The best books for thinking about social justice in Africa

Who am I?

I first travelled to Zimbabwe in 1984, eager both to “build scientific socialism” but also to answer two big questions. How can people proclaim rage at certain injustices yet at the same time perpetuate them against certain other people? And, could I learn to be a better (more empathetic) man than my upbringing inclined me towards? Years of teaching in the rural areas, and then becoming a father taught me “yes” to the second question but for the first, I needed to continue to pursue that knowledge with colleagues, students, mentors, friends and family. Today, my big question is, how can we push together to get these monsters of capitalism, patriarchy, homophobia, racism, and ecocide off our backs?

I wrote...

Hungochani: The History of a Dissident Sexuality in Southern Africa

By Marc Epprecht,

Book cover of Hungochani: The History of a Dissident Sexuality in Southern Africa

What is my book about?

Challenging the stereotypes of African heterosexuality - from the precolonial era to the present. In the tapestry of global queer cultures, Africa has long been neglected or stereotyped. In Hungochani, Marc Epprecht seeks to change these limited views by tracing Southern Africa's history and traditions of homosexuality, modern gay and lesbian identities, and the vibrant gay rights movement that has emerged since the 1980s.

Epprecht explores the diverse ways African cultures traditionally explained same-sex sexuality and follows the emergence of new forms of gender identity and sexuality that evolved with the introduction of capitalism, colonial rule, and Christian education. Using oral testimony, memoirs, literature, criminal court records, and early government enquiries from the eighteenth century to the present, he traces the complex origins of homophobia. 

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of How Europe Underdeveloped Africa

Why this book?

The canon of anti-colonial, anti-racism writing from and about Africa includes many authors whose passion and insights are sometimes muddied by turgid or masculinist prose. For me, Rodney stands out – and stands the test of time – by the way he so masterfully weaves history into a compelling narrative that utterly demolishes the lies and conceits about supposed Western benevolence toward the continent. Scales fell from my eyes the first time (of many) I read this book. And yes, Rodney is almost as androcentric in his language, sources, and arguments as was the norm in those days. But his acknowledgment of the dignity of African women is implicit, and his discussion of the regressive elements of the colonial economy and education for African women and girls presaged a field of scholarly enquiry and activism that still intrigues me.

How Europe Underdeveloped Africa

By Walter Rodney,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked How Europe Underdeveloped Africa as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The classic work of political, economic, and historical analysis, powerfully introduced by Angela Davis In his short life, the Guyanese intellectual Walter Rodney emerged as one of the leading thinkers and activists of the anticolonial revolution, leading movements in North America, South America, the African continent, and the Caribbean. In each locale, Rodney found himself a lightning rod for working class Black Power. His deportation catalyzed 20th century Jamaica's most significant rebellion, the 1968 Rodney riots, and his scholarship trained a generation how to think politics at an international scale. In 1980, shortly after founding of the Working People's Alliance…

Book cover of Black Bull, Ancestors and Me: My Life as a Lesbian Sangoma

Why this book?

For those who study or teach about Africa, it is essential to know the pioneers of struggles for justice on the continent. African intellectuals eloquent in European languages began calling out injustices as early as the 18th century. To my mind, however, Nkabinde is a particularly impressive pioneer from the early 21st. It’s not just that African women have been routinely overlooked by historians. The very existence of African lesbians and transwomen was until very recently completely denied. Here, then, for the very first time, an African woman tells of her coming to sexual self-awareness, first as a spirit medium for a powerful male ancestor and then through modern sexual identity discourses. It is a poignant appeal to the humanistic potential of African traditional cultures when married to a universal human rights framework.

Black Bull, Ancestors and Me: My Life as a Lesbian Sangoma

By Nkunzi Zandile Nkabinde,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Black Bull, Ancestors and Me as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Nkunzi's urge to live and draw others into her sense of interconnectedness emerges as a consistent theme in her story. As a sangoma, Nkunzi is able to explore dimensions of her sexual identity because of her relationship with both male and female ancestors. "In Zulu culture a man must be a man and do male things and a woman must be a woman and do female things but with sangomas it is more flexible. I can dance like a woman and wear a woman's clothes and dance like a man and wear a man's clothes. I can do the work…

Book cover of Mistreated: The Political Consequences of the Fight Against AIDS in Lesotho

Why this book?

