Books I’m Reading: Africa Edition

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Travel, Uncategorized

Reading books from and about Africa was a great delight given how shockingly little we are exposed to in the United States! I hope you’ll find one or two books on this list — or some other list for that matter — that interest you.

We began our trip in Ethiopia. Drawn by the country’s cuisine and coffee, we’d known little else until we started digging deeper to plan our trip. What an amazing history back through the centuries! We were able to see some of the impressive age-old civilization of Ethiopia,  notably in what they left behind, including the remarkable churches of Lalibela (highly recommend!).

We also got a brief glimpse into the present political situation, something along with recent history that is still shrouded in mystery for us. For example, at the same time that we were enjoying an amazingly friendly and beautiful time in Ethiopia, the government shut down social media for a few days, a measure international press claimed was to silence activists.

I was curious to hear the stories of recent history from someone with more context. Maaza Mengiste’s “Beneath the Lion’s Gaze: A Novel” is a stark fictional portrayal of a real-life history of dark moments in Ethiopia in the 70’s. The novel takes place in Addis Ababa in 1974, at the end of Haile Selassie’s rule and the beginning of political revolution and the Derg. Mengiste draws many emotions from you as you consider the lives of her characters, suffering in the violence and corruption of that time. A very interesting and page-turning read.

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From Ethiopia we flew South to Kenya, where we spent time on the coast for 10 days before joining a safari group in Nairobi.

There are many acclaimed Kenyan novelists writing in English so the task of choosing one was hard. I went with Ngugi wa Thiong’o, one of the most famed and prolific.

“The River Between” tells the story of a village torn between tribal traditions and the influence of local missionaries. For Waiyaki, the protagonist, this brings tangible dilemmas. On one hand, the missionaries — exemplified in the novel by the Siriana Missionary Center — have brought with them education, something that Waiyaki has benefitted from and cherished. As he grows an influential figure in the community, he looks to expand educational opportunity alongside respecting age-old customs. Meanwhile, the Missionary Center and its apostles champion foreign values and become an opponent of one of the village’s strongest tribal traditions, threatening to damage the fiber of this place and its people. Wa Thiong’o renders in fiction what was reality for many communities in Africa at the time.

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“Mama Miti” by Donna Jo Napoli and Kadir Nelson tells the story of Wangari Maathai, the Kenyan environmental activist, scientist and politician famed for her leadership of the Green Belt Movement. Her work of environmental restoration, women’s empowerment, and democratic advocacy earned her the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004. Napoli and Nelson’s book is a picture book, something I didn’t realize when I’d purchased it online! But, as they say: sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words.

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M.G. Vassanji’s “The Book of Secrets” takes place in Kenya and Tanzania during the time of colonial rule. The main character, Pius Fernandes, is given a diary found by one of his former students. As Vassanji weaves you through the stories of the famous owner’s diary and of the present-day life of Pius, you get fascinating glimpses into the history and culture of this region, including the tensions of colonialism, the complex allegiances of war, relationships between immigrant communities of different origin and faith, and the interaction of gender with class.

But all that is less dry than it sounds: the “book of secrets” takes on many mysteries and makes for an entertaining read even as pure narrative. I’d venture to say you could even add this to your beach list (do it)!

I read this as we were leaving Tanzania and had already traveled through the rest of East Africa. Vassanji’s characterization of the various cities through which his characters travel brought back many pleasant memories of smells, tastes, and sounds.

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Jane Goodall’s “Through a Window: My Thirty Years with the Chimpanzees of Gombe” was a highly pleasant surprise. Frankly, by the time I was set to read this book I was regretting my decision to purchase something educational and wishing I’d purchased something more “fun.” But she’s a fabulously engaging writer!

Goodall writes of the chimpanzees of Gombe as she seems to view them, as a community of friends. Each of the chimps has a name and so you start to see them as characters in an extremely fascinating real-life story. Sex, war, adoption, puberty: she shares it all, with a wonderfully readable style. You get the enjoyable sense of what she showed to be scientifically true: that chimpanzees are not so different from us!

Alongside insights into the community itself, you learn more about Goodall and her team’s work. Goodall’s personal story is wonderful in and of itself– hearing the challenges she faced as a young female scientist, her transitions from solo researcher to leading a large research and community program, balancing motherhood with work, her two marriages. At the same time, Goodall contextualizes the violence and illness that at times plagued the region in which the team was working, how they grew in their relationship to the local communities, and the ways in which their team shared and stimulated productive research. Very interesting on so many fronts.

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Preferencing books written by local voices, I faced a challenge as I searched what to read from Madagascar, where a rich literature exists, but untranslated into English. I was eventually pointed to an online magazine where I could read a selection of short stories, thanks to a French woman who has made it her recent mission to translate Malagasy works from French to English. They’re quite short– check some of them out (here) and get a sense for the daily life of this country so few of us will ever reach. Reading these works made me realize that, even there, in Madagascar, I hadn’t reached the world of these stories. The more wealthy parts of the country’s cities and its many gorgeous parks is not the life these stories show– an interesting reflection for any of us who has ever traveled somewhere and said “this is paradise.”

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“Extinct Madagascar: Picturing the Island’s Past” is written by two scientists who’ve made a career studying the island’s ancient history, and is accompanied by a brilliant scientific illustrator who renders their theories visually.

Madagascar is an especially amazing place for many of us given the richness of its flora and fauna, being home to many species found nowhere else in the world. Jungers and Goodman describe the many many more species now extinct. In the process, they engage with theories of how these extinctions came to be, considering natural and human changes in the environment over time.

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“Looking for Transwonderland: Travels in Nigeria” wasn’t a book that described a place we were going but was delightful and resonant all the same.

Noo Saro-Wiwa uses her experience as a travel writer to engage with a country that holds for her much personal significance. The author, Nigerian-British, is the daughter of Ken Saro-Wiwa, the acclaimed environmental activist who was awarded and also ultimately assassinated for his non-violent activism against the petroleum industry in his home of Ogoniland, Nigeria.

Returning to Nigeria carries a lot of weight for Noo Saro-Wiwa, but she manages to see it both freshly and with great depth. As she travels through various regions of the country, you get a glimpse of its natural and human beauty, its eccentricities, and a lot of rich context and editorial from Saro-Wiwa, who writes both wonderful narrative and excellent documentary. If you’ve traveled through Africa, or ever been curious about it, I definitely recommend this funny and insightful read.

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