Last summer we compiled a list of some of our favorite travel books of all time, and this year, we wanted to take a deep dive into a continent that continues to awe and inspire. Home to vast deserts, wildlife-packed savannas, and soaring mountains, Africa boasts some of the best adventure travel out there. Its fraught history has also offered fodder for powerful stories, whether tales of heartbreak, struggle, and suffering, or chronicles of triumph, compassion, and overcoming adversity.
This list is just enough to whet your literary appetite, and covers some of our top recommendations composed by both outsiders and native-born writers. Whatever genre you are looking for, this list has picks for every type of reader.
Senegalese writer Mariama Bậ delivers this semi-autobiographical story of her life as an educated Muslim woman through an extended letter to a friend. Through the lens of her experiences, this award-winning story also shows the greater shift in life and women’s roles in post-colonial Africa.
Read this if…You are fascinated by gender roles across cultures, or if you want to be inspired by the strength of women faced with adversity.
Arguably the most inspiring politician of a generation, Nelson Mandela recounts his journey from revolutionary to political prisoner to the first black president of South Africa in this autobiography. Reading about his life in his own words provides a clearer understanding of this moment in history.
Read this if…You need an inspiring break from today’s politicians.
Written under the pen name Isak Dinesen, Out of Africa is the evocative, lyrical memoirs of Baroness Karen Blixen’s 17 years owning and operating a coffee plantation in Kenya. Turned into an Oscar-winning film starring Meryl Streep, this epic tale is depicts in rich detail one woman’s experience living in British East Africa before World War II.
Read this if…You’ve got a taste for the classics.
After taking on the role of surrogate mother to an orphaned lion cub, Adamson recounts the process of reintroducing her to the wild. Even if you think you know this classic tale from 1960, the full story will move you.
Read this if…You consider your pets more like family.
At turns hilarious and heart-breaking, The Hairdresser of Harare tells the story of one woman’s love and loss, as well as a greater tale of the economic realities of living in Zimbabwe’s capital. Written in 2010, it’s also a rare look at the inner emotional life and day-to-day struggles of women living and working in Africa — that, unsurprisingly, look not that different from our own.
Read this if… You like your chick lit with a side of socio-political commentary.
An NPR Book of the Year, Igoni Barrett illustrates modern Nigeria through short stories about love, lust, and dalliances in Lagos. Often humorous and sometimes heart-wrenching, this is modern storytelling at its best.
Read this if…You like filling your commute or travel time with entertaining short stories.
This mystery novel about a triple murder was so explosive that, when it was published, Thiong’o was imprisoned by the Kenyan government. The Nobel Prize-nominated author writes beautifully about disillusionment and the struggle independent nations faced after colonialism.
Read this if...You love a good page turner.
Our Sister Killjoy by Ama Ata Aidoo
So many books about Africa come from an American or European perspective, so this novel about Europe from a Ghanaian girl’s perspective is a refreshing change. The novel explores contrasts between the continents, making you see both through fresh eyes.
Read this if…You want to challenge your established view of the world around you.
Centered around the disappearance of a teenage boy and his family’s search for him, this 2016 novel is also a sweeping tale of political upheaval, colonialism, and corruption. Ajie, the missing boy’s younger brother, recalls a family trip to their ancestral village where they learned about a mysterious “Company” that found oil on their land and would do anything to exploit it and becomes an exploration of what it means to be powerful and powerless in a country transitioning from colonial rule to independence.
Read this if… Your favorite books involve political intrigue.
Starting out in Yemen in 1935, this story follows Jama, a young boy who travels through Africa in search of the father he’s never met. His epic journey of more than a thousand miles takes Jama north to Egypt — mostly by foot, and relying on a clan network to shelter him and point the way forward. Loosely based on her family’s history, Nadifa Mohamed captures perfectly the spirit of adventure by necessity.
Read this if…Tales of triumph over adversity fill your Goodreads queue.
What are some of your favorite reads about Africa? Let us know in the comments!