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16 classic African literature books that you should read

Updated: Nov 25, 2019




Whether they are novels, poetry, plays, or historical collections, African literature is rich because of numerous books. Those books shine in both themes and styles.


1) The Lion and the Jewel, Wole Soyinka ( Born July 13, 1934, in Nigeria )





The Lion and the Jewel is a play written by Wole Soyinka that was first performed in 1959. The text of the play was first published in 1962. Wole Soyinka is a Nigerian author, writing mainly poetry and theatre. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986, becoming the first African author to receive it.

The play, which takes place in Ilunjile, is built on the theme of the conflict between tradition and modernity in Africa, a battle embodied in the rivalry between Baroka and Lakunle to obtain the hand of the young Sidi.


The Lion and the Jewel, the first of his plays to appear in French translation, is a comedy of morals in Molière's satirical tradition, although wholly African.

The fight between the action-oriented man with traditional skills, Chief Barocka, and the young teacher Lakounlé, to possess the jewel of the young and pretty Sidi, reflects the widespread opposition between the supporters of tradition and the promoters of particular modernism.

The poetic language and dramatic sequence, in which three major mime scenes are inserted, reveal an accomplished sense of the theatre.





2) Cruel City, Eza boto or Mongo Beti ( Born 06/30/1932, in Cameroon - Died 04/08/2001)




His real name is Alexandre Biyidi, Eza Boto or Mongo Beti is his pseudonym as a writer.
 He was born on June 30, 1932, in MBalmago, southern Cameroon, and after being expelled from a missionary school, he entered the Yaoundé high school in 1951, where he continued his studies in Paris, where he graduated with honors in literature.

As a professor at Lamballe in Great Britain, he wrote for more than ten years (1958 to 1972) and has just published two novels in a series of pamphlets, including Ville Cruelle, under the pseudonym Eza Boto in 1954.

The book Cruel City is located in that colonial past where many African people had been colonized by powerful European nations such as France, Portugal, England, etc. The book cruel city is set in a colonial context and is a story in which the author recounts the fatalities of colonial domination.

 In short, Cruel City tells the story of a young man named Banda, orphaned by his father, Banda was raised by his mother in Bamila, and he wanted to marry to satisfy his mother's almost dying wish, but he needed money for his fiancée's dowry, so he decided to sell cocoa in the city. However, in the city, the man was confronted by the terrible realities of the city characterized by cruelty, exploitation, theft, crime, etc.


3) Nations nègres et culture, Cheikh Anta Diop (Born 12/29/1923 in Senegal – Died 02/07/1986)



He was a Senegalese historian, anthropologist, physicist, and politician who studied the human race's origins and pre-colonial African culture.


In this 239-page book published in Paris in 1954 by Présence Africaine, Cheikh Anta Diop will focus on the contribution of Black Africa to world culture and civilization. In other words, he will demonstrate in this book that the Egyptian civilization was a " black " civilization.

Indeed, to demonstrate and support his point of view, Cheikh Anta Diop will, after a brief introduction, divide Volume 1 of his book into four chapters, namely:


What were the Egyptians?


In this chapter, he conveys an approach to demonstrate the black origins of the brilliant Egyptian civilization. That is thanks to the testimonies of some Greek scholars and historians such as Herodotus, Diodorus, Milet, etc. and also thanks to biblical statements based on studies of the Jewish people who had contact with the Egyptian civilization (Cf. page 39).


Birth of the black myth


Here he alludes to the evil in question; that is, he tells us where all these problems come from concerning the origin of the Egyptian civilization. That is done by going back in time long before Herodotus' journey to Egypt.


Modern falsification of history


Then in this chapter, he shows how and why Westerners have falsified; that is, they have deliberately changed Africa's past to deny it the capacity to have significant civilizations within it. He then shows us the implications of such an act and proves by logical and scientific evidence the integrity of his remarks. He will go so far as to study the various possibilities that could turn civilization into a civilization of Asian origin (cf. page 156) or if it could come from the delta (cf. page 141) before returning to its starting point, which would make the Egyptian civilization a black African culture.


Arguments for a black origin of the Egyptian race and civilization


About this last chapter of Volume 1, which is the subject of our analysis, he shows through scientific evidence (including linguistics, anthropology, archaeology, rites such as totemism, circumcision, royalty and many others) that Egyptian civilization was indeed a black civilization.

In short, we can say that by submitting his thesis in book form, Cheikh Anta Diop wanted to demonstrate and prove to everyone that the Egyptian civilization was a black African civilization and therefore by extension state that the mother of all other cultures was a black African civilization. And if we are allowed to give our point of view on this work, which at that time seemed so revolutionary that very few African intellectuals dared to support it, we can say that we share the belief that the Egyptian civilization was indeed a black African civilization. Nevertheless, over the years, it has had to undergo several changes due to these multiple exchanges with the outside world.


