The best books about East Africa

6 authors have picked their favorite books about East Africa and why they recommend each book.

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A Primate's Memoir

By Robert M. Sapolsky,

Book cover of A Primate's Memoir: A Neuroscientist's Unconventional Life Among the Baboons

Funny and wise in equal measure, A Primate’s Memoir is a window on baboon social dynamics with plenty of forays into the world of safari tourism that he observes from askance. Sapolsky has since gone on to become one of the science world’s keenest observers of human behaviour, and his portrayals of baboon and human interactions are priceless.


Who am I?

For more than two decades, I have been travelling to the wild places of this planet looking for stories. Africa in all its diversity has always been my first love. Whether I’m off the grid in the Kalahari, or scanning the far horizon of the Serengeti looking for lions, Africa feels like home to me, and I’m passionate about finding, and then telling the stories of the people I meet, and the wildlife I encounter, along the way. And driving me every step of the way is my great belief in the power of the written word and that of a good story to transform the way we think about, and interact with, the natural world. 


I wrote...

The Last Lions of Africa: Stories from the Frontline in the Battle to Save a Species

By Anthony Ham,

Book cover of The Last Lions of Africa: Stories from the Frontline in the Battle to Save a Species

What is my book about?

This book tells five true stories about three enduring African characters—lions, the traditional peoples they live among, and the wild lands that together they inhabit. It’s the story of what happens when a Maasai warrior in Kenya kills a lion, only to become a saviour of lions. It’s what really happened to Cecil in Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe.

One story chronicles the life of Lady Liuwa, the last lioness of western Zambia who became a goddess to the local people. Another traces my solo crossing of the Kalahari in Botswana, through a land emptied of people and of lions. In Tanzania, I follow Africa’s most prolific man-eating lions. And I tell of my own near-death experience with a lion in the African dawn.

The End of the Game

By Peter Beard,

Book cover of The End of the Game: The Last Word from Paradise

Peter Beard settled in Kenya in the late 1950s and became obsessed with the plight of wildlife in Africa. The book is full of evocative photos that he took over a period of some 20 years – some of them absolutely tragic. It is not a book for the faint-hearted; but it tells with truth the stories of explorers, entrepreneurs, big game hunters, and missionaries.

It has been published in several editions and formats. The copy I have is a large paperback that dates from 1989, but there are editions that were produced before that time and many that have been published since.

This book is certainly not an attempt to be gently persuasive, and the author’s position can be summed up in these words that he wrote:

When I first escaped to East Africa in August 1955…it was one of the heaviest wildlife areas…in the world…No one then could…


Who am I?

I am a painter who specializes mostly in sleazy sports (boxing, snooker, etc. – nothing really healthy!) who happens to have written and designed 18 books. Obviously, producing books has become something of a habit. These books are about curiosities of natural history and also about art – but they have little to do with my paintings. Anyone who is interested in either the books or the paintings can see them on my website. I suppose the book that I’m best known for is Drawn from Paradise, a book that I did with David Attenborough on one of our two mutual obsessions – birds of paradise. Apart from books and paintings, my life is fairly humdrum; in fact, there isn’t a lot of time for much else, although I’ve been married more than once and have children. I’ve now reached an age when I should start slowing down but I’ve no intention of stopping what I do until either bad health or death finish me off!


I wrote...

The Great Auk

By Errol Fuller,

Book cover of The Great Auk

What is my book about?

It is difficult for me to pick a favourite from the various books I’ve published, but since I’m obliged to make a choice, it has to be The Great Auk. This is a volume about a bird that has been extinct since 1844 and, surprisingly perhaps for a book about a single species, it runs to almost 450 large pages. It even surprises me that I found so much to write about. When I started it, I expected it to run to, perhaps, a hundred pages or so, but the obsession to produce something entirely complete just went on and on and on.

