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Top 10 African fiction books you need to read in your lifetime

From “The Blinkards” to Amu Djoleto’s “The Strange Man”, these are my top ten picks for African literary works you need to experience in your lifetime.

Starting at number 10 is:

10. The Blinkards – Kobina Sekyi (1998)

The Blinkards is a satirical play written in English and interspersed with Fanti (all the Fanti has been translated on the left hand side of the pages or the even-numbered pages). It tells of the consequences of blindly mimicking the European culture.

The plot is woven around Mrs Brofosem whose brief stay in England has produced in her the self-delusion that her traditional culture is backward and must yield to “the fairer values of the European”. She comes into sharp conflict with Mr Oyimdze who proves to her that local values are as good, if not better, than any.

Mrs. Brofosem exhibits too much European tendencies in his/her actions by eating only European foods, though we know that at several points in time she yearns for locally prepared food such as roasted plantain. She goes everywhere in a frock, boots with an umbrella and a lorgnette. Though she speaks bad English, she does so with a forced English accent. As a wife to Mr. Borɔfosεm, she forces him to behave as an Europeanized man: smoking cigar, eschewing local foods and dresses. 

9. Joys of Motherhood – Buchi Emecheta (1979)

“God, when will you create a woman who will be fulfilled in herself, a full human being, not anybody’s appendage? she prayed desperately.” –  Easily one of the most memorable quotes from the book.

Joys of Motherhood tells the tragic story of Nnu-Ego, daughter of Nwokocha Agbadi and Ona, who had a bad fate with childbearing. This novel explores the life of a Nigerian woman, Nnu Ego. Nnu’s life centres on her children and through them, she gains the respect of her community. Traditional tribal values and customs begin to shift with increasing colonial presence and influence, pushing Ego to challenge accepted notions of “mother”, “wife”, and “woman”. Through Nnu Ego’s journey, Emecheta forces her readers to consider the dilemmas associated with adopting new ideas and practices against the inclination to cleave to tradition. In this novel, Emecheta reveals and celebrates the pleasures derived from fulfilling responsibilities related to family matters in child bearing, mothering, and nurturing activities among women. However, the author additionally highlights how the ‘joys of motherhood’ also include anxiety, obligation, and pain.

8. Americanah – Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie (2013)

There’s a lot going on here. This book is a beautiful mess. Adichie takes on race, immigration and emigration, the politics of natural hair, interracial relationships, what it means to leave home, and what it means to return, all wrapped up in a love story. The book is, at points, indulgent, just on and on the writing goes, the writer showing off her admittedly impressive way with words. Stronger editing would have done wonders for this book. But when this book is good, it is absolutely brilliant. In the story, Ifemelu and Obinze are young and in love when they depart military-ruled Nigeria for the West. Beautiful, self-assured Ifemelu heads for America, where despite her academic success, she is forced to grapple with what it means to be black for the first time. Quiet, thoughtful Obinze had hoped to join her, but with post-9/11 America closed to him, he instead plunges into a dangerous, undocumented life in London. Fifteen years later, they reunite in a newly democratic Nigeria, and reignite their passion—for each other and for their homeland.

7. A Man of The People – Chinua Achebe (1966)

From the renowned author of The African Trilogy, a political satire about an unnamed African country navigating a path between violence and corruption

As Minister for Culture, former school teacher M. A. Nanga is a man of the people, as cynical as he is charming, and a roguish opportunist. When Odili, an idealistic young teacher, visits his former instructor at the ministry, the division between them is vast. But in the eat-and-let-eat atmosphere, Odili’s idealism soon collides with his lusts–and the two men’s personal and political tauntings threaten to send their country into chaos. When Odili launches a vicious campaign against his former mentor for the same seat in an election, their mutual animosity drives the country to revolution.

Published, prophetically, just days before Nigeria’s first attempted coup in 1966, A Man of the People is an essential part of Achebe’s body of work.

6. I Will Marry When I Want – Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and Ngugi wa Mirii (1977)

Ngaahika Ndeenda (I Will Marry When I Want) is a controversial play that covers post-colonial themes of class struggle, poverty, gender, culture, religion, modernity vs. tradition, and marriage and family.

The play is set in post-colonial Kenya. Kĩgũũnda and his wife Wangeci, two poor peasants, are waiting for a visit from the wealthy Kĩoi and his wife, Jezebel. While they are waiting they argue with their daughter, Gathoni, who they believe to be to lazy and disrespectful on account of being influenced by modernity.

