognition of the plight of black South Africans.  In utilising sport as a means of giving White South Africa what they wanted, Mandela brilliantly wins over his biggest political rivals, and cleverly conjures up a unified national pride which overwrites centuries of racial hatred. Carlin eloquently captures the spirit of Mandela's greatest moments which cumulate in a South African World Cup victory that all South Africans, black, white, Indian or Coloured can jubilantly celebrate.  Even if you have no interest in rugby, African politics or Nelson Mandela, I'd find it difficult to believe that anybody would not be moved by this wonderfully told tale. 

3. Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Cape Town (Paul Theroux)
This is the first of Paul Theroux’s excellent travel books that I read, and his excellent observational writing has catapulted him to the top of my favourite travel writers list.  I found myself nodding in agreement, smiling or laughing out loud throughout, and, like Africa: Altered States; Ordinary Miracles, I remember a distinct disappointment when I’d finished it.  That was an easy ill to cure though; I just went out and bought the rest of his books.

4. Swahili for the broken-hearted (Peter Moore)
This was the first book I ever read about Africa, and the humorous account of a journey from Cape Town to Cairo shaped much of my preconceptions of Africa.  When I lent the book to someone years ago, and didn’t get it back, it felt like a small part of me went missing.  Thankfully, I located another copy in a second-hand bookstore, and it’s been added to my to-read pile, as I’m really interested to see how differently I view it, several visits to Africa later.

5. Long Way Down (Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman)
Another rather light-hearted account of a journey through Africa, as Ewean McGreggor and Charlie Boreman share accounts of their trip on motorbikes.

6. Blood Diamonds: Tracing the Deadly Path of the World’s Most Precious Stones (Greg Campbell)
This book investigates the illegal West African diamond trade, and, in essence, is the true story behind the film Blood Diamond.  I’ve never seen what the big attraction of diamonds were, and the book highlights the fact that they really shouldn’t cost as much as they do, either in terms of money, or of human life. 

7. The Greatest: The Haile Gebrselassie Story
In the past I’ve always chosen autobiographies over biographies.  However, after reading some pretty mundane sports autobiographies, The Greatest went a long way to changing my preference.  This book is a well-written story of arguably the greatest distance runner the world has ever seen, but has considerable insight from Gebrselassie himself.  The book helped me relive some of Gebs great victories, and learn a lot about the man behind the athlete.

8. More Fire: How to Run the Kenyan Way (Toby Tanser)
More a reference guide than a cover to cover read, More Fire is an updated version of the now out-of-print Train Hard, Win Easy the Kenyan Way.  The book, written by Toby Tanser, who I had the pleasure of meeting on a couple of my Kenyan visits, is packed fully of facts, observations and points of interest about the World's greatest running nation, and, if you haven't already been won over by my blogs about Kenya, More Fire is sure to inspire you to take a trip to Iten or other Rift Valley training venue. 

9. Long Walk to Freedom (Nelson Mandela)
This book is unique, in that it makes it onto the list though I’ve not yet finished reading it (it is a very long book).   The 370-plus pages that I have read though have given an incredible insight into the life of one of the greatest political figures of all time.  Mandela doesn’t make out to be a saint, and tells things as they were, from his support of fighting the struggle by peaceful means for purely political means, to the shift to violent methods of freedom fighting.  There are bits that Mandela could have omitted to make himself look better, but the inclusion of his mistakes as well as his greatest moments is commendable.  Mandela, wasn’t born a Nobel Peace Prize winner; he is human like the rest of us, and his story takes the reader on the journey he travelled to become the person we know and love.  The prison years, and the eventual liberation have yet to come, but if the second half of the book is even half as good as the first, Long Walk to Freedom is more than deserving of its place in my top ten. 

10. The Running Man (Gilbert Tuhabonye)
This is the best of the rest when it comes to African running-related books.  Though not a literary masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination, the true-story of Gilbert Tahabonye’s escape from genocide-torn Burundi, and his use of running to rebuild his life, is both heart-wrenching and heart-warming.


Other books that I’ve read and enjoyed: A Long Way Gone (Ishmeal Beah), the horrific tale of a boy soldier in Sierra Leone; No Future without Forgiveness (Desmond Tutu), the memoirs of one Desmond Tutu, the former Archbishop of South Africa; The White Massi (Corinne Hofmann), the true story of a tourist who fell in love with a Massi warrior during a holiday to Kenya; and Running with the Kenyans (Adharanand Finn), a great story of running in Kenyan, which I would recommend to anyone who hasn’t yet visited the country.

Update Feb 2016: I've just finished reading King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa (Adam Hochschild), and enjoyed it so much that I had to add it here. It was an incredibly enthralling read, telling an important tale, but with lots of interesting anecdotes throughout. It made history interesting, and has again inspired me to expand my collection of Africa-related books.