Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Top Ten Tuesday

So I'm posting my Top Ten Tuesday on a Wednesday. I really need to remember not to order the second margarita when I go to Pasqual's.

Top Ten Books I'd Recommend to Someone Who Doesn't Read About Africa

1. We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families by Philip Gourevitch. The book is a bit dated; by now I would hope that most people have some familiarity with the Rwandan genocide. And it isn't flawless. But I think it gives one of the better accounts of the events and is a good source for starting to understand how the West both created many of Africa's contemporary struggles and continues to refuse responsibility.

2. This Voice in My Heart by Gilbert Tuhabonye and Gary Brozek. Despite what's been portrayed in the media and by Hollywood, the "Rwandan" genocide wasn't just about Rwanda. As Tuhabonye, an Olympic-level runner and sole survivor of the massacre of his schoolmates in Burundi, shows in his memoir, the violence encompassed a whole region and many of the victims, survivors, and perpetrators continue to be ignored. (See also, Strength in What Remains by Tracy Kidder)

3. What is the What by Dave Eggers. Yes, another book on violence and genocide. Unfortunately, that's a lot of what is published about Africa in the West. Eggers does a solid job of sharing the story of Valentino Achak Deng, one of the "Lost Boys" of Sudan. For me, the real strength of the book isn't in its retelling of the violence that Deng faced in Sudan, but rather in its portrayal of Deng's struggles once he had arrived to the "safety" of the West. So often the story of refugees ends with "They arrived in the West and lived happily ever after," but as Eggers shows, that is far from the reality for many.

4. King Leopold's Ghost by Adam Hochschild. We used this in the introduction to Africa course for which I was a teaching assistant, and the students found it both accessible and eye opening. Hochschild examines the colonization of Africa through the example of the brutal enslavement of the Congo. It's a good introduction to a part of history that most of us never got in school yet is essential for understanding contemporary Africa.

5. Weep Not, Child by James Ngugi (aka, Ngugi wa Thiong'o). The debut novel of one of Africa's foremost writers. Yes, it is also about violence and colonialism (specifically the Mau Mau resistance movement in 1950s Kenya), but it is also a beautifully rendered coming-of-age story about a young man struggling to find his place in the world.

6. Africa Since 1940 by Frederick Cooper. Much more academic than the previous books, but still a very readable and accessible primer on African history and the forces that have shaped contemporary Africa. Should be required reading for anyone engaging in humanitarian or voluntary work in Africa.

7. Global Shadows by James Ferguson. Again, a rather academic book, although written at a level that's accessible to your average undergraduate and doesn't require more than a cursory background on Africa (although I would strongly recommend reading the Cooper book first). Ignore the god-awful ugly cover and the boring title. Taking a more contemporary and broad approach to Africa, Ferguson considers Africa's place in the global community and, in the process, challenges simplistic models for understanding a complex continent.

8. A Heart for the Work by Claire Wendland. I promise: I'm not just recommending this book because it was written by my advisor (she doesn't even know about this blog---I hope---so I'm not actually earning any brownie points for this). Or because it's about Malawi. This is an extremely well-written book, and although its focus is on medical training in Malawi, I think it has a lot to say more generally about why so many African countries are so intractably mired in persistent, severe poverty.

9. Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Like Ngugi, Adichie both depicts a specific historical moment---in this case, the Biafran war---and weaves a beautiful, timeless epic that transcends its setting.

10. TBD. I'm not sure how to interpret that I can't come up with a tenth book to recommend for people who don't normally read about Africa. Have I just not read sufficiently myself? Certainly that's true, particularly for fiction and creative works. Or is there a lack of good books about Africa that are accessible to general readers? I think that's also true, especially for nonfiction books. I have pages and pages of African Studies references, but most of the books are (1) dead boring, (2) deeply flawed, or (3) both. There just aren't a lot of books out there---at least, that I know of---that are both well written and rigorously researched.

A few that I thought about recommending include Compassion Fatigue by Susan Moeller; The Road to Hell by Michael Maren; and The Lords of Poverty by Graham Hancock. These are all highly readable, provocative books that reframe much of what we think we know about contemporary Africa and particularly about humanitarism. But they are also very polemical---and are quickly becoming outdated---so I wouldn't put them on a top-ten list. (Although I would definitely recommend reading any of them once you've finished the top ten or if you have a solid background in African Studies and can approach them with a more critical eye.)

Anything you would add/remove/qualify?


At 4:33 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Lisa: What a great list - years ago when I was an undergrad I read a lot about African countries - your recommendations are much more uptodate, I'll have to check them out. And by the way, I'm up in the Upper Peninsula about 6 hours from you - lucky you, living in Madison, I relish every time I get to visit, what a great town! Happy Reading, Ruby

At 1:25 PM , Anonymous sbo said...



Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home