The best books to read to understand Africa

Who am I?

I am a social scientist who has been doing fieldwork and research in Africa since 1999. For me, there’s no more fascinating part of the planet – Africa is the cradle of civilization, more diverse than anywhere else and culturally and institutionally vibrant and creative. I have worked in Botswana, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, South Africa and Zimbabwe investigating the determinants of political institutions and economic prosperity. I have taught courses on Africa at Harvard University, the University of Chicago, the University of Ghana at Legon and this summer the University of Nigeria in Nsukka.


I wrote...

Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty

By Daron Acemoglu, James A. Robinson,

Book cover of Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty

What is my book about?

Brilliant and engagingly written, Why Nations Fail answers the question that has stumped the experts for centuries: Why are some nations rich and others poor, divided by wealth and poverty, health and sickness, food and famine?

Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson conclusively show that it is man-made political and economic institutions that underlie economic success (or lack of it). Korea, to take just one of their fascinating examples, is a remarkably homogeneous nation, yet the people of North Korea are among the poorest on earth while their brothers and sisters in South Korea are among the richest. The south forged a society that created incentives, rewarded innovation, and allowed everyone to participate in economic opportunities.

The books I picked & why

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Paths in the Rainforests: Toward a History of Political Tradition in Equatorial Africa

By Jan Vansina,

Book cover of Paths in the Rainforests: Toward a History of Political Tradition in Equatorial Africa

Why this book?

A seminal history of the development of political institutions in Central Africa over the past 2,000 years. Africa took a very different path into the modern world than Eurasia did and instead of building large centralized and repressive states instead innovated all sorts of different ways of reconciling the autonomy of the individual, men and women, and the local community, with the benefits of living in larger societies. These historical processes still shape Africa today.


Bitter Money

By Parker Shipton,

Book cover of Bitter Money

Why this book?

It isn’t just African politics that is different. Economics is too. If modern economics had been invented by an African, instead of Adam Smith, it would look very different. Wealth would be measured in people rather than material objects, property, and capital. There would be much less emphasis on markets. Some things, should never be sold, and if they were it would create “bitter money” and bad luck. This book is a great place to start to re-think your ideas about economics.


Things Fall Apart

By Chinua Achebe,

Book cover of Things Fall Apart

Why this book?

A fictional account of pre-colonial Igbo society in southern Nigeria prior to European colonization. This was a highly democratic society where status was based on achievement and economic success. Debunks one of the most bizarre Eurocentric notions that western societies are “complex” while African societies are “simple”. There was (and is) nothing simple about Igbo society!


Fighting for the Rain Forest: War, Youth and Resources in Sierra Leone

By Paul Richards,

Book cover of Fighting for the Rain Forest: War, Youth and Resources in Sierra Leone

Why this book?

African civil wars are not about ethnicity, diamonds, or foreign aid. They are genuine political conflicts about how society is to be organized, created by grievances and political marginalization and also deeply embedded in local cultures. As such, they stem from the same roots as the English Civil War of the 1640s or the American Revolutionary War of the 1770s-1780s. This is all revealed in this brilliant book on the Sierra Leone civil war.


Anti-Politics Machine: Development, Depoliticization, and Bureaucratic Power in Lesotho

By James Ferguson,

Book cover of Anti-Politics Machine: Development, Depoliticization, and Bureaucratic Power in Lesotho

Why this book?

Many people get involved with Africa through their concern for its’ poverty and with a genuine desire to help “develop” Africa. Ferguson’s analysis shows how counter-productive this is without an understanding of the ways in which African society differs from western society. Much social theory is generalizations based on interpretations of western development. These ideas are then projected into Africa on the basis that the more they are like us, the more developed they will be. I hope these five books help you un-learn this perspective and embrace the originality and genius of Africa.


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in Nigeria, Kenya, and the economy?

5,888 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about Nigeria, Kenya, and the economy.

Nigeria Explore 33 books about Nigeria
Kenya Explore 41 books about Kenya
The Economy Explore 114 books about the economy

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, Winning the Green New Deal, and Shōgun if you like this list.