Top Five: African history

By Kevin O’Sullivan

With a nod to Nick Hornby, John Cusack and High Fidelity, this post is the first in an occasional series of introductions to lesser-explored corners of history.

Martin Meredith, The state of Africa: a history of fifty years of independence (London: The Free Press, 2005)
Never far from the eye in the history section of your local Waterstones, Meredith’s book has become the book of choice for the uninitiated. And for good reason; The state of Africa is a brilliantly written, accessible introduction to the history of the continent from a knowledgeable and vastly experienced author. For those of you looking for some extra detail, try Paul Nugent’s Africa since independence: a comparative history (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004).

Richard Dowden, Africa: altered states, ordinary miracles (London: Portobello, 2008)
Like Meredith, Dowden draws extensively on his first-hand experience of Africa, from his time as a teacher in Uganda in the early 1970s to his work with the Independent, Times, Economist and latterly as director of the Royal African Society. The result is an expertly nuanced mix of personal experience, history and investigative journalism bound together in a subtle narrative of a continent of many contradictions – its war, corruption and poverty, but also its abundant generosity, hospitability and ingenuity.

Philip Gourevitch, We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families: stories from Rwanda (London: Picador, 1998)
This multi award-winning book explores the tragedy of the Rwandan genocide, the sense of helplessness felt by its Tutsi citizens at the inaction of the international community, but also the complex morality of NGOs providing food, medicine and shelter to interahamwe murderers among the Hutu refugees huddled in camps in northern Congo. An excellent piece of investigative journalism turned history and the inspiration for the films Hotel Rwanda (2004) and Shooting Dogs (2005).

Paul Collier, The bottom billion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007)
There has been a glut of books in recent years dealing with every aspect of aid, development, and why Africa in particular has yet to produce the kind of sustained growth capable of lifting its citizens to the levels of prosperity enjoyed by the Asian Tiger economies. Oxford economist Paul Collier has produced one of the best: challenging, insightful and eminently readable, even if it is difficult to agree with all of his recommendations.

Chinua Achebe, Things fall apart (London: William Heinemann, 1958)
I’m cheating a bit for my final choice. But any reader of African history and culture will at some stage turn to Achebe’s seminal novel: a brilliantly written exploration of Nigerian society on the brink of the colonial era.


8 Responses to “Top Five: African history”

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  4. Patrick Walsh Says:

    Can I suggest the African writings of the brilliant late Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski, for a long time Poland’s only foreign correspondent. The best introduction is the posthumously published Travels with Herodotus (2007), while ‘The Soccer War’ (published in paperback in 2007), while opeing with famous Honduras-El Salvador conflict sparked by a World Cup quallifier includes fascinating essays on post empire Africa, including sceptical views of Nkrumah’s Ghana.

    • Paula Says:

      The Emperor and The Shadow of the Sun also by Ryszard Kapuscinski, brilliant books. And, more recently, Wangari Maathai’s book The Challenge for Africa.

      • puesoccurrences Says:

        Thanks for the additions Paula. Wangari Maathai’s book was a Christmas present and sits on my bedside pile of books to be read. Will look forward to it.


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  6. Essie Christmas Says:

    There’s certainly a lot to find out about this topic. I love all of the points you’ve made.|

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