7 Essential Authors For Learning About Africa’s History

From Chinua Achebe to Ngugi Wa Thiong'o

Black History Month is a period of meditation as it is of celebration. Across the world, Black peoples and communities continue to be under attack, from repressive governments to errant institutions, crime and poverty. In Africa, the past few years have been intense and excruciating, economies of countries like Nigeria and Ghana crashing against itself. Local currencies are going scarce at the same time our music fills out stadiums across the world. With all the consistently bad leadership our societies have had to endure, the election booth seems a reasonable place to take back power. More than ever citizens are confident in the power of their votes and it’s not in the least surprising that Nigeria recorded a record-high increase in registered voters since last year. 

It is election season throughout Africa as more than 20 countries will be having presidential polls. Nigeria is the most followed all over the world, reasonably due to the country’s influence and size. Under President Muhammadu Buhari, the standard of living has reduced drastically, with economic catastrophes accentuated by the increasing insecurity. Just as many Nigerians would hope to change their fortunes through electing the right personality and party, so would African countries such as Sierra Leone, Zimbabwe, Liberia, Sudan, Madagascar, Gabon and many others, be looking forward to achieving. 

Here’s a list of African authors who have written extensively about the history of their countries and the Black world at large. Through their novels, poems, non-fiction and lectures, they contribute to the archive of Africa’s intellectual history, covering vast subject matter in distinct styles. Through understanding their stories and ideas, the reader comes upon a goldmine of social awareness that would surely improve one’s decisions throughout the year. 


Essential Reading: ‘Things Fall Apart,’ ‘No Longer At Ease,’ ‘A Man of the People,’ and ‘There Was A Country: A Personal History of Biafra.’

The father of African Literature was a tag Chinua Achebe resisted during his lifetime but it’s a sentiment that sticks. Before the Ogidi-born writer had his 1958 classic ‘Things Fall Apart’ published by Heinemann, the fictions of our literature wasn’t constructively influencing the black diaspora. By documenting the pre-colonial Igbo worldview Achebe showcased the intricate structures of African societies, an essential lesson in writing back to the world. His other novels ‘No Longer At Ease’, ‘Arrow of God’, ‘A Man of the People’ and ‘Anthills of the Savannah’ extended the multidimensional portrayal of identity politics. 

Achebe’s knowledge of history and political systems shone best through his essays and other pieces of nonfiction. As an essayist, he brought his signature wit and cultural wisdom to the fore, however grounded in the ideals of scholarly debate he learned throughout his schooling years. ‘The Trouble With Nigeria’ and ‘There Was A Country: A Personal History of Biafra’ perused the deeply-ingrained tensions which makes the country so prone to division, while ‘Morning Yet on Creation Day’ and ‘Hopes and Impediments’ discussed the trending literary discourses of the era while locating the African writer’s place in it. ‘Hopes’ begins with the must-read essay, ‘An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness’, a brilliant takedown of the book’s explicit racism and what its acceptance reveals about the perspective of the Western world towards blackness. With its closing essay paying homage to Achebe’s acquaintance, the great African-American writer James Baldwin, the title sparkles with the mix of heart and intellect that made Achebe so revered. 


Essential Reading: ‘Ngaahika Ndeenda,’ ‘Decolonising the Mind,’ and ‘Wized of the Crow.’

More than any East African author has ever managed, the works of Ngugi wa Thiong’o capture the struggles of revolution. He often pulls from the lessons of history, but the true strength of Ngugi’s drama and fiction emerges from his unprecedented depiction of ordinariness, a quality he consistently updated as he writes about Kenya over the years. His frequent clashes and escape from the Kenyan government was initially stoked with his successful play, ‘Ngaahika Ndeenda’ which adapted the novel theatre form by encouraging improvisation and active audience participation. 

A frequent shout for the Nobel Prize for Literature, the breadth of Ngugi’s work spans novels, plays, academic texts and scholarly lectures delivered around the world. From his seminal text ‘Decolonising the Mind’ which urged African writers to work in their native languages to actually renouncing English and writing in Gikuyu, Ngugi’s practicality makes him a deserved icon of world letters. Over the years he tinkered with the novel form, incorporating his trademark themes of colonial resistance into genres of realism and magical realism, as displayed in his last novel, ‘Wizard of the Crow’.  Other essential works from the legendary Kenyan author include ‘Weep Not, Child’, ‘The River Between’ and ‘A Grain of Wheat’


Essential Reading: ‘The Burden of Memory: The Muse of Foregiveness,’ ‘Chronicles From the Land of the Happiest People on Earth,’ and ‘Document of Identity.’