The play was written by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and Ngugi wa Mirii and first performed in Kenya in 1977 at Kamiriithu Educational and Cultural Center.

Set in post-independence Kenya, the play is a searing look at the legacies of colonialism and the difficulties Kenyans faced at the time. It was performed at Kamiriithu for six continuous weeks before it was shut down by the government.

Both playwrights were arrested and detained in December 1977. They were released in December 1978, and fled into exile shortly after. Ngugi wa Mirii fled to Zimbabwe, while Ngugi wa Thiong’o fled to the UK, and then to the United States.

5. The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born – Ayi Kwei Armah (1968)

The novel tells the story of a nameless man who struggles to reconcile himself with the reality of post-independence Ghana. A railway freight clerk in Ghana attempts to hold out against the pressures that impel him toward corruption in both his family and his country. The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born is the novel that catapulted Ayi Kwei Armah into the limelight. The novel is generally a satirical attack on the Ghanaian society during Kwame Nkrumah’s regime and the period immediately after independence in the 1960s. It is often claimed to rank with “Things Fall Apart” as one of the high points of post-colonial African Literature.The unnamed protagonist, referred to as “the man”, works at a railway station and is approached with a bribe; when he refuses, his wife is furious and he can’t help feeling guilty despite his innocence. The action takes place between 1965’s Passion Week and 25 February 1966 – the day after the overthrow of Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s first president.

4. Weep Not, Child – Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o (1964)

Weep Not, Child is a moving novel about the effects of the Mau Mau uprising on the lives of ordinary men and women, and on one family in particular. Two brothers, Njoroge and Kamau, stand on a garbage heap and look into their futures: Njoroge is to attend school, while Kamau will train to be a carpenter. But this is Kenya, and the times are against them: In the forests, the Mau Mau is waging war against the white government, and the two brothers and their family need to decide where their loyalties lie. For the practical Kamau, the choice is simple, but for Njoroge the scholar, the dream of progress through learning is a hard one to give up.

Weep Not, Child is Ngũgĩ’s first novel.

3. Half of A Yellow Sun – Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie (2006)

A masterly, haunting new novel from a writer heralded by The Washington Post Book World as “the 21st-century daughter of Chinua Achebe,” Half of a Yellow Sun re-creates a seminal moment in modern African history: Biafra’s impassioned struggle to establish an independent republic in Nigeria in the 1960s, and the chilling violence that followed.

With astonishing empathy and the effortless grace of a natural storyteller, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie weaves together the lives of three characters swept up in the turbulence of the decade. Thirteen-year-old Ugwu is employed as a houseboy for a university professor full of revolutionary zeal. Olanna is the professor’s beautiful mistress, who has abandoned her life of privilege in Lagos for a dusty university town and the charisma of her new lover. And Richard is a shy young Englishman in thrall to Olanna’s twin sister, an enigmatic figure who refuses to belong to anyone. As Nigerian troops advance and the three must run for their lives, their ideals are severely tested, as are their loyalties to one another.

Epic, ambitious, and triumphantly realized, Half of a Yellow Sun is a remarkable novel about moral responsibility, about the end of colonialism, about ethnic allegiances, about class and race—and the ways in which love can complicate them all. Adichie brilliantly evokes the promise and the devastating disappointments that marked this time and place, bringing us one of the most powerful, dramatic, and intensely emotional pictures of modern Africa that we have ever had.

2. No Longer at Ease – Chinua Achebe (1960)

A cracking read full of humour and tragedy and sparse yet vivid prose by a master novelist.

‘When Obi Okonkwo, grandson of Okonkwo, the main character in Things Fall Apart returns to Nigeria from England in the 1950s, his foreign education separates him from his African roots. No Longer at Ease, the third and concluding novel in Chinua Achebe’s The African Trilogy, depicts the uncertainties that beset the nation of Nigeria, as independence from colonial rule loomed near. In Obi Okonkwo’s experiences, the ambiguities, pitfalls, and temptations of a rapidly evolving society are revealed. He is part of a ruling Nigerian elite whose corruption he finds repugnant. His fate, however, overtakes him as he finds himself trapped between the expectation of his family, his village—both representations of the traditional world of his ancestors—and the colonial world.  A story of a man lost in cultural limbo, and a nation entering a new age of disillusionment, No Longer at Ease is a powerful metaphor for his generation of young Nigerians.’