I tried to leave no stone unturned in the hunt for information and pictures. In fact, the size became a problem when it came to finding a publisher. In addition to all the written material, I had collected more than 200 coloured pictures of what is essentially a black and white bird. No publisher is likely to tolerate such self-indulgence, and all wanted to cut it to more reasonable proportions. This was something I couldn’t even begin to consider – so I published it myself. Then, when it was done an American publisher (Abrams) decided to take it on after all and they produced a US edition. Naturally, I was pleased about this but unfortunately, they changed the dustwrapper and it is nowhere near as beautiful as the dust jacket on my privately published UK edition.

The Tree Where Man Was Born

By Peter Matthiessen,

Book cover of The Tree Where Man Was Born

I could have chosen any of Matthiessen’s books set in Africa – Sand Rivers and African Silences are both magnificent – but The Tree Where Man Was Born is a book of wise observations, superb writing, and great humanity. Whether writing about the Maasai, the poignant death of a zebra, or the landscapes of the Serengeti, the words are perfectly chosen and the tone elegiac. The final chapter, ‘At Gidabembe’ is a masterpiece.


Who am I?

For more than two decades, I have been travelling to the wild places of this planet looking for stories. Africa in all its diversity has always been my first love. Whether I’m off the grid in the Kalahari, or scanning the far horizon of the Serengeti looking for lions, Africa feels like home to me, and I’m passionate about finding, and then telling the stories of the people I meet, and the wildlife I encounter, along the way. And driving me every step of the way is my great belief in the power of the written word and that of a good story to transform the way we think about, and interact with, the natural world. 


I wrote...

The Last Lions of Africa: Stories from the Frontline in the Battle to Save a Species

By Anthony Ham,

Book cover of The Last Lions of Africa: Stories from the Frontline in the Battle to Save a Species

What is my book about?

This book tells five true stories about three enduring African characters—lions, the traditional peoples they live among, and the wild lands that together they inhabit. It’s the story of what happens when a Maasai warrior in Kenya kills a lion, only to become a saviour of lions. It’s what really happened to Cecil in Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe.

One story chronicles the life of Lady Liuwa, the last lioness of western Zambia who became a goddess to the local people. Another traces my solo crossing of the Kalahari in Botswana, through a land emptied of people and of lions. In Tanzania, I follow Africa’s most prolific man-eating lions. And I tell of my own near-death experience with a lion in the African dawn.

Tale of Kasaya

By Eva Kasaya,

Book cover of Tale of Kasaya

I was fortunate to have met Eva Kasaya at a writing retreat in Kenya shortly after she wrote this book. Part novel, part biography, Tale of Kasaya is the astonishing story of Eva Kasaya’s journey from a 13-year-old village girl in rural Kenya to a published author in Nairobi. Kasaya, who leaves her family’s farm for a job as a domestic worker in the city recounts the horrific situation some domestic workers undergo. Sexually assaulted, she overcomes her trauma and finds solace in the written word. A beautifully written book that deserves to be a classic.


Who am I?

When I first met Michael Majok Kuch and he asked me if I was interested in writing his life story, I knew nothing about South Sudan. Over the next several years, we met weekly. I’d interview him, write a chapter, research it, and then show it to him for his approval. I read everything I could find on South Sudan and the adjacent countries. In fact, I became so obsessed with Michael's culture that once I read Francis Mading Deng's Dinka Folktales, Mike’s sister arranged a meeting between Francis Mading Deng and me. These books prepared me for writing How Fast Can You Run, helping other “Lost Boys” of Sudan reunite with their mothers.


I wrote...

How Fast Can You Run

By Harriet Levin Millan,

Book cover of How Fast Can You Run

What is my book about?

