Books and films about Africa?
September 18, 2005 9:46 PM   Subscribe

Lately I've been on a sort of Africa kick. I'm mostly ignorant of the continent, and think that's a shame. Can you recommend good books and films on Africa? (Any aspect is fine: big or small.)

I like fiction and non-fiction. I'm particularly interested in stories that reveal what daily life is like for the people who live in Africa. I'm a bit less interested on political matters from a macro perspective, but am very keen on how politics affect day-to-day life.

As a point of reference, I have read (or plan to read): Don't Let's Go To the Dogs Tonight (Rhodesia/Zaire), No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency (Botswana), Cry the Beloved Country (South Africa), Things Fall Apart (Nigeria), The Sheltering Sky (Morocco & The Sahara), and Tarzan of the Apes (???). I've liked them all, though for varied reasons.

Films I've seen (or plan to see soon) include: Born Free (Kenya), The Flame Trees of Thika (Kenya), Hotel Rwanda (Rwanda), The Gods Must Be Crazy Botswana), and The Ghost and the Darkness (???).

I'd also be interested in rich web sites on Africa covering topics from the minute to the grand.
posted by jdroth to Education (43 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
The Scramble for Africa. Witty, readable, insightful. Covers the exploration and colonial era.
posted by Brian James at 9:54 PM on September 18, 2005

Soul of Mbira is supposed to be excellent. Also - the current issue of National Geographic is dedicated to the continent of Africa... the cover says something like "Forget everything you think you know about Africa". Looks like it's right up your alley.
posted by kdern at 10:04 PM on September 18, 2005

A few more films:
Shaka Zulu
Cry Freedom (South Africa)
Sarafina! (South Africa) Supposedly not nearly as good as the broadway musical, but I liked it.
Sometimes In April. Better than Hotel Rwanda, IMHO.
Africa: The Serengeti. Eye candy, but beautiful...

And I highly recommend the work and journals of Dan Eldon (esp this book), a brilliant photojournalist who was killed in Somalia, way too early in his life.
posted by skyboy at 10:07 PM on September 18, 2005

More philosophy than politics, there's Culture and the Senses.
posted by Gyan at 10:07 PM on September 18, 2005

Response by poster: The current issue of National Geographic is dedicated to the continent of Africa

This issue is actually responsible for my sudden interest in the continent. It made me realize how I ignorant I am of large chunks of the world. (I'm even more ignorant of South America, but think learning about one continent at a time is quite sufficient.)
posted by jdroth at 10:13 PM on September 18, 2005

Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen.
posted by deborah at 10:31 PM on September 18, 2005

lots of the links above are specifically western readings of africa. you might try reading african authors and seeing some african films. it's also important to remember how extraordinarily vast the continent is, and how complicated the post-colonial politics make the question of a unified "african" cultural representation. lumping together egyptian writers like naguib mahfouz and white south african authors like nadine gordimer or j.m. coetzee may not give you a useful category - even if they're all "african".

that said, here are some african authors and filmmakers you might like...

authors: bessie head, wole soyinka, ben okri, nurrudin farah

filmmakers: ousmane sembene, souleymane cisse (his film, "yeelen", though it's not at all about contemporary africa, is one of my favorite films ever), idrissa oedraogo

posted by judith at 10:45 PM on September 18, 2005

ends of the earth by robert kaplan ? not exclusively africa...but a great read never the less.
posted by specialk420 at 10:51 PM on September 18, 2005

The Invention of Africa
The Idea of Africa
The Surreptitious Speech
Africa and the Disciplines : The Contributions of Research in Africa to the Social Sciences and Humanities

All by my professor Valantine Mudimbe [Published as V.Y. Mudimbe]. All worth reading - for the critical theory and philosophical side of things. Perhaps the last one on that list, which he editied, is more on the sociology side of things. He's a fascinating contemporary writer, and if you're particularly interested in Africa, you would do well to read at least one of his works.
posted by fionab at 10:55 PM on September 18, 2005

King Leopold's Ghost, maybe.
posted by mediareport at 11:01 PM on September 18, 2005

a classic africa film is the gods must be crazy and a good fun travel book is malaria dreams
posted by quarsan at 12:26 AM on September 19, 2005

A friend has asked me to add Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver.
posted by stray at 12:40 AM on September 19, 2005

Two books on contemporary South Africa I have read recently:

Thabo Mbeki and the Battle For The Soul of the ANC by William Mervyn Gumede - Great book detailing how Mbeki became president of SA. Very relevant in terms of what is happening in the SA political scene today with Mbeki firing his VP who is now up on fraud charges and the rifts it is causing in the ANC.