1. Things Fall Apart – Chinua Achebe (1958)

Before Things Fall Apart was published in 1958, few novels existed in English that depicted African life from the African perspective. And while the book has paved the way for countless authors since, Chinua Achebe’s illuminating work remains a classic of modern African literature. Drawing on the history and customs passed down to him, Achebe tells the tale Okonkwo, a strong-willed member of a late-19th-century Nigerian village. As we follow Okonkwo’s story, we get a glimpse of the intricacies of village life and the complex social structures that come into play. We then see the devastating effects of European colonization on the region and on Okonkwo himself, whose rise and fall become intertwined with the changing power dynamics. Things Fall Apart is essential reading for anyone who wants a more nuanced understanding of other ways of life, of culture clashes, of what being civilized really entails.

Honorable Mentions:

The God’s Are Not To Blame – Ola Rotimi (1971)

In Ola Rotimi’s version of the Greek mythology about cursed Oedipus, we see a relatable Yoruba man named Odewale – a strong willed man who becomes the very thing he ran away from.

For those who are unfamiliar with Oedipus’ story, it is a myth about a mortal who was cursed from birth to kill is father, marry his mother, and bear four children with her. A chilling taboo. His parents tried to stop fate by decreeing his death at infancy. So begins the tragic tale that leads to heartaches, deaths and sorrows, which will have readers asking “who’s to blame?”

In The Gods Are Not to Blame, Rotimi gives the ageless story a new spin, with a fresh perspective that makes his book a classic. Focusing on the Yoruba tradition, Ola Rotimi spotlights Yoruba gods, giving Sango, Orunmila, Ifa, and Ogun prominent roles throughout the book – as King Odewale, King Adetusa (Odewale’s father), Queen Ojuola (Odewale’s mother), Aderopo (Odewale’s brother), the Chiefs and other characters in the book refer to them often.

While this book has certain similarities to the original Greek story, it finds its own originality by adding different elements and characters to the story.

It is interesting to see how Odewale’s destiny leads him back home, especially when he turns out to be a good ruler of his people. The Gods Are Not to blame is full of irony, despair, and disillusions. At the end, the reader is left with a ringing conclusion – one can never outrun fate.

Purple Hibiscus – Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie (2003)

Purple Hibiscus is set in postcolonial Nigeria, a country beset by political instability and economic difficulties. The central character is Kambili Achike, aged fifteen for much of the period covered by the book, a member of a wealthy family dominated by her devoutly Catholic father, Eugene.

Fifteen-year-old Kambili and her older brother Jaja lead a privileged life in Enugu, Nigeria. They live in a beautiful house, with a caring family, and attend an exclusive missionary school. They’re completely shielded from the troubles of the world. Yet, as Kambili reveals in her tender-voiced account, things are less perfect than they appear. Although her Papa is generous and well respected, he is fanatically religious and tyrannical at home—a home that is silent and suffocating.

As the country begins to fall apart under a military coup, Kambili and Jaja are sent to their aunt, a university professor outside the city, where they discover a life beyond the confines of their father’s authority. Books cram the shelves, curry and nutmeg permeate the air, and their cousins’ laughter rings throughout the house. When they return home, tensions within the family escalate, and Kambili must find the strength to keep her loved ones together.

Purple Hibiscus is an exquisite novel about the emotional turmoil of adolescence, the powerful bonds of family, and the bright promise of freedom.

The Strange Man – Amu Djoleto (1967)

The Strange Man is the story of old Mensa, a respected member of a village community in Ghana. A vivid description of his boyhood has many high points of which the catching of a he-goat is the most memorable. Always in trouble, Mensa is sent away to school. Such is the viciousness and corruption at these schools, that Mensa leaves with little regret. Mensa endures his Ghanaian childhood under the shadow of successive tyrannical headmasters. In his maturity he struggles with the trials that village jealousies and his own family lie upon him.

These are some of my personal favorites, there are so many more books out there but who knows, there might be a part two to this list. Thank you for reading!

2 thoughts on “Top 10 African fiction books you need to read in your lifetime

  1. “The land of beautiful nonsense” is a must read. I’ve forgotten her name, the author. A returnee in Ghana who juxtaposes the Ghana lifestyle to the America she returned from.

  2. Ive read most of these books and I’ve got to agree, they’re a must read for anyone, foreigner or African alike. Love the article, keep it up.

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