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.

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The books I picked & why

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

Why did I love 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.   

By Ishmael Beah,

Why should I read it?

6 authors picked A Long Way Gone as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This is how wars are fought now: by children, hopped-up on drugs and wielding AK-47s. Children have become soldiers of choice. In the more than fifty conflicts going on worldwide, it is estimated that there are some 300,000 child soldiers. Ishmael Beah used to be one of them. What is war like through the eyes of a child soldier? How does one become a killer? How does one stop? Child soldiers have been profiled by journalists, and novelists have struggled to imagine their lives. But until now, there has not been a first-person account from someone who came through this…

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind

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

Book cover of The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind

Why did I love 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.   

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

Why should I read it?

6 authors picked The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

When a terrible drought struck William Kamkwamba's tiny village in Malawi, his family lost all of the season's crops, leaving them with nothing to eat and nothing to sell. William began to explore science books in his village library, looking for a solution. There, he came up with the idea that would change his family's life forever: he could build a windmill. Made out of scrap metal and old bicycle parts, William's windmill brought electricity to his home and helped his family pump the water they needed to farm the land. Retold for a younger audience, this exciting memoir shows…

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

Why did I love 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.

By Immaculée Ilibagiza,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Immaculee Ilibagiza grew up in a country she loved, surrounded by a family she cherished. But in 1994 her idyllic world was ripped apart as Rwanda descended into a bloody genocide. Immaculee's family was brutally murdered during a killing spree that lasted three months and claimed the lives of nearly a million Rwandans.

Incredibly, Immaculee survived the slaughter. For 91 days, she and seven other women huddled silently together in the cramped bathroom of a local pastor while hundreds of machete-wielding killers hunted for them. It was during those endless hours of unspeakable terror that Immaculee discovered the power of…

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

Why did I love 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.

By Mark Mathabane,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Kaffir Boy as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The classic story of life in Apartheid South Africa.

Mark Mathabane was weaned on devastating poverty and schooled in the cruel streets of South Africa's most desperate ghetto, where bloody gang wars and midnight police raids were his rites of passage. Like every other child born in the hopelessness of apartheid, he learned to measure his life in days, not years. Yet Mark Mathabane, armed only with the courage of his family and a hard-won education, raised himself up from the squalor and humiliation to win a scholarship to an American university.

This extraordinary memoir of life under apartheid is…

Another Day of Life

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

Book cover of Another Day of Life

Why did I love 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.

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

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked Another Day of Life as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In 1975, Angola was tumbling into pandemonium; everyone who could was packing crates, desperate to abandon the beleaguered colony. With his trademark bravura, Ryszard Kapuscinski went the other way, begging his was from Lisbon and comfort to Luanda—once famed as Africa's Rio de Janeiro—and chaos.Angola, a slave colony later given over to mining and plantations, was a promised land for generations of poor Portuguese. It had belonged to Portugal since before there were English-speakers in North America. After the collapse of the fascist dictatorship in Portugal in 1974, Angola was brusquely cut loose, spurring the catastrophe of a still-ongoing civil…

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Interested in Rwanda, Sierra Leone, and the apartheid?

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