Set across a backdrop of refugee migration, How Fast Can You Run is the inspiring story of Michael Majok Kuch and his journey to find his mother. In 1988, Majok, as a five-year-old boy, fled his burning village in southern Sudan and trekked through the wilderness in Sudan, Ethiopia, and Kenya to arrive at a series of refugee camps where he would live for the next ten years. When the U.S. brokered an agreement granting approximately 4,000 unaccompanied minors political asylum, Majok, now Michael, was given a new start. Yet his new life was not without trauma. He faced prejudice once again, disrupting the promise of new beginnings. How Fast Can You Run summons the courageous spirit of millions of refugees throughout history and today.

Too Close to the Sun

By Sara Wheeler,

Book cover of Too Close to the Sun: The Audacious Life and Times of Denys Finch Hatton

I enjoyed Too Close to the Sun by Sara Wheeler. This book focused on the free spirit and playboy that was Denys George Finch Hatton, portrayed by Robert Redford in the film Out of Africa. Denys was from an upper-class family and lived an unconventional life according to his own rules. He is buried in the Ngong Hills, Nairobi, where he loved to spend his time hunting. He is a perfect example of doing what you want to do and not having to worry about money.


Who am I?

I have always had an interest in reading factual information about other people’s lives. I am a realist, and prefer reading non-fiction that is true. I am especially interested in reading inspirational stories from people that have overcome adversity, illness, or discrimination.


I wrote...

Waiting in the Wings

By Stevie Turner,

Book cover of Waiting in the Wings

What is my book about?

When my mother told me that she loved me for the first time, I was dumbstruck, as she had never mentioned this before in all of my 58 years. She obviously was desperate for me to reply in a similar vein, but try as I might I could not.  

This is a memoir of the last few years I had with my mother. Neither of us had been overly demonstrative and we had often argued in the past and had never really got on well. However, when I became her carer, a kind of companionship grew from shared memories and by looking at old family photographs. Slowly but surely a closer relationship grew from the ashes of the old.

Ecology Control and Economic Development in East African History

By Helge Kjekshus,

Book cover of Ecology Control and Economic Development in East African History: The Case of Tanganyika, 1850–1950 (Eastern African Studies)

This pioneering book was one of the first to place the history of East Africa within the context of the environment. It has been used continuously for student teaching. The book puts people at the centre of events. It thus serves as a modification to nationalist history with its emphasis on leaders. Helge Kjekshus provides evidence to suggest that the nineteenth century was a period of relative prosperity with well-developed trade. He questions the view that warfare was pervasive and that the slave trade led to depopulation. He points to a balance between man and the environment. Helge Kjeskshus’s book has, for a long time, been the sole reference on environmental history in East Africa, with a focus on Tanganyika. 


Who am I?

Gufu Oba (Professor) has taught Ecology, Pastoralism, and Environmental History at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences for 21 years. He previously worked for UNESCO-MAB on issues of environmental conservation. He has published four books on social and environmental history. His books include Nomads in the shadows of Empires (BRILL, 2013), Climate change adaptations in Africa (Routledge, 2014), Herder Warfare in East Africa: A social and Spatial History (White Horse Press, 2017), and African Environmental Crisis: A History of Science for development (Routledge, 2020).


I wrote...

African Environmental Crisis: A History of Science for Development

By Gufu Oba,

Book cover of African Environmental Crisis: A History of Science for Development

What is my book about?

Using one-and-a-half century’s research literature on peasant agriculture and pastoral rangeland development in East Africa, the book describes myths of environmental changes in terms of soil erosion control, animal husbandry, grazing schemes, large-scale agricultural schemes, social and administrative science research, and vector-disease and pest controls. Drawing on comparative socio-ecological perspectives of African peoples across then colonies and post-independent states, this book refutes the hypothesis that African peoples were responsible for environmental degradation.

The book explores how and why the idea of the African environmental crisis developed and persisted through colonial and post-colonial periods. And why it has been so influential in development discourse. This crisis discourse was dominated by the imposition of imperial scientific knowledge, neglecting indigenous knowledge and experiences.