The Number by Jonny Steinberg - Another excellent and award winning book detailing the history of South Africa's 'Number' prison gangs - the 26's, 27's and 28's - who have a history that is almost biblical in it's mythic nature.
posted by PenDevil at 2:25 AM on September 19, 2005

Film: "The Flyer" from 2005.

Saw it here in South Africa. Great film.
posted by Goofyy at 3:16 AM on September 19, 2005

Bill Bryson's African Diary
posted by nitsuj at 5:05 AM on September 19, 2005

Not exactly a book or a film, but Google Earth is currently overlaying special content from National Geographic regarding Africa, including a "mega flyover", live cam and links to video and special reports across the continent. It's a great interface and the cool factor is off the charts. Highly recommended.
posted by edverb at 5:14 AM on September 19, 2005

I agree with Judith - there are plenty of authors who write about Africa from an African perspective. To add to the list, Ngugi wa Thiong'o (I highly recommend Petals of Blood), Chinua Achebe (best known for Things Fall Apart).

I second Dan Eldon. And would like to recommend The Zanzibar Chest by Aiden Hartley, although it is written by a journalist, and is very much about the politics and wars of Africa, and therefore not necessarliy what you are looking for.
Into the House of Ancestors is a positive look at individuals in various African countries who are trying to make a difference.
posted by darsh at 5:41 AM on September 19, 2005

Movie recommendation: Lumbaba, is the true story of Patrick Lumbaba, the first president of the Republic of Congo
posted by darsh at 5:54 AM on September 19, 2005

I recently watched Ousmane Sembene's Xala (Senegal) on DVD and enjoyed it quite a bit.
posted by rxrfrx at 5:59 AM on September 19, 2005

judith mentioned Ben Okri - and I will amplify that by suggesting specifically his great novel The Famished Road. Booker Prize winner, a wonderful tale even more wonderfully told, and deals with both "realistic" and "fantastic" aspects of life in central Africa.

I would also recommend Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart (from Nigeria as is Okri) as well as anything from Nadine Gordimer (South African).

In addition, don't forget about Northern Africa. Often "Africa" tends to be defined as "Sub-Saharan Africa" but that misses wonderful stuff from Morocco, Algeria, Egypt, etc. A relatively easy place to jump in there is Camus' The Outsider (or The Stranger) which touches on many colonial issues as well as being a part of any literary or philosophical canon in the West.
posted by mikel at 6:00 AM on September 19, 2005

I 2nd judith's suggestion of Ben Okri - The Famished Road is a brilliant fictional account of a spirtchild - it depicts what it is (I imagine) like to live with a spirit world interacting with the real world all the time - a strong element in many African cultural beliefs.
posted by peacay at 6:06 AM on September 19, 2005

heh...should have previewed.
posted by peacay at 6:07 AM on September 19, 2005

West With The Night by Beryl Markham.
posted by mkultra at 6:49 AM on September 19, 2005

I really liked the film Nowhere in Africa and years ago read Native Stranger by an African American, Eddy Harris, who walked the length of the continent, comparing his somewhat romantic expectations to the reality he encountered.

Coup de Torchon is one of my favorite movies...
posted by rleamon at 7:17 AM on September 19, 2005

My Life in the Bush of Ghosts by Amos Tutuola is a little like Alice in Wonderland would be if it were written in broken English by the son of an African cocoa farmer. The Palm Wine Drinkard is another of his. I didn't finish it, but Dylan Thomas gave it rave reviews.
posted by clockwork at 7:20 AM on September 19, 2005

"The Covenant" by Michener is a captivating and thorough story of South Africa. Not all of Africa, but gives clues about the rest of the continent, too.
posted by copperbleu at 7:44 AM on September 19, 2005

Dark Star Safari : Overland from Cairo to Capetown by Paul Theroux. Deeper than his other books because he lived in Africa as a young man.

