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...

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.

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The books I picked & why

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

James A. Robinson Why did I love 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.

By Jan Vansina,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Paths in the Rainforests as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Vansina’s scope is breathtaking: he reconstructs the history of the forest lands that cover all or part of southern Cameroon, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, the Congo, Zaire, the Central African Republic, and Cabinda in Angola, discussing the original settlement of the forest by the western Bantu; the periods of expansion and innovation in agriculture; the development of metallurgy; the rise and fall of political forms and of power; the coming of Atlantic trade and colonialism; and the conquest of the rainforests by colonial powers and the destruction of a way of life.

“In 400 elegantly brilliant pages Vansina lays out five…


Book cover of Bitter Money

James A. Robinson Why did I love 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.

By Parker Shipton,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Bitter Money as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

“fascinating little book adds to the study of culture to political economy” MacGaffey ~Journal of Anthropological Research “presents fascinating material on beliefs about money in some Luo-speaking communities of Kenya… an insightful analysis… a case that will generate fruitful discussions for years to come” Ferguson ~American Ethnologist BITTER MONEY unites symbolic and economic analysis in exploring the beliefs about forbidden exchanges among the Luo of Kenya and other African peoples. Shipton's multi-paradigmatic theoretical explanation briefly summarizes a century of anthropological thought about African exchange, while integrating ways of understanding rural African economy, politics, and culture.


Book cover of Things Fall Apart

James A. Robinson Why did I love 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!

By Chinua Achebe,

Why should I read it?

6 authors picked Things Fall Apart as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Winner of International Man Booker Prize 2007.


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

James A. Robinson Why did I love 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.

By Paul Richards,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Fighting for the Rain Forest as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Do small wars in Africa manifest a 'new barbarism'?
What appears as random, anarchic violence is no such thing. The terrifying military methods of of Sierra Leone's soldiers may not fir conventional western models of warfare,but they are rational and effective nonetheless. The war must be understood partly as a 'performance', in which techniques of terror compensate for lack of equipment.

PAUL RICHARDS is Professor of Technology and Agrarian Development, Wageningen University

Published in association with the International African Institute


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

James A. Robinson Why did I love 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.

By James Ferguson,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Anti-Politics Machine as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Development, it is generally assumed, is good and necessary, and in its name the West has intervened, implementing all manner of projects in the impoverished regions of the world. When these projects fail, as they do with astonishing regularity, they nonetheless produce a host of regular and unacknowledged effects, including the expansion of bureaucratic state power and the translation of the political realities of poverty and powerlessness into "technical" problems awaiting solution by "development" agencies and experts. It is the political intelligibility of these effects, along with the process that produces them, that this book seeks to illuminate through a…


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The Lion and the Fox: Two Rival Spies and the Secret Plot to Build a Confederate Navy

By Alexander Rose,

Book cover of The Lion and the Fox: Two Rival Spies and the Secret Plot to Build a Confederate Navy

Alexander Rose Author Of Empires of the Sky: Zeppelins, Airplanes, and Two Men's Epic Duel to Rule the World

New book alert!

Who am I?

A long time ago, I was an early-aviation historian, but eventually realized that I knew only half the story—the part about airplanes. But what about airships? Initially, I assumed, like so many others, that they were a flash-in-the-pan, a ridiculous dead-end technology, but then I realized these wondrous giants had roamed and awed the world for nearly four decades. There was a bigger story here of an old rivalry between airplanes and airships, one that had since been forgotten, and Empires of the Sky was the result.

Alexander's book list on Zeppelin airships

What is my book about?

From the author of Washington’s Spies, the thrilling story of two rival secret agents — one Confederate, the other Union — sent to Britain during the Civil War.

The South’s James Bulloch, charming and devious, was ordered to acquire a clandestine fleet intended to break Lincoln’s blockade, sink Northern merchant vessels, and drown the U.S. Navy’s mightiest ships at sea. Opposing him was Thomas Dudley, an upright Quaker lawyer determined to stop Bulloch in a spy-versus-spy game of move and countermove, gambit and sacrifice, intrigue and betrayal.

Their battleground was the Dickensian port of Liverpool, whose dockyards built more ships each year than the rest of the world combined and whose merchant princes, said one observer, were “addicted to Southern proclivities, foreign slave trade, and domestic bribery.”

The Lion and the Fox: Two Rival Spies and the Secret Plot to Build a Confederate Navy

By Alexander Rose,

What is this book about?

From the New York Times bestselling author of Washington's Spies, the thrilling story of the Confederate spy who came to Britain to turn the tide of the Civil War-and the Union agent resolved to stop him.

"Entertaining and deeply researched...with a rich cast of spies, crooks, bent businessmen and drunken sailors...Rose relates the tale with gusto." -The New York Times

In 1861, soon after the outbreak of the Civil War, two secret agents-one a Confederate, the other his Union rival-were dispatched to neutral Britain, each entrusted with a vital mission.

The South's James Bulloch, charming and devious, was to acquire…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in Nigeria, Sierra Leone, and Kenya?

10,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about Nigeria, Sierra Leone, and Kenya.

Nigeria Explore 60 books about Nigeria
Sierra Leone Explore 10 books about Sierra Leone
Kenya Explore 51 books about Kenya