The best books illustrating the richness and complexity of African cultures

Marq de Villiers Author Of Timbuktu: The Sahara's Fabled City of Gold
By Marq de Villiers

Who am I?

I was born in Africa and have been infatuated with its history and cultures all my life. Of the 48 countries sharing the African mainland, I have spent time in all but four. True, a few only for a laughably brief stay (I wandered across the Cameroon-Equatorial Guinea border once by mistake, not knowing I had crossed; there was no sign of a border post or any guards. I stayed only for the rest of the day, never leaving the beach, before wading back to Cameroon.) But others I have lived in for years, and have travelled extensively to famous and obscure regions alike, especially in the Sahel


I wrote...

Timbuktu: The Sahara's Fabled City of Gold

By Marq de Villiers, Sheila Hirtle,

Book cover of Timbuktu: The Sahara's Fabled City of Gold

What is my book about?

Perhaps no other city in the world has been as golden—and as deeply tarnished—as Timbuktu. Founded in the early 1100s by Tuareg nomads, it became a wealthy metropolis and a nexus of the trans-Saharan trade. Salt from the deep Sahara, gold from Ghana, and money from slave markets made it rich. In part because of its wealth, Timbuktu also became a center of Islamic learning and religion, boasting impressive schools and libraries that attracted scholars from Alexandria, Baghdad, Mecca, and Marrakech.

The arts flourished, and Timbuktu gained near-mythic stature around the world, capturing the imagination of outsiders and ultimately attracting the attention of hostile sovereigns who sacked the city three times and plundered it half a dozen more. The ancient city was invaded by a Moroccan army in 1600, which began its long decline; since then it has been seized by Tuareg nomads and a sad variety of jihadists, in addition to enduring a severe earthquake, several epidemics, and numerous famines. Why does this faded metropolis matter now? Timbuktu’s relaxed, inclusive and cosmopolitan version of Islam still has lessons to teach the world about tolerance and accommodation.

The books I picked & why

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

By Heinrich Barth, Henry Barth,

Book cover of 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].

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

By Heinrich Barth, Henry Barth,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Travels and Discoveries in North and Central Africa as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This work has been selected by scholars as being culturally important, and is part of the knowledge base of civilization as we know it. This work was reproduced from the original artifact, and remains as true to the original work as possible. Therefore, you will see the original copyright references, library stamps (as most of these works have been housed in our most important libraries around the world), and other notations in the work.

This work is in the public domain in the United States of America, and possibly other nations. Within the United States, you may freely copy and…


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

By Mary Anne Fitzgerald,

Book cover of 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.”

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

By Mary Anne Fitzgerald,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

A South-African-born journalist who was exiled from her home in Kenya describes her return to the continent of Africa and her experiences dodging bullets in Ethiopia, dining with aristocracy in Nairobi, and seeing the victims of famine. 15,000 first printing.


Conversations with Ogotemmêli: An Introduction to Dogon Religious Ideas

By Marcel Griaule,

Book cover of 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.

Conversations with Ogotemmêli: An Introduction to Dogon Religious Ideas

By Marcel Griaule,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Conversations with Ogotemmêli as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Originally published in 1948 as Dieu D'Eau, this near-classic offers a unique and first-hand account of the myth, religion, and philosophy of the Dogan, a Sudanese people.


Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth

By Wole Soyinka,

Book cover of 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.

Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth

By Wole Soyinka,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'Soyinka's greatest novel ... No one else can write such a book' - Ben Okri 'A lion of African literature' - Financial Times 'Chronicles is many things at once: a caustic political satire, a murder mystery, a conspiracy story and a deeply felt lament for the spirit of a nation' - Juan Gabriel Vasquez, New York Times A FINANCIAL TIMES AND SPECTATOR BOOK OF THE YEAR To Doctor Menka's horror, some cunning entrepreneur has decided to sell body parts from his hospital for use in ritualistic practices. Already at the end of his tether from the horrors he routinely sees…


Loot: Britain and the Benin Bronzes

By Barnaby Phillips,

Book cover of 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.

Loot: Britain and the Benin Bronzes

By Barnaby Phillips,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

A Prospect Best Book of 2021

'A fascinating and timely book.' William Boyd

'Gripping...a must read.' FT

'Compelling...humane, reasonable, and ultimately optimistic.' Evening Standard

'[A] valuable guide to a complex narrative.' The Times

In 1897, Britain sent a punitive expedition to the Kingdom of Benin, in what is today Nigeria, in retaliation for the killing of seven British officials and traders. British soldiers and sailors captured Benin, exiled its king and annexed the territory. They also made off with some of Africa's greatest works of art.

The 'Benin Bronzes' are now amongst the most admired and valuable artworks in the…


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