Weep Not, Child

By Ngugi Wa Thiong'o,

Book cover of Weep Not, Child

I was entranced by this book when I first read it, and still am. I loved the way Kenyan writer and activist Ngugi wa Thiong'o told a story in such a simple, unadorned way that just manages to get under your skin. It’s an important lesson for any writer about unaffected writing! This was the first major novel in English by an East African writer and is just so redolent of its time and place. It charts the life of a young boy growing up through a major change in his home country, and the rise of the Mau Mau freedom fighters.


Who am I?

I am a journalist, travel writer, and author based in Australia, writing about all sorts of people and on topics that I find personally inspiring and thrilling, and which are guaranteed to raise the spirits of readers. I was born in England but travelled the world for 10 years before ending up in Australia in 1989. I also lecture in travel writing at Boston University’s Sydney campus.


I wrote...

Healing Lives

By Sue Williams,

Book cover of Healing Lives

What is my book about?

It’s about a heartwarming friendship between two women from opposite ends of the earth, and with stunningly different backgrounds, which has ended up changing the lives of tens of thousands of the poorest women on earth. 

Australian doctor Catherine Hamlin went over to Ethiopia in 1959 and was horrified to discover that so many young women were suffering life-threatening fistula injuries after undergoing difficult childbirths. One of them was a young peasant girl, Mamitu Gashe. Catherine saved her life, and they became like family to each other. Today, even though Mamitu can still neither read, nor write, nor speak English, she has become one of the top fistula surgeons in the world. It’s a story that touched my heart.

Emma's War

By Deborah Scroggins,

Book cover of Emma's War: A True Story

I’ve always been interested in the subculture of Peace Corp and NGO workers in Africa. Journalist Deborah Scroggins traveled to Sudan to research British aid worker Emma McCune and to interview the people whose lives she recounts. Emma McCune, reputed to have said to Scroggins, “In my heart, I’m Sudanese,” left her former life behind to marry SPLM guerilla leader Riek Macher. During the years McCune and Macher were married, the country was engaged in a brutal civil war. Years after Emma McCune died, Macher became South Sudan’s first vice-president. Emma McCune died in a car accident in Nairobi in 1993 while pregnant. Emma McCune personifies the idealism of the new nation as we read her story of trying to make a difference in a country overrun by the longest-running civil war in Africa. Just like South Sudan itself, Emma McCune is a legend whose short life disturbs and inspires.


Who am I?

When I first met Michael Majok Kuch and he asked me if I was interested in writing his life story, I knew nothing about South Sudan. Over the next several years, we met weekly. I’d interview him, write a chapter, research it, and then show it to him for his approval. I read everything I could find on South Sudan and the adjacent countries. In fact, I became so obsessed with Michael's culture that once I read Francis Mading Deng's Dinka Folktales, Mike’s sister arranged a meeting between Francis Mading Deng and me. These books prepared me for writing How Fast Can You Run, helping other “Lost Boys” of Sudan reunite with their mothers.


I wrote...

How Fast Can You Run

By Harriet Levin Millan,

Book cover of How Fast Can You Run

What is my book about?

Set across a backdrop of refugee migration, How Fast Can You Run is the inspiring story of Michael Majok Kuch and his journey to find his mother. In 1988, Majok, as a five-year-old boy, fled his burning village in southern Sudan and trekked through the wilderness in Sudan, Ethiopia, and Kenya to arrive at a series of refugee camps where he would live for the next ten years. When the U.S. brokered an agreement granting approximately 4,000 unaccompanied minors political asylum, Majok, now Michael, was given a new start. Yet his new life was not without trauma. He faced prejudice once again, disrupting the promise of new beginnings. How Fast Can You Run summons the courageous spirit of millions of refugees throughout history and today.

