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Treating Africa as a monolith rather than a richly diverse and varied agglomeration of peoples, cultures, geographies and viewpoints is well-entrenched in the West. So well entrenched that it has become almost circular – so much of what is written, reported, filmed and discussed treats Africa without any nuance that many find it difficult to escape the trap. We can be forgiven for finding it occasionally difficult to keep track of which countries or regions are engaged in civil wars and which are prospering; which are steadily moving toward responsive democracies and which are sliding into the worst kinds of totalitarianism and corruption.

With so much on offer, and so little of it high quality, how can one learn about the real Africa? The following books represent some of the most readable and instructive we know of covering the African continent. They are certainly not the only good books out there – for one they are all non-fiction. Still, they offer history, context and insight into the continent and its variety and can function as a Master Class in Africa for anyone who wants to learn.

Africa Unchained: A Blueprint for Development, George Ayittey
This most current of Ghanaian economist Ayittey’s books is the third in an unofficial trilogy which explore why development has failed on his home continent and what can be done about it. In Africa Betrayed and Africa in Chaos, Ayittey took a scorched-earth approach to analyzing the root causes of Africa’s suffering. The corruption, indifference and indolence of post-colonial leaders is criticized as actively as the exploitation of colonial powers. This book continues along this unapologetic bent, yet this time he provides a map for how to emerge from the chaos. Certainly debt forgiveness would help, but so would good governments, a free press and effective use of aid. Ayittey also puts his faith in a new generation of African intellectuals; ‘cheetah’s’ he believes have the intelligence, integrity and power to usher the countries of Africa into a power role in the world economy.

The Fate of Africa, Martin Meredith
A comprehensive history of Africa over the past fifty years, Martin Meredith’s book begins with the advent of independence from colonial rule and offers country-by-country insights into what happened in the intervening decades. Running to over seven-hundred pages he leaves no one neglected, and does not shy away from unpleasantness. Of particular note is his unflinching description of not only the genocide in Rwanda but of the Rwanda’s role in fomenting the on-going war in the Democratic Republic of Congo which has killed more people than any war since World War II. Meredith’s primary focus is on power, and he does close-up work on leaders as diverse as Robert Mugabe and Nelson Mandela. Meredith sees little redemption in the past and little hope for the future in many countries, but there is nonetheless much to be learned from historical and biographical insights.

In My Father’s House, Kwame Anthony Appiah
The son of a Ghanaian politician and a British mother, Appiah received his PhD in London and now teaches at Princeton University. His collection of essays explores issues of race and identity as experienced on the African continent. Among other things, this book debunks some Western-held notions, such as the existence of a pan-African identity. Appiah also explores what he views as the tensions that exist between African traditions and Western influences.

King Leopold’s Ghost, Adam Hochschild
A historical account of the exploitation of the Congo Free State by King Leopold II of Belgium. Leopold “purchased” the Congo Free State – now the Democratic Republic of Congo – through a holding company he owned, named the International African Society. Claiming that he was engaged in philanthropic projects, Leopold spent twenty-five years between 1885 and 1909 exploiting the region for its rubber and ivory and enslaving and abusing its people – the death toll was at least three million and possibly as high as 15 million Congolese. Hochschild’s book is a factual account that reads like a novel, with Leopold II as its villain. Its heroes include the activists and journalists who worked to expose Leopold’s atrocities and free the Congolese people.

The Scramble for Africa: White Man’s Conquest of the Dark Continent from 1876-1912, Thomas Pakenham
King Leopold’s Ghost shows the evil of Belgian activity in the Congo at the end of the 19th century, yet the Belgians were not alone in their exploitation of the African continent: Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Portugal were also ‘scrambling’ in Africa at the same time, waging war, killing native peoples and building wealth on the backs of African slave labor. Connecting the colonial period and the present, Pakenham shows the link between present-day African nations and the dependence for economic survival many of those countries have on the same EU members that dominated them a century before.

Other recommended titles:
The Trouble with Africa, Robert Calderisi
Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, Alexandra Fuller
Untapped: The Scramble for Africa’s Oil, John Ghazvinian
We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Children: Stories From Rwanda, Philip Gourevitch
New News Out of Africa, Charlayne Hunter-Gault
The Emperor, Ryszard Kapuscincki
The Wonga Coup: A Tale of Guns, Thugs and a Ruthless Determination to Create Mayhem in an Oil-Rich Corner of Africa, Adam Roberts

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