With forty years' hindsight, we can see that the major themes developed in NATIONS NEGRES ET CULTURE have not only not aged, but are now welcomed and discussed as scientific truths, whereas at the time these ideas seemed so revolutionary that very few African intellectuals dared to accept. The independence of Africa, the creation of an African continental Federal State, the African and Negroid origin of humanity and civilization, the black origin of the Egyptian-Nubian civilization, the identification of major migratory movements, and the formation of African ethnic groups, etc are some of the main themes explored by Cheikh Anta Diop, the most significant African historian of that time.

On the eve of independence, Black Nations and culture became the banner of a cultural revolution that the Blacks were shaking under the scandalized gaze of a colonial power struggling to resign itself to letting go of its overseas territories. The author's influence then continued to spread, particularly to the United States, where his work was translated and had a considerable impact in the African-American intellectual community. Cheikh Anta Diop's thinking has thus given rise to a new pride, but also to a different way of dealing with African history. A polemical and ideological vision that sometimes goes beyond the strictly scientific field, but which will nourish the identity claims of Blacks in Africa as well as in Europe and America.


4) Things fall apartChinua Achebe (Born 11/16/1930 Nigeria – Died 03/21/ 2013)



Through the story of Okonkwo, a prominent member of his clan, Chinua Achebe evokes the culture shock that the arrival of the British in Igbos at the end of the 19th century and the colonization of Nigeria by the British represented for the natives. This book presents the destruction of tribal life at the end of the last century, following the arrival of the Europeans. It is about the tragedy of a man whose whole life tended to become one of the most important characters in his clan but ended in the most miserable way; the conversion to Christianity (such abomination) of his son who was far from being a victim of a cruel and sanguinary rite that his childhood best friend was being subjected to; the daily life of the women and children of a village in the forest which, almost totally disconnected from the outside world, could believe it was the world with its gods and ancestors, its customs and traditions, and the inexhaustible oral literature of its stories and proverbs. Those are some of the themes of a novel which is undoubtedly one of the richest and thought-provoking in the history of Black Africa.



5) The Conservationist, Nadine Gordimer (Born 11/20/1923, South Africa – Died 07/13/ 2014)




One of the greatest novelists on the continent, South African Nadine Gordimer Born in Springs in 1923 from a watchmaker father, a Jewish immigrant from Latvia, and a mother of British origin, Nadine Gordimer became passionate about writing and fiction at the age of nine and has never stopped writing, since then, novels (15) and, above all - which is less well known outside South Africa - many collections of short stories, a work translated into more than forty languages.


Nadine Gordimer reached her first level of international notoriety in 1974 with the Booker Prize, the equivalent to an English-language Goncourt, with The Conservationist, a novel written from the point of view of a rich and conservative white South African. However, long before 1974, she was known to anti-apartheid activists, whose fighting themes she shared, and to Nelson Mandela, of whom she was a loyal friend who read her novels in prison.


Mehring, a successful businessman, obviously never considered questioning the privileges of being a white man in a country of blacks. Neither his mistress, feminist and leftist, nor his son, student, and pacifist could understand him, and even less could he undermine his convictions. What he feels for the farm he has just bought, this inalienable feeling of ownership, no one can dispute or take it away from him: neither Jacobus, the black sharecropper, nor the men who cultivates his one hundred and sixty hectares at the Transvaal, nor the Boer farmers for whom Mehring is only an amateur, nor the Indians who run the general store, still less the one hundred and fifty thousand blacks who live in the township between the farm and the city. The Conservative is the astonishing portrait of a man who personifies all the paradoxes of the status quo: calculative and tolerant, he loves power but understands that it is not acceptable; defender of the value of money and profitability, he cannot resist the powerful charm of an elusive country, the land of Africa, whose beauty is unique and captivating, and which beyond the fate of individuals, it is enticing and fascinating.


6) The little girl under the street lampCalixthe Beyala ( Born 04/26/1961 in Cameroon.)




Through the story of the little Tapousière, raised by her grandmother in the absence of her mother, who has disappeared, and her father, who is unknown, Calixthe Beyala returns as close as possible to her roots. With the strength of imprecation, tenderness, lyricism, but also anger, and humor), The little girl under the street lamp reveals the secrets of heritage - that of a miserable childhood whose author has never been able to heal.

Published by Éditions Albin Michel, this novel was awarded the Grand Prix du roman de l'Académie française and in 1998 received the Grand Prix littéraire d'Afrique Noire - which is also known as the Grand Prix de l'Unicef.



