The best books about young African heroes

Tim Crothers Author Of The Queen of Katwe: One Girl's Triumphant Path to Becoming a Chess Champion
By Tim Crothers

Who am I?

For most of my life I have been fascinated by Africa, but I could never figure out a good reason to go there. Then one day in 2010 while delivering a book talk in North Carolina, a gentleman approached me afterward saying that he’d read a brief item in a missionary newsletter that morning and he thought it might make “a good story” for me. Six months later, I was on a flight to Uganda and that “good story” was born as a magazine piece before evolving into a book and finally in 2016 into a Disney movie. I have since traveled to Africa many times and it is a magical place, my home away from home.  

I wrote...

The Queen of Katwe: One Girl's Triumphant Path to Becoming a Chess Champion

By Tim Crothers,

Book cover of The Queen of Katwe: One Girl's Triumphant Path to Becoming a Chess Champion

What is my book about?

To be African is to be an underdog in the world. To be Ugandan is to be an underdog in Africa. To be from Katwe is to be an underdog in Uganda. To be a girl is to be an underdog in Katwe.

Phiona Mutesi is the ultimate underdog. Growing up in Kampala’s Katwe slum, she lost her father to AIDS as a young child and dropped out of school to sell maize on the streets. She did not know how to read or write when a former Ugandan war refugee turned missionary, Robert Katende, introduced Phiona to chess, a game so foreign to her that there is no word for it in her native language. Katende quickly realized that Phiona had an innate talent for the game and after a few years, against all odds, Katende would coach Phiona to become an international chess champion.

The books I picked & why

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A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier

By Ishmael Beah,

Book cover of A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier

Why this book?

During my reporting for TQOK, I was randomly introduced to a former Ugandan child soldier who I have stayed in touch with ever since. His story is both heartbreaking and inspirational just like that of Beah in Sierra Leone. With brutal candor in this extraordinary memoir, Beah tells the story of his transformation from innocent child to ruthless killer and then the challenge of returning to society after being forever changed. I might have written a book about the child soldier I know, but Beah has already done it better than I ever could have.   

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind

By William Kamkwamba, Bryan Mealer, Elizabeth Zunon (illustrator)

Book cover of The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind

Why this book?

Something I’ve always admired about many of the African people I’ve been privileged to meet is their creativity in the face of adversity. Robert Katende began his chess program with bottle caps in the dirt. Faced with a drought in Malawi that threatened his family’s livelihood, Kamkwamba got creative. I won’t spoil exactly how he harnessed the wind to forever alter his life, but his story is a triumph of ingenuity common among the people of this continent who routinely make the unbelievable believable.   

Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust

By Immaculée Ilibagiza,

Book cover of Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust

Why this book?

Women in Africa like Phiona and Immaculee are often treated as second-class citizens, which is what makes this book even more encouraging. Ilibagiza lost most of her family during the Rwandan genocide. She survived only after hiding with seven other women for 91 days in a local priest’s bathroom. She eventually found the strength in her heart to forgive those who killed the people closest to her and this compelling story of that spiritual journey defines her as a role model for every woman and man in her still-healing country.

Kaffir Boy: The True Story of a Black Youth's Coming of Age in Apartheid South Africa

By Mark Mathabane,

Book cover of Kaffir Boy: The True Story of a Black Youth's Coming of Age in Apartheid South Africa

Why this book?

Phiona once told me that she grew up in Katwe believing that everyone in the world lived in the same desperate circumstances that she did and that if you’re born in Katwe, you are expected to die there. Mathabane was similarly anchored to his poverty-ravaged township of Alexandra outside of Johannesburg. “Kaffir” is an ugly ethnic slur common during Apartheid-era South Africa, a term that the author battled to overcome every day while surviving an environment plagued by gang violence. Mathabane’s salvation was his education (and, similar to Phiona, success in an unlikely sport), which eventually led him to attend college in the U.S., just like Beah, Kamkwamba, and Mutesi.

Another Day of Life

By Ryszard Kapuściński, William R. Brand (translator), Katarzyna Mroczkowska-Brand (translator)

Book cover of Another Day of Life

Why this book?

OK, this one has nothing to do with a heroic youth, although I’m sure there was no shortage of them during the Angolan Civil War in 1975. This is quite simply my favorite book about Africa. As a career journalist, I can appreciate the courage necessary for Kapuscinski to continue reporting in war-torn Angola when most other journalists had long fled. He is remarkably dogged in pursuing this important story that would affect the world well beyond Angola’s borders. Assuming his reporting is accurate (the veracity of Kapuscinski’s work has been questioned since his death in 2007) this book is among the most stirring examples of fearless reportage ever written.

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