Memoirs about Africa
Sean Jacobs | May 10th, 2011


Timothy Burke, Swarthmore history professor–he’s written a book on commodity culture in Zimbabwe–and blogger, has a great post about ‘memoirs from Africa.’ Basically he was asked to prepare a year-long reading list of books about Africa for school alumni. Burke decided to only include memoirs or first-person perspective accounts from the last 30 years or so. He acknowledges that he’s end up with “… a surplus of certain kinds of books that I find tedious because they follow such a strong template and are so driven by market fads: memoirs of white women who grew up on African farms that followed on Alexandra Fuller’s great memoir of life in Rhodesia and now memoirs of child soldiers and survivors of Darfur.” Anyway, his list is interesting for what it says about who publishes memoirs in and of Africa and what’s available outside the continent. Some of the titles that made it onto his initial list are familiar, but there are also some surprises. Here are samples with Burke’s mostly spot-on comments:

Alexandra Fuller’s Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight: “It’s so distinctive in stylistic terms, and so unsentimental and unapologetic, that it still unsettles a kind of complacently do-gooder liberal expectation about what reading about Africa or white settlers ought to be like.”

Samson Kambalu’s The Jive Talker: An Artist’s Genesis:Great fun, fascinating, and a real cure-all for the endless parade of memoirs by Africans about their experiences of war, genocide and violence.”

Saidiya Hartman, Lose Your Mother:There are other travel accounts by African-Americans that I like, but some are out of print (Eddy Harris’ Native Stranger) and some I don’t like (like Keith Richburg’s Out of America) but Hartman’s is really distinctive and fiercely resists compression or reductionism.”

Aidan Hartley’s The Zanzibar Chest:  “I actually like this less for the early more standard colonial-nostalgia stuff on white settlers and more for Hartley’s honest accounts of his work as a journalist and rootless traveller and the kind of scruffy hedonism that he got caught up in in between covering war and genocide.”

William Kamkwamba’s The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: ” God, this is so well-meaning and sincere that I feel a bit like I’ve just watched a marathon of The Waltons when I read it. But again, the last thing I want is a year full of genocide and war.”

Anyway, you can read the rest of the list and the back and forth between Burke and his blog readers here.

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Sean Jacobs

Otherwise known as Hasan Wasan.

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4 thoughts on “Memoirs about Africa

  1. Last time I was in ZA there appeared to be a whole section in Exclusive Books dedicated to this "genre"… but overwhelmingly lily-white. Got to say that Shirley Goodness And Mercy from Chris van Wyk is sadly overlooked in this space.

  2. One overlooked area is memoirs written and published by Africans in Africa (including self published or 'vanity' published memoirs ). Recently I have come across a memoir by the long serving Zambian politician and government minister, Vernon Mwaanga. Published cheaply and locally, his memoir is a good read covering a formative period in Zambia history. In Nigeria, retired army officers have published popular memoirs covering Nigeria's politically violent and turbulent immediate post independence years. African memoir publishing is paltry but there are gems out there…

    Many African penned and published books are of uneven quality and may not appeal to European and American markets. But they are a useful corrective to the 'heart of darkness' horror memoir or the bitter sweet nostalgia of ex colonials ( though I do love Alexandra Fuller's book).

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