7) So Long a LetterMariama Bâ ( Born 04/17/1929 Senegal - Died 08/17,1981)



This epistolary novel by Mariama Bâ is undoubtedly one of the greatest classics of African literature. She gathers the letters exchanged between Ramatoulaye Fall, the narrator, and her best friend, Aïssatou Bâ. Ramatoulaye has just lost her husband, Modou. He died, far from his wife whom he married, despite the disagreement of his family, who saw this marriage between people of different clans as an insult to tradition. She also married a modern man. But like her friend, despair comes into her life. Her husband eventually gave in to his mother, who asked him to take a second wife imposed by the family. Throughout the letters, more than a story of a life that falls into the gloom, the two women introduce us to a fierce struggle between modernity and tradition. Mariama Bâ's book stands out as one of the very first committed novels written by an African woman, all in a style whose freshness defies the times.



8) Agatha Moudio's SonFrancis Bebey (Born 07/15/ 1929 in Cameroon - Died 05/28/ 2001)



Agatha Moudio's Son is a novel of a world in decay; a world stuck between two civilizations. The ambiguity that emerges and becomes pervasive shows the difficult assimilation that results from the contact of two diametrically opposed cultures. Whether in terms of the structure of the novel or the themes developed therein or even in terms of the characters' actions, we realize that by choosing ambiguity as a writing method, Francis Bebey wanted to situate his novel in a realistic dimension. In doing so, he remained faithful to the function assigned to the writer, which is his social function.

This novel by Francis Bebey has been translated into English, German, and Polish.



9) The African Child, Camara Laye (01/01,/1928, in Guinee – Died 02/04/1980)




As a true classic, Camara Laye's novel has survived through the ages and is not overlooked. This book was published in 1953, and it is considered "one of the founding texts of contemporary African literature." It is an autobiography telling the story of the author's life, from the age of 5 to his departure to study in Europe. The particularity of this book lies in the fact that it presents an Africa which, although colonized, does not seem to suffer excessively from it. This will give rise to many debates between the authors of the time. Apart from this controversy, Camara Laye's style was unanimously accepted. The book received the Charles Veillon Prize in 1954 and inspired a film of the same name in 1995. It's a pre-independence novel that disguises the colony.


This autobiographically inspired novel is studied in African high schools, colleges, and universities. There is a Children's format for kids aged 8 to 12 published by Éditions Pocket Jeunes to awaken in them a passion for African literature.



10) Ambiguous AdventureCheikh Hamidou Kane (Born 04/02/ 1928, Senegal)




Published in 1954, Cheikh Hamidou Kane's Ambiguous Adventure tells the story of Samba Diallo, a Diallobé child entrusted by his father to the tribal chief. He is educated according to the values of the Koranic school until he is old enough to go to a European school. Indeed, traditional leaders are doubtful about the idea of leaving a child who has shown exceptional qualities, losing his endogenous values in contact with European education. Finally, Samba would go to French school. He is so brilliant that he will continue his studies in Paris. But life in France, if he adapts to it, more than he appreciates it, shows him the gap between his original culture and his adopted culture. He returns to live in Africa, at his father's request. Finally, in contact with the values of his childhood, he realizes that his roots are no longer as deeply rooted in his native land as before. This will be his downfall. This book is the story of a battle between two cultures, and the misfortune of some is that this battle is being fought within themselves.


11) The Fury and Cries of WomenAngèle Rawiri (Born 04/29,/1954, Gabon – died 11/15/ 2010)




Emilienne and Joseph love each other abroad, where they continue their studies. Once back home, these two young people decided to meet each other's parents. But Joseph's mother opposes this union because Emilienne is a foreigner, a woman of another language, of another socio-cultural group; however, Emilienne's mother rejects her daughter's choice to marry a man from the North. To these oppositions, one must add Joseph's fickle character and Emilienne's consolation in the arms of the secretary Dominique. This classic Gabonese novel revolves around the situations that cause frustration, infidelity, and sterility.



12) And God Only Knows How I SleepAlain Mabanckou ( Born 02/24/1966 in Pointe-Noire, Republic of the Congo)





An Antillean man, Auguste-Victor, born in Saint-Sauveur, is haunted by a dark past, by the permanent image of a child crying in a cradle and by a woman with "Hindu features", "long undulating hair", by the look of a nymph, this woman who is the only light in his life, this woman who even made him forget the ingratitude of his physical condition. And then there is Makabana, the old African, hunchbacked, solitary, enigmatic and curious character, stranded in Guadeloupe, in Vieux-Habitants, for half a century. He first met Auguste-Victor, the strange man still dressed in white on Sundays. From that day on, he will no longer sleep.


The new pocket format of this book by Alain Mabanckou was published by Présence Africaine, Published in 2001.



13) Amkoullel, the Fula Child Amadou Hampâté Ba (born in 1900 in Mali died on 05/15/ 1991 in Abidjan (Côte d'Ivoire))



He was a Malian writer and ethnologist, defender of the oral tradition, particularly of the Peule.

