The best African books of 2021
African writers have outdone themselves again, bringing us literary gems across genres. Here are our 20 top books of the year, in no particular order.
The Fortune Men by Nadifa Mohamed
Following the success of her novels Black Mamba Boy and The Orchard of Lost Souls, Mohamed was back this year with a book like no other. The Fortune Men retells the story of Mahmood Mattan, a Somali seaman wrongfully charged with murder in Wales in the 1950s. Mohamed’s writing creates a bond between the reader and the protagonist, leaving you wholly invested in the story. Shortlisted for The Man Booker Prize, this is a beautiful and heart wrenching book.
Dear Senthuran: A Black Spirit Memoir by Akwaeke Emezi
There is little doubt that Emezi is one of the greatest writers of our time, a position further cemented through this latest offering. Written as a series of letters to various individuals, Emezi gives us an intimate insight into their relationships with their own identity, the world around them, and the spaces they inhabit as an ogbanje or spirit. Once more, Emezi leaves the reader awestruck with their hypnotic and mesmerising writing.
How I Accidentally Became a Global Stock Photo by Shubnum Khan
If Khan has not already stolen your heart via social media, then be prepared to lose it to her through this book. The South African writer brings us a collection of hilarious and heartfelt anecdotes from her life and travels. She weaves into these her dreams, reflections, and experiences as she navigates the world, taking us from Durban to Shangai to right within her heart.
An Unusual Grief by Yewande Omotoso
Omotoso’s ability to capture what it is to be human – to articulate the fragility of the threads that bind us together – is unrivalled. Following the death of her estranged daughter Yinka, Mojisola moves into her child’s former apartment and, in doing so, gets to know both herself and Yinka. If the story does not have you in tears, the exquisite writing will.
A Long Way from Douala by Max Lobe
In this novel, Lobe achieves the rare feat of taking a serious subject and creating a lively, kind and sometimes humorous story around it. Jean Moussima Bobe is a university student living in Cameroon who, accompanied by his friend Simon, sets out in search of his younger brother Roger who has run away to pursue his dream of becoming a football star in Europe. As they travel through Cameroon, they run into perilous situations and meet new characters as their bond grows. Through the absorbing storyline, Lobe addresses many issues facing Cameroon today such as conflict, corruption, and a heavy-handed government.
Brotherhood by Mohamed Mbougar Sarr
In the same year Senegal’s Sarr won the Prix Goncourt for La plus secrète mémoire des hommes, the English translation of his 2015 Terre Ceinte (Brotherhood) was also released to critical acclaim. In this novel, the town of Kalep, situated in the fictional country of Sumal, has been overtaken by an extremist group. As they unleash a range of repressive policies, a resistance movement is born in a book that will have you on the edge of your seat.
The Promise by Damon Galgut
Winner of this year’s Booker Prize, The Promise tells the story of a white family in South Africa from the Apartheid era to the presidency of Jacob Zuma. A promise is made to a Black housekeeper, which is not kept. As years pass, we see the fate of the members of the Swart family juxtaposed against that of a nation. Galgut’s writing is effortless, and his characters are well-constructed. The sharpness of this story will leave you thinking about it long after you turn the final page.
The House of Rust by Khadija Abdalla Bajaber
Magic, mythology, and adventure are at the centre of Bajaber’s debut novel, set in Kenyan coastal city of Mombasa. Our fearless and fierce protagonist Aisha is in search of her father, a fisherman who has disappeared at sea. As she says: “The locals know, there are things in the water that would eat you alive”. The events that follow create the perfect coming of age story, blended with mysticism rooted in Hadrami culture.
Co-Wives, Co-Widows by Adrienne Yabouza
First published in 2015, the English translation of Yabouza’s novella was released this year and was truly worth the wait. Set in the Central African Republic around an election in which voters have to choose between “five illnesses”, builder Lidou suddenly passes away, leaving his two co-wives with a battle on their hands. This is a charming and funny yet poignant story from a part of the world we hear little about.
