The Best Books On Central Africa

The Books I Picked & Why

Congo: The Epic History of a People

By David Van Reybrouck

Congo: The Epic History of a People

Why this book?

As the author of a book on the Democratic Republic of Congo myself, I should have felt fiercely competitive with Van Reybrouk, a Belgian playwright, poet, and author. In fact, I loved this book. He tells this enormous country’s complex history, from King Leopold’s 19th-century giant land grab through to Patrice Lumumba's premiership, Marechal Mobutu Sese Sekos’ overthrow, Laurent Kabila’s Rwandan-backed takeover and beyond, almost exclusively through the testimony of living Congolese citizens, making it not only extraordinarily fresh, but utterly authentic as a record of the past. It’s a long book – 150 years of history, addressed at a leisurely pace, takes up a lot of paper - but every chapter is a jewel.


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The Rwanda Crisis: History of a Genocide

By Gérard Prunier

The Rwanda Crisis: History of a Genocide

Why this book?

So many books have been written about the 1994 genocide in Rwanda since this came out, but for me it still effortlessly holds its own: clear, accessible, immensely insightful in the way it traces cause and effect. Make sure you buy the second edition, though, as French historian Prunier revised some key views over the years, including his opinion on who brought down the plane in which two African presidents died – the incident that triggered the genocide. The book is the perfect companion piece for Prunier’s follow-up tome, which pans back to examine not just Rwanda but the entire Great Lakes region during the turbulent post-genocide years: “From Genocide to Continental War. The “Congolese” Conflict and the Crisis of Contemporary Africa.” 


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God Sleeps in Rwanda: A Journey of Transformation

By Joseph Sebarenzi, Laura Mullane

God Sleeps in Rwanda: A Journey of Transformation

Why this book?

The author, a Tutsi genocide survivor, was once a young Rwandan politician who deeply admired Paul Kagame and seemed destined for prominent public office. Instead, from his position as parliamentary speaker, he watched as his hero steadily emasculated the judiciary, undermined the country’s Hutu president – a symbol of ethnic reconciliation - and sabotaged parliamentary democracy itself,  eventually fleeing the country when his own life was threatened. His book not only offers great insights into the workings of village life in a tiny African country traumatized by its violent past, it’s a step-by-step analysis of how a dictatorship takes cynical, relentless hold.


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Small Country

By Gaël Faye

Small Country

Why this book?

Sometimes fiction, with its knack for getting under the skin, is the best way of grasping the human impact of something as psychologically earth-shaking as mass murder. Set in the early 1990s, this novel’s narrator is the son of a French father and Rwandan mother, living in Bujumbura, just across the border from Rwanda. Inevitably the mass killings spill over into Burundi, exacerbating existing tensions between Hutus and Tutsis there and shattering an already precariously-poised family. I get the impression this book sold well in both French and English, and I’m not surprised. Under its deceptively simple surface, it packs a punch.


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Kintu

By Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi

Kintu

Why this book?

A multi-generational novel which starts in 1750 with the heroic figure of Kintu, a provincial chief setting off with his entourage to pay ritual obeisance to the feared Kabaka (king), and culminates in bustling, hustling, modern Uganda. It’s an epic story that explores the imprint family bonds and ancestral legacies - including curses that travel down through the decades – leave on daily life. The kind of book which, because of its sheer heft, seems more than a little daunting at the start. But by the last page, you’re left wanting more, reluctant to have to say goodbye to all the characters you have come to know and love, hungry to know the end of their various journeys.  


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