The best memoirs from American and European expats who lived in Africa

Who am I?

Ever since spending seven years of my youth in East Africa, I have read the literature of that continent. I have relished the incredible novels of authors like Chinua Achebe, Ngugi Wa Thiongo, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Maaza Mengiste, but I have also sought out stories of those who entered Africa from outside, wanting to confirm my experience and to make sense of it. My reading has included masterpieces like Abraham Verghese’s novel Cutting for Stone or Ryszard Kapuscinski’s journalistic expose The Emperor. But here are a few personal memoirs that have given me a basis for my own understanding of being an expatriate shaped profoundly by life in Africa.  

I wrote...

Chameleon Days: An American Boyhood in Ethiopia

By Tim Bascom,

Book cover of Chameleon Days: An American Boyhood in Ethiopia

What is my book about?

In 1964, at the age of three, I was thrust into a radically different world when my family moved from midwestern America to the highlands of Ethiopia. Like the herky-jerky chameleon that I found outside a classroom where my missionary parents were learning to speak Amharic, I saw two directions at once, struggling to integrate two hemispheres of experience. Sent reluctantly to boarding school in the capital, I found that beyond the gates enclosing our peculiar, western enclave, conflict roiled Ethiopian society. When secret riot drills at school were followed by an attack by rampaging students near my parents' mission station, I witnessed Haile Selassie’s empire crumbling, and I felt parallel tremors in my family, which had been strained to breaking point by American, evangelical idealism.

The books I picked & why

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Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood

By Alexandra Fuller,

Book cover of Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood

Why this book?

When I first read Alexandra Fuller’s memoir twenty years ago, I felt so glad that someone had finally put words to what I experienced as an expatriate youth in Africa. The book inspired me to speak my own story, which had been hiding inside me for 40 years, suppressed every time I sidestepped the question, “Where are you from?” My family was quite different than Fuller’s. We came to Ethiopia from midwestern America, not England. My father was a doctor, not a farmer.  And there was no alcohol in our teetotalling missionary bungalow. But Fuller, with her story of Rhodesia’s turbulent movement toward independence, spoke to my own complicated relationship to a people and land that I loved but could never fully claim. 

West with the Night: A Memoir

By Beryl Markham,

Book cover of West with the Night: A Memoir

Why this book?

There is a reason Ernest Hemingway was jealous of this author and her story of coming of age in colonial Kenya then becoming the first woman pilot on the continent. She was as adventurous as the legendary Papa, and she wrote beautiful prose. Because I attended boarding school on the escarpment of the vast Rift Valley, looking out over the landscape where Markham flew her mail runs, I loved her descriptions of the open savannah dotted with migrating wildlife, the steep forested slopes, the rainy hillsides that had been planted with countless rows of tea, like a lush green corduroy. Isak Dinesen is noted for her portrayal of expatriate life during that same time period, but Beryl Markham is an adventurer who provides a different, dramatic viewpoint well worth reading.

Sufferings in Africa: The Astonishing Account of a New England Sea Captain Enslaved by North African Arabs

By James Riley,

Book cover of Sufferings in Africa: The Astonishing Account of a New England Sea Captain Enslaved by North African Arabs

Why this book?

This remarkable tale is not as well known as others, in part because it was written in 1817 and by a less accomplished writer, but it is hard to beat as a true account of nearly unsurvivable hardship. Captain James Riley, captured when his American ship—Commerce—runs aground south of Morocco, is taken into the Sahara desert along with several of his crew as slaves of Bedouins. Barefoot, terribly sunburnt, forced to drink camel urine, they walk hundreds of miles behind their master’s camels until finally ransomed by an American consul. This shocking reversal of the usual slavery tale is a poignant indictment of the slave trade. Abraham Lincoln claimed that Sufferings in Africa, along with The Bible and Pilgrim’s Progress, had the most effect on his political ideology.

What Is the What

By Dave Eggers,

Book cover of What Is the What

Why this book?

Okay, this is a bit of an outlier, since the author, did not live as an expatriate in Africa. Dave Eggers, well-known for his own very-American memoir, wrote an autobiography of one of the “Lost Boys” of South Sudan, who wandered hundreds of miles after being separated from parents by marauding Arab militia. Valentino Achak Deng, along with a starving band of Dinka boys, eventually crossed into Ethiopia but had to flee when soldiers turned on the refugees. He and others hiked all the way into Kenya, where they lived in limbo. Although Eggers has been criticized for appropriating Deng’s story, Deng himself has said that he is thankful Eggers captured his experience so vividly, conveying the plight of his people to a wide audience. As someone who lived in South Sudan right where there is a large community of displaced people uprooted by Arab militia, I was impressed by this sympathetic cross-cultural portrayal!

Boyhood: Scenes from Provincial Life

By J.M. Coetzee,

Book cover of Boyhood: Scenes from Provincial Life

Why this book?

Some would claim Coetzee’s Boyhood is an autobiographical novel, and others would insist it is a fictionalized memoir. In any case, it is a powerful depiction of a child’s experience of being raised in the harsh, racist culture of Afrikaners in apartheid South Africa. Maybe because the author decided to tell the story from the 3rd person perspective—as if standing outside of himself—the bleakness of his home and community presses home twice as hard. One senses, behind the cruelty and callousness, the buried ugliness of entrenched bigotry. I lived in a kinder missionary community, learning to admire the people I encountered in Ethiopia, Kenya, and Sudan, but over time I had to recognize subtler prejudices that went with that evangelistic expatriate culture. Boyhood spoke to me in a necessary, truth-telling way that was not comfortable but very important.

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