The best books to read to understand Africa

The Books I Picked & Why

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

By Jan Vansina

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.


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Bitter Money

By Parker Shipton

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.


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Things Fall Apart

By Chinua Achebe

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!


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

By Paul Richards

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.


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

By James Ferguson

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.


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