To tell the story of childhood in his country, the author chooses to evoke the West African savannah, the bush devoured by the sun, beaten by tornadoes, scratched by the Niger River that flows through the country. At the center of his story is the kingdom of Bandiagra at the beginning of the century, ruled by the strict Islam that governs the lives of young children.

This autobiographical novel published by Éditions Babel in September 1992 has been reprinted several times. The most recent is that of April 12, 2000, published in the collection "J'ai lu", a 442-page pocket format.


14) Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali, Djibril Tamsir Niane (Born 01/09/1932 in Guinea)



Told in the manner of a griot, based on elements of oral tradition, the fate of Soundjata Keita, born in present-day Guinea and founder of the Mandinka empire in the 13th century, symbols of a conquering, victorious and united Africa.

Djibril Tamsir Niane is one of the historical figures that inspired most literary texts, and he focuses on traditional Africa in this book. The words he offers us are the words of griots.

We learn the story of the ancestor of the great Manding, the one who, by his exploits, surpassed the story of the son of the Buffalo, the son of the Lion: Soundjata, "the man with multiple names against whom the spells could do nothing."

"Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali" is the extraordinary story of a man with a dazzling rise. Son of King Naré Maghan Konaté and Sogolon Konté, Sundiata was born paralyzed.

Snubbed by his half-brother who kicked him off the throne, Sundiata had a difficult childhood. Still crawling on all fours at the age of seven, he decided after an n-th humiliation suffered by his mother, to literally take his destiny in hand. He orders an iron bar, which he grabs and raises by the sole force of his muscles, twisting the thick metal bar as he passes.

Forced into exile for several years, Sundiata learned one day that the sorcerer-king Soumaoro Kanté -Soumangaroo according to some versions- had invaded his native country and had taken over the throne.

This is how Sundiata decided to return and fight the terrible king of Sosso and in the same way, fulfill his destiny.

This book is what I call a "must-read," and its story will inspire many artists such as Tiken Jah Fakoly, the latter dedicating a song entirely to the mythical king of the Mandinka.


15) The Fire of Origins, Emmanuel Dongala (Born 07/14,/1941 in Brazzaville, Republic of the Congo.



The Central African Republic is the country where Emmanuel Dongala was born. But it is in the Republic of Congo (Congo-Brazzaville) that he spends most of his life.

Writer but also chemist and professor of literature at Bard College in Massachusetts, Emmanuel is the author of about ten books, including the one that won the Grand Prix littéraire d'Afrique Noire in 1987, I named "The Fire of Origins"

It is the story of a man, Mandala Mankunkumais, but beyond that, it is the story of Africa and its painful first contact with the West.

A unique character with a unique destiny, Mandala lived peaceful days in his village until the arrival of the colonists. The latter has plans to build a railway. Upset, he decided to leave his town to join the city. This is the beginning of a long and dangerous journey towards freedom.


Oscillating between myth and reality, this book is full of emotions and provokes real philosophical reflections on real social facts. A true gem of African literature, Emmanuel Dongola signs with the "Fire of Origins" one, if not his best novels. It is therefore logical that it appears in 9th place in this ranking



16)The Beautiful Ones Are Not Yet Born, AYI KWEI ARMAH( Born 10/28/1939 in Ghana )



The work of the Ghanaian novelist, Ayi Kwei Armah, deals with corruption and materialism in contemporary Africa.

Born in 1939 in Takoradi, Gold Coast Colony (now Ghana), Ayi Kwei Armah attended local missionary schools and then Achimota College. In 1959, he moved to the United States, where he completed his high school education at Groton School, before obtaining a bachelor's degree at Harvard University. Young Armah then worked as a scriptwriter, translator and English teacher in various countries, including France (Paris), Tanzania, Lesotho, Senegal, and the United States.

In his first novel, The Beautiful Ones Are Not Yet Born (1968, L'âge d'or n'est pas pour demain, the French version), Ayi Kwei Armah denounces the greed and political corruption that have reigned in a newly independent African state.

In his next book, Fragments (1970), a young Ghanaian named Baako returns home after living in the United States. Disillusioned by the materialism generated by the Western world and the moral decay he sees around him, he finds himself torn between his native country's new demands and the link with the traditional past and the world of ancestors embodied in Naana, his blind grandmother.

The themes of homecoming and disillusionment reappear even more clearly in Why Are We So Blest? (1971). In Two Thousand Seasons (1973), the writer recreates the language of African funeral songs and prayers to trace the continent's past, which he presents as imbued with a certain perfection before it was explored by the Arabs and the Europeans.


The entire work of Ayi Kwei Armah gives a central place to the moral and spiritual gap that is growing in his native country between appearances and reality, spirit and matter, past and present.


Enjoy these books and share them with those who don't know them yet.



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