In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz: Living on the Brink of Disaster in Mobutu's Congo by Michaela Wrong. She has a new book about Eritrea, I Didn't Do It for You, that also looks good.
posted by lukemeister at 7:47 AM on September 19, 2005

Response by poster: Thank you all for the suggestions so far. Keep them coming. I suspect that as with my "recommend DVD comedy" question, I'll return to this thread again and again over the next few months to mine for new things to watch and read.
posted by jdroth at 7:50 AM on September 19, 2005

A Primate's Memoir is an autobiographical book by an neuroscientist that spent several seasons living with a Kenyan baboon troop. It's funny and touching, very well written, and has great descriptions of the baboons and the author's experiences with African culture.
posted by driveler at 7:56 AM on September 19, 2005

Nobel Laureate J M Coetzee (South Africa).
Andre Brink (South Africa). Scroll down for english.
posted by DelusionsofGrandeur at 7:59 AM on September 19, 2005

I totally and whole-heartedly second "The Scramble for Africa." Easily read, easily digested, with a remarkable ability to linger in the mind. I wish more fiction was half as good.
posted by Mo Nickels at 8:01 AM on September 19, 2005

Hemingway's Green Hills of Africa is one of my favorite books. His eye for the little nuance is so wonderful.
posted by ikkyu2 at 8:22 AM on September 19, 2005

Along the lines of Dark Star Safari and Into the House of Ancestors, is Shiva Naipaul's North of South . It only covers 3 countries (Kenya, Tanzania and Zambia), but it's an interesting look at one man's travels
posted by darsh at 8:43 AM on September 19, 2005

Claire Denis' Chocolat is incredible. It's takes place in Cameroon (mostly) just before the revolution.
posted by ruby.aftermath at 9:07 AM on September 19, 2005

Three novels by non-Africans involving non-Africans in Africa. But still good.

A Bend in the River, V.S. Naipaul
Brazzaville Beach, William Boyd
The Last King of Scotland, Giles Foden
posted by mookieproof at 9:39 AM on September 19, 2005

I have purchased A Continent for the Taking by Howard W. French but haven't read it yet. Any comments on this book would be welcome.
posted by matildaben at 9:43 AM on September 19, 2005

I’m surprised no one has mentioned Sir Laurens van der Post.

His bushman studies are classic, magical and intensely readable. And a better story than A Story Like the Wind and its sequel, A Far Off Place, would be hard to find.
posted by dpcoffin at 9:50 AM on September 19, 2005

"I Dreamed of Africa" by Kuki Gallmann and the movie of the same name with Kim Basinger and Vincent Perez is about an Italian woman who moves to Africa. "The Poisonwood Bible" by Barbara Kingsolver is another book that takes place in Africa with a missionary perspective. "Beyond Borders," a movie with Angelina Jolie takes place in Africa (and Chechnya at the end).
posted by cass at 10:25 AM on September 19, 2005

Music is the Weapon: Fela wants to tell you a little story about life in Nigeria.

Amandla!: The heartbreaking music of resistance.

Blues People: While you might say that this book is about the evolution of blues and jazz in America, it is also absolutely invaluable if you are at all interested in African music. Written by the brilliant Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones).

The Road to Hell: Political? Yes. But essential to understanding the "why" behind the stories of daily life in Africa.
posted by crapulent at 12:55 PM on September 19, 2005

Oh, and Animals Are Beautiful People. A delightful film about African wildlife by the same director as The Gods Must Be Crazy.
posted by crapulent at 1:00 PM on September 19, 2005

A friend of mine, Alma Hromic (who currently writes as Alma Alexander), wrote a book called Houses In Africa about her experience growing up in three different African countries. (Her father was in the Yugoslav diplomatic corps.) Sadly, it is out of print now, and was only published originally in New Zealand anyway, but it is a truly grrrrrreat read and I recommend it highly.
posted by kindall at 1:59 PM on September 19, 2005

Oh duhh, how could I have mentioned Hemingway and completely forgotten to mention Elenore Bowen's superb anthropological novel, Return to Laughter? I'm such a future dead white male.
posted by ikkyu2 at 2:08 AM on September 20, 2005

Bob Rafelson's The Mountains of the Moon, a fine, intelligent and rousing period drama set in the Victorian era, covering the explorations of Burton and Speke (Sir Richard and John Hanning, that is) in their quest to discover the source of the Nile in Africa. Fascinating character portraits, fascinating story, and extremely well photographed, National Geographic-style. Patrick Bergin and Iain Glen are brilliant as the main characters; supporting players Richard E. Grant, Fiona Shaw, Peter Vaughan, Bernard Hill, Delroy Lindo (as an escaped slave) and Roshan Seth are perfect. While primarily a study of the spirit of exploration at a time when much of the world were still mysterious blank spaces on maps, Africa looms large in the film.

I also enjoyed Carroll Ballard's recent Duma, inspired by a real incident where a young boy traveled deep into the African bush to set free his tame cheetah.
posted by gentle at 10:12 PM on September 21, 2005

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