How Beautiful We Were by Imbolo Mbue
With the discovery of oil in a fictional African village and the entrance of US oil company, you have the makings of a story not far removed from reality. The people of Kosawa find their environment destroyed, their way of life threatened, and loved ones lost as Pexton extracts oil from the area. Their protests are met with brutal retaliation. One local, Thula, leaves to study in the US. On her return, she is faced with choices that could determine the fate of the village in this compelling read.
The Fugitives by Jamal Mahjoub
In in 1980s Khartoum, the jazz band Kamanga Kings is forced to disband when Omar al-Bashir comes into power. Years later, the group receives an invitation to perform in Washington. They are joined by Rushdy, son of one of the band’s co-founders, who says “the only religion I have ever had any faith in is music”. The book takes the reader from 1960s Khartoum to America under Trump, bringing alive each era and location alongside a captivating plotline.
The Eternal Audience of One by Rémy Ngamije
This witty, poignant, and thought-provoking book is the kind you wish would never end. Ngamije’s protagonist Séraphin Turihamwe has never found home. Forced to leave Rwanda during the genocide, his family move to Kenya and then Namibia, after which Seraphin travels to Cape Town for university. We are treated to his hilarious observations and experiences alongside a group of friends who have found themselves in a city with unique racial politics. Despite the serious subject matters, this is an entertaining read.
In The Palace Of Flowers by Victoria Princewill
In The Palace Of Flowers tells the story of two Abyssinian slaves as they navigate the politics, mysteries, and drama of the royal court in Iran in the 1890s. Not only does Princewill unveil hidden histories, but she provides the reader with an intriguing plotline that transports the reader to another time and place.
Unbury Our Dead With Song by Mũkoma wa Ngũgĩ
This novel is a love letter, poetry, music, and memory. The protagonist is Kenyan journalist John Thandi Manfredi who comes across four Ethiopian musicians competing in a Tizita contest. Enchanted by the music and the musicians, he travels to Ethiopia with them to learn more. At one point, Manfredi reflects on how “you never forget your first love; you never forget your first Tizita”. Music lovers will never forget this book.
Chronicles From the Land of the Happiest People On Earth by Wole Soyinka
The literary giant returned this year with his first novel since 1973. Long-awaited, it is a blend of satire, tragedy, mystery, and comedy with an edge. Set in a country reminiscent of Nigeria, we see a nation ravaged by corruption, crime, religious extremism, opportunism and, above all, denial. It is all seen through the eyes of the protagonists as they wade murky waters following the discovery of a movement that sells human body parts.
The Actual True Story Of Ahmed & Zarga by Mohamedou Ould Slahi
This highly anticipated book by the renowned Mauritanian writer tells the story of camel herder Ahmed as he navigates the Sahara in search of a lost camel. Along his journey he encounters individuals, forces, and circumstances, some providing him nourishment and beauty, others proving a threat to him and his people. This is a gently told story combining Mauritanian folklore with a reminder about the necessity of valuing our environment.
Accra Noir edited by Nana-Ama Danquah
Our favourite series is back, this time from Ghana’s capital Accra. Love, lust, jealousy, corruption, crime, and mystery all feature in this goosebump-inducing collection set in this lively and spirited city with a dark side.
You Have Not Yet Been Defeated by Alaa Abd-el Fattah
Fattah has been arrested repeatedly by Egyptian authorities since the 2011 uprising. He has been harassed, tortured, and has spent most of the last ten years in jail. This book is a collection of his essays smuggled out of prison and is among the most important books of the year.
The Sex Lives of African Women by Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah
Since its release, this book has featured on the social media pages of a huge number of book lovers. It is no surprise why. Ghanaian activist, feminist, and blogger Sekyiamah brings us an anthology featuring stories about sex by women from Africa and its diaspora. We learn about sexual identities, desire, the challenging of societal standards and ideas about womanhood, and how what goes on in the bedroom reflects circumstances outside of it. There are not enough words to do justice to this ground-breaking book that all should read.
A Bigger Picture by Vanessa Nakate
The Ugandan climate activist has been at the forefront of the movement demanding action on climate change. Nakate has spoken out about the erasure of climate activists of colour, something she experienced when she was cropped out of an AP image. She reflects upon this alongside her journey into activism, the need to listen to voices from the Global South, and what is at risk if we don’t act now.