Chris Blattman

Africa reading list

A reader asked me if I had a suggested reading list on Africa. I didn’t, but I took a shot at some suggestions, starting with good, readable books and moving towards the more academic. Suggestions are welcome.

First, some readable histories. Jon Reader writes a long but enjoyable natural and political history of Africa.

John Iliffe is one of the best and most thoughtful historians of the continent and writes this short history.

The most wonderful travel accounts and reportage have been written by Ryszard Kapuscinski. My favorite is Shadow of the Sun. Another Day of Life is a first-hand account of the civil war in Angola, and The Emperor is the story of the last days of Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie as told by palace courtiers.

Nelson Mandela’s autobiography is one of my favorite volumes. Also interesting is (Ugandan President) Yoweri Museveni’s autobiography, covering his youth and years as a guerrilla fighter.

On the economic front, Paul Collier’s Bottom Billion is the probably most influential development book of 2007-08. I’m not through it yet (that’s what vacations are for!) but some smart people I know think it’s a worthy contribution.

For a nuanced view on post-war aid, crises and politics in Africa, Nick van de Walle has one of the most thoughtful volumes. Bill Easterly’s Elusive Quest for Growth is also an important read.

For a provocative view on politics, aid and development, see Andrew Mwenda’s TED talk and read about his new newspaper. His books are not out yet, but readers of this blog will hear about it when they are ready.

For the more academically inclined, I recommend Mahmood Mamdani’s groundbreaking account of the effects of colonialism on African political structures. Mamdani (a Ugandan) also wrote this compelling analysis of the Rwandan genocide.

Also for the academically inclined, Dan Posner has one of the best volumes on ethnic politics.

On civil war, Deborah Scroggins writes a thoughtful and highly readable account of the Sudan’s civil war, through her account of the life and death of a young British aid worker.

On the causes of war in Africa, Paul Collier and Nicholas Sambanis edit this volume of case studies of African civil conflict and Jeremy Weinstein develops a theory of the organization of armed groups and violence using Uganda and Mozambique as case studies.

John Iliffe also writes a recommended history of the African AIDS epidemic.

I hope that helps. Recommendations of more books written by Africa-born writers and scholars are welcome.

UPDATE: Elliot Green points out the glaring omissions from this list in part two of the Africa reading list.

20 Responses

    1. May I suggest a book I edited called Missionaries, Mercenaries and Misfits, published by Authorhouse UK in 2008. This anthology is a collection of essays that critique the development industry in East Africa with a view to debunking the myth about development as practised by NGOs, the UN, donor agencies and African governments. Written mostly in a non-academic style, the book provides a much-needed African perspective on the aid industry and why it has failed so miserably in lifting people out of poverty.

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  2. Hi Chris,

    Thank you for the blog. I am finding your posts very insightful, as I will be a senior in college in the fall, and I hope to eventually work on trade and development issues in Africa. (Your own work is very much tempting me towards the PhD in economics route again, but I am probably going to attempt a dual JD/MPA or JD/MPP degree.) I’m currently about a fourth of the way through Martin Meredith’s book “The Fate of Africa: A History of Fifty Years of Independence” ( Are you familiar with it? In your opinion, how well does it serve as a historical primer?

  3. If you put both lists together it’s excellent and pretty comprehensive.

    There are only a few of my personal favorites missing:

    Africa Since 1940 by Fred Cooper. Actually, pretty much anything by Fred Cooper would be good, but that’s his most accessible and it comes with an insanely extensive bibliography (in the interests of disclosure I worked for him at NYU so I may be biased)

    A Continent for the Taking by Howard French.

    In The Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz by Michaela Wrong about DRC/Zaire in the late 1990s.

    Speaking of fiction, I would highly recommend a Conrad short story, “An Outpost of Progress” which I think is much better and more coherent than Heart of Darkness and is possibly the best short critique of colonialism out there, at least from the colonizer’s perspective (it’s neck and neck with “Shooting An Elephant” by Orwell). You can read an e-version of the story at

  4. I can’t believe no one has mentioned The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born. Just started it and it is awesome.

  5. I’m a fan of some of the other memoirs: Aidan Hartley’s ‘The Zanzibar Chest’ in particular…

  6. This is a nice conversation. Let me add a few more contemporary novelists from across Africa who also tell stories of major political change:

    Shimmer Chinodya (Zimbabwe)
    Yvonne Vera (Zimbabwe)
    Assia Djebar (Algeria)
    Nuruddin Farah (Somalia)
    Alex LaGuma (South Africa)
    Ken Saro Wiwa (Nigeria)

    Charles Larson has also collected modern stories from across the continent in “Under African Skies”.

  7. Great list, and it will inform some of my future reading. I posted a guide on a similar topic a couple of months ago. Two that are not here but I found eminently readable and insightful are Dave Eggers’ What is the What (about boy refugees in Sudan) and Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun (about the Biafran War).

  8. Chris:

    This is great. I would love to see you or someone else do a similar list for news sources/periodicals for the general and scholarly public on Africa.

  9. I would add the well-known books by Robert Bates, Catherine Boone, Pierre Englebert, James Ferguson, Jeffrey Herbst and Crawford Young.

    I also second Michela Wrong’s book _I didn’t do it for you_ and _King Leopold’s Ghost_.

    A recent good one on contemporary Uganda, and by an African scholar, is _Regime Hegemony in Museveni’s Uganda: Pax Musevenica_, by Joshua Rubongoya (Palgrave, 2007).

  10. I’ve never been able to get into Kapucinski. By far the best book I have ever read on Africa is Africa: Dispatches from a Fragile Continent by Blaine Harden which is absolute genius.

    I like A Bend in the River by Naipaul on a fiction tip, although some consider it to be justifying colonialism.

  11. One I didn’t see on Chris’s list that is pretty good is A Long Way Gone: Memiors of A Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah. One of the best books I have found on child soldiers, then again the only one I have read yet.


  12. ok

    Wole Soyinka’s autobiographic works “Aké: The Years of Childhood”, “Isara: A Voyage around Essay” (based on his father correspondance), “Ibadan: The Penkelemes Years: a memoir 1946-65” and “You Must Set Forth at Dawn” are all full of political details and anecdotes and are helpful in understanding the last 70 years of nigerian history.

    Yambo Ouologuem’s “Bound to Violence” is the greatest african novel of all time. Quite helpful in understanding sahelian history too.

    Emmanuel Dongala’s “The Fire of Origins”.

    Ahmadou Kourouma’s “The Suns of Independence”.

  13. Cry of the Beloved Country by Alan Paton

    The Fate of Africa: A History of Fifty Years of Independence by Martin Meredith

    Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

    and I second Mandella’s bio – it is truly amazing.

  14. Two highly readable books by journalists:
    -The Graves Are Not Yet Full by Bill Berkeley (on conflict in Africa)
    -I Didn’t Do It for You by Michela Wrong (on Eritrea)

    Plus, a work of fiction:
    -Seasons of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih

  15. I’d add three:

    King Leopold’s Ghost (well-written early history of DRC) and
    The Mirror at Midnight (written before the end of apartheid in South Africa, anticipating the problems to come as the government took away it’s own power and made power wealth-based in preparation for a hand-over of political power), both by Adam Hochschild;

    We Wish to Inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families, by Philip Gouerevitch;

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