Dinka Folktales

By Francis Mading Deng,

Book cover of Dinka Folktales: African Stories from the Sudan

Prolific author and intellectual Francis Mading Deng became South Sudan’s first ambassador to the United Nations. Meeting Dr. Deng in person was one of the highlights of my life. To read any of his 40-some books is a privilege. It is possible to read Dinka Folktales as astonishing anthropological events, but Francis Mading Deng provides an introduction that reveals the “truth” in storytelling. These folktales contain the philosophical, religious, and day-to-day practices of the Dinka, who are the largest ethnic tribe in South Sudan. Given the civil war with north Sudan and the south’s dramatic victory in establishing their own country, these extraordinary stories belong in the ranks of world literature. 


Who am I?

When I first met Michael Majok Kuch and he asked me if I was interested in writing his life story, I knew nothing about South Sudan. Over the next several years, we met weekly. I’d interview him, write a chapter, research it, and then show it to him for his approval. I read everything I could find on South Sudan and the adjacent countries. In fact, I became so obsessed with Michael's culture that once I read Francis Mading Deng's Dinka Folktales, Mike’s sister arranged a meeting between Francis Mading Deng and me. These books prepared me for writing How Fast Can You Run, helping other “Lost Boys” of Sudan reunite with their mothers.


I wrote...

How Fast Can You Run

By Harriet Levin Millan,

Book cover of How Fast Can You Run

What is my book about?

Set across a backdrop of refugee migration, How Fast Can You Run is the inspiring story of Michael Majok Kuch and his journey to find his mother. In 1988, Majok, as a five-year-old boy, fled his burning village in southern Sudan and trekked through the wilderness in Sudan, Ethiopia, and Kenya to arrive at a series of refugee camps where he would live for the next ten years. When the U.S. brokered an agreement granting approximately 4,000 unaccompanied minors political asylum, Majok, now Michael, was given a new start. Yet his new life was not without trauma. He faced prejudice once again, disrupting the promise of new beginnings. How Fast Can You Run summons the courageous spirit of millions of refugees throughout history and today.

The Lunatic Express

By Charles Miller,

Book cover of The Lunatic Express: The Magnificent Saga of the Railway's Journey Into Africa

Kenya was an exotic territory for British colonial interests in the late 19th century. For reasons almost impossible to understand today, the British decided to build a railroad from Mombasa, the seaport on the Indian Ocean, through the Kenyan savannah, to Kampala, a city of some riches in the far interior of what is now Uganda. The story of the building of the railroad at the end of the 19th century is hair-raising, thanks to Miller’s classic history, as imported Indian workers had to endure predatory lions, harsh climates, and raging rivers to forge across the frontier. That the railroad to nowhere was completed is a tribute to those Indian workers and their intrepid British overseers.

Today, one can take the train from Mombasa to Nairobi, some three hundred miles distant, either in the daylight, hoping to spy some wildlife, or in a sleeping berth at night. I…


Who am I?

From my days as a student in India in the early 1970s through my years in the U.S. Foreign Service with postings in Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Kenya, as well as assignments to the India, Kenya, and Uganda desks at the Department of State, I learned something of the cultures of South Asia and East Africa and gained an appreciation for the peoples of those countries. During the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic, I had the time to write. I developed a novel that was part autobiography and part fiction, and most of which was set in South Asia and East Africa. The result is Danger and Romance in Foreign Lands.


I wrote...

Danger and Romance in Foreign Lands

By Stephen E. Eisenbraun,

Book cover of Danger and Romance in Foreign Lands

What is my book about?

To see the world, to report political intrigue abroad—these are the ambitions of Scott Higgins, a young American foreign correspondent in South Asia who encounters dramatic and dangerous events there in the 1970s. It is in India that he also makes an unexpected romantic connection with Rakhi, a smart, savvy, and sultry woman employed by a British multinational bank. Scott and Rakhi elope to Nairobi, where Scott takes up his second reporting assignment, and Rakhi continues with her bank in its Kenyan branch. Even as newlyweds, however, their lives are threatened by unseen but dangerous political actors who resent their presence in the country. They flee Nairobi to London, where trouble of a more personal kind still awaits them.

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