From Sir H. Rider Haggard to Chinua Achebe, Africa-inspired literary lions have weaved a story as large as the continent.
Although no single novel can capture Africa’s complex sweep of diversity and history, a sampling of the best African novels, provides armchair travelers a window into the continent’s psyche. Thematically, the clash of Africa’s present with its past coupled with the struggle between indigenous tribes and colonial conquerors have been common grist for European as well as African-born writers. Historical novels chronicling the various eras including European exploration, colonialism, great white safari hunters, independence through today’s AIDs epidemic and global trade era allow readers to take the long, turbulent journey.
The list of authors is impressive producing some highly prized literature as well as big commercial successes. Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” and Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart,” are considered classics by literary scholars and are themselves part of the indigenous vs. foreign debate. Achebe created a stir in 1975 by saying Conrad dehumanized Africans by not presenting their point of view. This triggered a backlash in European and American academic circles that still reverberates today.
Haggard’s “King Solomon’s Mines” penned in 1885 has been filmed at least six times and is the kind of adventure yarn that inspires today’s video gamers. From a purely commercial standpoint, “King Solomon’s Mines” captured more readers and movie goers over the last century than anything Ernest Hemingway ever wrote about Africa. Hemingway is credited for making the Swahili word safari synonymous with African tourism and helped put Africa on today’s adventure travel map.
Some of the finest and most inspirational Africa novels barely register on Amazon.com’s most popular list. French writer, Romain Gary’s 1956 novel, “The Roots of Heaven” is perhaps the best book, written about poaching and the African conservation movement. Nadine Gordimer’s 1991 novel, “July’s People,” was a Nobel winner and is among the most insightful apartheid reads. Her 1958 apartheid-era novel, “A World of Strangers,” had a profound effect on Tusker Founder Eddie Frank’s family. His mother Evelyn starred in the 1962 movie version of the novel that was filmed under cover on the streets of Johannesburg. The Frank family emigrated from South Africa after the government cracked down on the film’s cast and put the Frank family under secret police surveillance prior to their exit from the country.
War and Africa seem synonymous the last 30 years and Thomas Keneally’s, “To Asmara” puts the reader at the frontlines of Ethiopia’s Eritrean war.
In the last decade a new wave of home grown authors captures the post independence conflict between Africa’s own despotic rulers and its set upon people. Moses Isegawa’s “Abyssinian Chronicles,” tells Uganda’s story from independence to Idi Amin. Nigeria’s Soni Abacha dictatorship is well chronicled by Helon Habila in “Waiting for an Angel.” The role of religion as a controlling force in African life is aptly depicted in “Purple Hibiscus,” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi
The Horror, The Horror
When a blood soaked Marlon Brando rasps, “The Horror, The Horror” near the end of “Apocalypse Now” most literate film goers had the feeling they heard that line before. They had. Francis Ford Coppola borrowed liberally from Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” transporting the novel’s Belgian Congo story line and central character Kurtz to the Vietnam War for the big screen. Conrad’s book remains the seminal colonialism era read as it sheds light on Europe’s bloody colonialism, but transcends it by making a statement on man’s inherent nature. You guessed it. It’s dark without much room for redemption.
Conrad’s story was drawn from his experience as a steam ship captain in the Congo and he saw first hand Belgian’s brutal treatment of the locals. He based the Kurtz character partially on revered English Africa explorer Henry Morton Stanley who Conrad saw as the poster boy for man’s potential for duplicity.
More uplifting was Haggard’s central character, Alain Quartermain, who came 16 years before Kurtz and gave the world a different take on Africa and the European explorer. Haggard’s protagonist was a hero his was the first novel to present tribal cultures as complex and fought the notion that Africans were barbarians. Quartermain refuses to use the word “nigger” and believes many Africans are more worthy of the title “gentleman” than the Europeans who settle or adventure there. Haggard includes an interracial romance between the book’s hero and a local tribeswoman who helps him in his quest to find diamonds.
Contemporary authors have also added to the historical record. T C Boyle’s “Water Music” (1981) takes the reader on a rambunctious route following Scottish explorer Mungo Park in his search for the source of the Nile in the late 18th century. “The Ghosts of Africa” (1980) by William Stevenson is an epic tale of a rebellious German officer in WWI who organizes a tribal band to overthrow the Brits. For insight into the Asian influence on East Africa, read M. G. Vassanji’s 1994 novel “The Book of Secrets” that interweaves the story of Indian transplants with local tribes in Kenya and Tanzania before World War I.