A big mistake in much radical analysis is to characterize problems in dualistic terms that externalize responsibility from Africa (Rodney, of course, is wide open to that critique). Thus, colonialism is not just irredeemably bad but simple to identify and directly related to white skin. The end of formal colonialism provided new targets in sometimes caricature form: black-skin-white-mask neocolonialism and neoliberalism, notably. Such things undoubtedly exist. However, Kenworthy’s brilliant, gob-smacking analysis of the unintended consequences of life-saving technologies reveals levels of complexity and complicity that belie easy dualisms. How does something that promises liberation from mass suffering and death (anti-retroviral drugs) become a machine to entrench corrupt elites and opportunistic NGOs, to sell cheap textiles in America, and to exploit poor women’s unremunerated care work? Read, weep, and lose your illusions about corporate social responsibility.

Mistreated: The Political Consequences of the Fight Against AIDS in Lesotho

By Nora Kenworthy,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

As global health institutions and aid donors expanded HIV treatment throughout Africa, they rapidly ""scaled up"" programs, projects, and organizations meant to address HIV and AIDS. Yet these efforts did not simply have biological effects: in addition to extending lives and preventing further infections, treatment scale-up initiated remarkable political and social shifts.

In Lesotho, which has the world's second highest HIV prevalence, HIV treatment has had unintentional but pervasive political costs, distancing citizens from the government, fostering distrust of health programs, and disrupting the social contract. Based on ethnographic observation between 2008 and 2014, this book chillingly anticipates the political…

Book cover of Catching Tadpoles: Shaping of a Young Rebel

Why this book?

This is no less than Kasril’s fourth memoir, and the one that resonates most with my own existential worries as a privileged white man. Why did a nice, working-class, Jewish boy from Johannesburg take up armed struggle against institutionalized racism? Become a cabinet minister in the country’s first democratic government devoted to expanding social welfare for Africans? Become a trenchant critic of the rot that subsequently set into the party he helped bring to power?

With profound humility and wit, Kasrils takes us through his boyhood years to reflect upon the often-humiliating process of acquiring political consciousness. He speaks to anyone with a leg up in a rigged system: it’s good to have existential doubts about your privileges. But you should still, and more importantly, you can still do the right thing.

Catching Tadpoles: Shaping of a Young Rebel

By Ronnie Kasrils,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Ronnie Kasrils's memoir reflects on compelling questions as to what turned a white youngster from a modest background into a life-long revolutionary of note. A tiny minority who abandoned a life of privilege were the antithesis of conventionality and toeing the line. What made those such as Kasrils break all the rules and confront white power with such courage, unbridled spirit and yearning for the truth?

This is a challenging and fascinating conundrum but Kasrils will claim he is no aberration of history. The answers to that question, which unravel through twenty years, will beguile readers as he peers back…

We Need New Names

By NoViolet Bulawayo,

Book cover of We Need New Names

Why this book?

Social justice activism wherever you are requires a sense of humour. So meet Darling (the narrator), GodKnows, Bastard, Forgiveness, Chipo, and the rest of the nearly-feral gang of pre-teens in Paradise. Their banter, misadventures, and naïve but hard-headed observations of life in an informal settlement in Zimbabwe as the country implodes into cruelty and desperation comprise the first half of this wry, often disturbing but wrily witty novel. In the second half, Darling joins her aunt in “DestroyedMichygan” and learns to navigate the perils of mindless consumerism, African-American teenhood, and the mysteries of the American so-called dream.

We Need New Names

By NoViolet Bulawayo,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked We Need New Names as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

* Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2013*

* US National Book Award 5 Under 35 *

* Winner of the Etisalat Prize 2014*

'To play the country-game, we have to choose a country. Everybody wants to be the USA and Britain and Canada and Australia and Switzerland and them. Nobody wants to be rags of countries like Congo, like Somalia, like Iraq, like Sudan, like Haiti and not even this one we live in - who wants to be a terrible place of hunger and things falling apart?'

Darling and her friends live in a shanty called Paradise, which…

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in Africa, social justice, and HIV/AIDS?

8,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about Africa, social justice, and HIV/AIDS.

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