Memoirs from Africa: Paring Down a List

I’m preparing a year-long reading list of books about Africa for the Washington D.C. area Swarthmore alumni. I decided to constrain myself to memoirs or first-person perspective accounts. I decided to mostly concentrate on accounts from the last thirty years or so simply so I can stay with works that are in print and available at reasonable prices. In selecting works, I’ve decided to go for the widest stylistic range I can think of and the widest range of settings, interests and authors. The constraint I’ve made for myself does lead to some unfortunate exclusions: there are some novels that I’d like to use that are pretty damn close to memoirs. It also provides a surplus of certain kinds of books that I find tedious because they follow such a strong template and are so driven by market fads: memoirs of white women who grew up on African farms that followed on Alexandra Fuller’s great memoir of life in Rhodesia and now memoirs of child soldiers and survivors of Darfur. But I think that’s an interesting kind of reading in its own right–to sort distinctively written examples of such mini-genres from the templates which emerge to structure most writing of this kind. I’m also only considering books that I think are provocative sparks to intensely-felt conversation, so avoiding works that are worthy in some fashion or another but tend to only invite a kind of pious, numbed consensus appreciation for their worthiness.

Here’s what I’ve got at the moment, and what I’d still like to come up with.

Alexandra Fuller, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight
Really, I just love reading this book in courses. It’s so distinctive in stylistic terms, and so unsentimental and unapologetic, that it still unsettles a kind of complacently do-gooder liberal expectation about what reading about Africa or white settlers ought to be like.

Redmond O’Hanlon, No Mercy : A Journey Into the Heart of the Congo
I find this both funny and annoying as hell in turns–it makes for an interesting read alongside Henry Morton Stanley’s Central Africa memoir, in both intended and accidental ways. I also find it very amusing (again, both on purpose and not). There’s some interesting though at times hyperexaggerated accounts of the postcolonial state in it as well.

Robert Sapolsky, A Primate’s Memoir
This is easily one of my favorite memoirs of any kind about any place. I decided to teach the environmental history of Africa just so I could teach this book, partly. There is a ton of stuff going on here: Sapolsky’s uninhibited honesty ends up saying a lot about the culture of research by non-Africans within Africa and a great deal else.

Samson Kambalu, The Jive Talker: An Artist’s Genesis
Great fun, fascinating, and a real cure-all for the endless parade of memoirs by Africans about their experiences of war, genocide and violence.

Adam Ashforth, Madumo
I think this is a good route into talking about witchcraft discourse, the particularity of culture, the problem of how or whether to act when you’re an outsider.

Helene Cooper, The House at Sugar Beach
Really interesting memoir of a childhood in Liberia but also a reflection on the Americo-Liberian community and the historical hole it dug for itself.

Saidiya Hartman, Lose Your Mother
There are other travel accounts by African-Americans that I like, but some are out of print (Eddy Harris’ Native Stranger) and some I don’t like (like Keith Richburg’s Out of America) but Hartman’s is really distinctive and fiercely resists compression or reductionism.

Ishmael Beah, A Long Way Gone
I need to pick one of the many, many books in this genre. I think this or What is the What, the latter of which raises some pretty substantial questions about authorial voice and ownership over experience.

George Packard, The Village of Waiting
A little older than some of these other books, but I like it a lot, and it definitely sparks off conversations about development, community service, and the paving on the road to hell.

William Kamkwamba, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind
God, this is so well-meaning and sincere that I feel a bit like I’ve just watched a marathon of The Waltons when I read it. But again, the last thing I want is a year full of genocide and war.

Aidan Hartley, The Zanzibar Chest
I actually like this less for the early more standard colonial-nostalgia stuff on white settlers and more for Hartley’s honest accounts of his work as a journalist and rootless traveller and the kind of scruffy hedonism that he got caught up in in between covering war and genocide.

Paul Theroux, Dark Star Safari
Theroux’s an asshole, but that’s sort of the point of his travel writing, and it makes him fairly interesting to talk about.

Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom
This is a way better read than it has any right to be. But it’s long and not nearly as obviously engaging or provocative as some of these other books. (What’s provocative or controversial about it takes some unearthing for non-South Africans.)

Wole Soyinka, Ake, The Years of Childhood
Gotta do this. Great book, fun to read.

Antjie Krog, Country of My Skull
I like this book a lot. Maybe bends my rules a bit in that it’s as much a journalist’s account of events as it is a memoir of them. Plus the TRC is itself a form of “testimonial memoir”.

Camara Laye, The Dark Child
Maybe loses out to Ake, The Years of Childhood, but it’s a great book. Also a bit older in time frame than some of the rest of these choices. On the other hand, I have very little Francophone work here.