The Baroness and Papa
Anyone in the safari business today owes a great deal of gratitude to Isak Dinesen and Hemingway. Dinesen was a Danish baroness who romanticized her life in Kenya living on a coffee plantation in her novel, “Out of Africa” published in 1937. The lead character has a high flying affair with hunter/bush pilot Denys Finch Hatton later played by Robert Redford in the 1985 award winning film. The book delves into Africa’s dual justice systems (tribal vs. colonial) but made Kenya seem almost safe and inviting. The movie made Kenya so inviting, that Tusker Trail’s own Eddie Frank moved his safari/expedition operation down to Zambia, to avoid the tourist horde.
Hemingway’s Africa was far from safe. He never lived in Africa and made just two trips separated by twenty years, but the books and short fiction produced from his safaris were influential due to his literary star. His best work came from his war reportage in Europe not his accounts of drinking and shooting in the African bush, but he gave the world a new perspective on Africa travel. It was a place to test oneself against flora/fauna, but also a mirror to assess one’s life, ask the tough questions and perhaps redeem one self through a new love.
“The Snows of Kilimanjaro” (1936) is about Harry a macho writer suffering from a bout of self-pity and gangrene who finds out how truly vulnerable he is. The stream of consciousness novel’s much debated symbolism features a frozen leopard on the Kilimanjaro summit. Although less well received by literary critics, Hemingway’s posthumous, “True at First Light,” (1953) holds up well and is a better transition to today’s safari times. The great white hunter era is over, the Mau Maus are rebelling and the Hemingway character is in love with a young tribeswoman while his wife is out shooting a black-manned lion. The contrast between Anglo/Afro cultures and killing and loving are stoked around the camp fire in Hemingway’s denouement.
Hemingway’s “Africa” legacy still lives. Tusker Trail’s Eddie Frank will be leading Hemingway’s granddaughter Mariel, and a group of 11 “Green Girls” up Kilimanjaro for Climb for Conservation.
Things Fall Apart and Come Together
For centuries Africa’s stories were told orally and it wasn’t until the post colonial era when young Africans were formally educated at colleges did they become novelists to usher in a wave of African produced literature.
Achebe attended Nigeria’s first college in 1948 and in 1958 became the father of the African novel. His books are the bridge between the colonial era and today’s often corrupt African strongman regimes. His first novel, “Things Fall Apart” in 1958 is considered his magnus opus and chronicles how the legacy of a poor yam farmer affects his son and how things disintegrate when white missionaries descend on rural Nigeria. The book lays the foundations for future Achebe works showing the quantum gap between Igbo tribal traditions and Christian orthodoxy. The book was initially printed in just 2000 hardcover copies as European publishers showed little interest thinking there was no market for African writers. They were wrong. It sold over eight million copies and was translated into 50 languages making the book the most globally accessible by an African author.
In 1960 Achebe published “No Longer at Ease” and it prefaced the rising tide of Lagos’ bureaucratic duplicity that has since made the country synonymous with corruption in the Internet era. In “A Man of the People” in 1966, Achebe foresaw the coming military coups that have plagued the country ever since.
It required a homegrown author like Achebe to fully represent modern Africa whose myriad ethnic and cultural identities are so impacted by European colonialism and more recently global free trade. Achebe aggressively challenges stereotypes of Africans presenting their alternative sets of traditions, ideals, values, and behaviors. Achebe fights against Africans emulating white European civilizations but in the process like all great novelists never lets his ideals overcome the importance of the story.
“Only the story can continue beyond the war and the warrior. It is the story that outlives the sound of war-drums and the exploits of brave fighters. It is the story that saves our progeny from blundering like blind beggars into the spikes of the cactus fence. The story is our escort; without it, we are blind. Does the blind man own his escort? No, neither do we the story; rather it is the story that owns us and directs us,” Achebe said in 1987.
An Africa novel sampler, Tusker Geografica recommends:
King Solomon’s Mines (1885), Heart of Darkness (1902), Black Mischief (1932),The Snows of Kilimanjaro (1936), Out of Africa (1937), True At First Light (1953), The Roots of Heaven (1956), The Tribe That Lost Its Head (1956), Things Fall Apart (1958), A World of Strangers (1958), The Ghosts of Africa (1980), Water Music (1981), A Good Man in Africa (1981), To Asmara (1989), July’s People (1991), The Book of Secrets (1994), Abyssinian Chronicles (2000), Purple Hibiscus (2003), Waiting for an Angel (2004), Wizard of the Crow (2006).