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storytelling, set in Africa

20 February 2011

My desire to have this book written was born out of my faith and beliefs in humanity; I wanted to reach out to others to help them understand Sudan’s place in our global community… I am blessed to have lived to inform you that even when my hours were darkest, I believed that some day I could share my experiences with others. This book is a form of struggle, and it keeps my spirit alive to struggle. To struggle is to strengthen my faith, my hope and my belief in humanity.

That is from the preface of What is the What, a novel/autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng, written by Dave Eggers.

As I think about how I will change the syllabus for next fall’s African Politics course, I’d very much like to include a narrative book. What is the What is one option. Others I’ve considered are Half of a Yellow Sun (too long for undergrads, methinks), The Emperor, So Long a Letter, and really, anything by Chinua Achebe that isn’t Things Fall Apart (since more and more students are reading this in high school). When I took African Politics as an undergrad in the previous millennium, I was assigned Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah, which I think Dan Posner still assigns. My preference is to feature an African voice (though Deng isn’t the author of What is the What, I think it still counts), especially after having watched Chimamanda Adichie’s TED talk a few years ago:

Does anyone else have recommendations for narratives set in Africa that would be interesting for undergrads in an African Politics course?

19 Comments leave one →
  1. abedgell permalink
    20 February 2011 2:49 pm

    A Bend in the River by V.S. Naipaul is the best description of D.R. Congo and Kisangani in particular that I have ever read. It also paints an interesting picture of early post-independence. However, this might be a bit depressing for students and is not by an African writer.

    Of course, an obvious choice is The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind. This would leave students with something positive after all the corruption, ethnic conflict, and poverty.

    • 20 February 2011 8:05 pm

      Amanda – I still need to read Bend. Perhaps it will be next on my list. Thx for reminding me!

  2. 20 February 2011 3:10 pm

    The boy who harnessed the wind isn’t technically by an African writer either. The guy gets his name on the book, but an American journalist wrote it, putting it in essentially the same category as What is the What, although without the ‘fiction’ label.

    I think undergrads could handle Half of a Yellow Sun. It’s a totally gripping read.

    When you say “narrative” do you mean you want fiction? Or you mean you want not dry-academic text?

    For fiction, Mia Couto may be a good choice. “Under the Fragipani Tree” is a tiny little book bursting with things to discuss. You might also try Nuriddin Farah, the Somli novelist. Students will probably be surprised by their styles — but that’s part of the beauty.

    • 20 February 2011 8:06 pm

      Thanks, Jina, for these. I’m not limiting myself to fiction, but instead chose “narrative” for just the reason you give: I’m trying to give students something that speaks to them in a way that academic articles can’t.

  3. ramy permalink
    20 February 2011 7:08 pm

    Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions

    I’ve used this a few times in intro to africa and it usually goes over really well. The students are just so close to the protagonist’s age that it resonates.

    I’ve also assigned students to read various caine prize nominated stories but you have to keep an eye on those. a huge number of them are just murder/rape. That might be mostly a reflection of the medium (short story). Some of the stories have been incredibly powerful and I’ve loved using them (even some of the gory ones).

    • 20 February 2011 8:10 pm

      This year’s class opened with requiring students to read the Caine prize-winning essay “Waiting.” I had only learned of the Caine prize just before the start of the semester (thanks to Glenna Gordon’s blog, I think) and was happy to find it. I’d be curious to hear any you’ve shared that have been really helpful. Thanks for the recomendation for Nervous Conditions!

  4. 20 February 2011 7:42 pm

    I have been most impressed hearing Gabriel Bol Deng speak he was a Lost Boy of the Sudan you can find more about his work and speaking schedule at There are articles under the Newsroom heading.

    • 20 February 2011 8:11 pm

      Thanks, @Carolyn. I haven’t been to a Lost Boy event, but met a few when acting as an election monitor in Dallas’s polling center for the Southern Sudan Referendum. Their stories are indeed quite moving.

  5. 21 February 2011 8:22 am

    I tried Half of a Yellow Sun in my AP class last year. The student or two who got through it loved it, but it was way too long for most of them (and I divided it over four class sessions in two weeks). Didn’t use any fiction this fall and missed it. Cathy Boone used to assign Ferdinanc Oyono’s Houseboy in her classes, it’s short and sweet (122 pages) and good for the colonialism section. Camara Laye’s The Dark Child is a memoir, but is also really good for provoking discussion of the choice faced by young Africans who were torn between tradition and Western education.

  6. 21 February 2011 8:22 am

    That would be Ferdinand.

  7. Katie permalink
    21 February 2011 11:10 am

    It’s been a while since I read it and it may not be what you are looking for, but Zenzele: A Letter for My Daughter by J. Nozipo Maraire is a quick and interesting read, and it looks at both the colonial/post-colonial era in Zimbabwe, and the effects of brain drain on a country. It might speak to your students.

  8. 21 February 2011 12:14 pm

    I’d second Amanda’s recommendation of A Bend in the River. On her recommendation I read it before getting here and it gives some good contract between North/East Africa and Black Africa as well. But it does take a while before it gets going.

    I think that The Emperor was one of the most gripping books I’ve read in a long time, and I would think that any student would be interested in both the absurd luxury described as well as the rather exciting collapse of the regime. It’s also interesting hearing it all told from the voices of the servants and functionaries. It’s short too. Undergrads like short.

  9. Lynn H. permalink
    21 February 2011 10:32 pm

    I wrote a graduate paper on Half of a Yellow Sun and Buchi Emecheta’s Destination Biafra (short but I wouldnt recommend it for a number of reasons). The Poisonwood Bible is also probably too long for undergrads but is an interesting “westerner in africa” novel and beautifully written.

    If you are still thinking about Adiche, I read The Thing Around your neck over a few sleepless nights in Malawi and I thought is was quite remarkable. When short fails, try short stories!

  10. 26 February 2011 7:03 am

    If you want some of the old stuffs you could check out Achebe’s A Man of the People and Ayi Kwei Amah’s The Beautyful Ones are not Yet Born.

    For something more contemporary I would try Helon Habila’s Oil on Water. It is not a breezy read, but the subject is very topical. Well, the title is self-explanatory.

  11. 28 February 2011 6:19 am

    Thanks everyone, for your ideas. In case you were interested, here were a few more suggestions from friends via Facebook:

    Moses Isegawa–Snake Pit, Abysinnian Chronicles
    Kwani? (journal of fiction/short stories)
    Abraham Verghese–Cutting for Stone
    “The River Between” for some East African history and an intro to sexual politics.
    Tsitsi Dangaremba–The Book of Not, Nervous Conditions
    Aidan Hartley–The Zanzibar Chest
    A Crocodile Eats the Sun

  12. 28 February 2011 10:58 am

    and here are a handful more from a Tweep:

    Three Days on the Cross by Wahome Mutahi.
    A Question of Power by Bessie Head.
    Money Galore by Amu Djoleto.

  13. NOPE permalink
    5 December 2012 9:02 pm

    a bunch of $@#%!& weirdos!!!!!


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