Cultural history is every bit as important as anthropology. Throughout Africa, few writers have so beautifully placed the specifics of a particular society side-by-side with the classical philosophical discourses birthed from ancient Greece and Rome. When Soyinka was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986, the Swedish Academy praised his “wide cultural perspective and poetic overtones fashioning the drama of existence” in a groundbreaking moment which crowned him a giant of Black Literature.

Across Soyinka’s oeuvre, displacement between the old and new ways burn with complex spirituality of the Yorubas and his unique humour. Versed across drama, poetry and fiction, his writing has inspired writers across the world to lean into the ambiguous aspects of their traditions. And while the Netflix-adapted ‘Death and the King’s Horseman’ might present a morbid side, ‘The Lion and the Jewel’ is as affecting as any classic love story even as historical details swell alongside the plot. Obviously being one of the most recognisable figures in African literature, many people have read Wole Soyinka but with 52 books to his name, there’s no doubt several titles that may yet be unread, titles bursting with imagination that might contribute to Africa’s intellectual and cultural progress. 


Essential Reading: ‘The Devil That Danced on the Water: A Daughter’s Quest,’ ‘Ancestor Stones’ and ‘The Memory of Love.’

When Aminatta was eleven years old, her father was hanged on charges of treason. Starting out a physician, her father later entered politics though he exited, the violent and corrupt political landscape inspiring his decision. In her novels, Forna mostly enters historical perspective to unfurl stories with a lean on psychological trauma. Rather than weigh the complications of war-torn Sierra Leone, she presents the inner complexities of believable characters whose role in the eras gave him unique viewpoints into the crisis. To cover her oeuvre, it’s advisable to read the memoir based on her father’s death, ‘The Devil That Danced on the Water: A Daughter’s Quest’ and from there progress into celebrated fictional works such as ‘Ancestor Stones’ and ‘The Memory of Love’


Essential Reading: ‘Nervous Conditions,’ ‘The Book of Not,’ and ‘This Mournable Body.’

When you’re the first Black woman to publish an English novel in a nation’s history, regular platitudes aren’t enough to celebrate the artistic ingenuity. We must also consider the sociopolitical systems which must have resisted its happenstance and as well ponder the strength of vision that was required to push through, to objectively influence the intellectual trajectory of not just any country, but one as important as Zimbabwe. Since ‘Nervous Conditions’ was released in 1988, we’ve seen women Zimbabwean authors like Pettina Gappah, NoViolet Bulawayo and Novuyo Tshuma write from Dangaremba’s template. With that groundbreaking novel telling the story of a family during Rhodesia’s postcolonial period in the eighties, Dangaremba’s writing possessed sharp observational qualities which allowed her to roam into the characters’ deepest motivations and undoings. In 2006 and 2018, she completed the novel’s trilogy with ‘The Book of Not’ and ‘This Mournable Body’ respectively. Also a filmmaker, last year Dangaremba published the poignant essay collection ‘Black and Female’


Essential Reading: ‘The African Myth of Civilisation’ and ‘The Cultural Unity of Black Africa.’

A distinguished historian, scientist and political leader, Cheikh Anta Diop was grounded on ideals of Pan-Africanism. The Senegalese icon was born in 1933 to a family which belonged to the peasant class, though he worked hard to become educated. Studying for a Ph. D in physics, Diop would rather embrace his communal interests and, in 1951, help organise the first Pan-African Student Congress in Paris. The movement was largely influential in establishing the framework for liberation ideals in the global Black community. As a historian, Diop’s work was similarly committed to establishing the impact of African historiography on other world civilisations, a feat he achieved with titles such as ‘The African Myth of Civilisation’ and ‘The Cultural Unity of Black Africa’ which were published four years apart in the seventies. Until his death in 1986, Diop actively contributed to Senegal’s position as a celebrated centre for African arts and research, working across both disciplines with masterful efficiency.


Essential Reading: ‘Beneath the Lion’s Gaze’ and ‘The Shadow King.’

Ethiopia is one of the most intriguing countries in the African continent. Asides never being colonised, it’s also home to some of the oldest civilisations and religions in the world. Alongside Dinaw Mengestu, the most popular contemporary writer from Ethiopia is Maaza Mengiste. She is a photographer and novelist, her works evoking the vast terrains of the country’s history. Through a family’s perspective her 2010 debut ‘Beneath the Lion’s Gaze’ relayed the riotous conditions of the Ethiopian Revolution which saw her own family flee the country when she was four. Her second novel ‘The Shadow King’ came a lengthy nine years later but that was only because Mengitse’s scope had broadened, this time covering the Italo-Ethiopian War which began in 1935 and ended in 1937. As an historical event, it’s an important precursor to the legislative inconsistencies which sparked the Second World War in 1939. Essays also feature prominently in Mengiste’s oeuvre, as usual drawing on pieces of her country’s complicated history to reach crucial conclusions on the motions of the modern state. 

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