The Best Books Illustrating The Richness And Complexity Of African Cultures

By Marq de Villiers

The Books I Picked & Why

Travels and Discoveries in North and Central Africa: Timbúktu, Sókoto, and the Basins of the Niger and Bénuwé

By Heinrich Barth, Henry Barth

Travels and Discoveries in North and Central Africa: Timbúktu, Sókoto, and the Basins of the Niger and Bénuwé

Why this book?

This is exploration literature at its very best. Heinrich Barth was inclined to pedantry, but he was thorough and meticulous (his maps were models of their kind); he was also a skilled linguist (fluent in Arabic, he later published vocabularies of eight African languages including Tamashek and Hausa, and learned enough Hausa on a single journey from Ghat to Agadez to be able to converse freely).

He stayed in the Sahara for six years in the 1840s, and returned with massive journals packed with priceless ethnographic and geographic information, only to find fame passing him by. His contemporary, David Livingstone, was much more suited than the stolid German to a life of the celebrity traveler, and spoke much more eloquently at revival meetings and at conventions of Geographical Societies. (Livingstone met Barth once, and gave him an inscribed copy of his Missionary Travels, which must have grated). Barth’s massive five volumes were poorly reviewed and sold only 2,000 copies. He died at the age of 44. [There is a new replica edition in one volume].


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Nomad: One Woman's Journey Into the Heart of Africa

By Mary Anne Fitzgerald

Nomad: One Woman's Journey Into the Heart of Africa

Why this book?

African exploration has a rich history of intrepid women travelers (I think particularly of Mary Kingsley, who had once ascended Mount Cameroon in a day, Victorian petticoats notwithstanding. Kingsley finally died of typhoid in South Africa while she was administering to Boer prisoners of war, but before that, she made many an expedition among the Fang of Gabon and, as she put it, “danced many a wild dance with the wild river.”) Mary Anne Fitzgerald is the best modern example. Jailed by the dictatorship of Kenya’s Daniel Arap Moi and subsequently expelled, she then reported from hotspots all over Africa, including Liberia, the Central African Republic, and Cote d'Ivoire, coming under fire and under threat more than once, facing down guerrillas and governments in turn. 

She also has an eye for the piquant detail. She was once an eyewitness to a mass circumcision of an age cohort of young Samburu men, part of the rite of passage to manhood, and memorably described the practitioner, an elderly white Kenyan, “shaking antiseptic powder onto the cut penises as though he were salting a stew.”


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Conversations with Ogotemmêli: An Introduction to Dogon Religious Ideas

By Marcel Griaule

Conversations with Ogotemmêli: An Introduction to Dogon Religious Ideas

Why this book?

At first glance, a difficult read. Griault shares many of the faults of French academic writing, opaque and ambiguous in turn. But it is worth the effort. The elderly sage, Ogotemmêli, is patient with outsider obtuseness, and the book is a fascinating look into the complicated and sophisticated cosmology of African spirituality, so different in tone and structure from those we are familiar with in the west. In the end, this book easily puts the lie to commonplace western notions of African religions, that they are mere animism, or obsessed with ancestors. As the Times Literary Supplement put it at the time, ‘… [this] will prove of interest and enlightenment to those still inclined to underestimate African subtlety and sophistication." Too true.


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Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth

By Wole Soyinka

Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth

Why this book?

All right, so a Nobel laureate doesn’t need any encomiums from me, but what the hell. Soyinka’s first book in nearly half a century is revealing, enlightening, satirical, gleeful and just plain damn funny, while telling you more about the chaotic politics and sociology of his native Nigeria than you ever thought possible, a wonderful window into Africa’s most populous country.


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Loot: Britain and the Benin Bronzes

By Barnaby Phillips

Loot: Britain and the Benin Bronzes

Why this book?

This is far more than a colonial era whodunit, a recounting of yet another colonial atrocity – though it is that in spades.  Yes, in 1897 the British occupation army reacted to the killing of a a few colonial officials by razing an empire to the ground, careless of its causes and its effects. So much, so commonplace. But what an empire! The Benin artworks the army looted, subsequently dispersed to museums around the globe, were and still are a revelation to those whose notions of African art were to that point limited to masks and fetishes. A mere catalogue of the pieces would be enough to explain why Picasso, among other artists, was captivated by the art of Africa, but Philips has done more than that – he puts the looted artifacts into their context and into their culture. There is nothing didactic or preachy about this book, but you will never look at the careless philistinism of the colonial project the same way again.


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