A Novel from Every African Country: Why Reading Africa Matters

Reading Africa is one of In Mzansi’s key projects: a challenge to read a novel from every African country. But what is African literature and why does it matter? The answer varies from person to person; here’s our take on fiction from the continent.

Why I Started Reading African Fiction


When I was eight or nine years old, South Africa was gripped by a wave of violent xenophobia. The country was no doubt still somewhat high on Rainbow Nation pride because I’d considered myself African and as a child, South Africa seemed the beloved trophy child of a huge, struggling continent. Xenophobia snapped my eyes open to a different reality. It was difficult for me, so fiercely proud of our internationally-recognised successes, to recognise the distance between South Africa and our fellow African nations. The shock of that experience always lingered, much like xenophobia which, along with racism, has never been defeated.

When I was seventeen and in the midst of exam stress, I longed desperately to make my escape and visit Morocco. So, I went to Cape Town’s central library and found a novel set in the north African country. It was an old trick of mine; I had always learned a lot about other (mostly European) countries and cultures and histories through novels. I found Laila Lalami’s Secret Son. It was set in Casablanca and told the story of an illegitimate child and two different socio-economic realities in the city. A familiar story for any South African.

At school, we had consistently been taught Western books which were generally written by white men. Finally, in Grade 10 Cry, the Beloved Country was on the syllabus. While it was written by a White man, we were making progress and it was compassionately written. Next, my school introduced Things Fall Apart and Half of a Yellow Sun, both set in Nigeria and written by black individuals. The latter was even written by a woman — progress.

I was obviously in the midst of a political conscientisation in the last few years of high school. I decided to read more works of African literature.  I found a map of Africa and prestiked it onto my study wall, colouring in the countries where books I had read had been set. South Africa, Rwanda, Nigeria and Morocco — that was all. Between a longing to travel and escape school stress, a determination to balance out my very Eurocentric education and to not be a victim of colonial borders who knew more about England than Ethiopia, I came up with the idea of reading one novel from each African country.

It’s more than five years since I started colouring in that map. I don’t even have it anymore. Today, I’ve read African fiction from just over twenty of the continent’s 55 countries. It’s been difficult and my idea of this project has changed over time.

What is the African Novel?

The definitions are varied, and whether the label should even be applied is debatable. Historically, outsiders have written about the continent — and gotten it so wrong. In many ways, my definition of African fiction is in response to this.

In Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s famed Ted talk, The Danger of a Single Story, she makes the point that stereotypes abound in narratives about Africa. “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”

I wanted to hear African voices so I chose to read only books written by African authors. Because I know only too well that one South African’s reality is not the same as another’s, I chose to prioritise authors from indigenous groups. There are many fantastic authors in the diaspora but I chose authors who themselves had a lived experience of the physical country they were writing about. So, for Reading Africa, the books I choose are set in a country and written by an author of indigenous origins, who has actually lived in that country.

The criteria can be a bit rigid. I love that African writers are writing about other parts of the continent or about experiences of being African abroad. These are incredibly valid stories that need to be told. But for me, Reading Africa is a foundation for African literature; for that reason, I want to ensure maximum diversity and inclusion from the first.

Major Themes in African Fiction

Stories about Africa often fall prey to stereotypes, as Binyavanga Wainaina writes in his classic essay How to Write About Africa Wildlife, conflict, poverty and disease dominate stories about our continent, at the expense of African humanity.

When I first started reading African novels, I didn’t really care about the content of the books, beyond their “legitimacy” in representing that country. But I got heartsick of poverty and dispossession and political conflict. At some point, I said to myself, “But I live in Africa. There’s poverty and disease here but there’s more, too. Where is the girl like me who lives in Kinshasa or Kigali?” Representations of middle-class Africa were few when I started this project and I’ve made a conscious effort to seek them out, because the story of our continent shouldn’t be limited to poverty.


But then at the same time, why should we have the privilege to ignore real life? I think a lot of African novels rely on a shock factor, that the situations they describe are so alien to a western audience. That doesn’t work for audiences on the continent. Living in South Africa is hard; I imagine it’s hard in any developing country. Living alongside poverty, even if you yourself are not in poverty, takes a mental toll. Many readers, including me, want to escape the real world when we read, not get a reality check.

I used to think I’d only read African fiction until I’d completed my mission. I threw that out the window a long time ago, around the same time I started looking for middle-class content in novels. Because the truth is, life in Africa is often difficult; that’s not just a stereotype but the lived reality of millions of people — of course, authors are writing about it! It’s a trauma we all have to process (some more than others).  But we also don’t have to re-traumatise ourselves. I like escaping every now and then, and I think it makes me a better reader when I return to African novels.

The Importance of African Literature

I always return to African novels. Because we can learn so much from reading African literature. Apart from the usual many benefits of reading, the significance for active citizens is twofold. First, it’s about getting to know fellow Africans better, centring the humanity that colonialism tried to erase. Second, it’s about finding connections between our own country and the others on the continent.

The points made by Ngozi Adichie and Wainaina are why it’s important for us, as South Africans and Africans, to be reading African fiction, and to make the effort to seek out literature from less well-known countries. Africa is so much more diverse than we know, so much more storied than we’ve been taught, and so much more relatable than we may at first be comfortable to admit.

Finding African Fiction Writers: It’s Well Worth It

It’s hard to find fiction from Cape Verde or Burundi or Guinea-Bissau. Shelves marked ‘African fiction’ are dominated by South African, Nigerian and Ghanaian authors. I’ve chosen books based not on reviews in magazines or the recommendations of my friends (both sources rarely recommend an African book) but by searching “Malian fiction” or “Malian authors” online. Other times, I’ve simply browsed the rows of African fiction at the library, leisurely pulling out books and reading blurbs or extracts. The books I’ve chosen have not always turned out the way I’ve wanted and I was disappointed with the styles and endings of many stories. Nevertheless, I have found authors whose writing I not only enjoy but who are African, like me. It’s like employing someone; you never truly know how good they are until you give them the opportunity.

Opportunity is often such an overused word infused with whimsical connotations of overnight fairytales but it really is key when it comes to African fiction. You’ll never know unless you try. It might take a lot to walk away from the general fiction and turn instead to the closer shelves of African books but once you’ve done that, you won’t be sorry. A few times I’ve been tempted not to find another book from another country but to gobble up every single book the author has ever written. I’m excited for the day when, having read a book from every African country, I not only know more about my continent, but have found new favourite authors whose work I can go back to again and again.

Jenna Solomon

Jenna is a journalism, African studies and social development graduate. She writes about active citizenship and lifestyle in South Africa.

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