Questions I still have, beyond what to cut and what to keep:

1. Anybody out there read Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf’s memoir yet? Any good?
2. Maybe I should venture back into the colonial era and earlier. If I did, I’d be so tempted to teach Mungo Park’s Travels in the Interior of Africa, which I think needs rescuing from Mary Louise Pratt’s interpretation of it as neatly aligned with the purposes of later imperial representations of Africa.
3. Would love to have some more weird, unconventional or surprising kinds of memoirs representing excluded or marginalized positionalities. I’m almost tempted to be really subversive and offer M.G. Vassanji’s A Place Within, the memoir of an African writer of South Asian descent about his first visit to India…
4. I probably should have a missionary’s memoir. Are there any recent ones that are any good? I was toying with Margaret McCord’s The Calling of Katie Makhanya but that also stretches my ruleset a bit.

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11 Responses to Memoirs from Africa: Paring Down a List

  1. ZakT says:

    I would definitely include Tick Bite Fever by David Bennun and Mukiwa by Peter Godwin. An great insight into growing up in Africa.

  2. CMarko says:

    Nothing to add except that I vote for What is the What. The questions about authorial voice could make for interesting discussions, and it’s a stunning book.

  3. Timothy Burke says:

    Mukiwa is always an interesting pairing with Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs. Tick Bite Fever is something I’ve been meaning to read and embarassed that I haven’t, so there’s a job for me in the next few weeks.

  4. ca says:

    Mukiwa’s good– I also like his more recent crocadile book.
    But you’re awfully heavy on white boys in Africa.
    How about Wangari Maathai’s _Unbowed_? It’s accessible. Miria Matembe’s autobio’s even more vivid, though that’s hard to get ahold of. I’d think something on contemporary women’s vision of political comitment (with both the platitudes and the problems) would be good.
    More controversially, how about something from Rwanda/Congo–either a book based on life histories collectively like _The Antelope’s Strategy_ (yes, genre problem) or more conventionally Umutesi’s _Surviving the Slaughter_, which may also have authorship issues, and can sometimes be clunky, but might provide plenty to discuss.
    Michaela Wrong is more in the reportage category, but both her stuff on Zaire and on Eritrea is more readable to me than Zanzibar Chest.
    And on growing up, I was happier with Aminatta Forna’s memoire than with Cooper.
    I just re-read Laye, and couldn’t stand it. But Soyinka holds up awesomely well.

  5. Timothy Burke says:

    Yeah, some of the white boys are going out as I winnow down.

    I feel guilty for saying this, but I found Maathai’s Unbowed pretty boring for a long stretch.

    Love Michaela Wrong but maybe that does shade me into another category of writing.

    Forna is a very good suggestion.

    I haven’t re-read Laye in about six years. Maybe I need to check and see how I feel about it after a re-look.

  6. devinfinbarr says:

    The reading list is very focused on the present. I would love to see a primary source/memoirs reading list with equal treatment given to pre-colonial, colonial, independence/post-inpendence, and the present eras.

  7. Timothy Burke says:

    Yeah, I’m tempted to mix in older material. But it’s a book club, and I want to concentrate on work that’s readable, exciting, and in-print for a reasonable price. If I were doing this with students and had access to a sizeable library, I’d probably start with something like ibn Battuta and go forward from there.

  8. S Phillips says:

    Mungo Park’s book is available on Kindle for next to nothing, if that helps. I’m about to start in on it.
    As a Swarthmore grad living in Nigeria (after 4 years in Kenya) I was happy to come across this post via the blog Africa is a Country. I push “A Primate’s Memoir” on everyone who shows the slightest interest in either Africa, baboons, or human nature. Or even if they don’t. Tick Bite Fever is funny, but a bit lightweight….And yes, Paul Theroux is an ass! I was so thrilled at the end of Dark Star Safari when all his stuff got stolen.
    There’s sort of a gaping hole in what is available — memoirs that really get at contemporary modernizing African places, stories of the African middle class…I have only found that in short story form or in fiction.

  9. Stephen Frug says:

    I’m not recommending it, because I haven’t read it, but I’m curious what you think of Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa. (I ask because while I haven’t read OofA, her short stories are astonishing — Seven Gothic Tales is one of the best books I’ve ever read.)

  10. SB says:

    would Owen Sheer’s Dust Diaries count as a missionary memoir (of his grandfather)?

  11. SFuchs says:

    Ngugi’s ‘Dreams in A Time of War’ and extracts from ‘Decolonizing the Mind’ make for a useful anectdote to the romanticized colonial representations in ‘Mukiwa’ (which I enjoyed) and others.
    The frankness of Fuller’s ‘Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs’, which was so refreshing and daring, is completely lost in ‘Scribbling the Cat’; a comparison would make for an interesting discussion. Ironically, I asked Fuller at a reading about various Black African writers’ responses to her memoir and ‘Scribbling the Cat’, which is essentially about the effects of a race war on a white settler soldier, and she was extremely snippy, claiming that writers were beyond race and the question irrelevant. When she shared her next reading venue with the audience, she closed with ‘No repeat offenders, please’. I found that response so contradictory to the honesty of ‘Don’t Let’s…’ that I still think of it.

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