The idea of reading my way through Africa began with seeing a performance of Danai Gurira’s play The Convert, set in Rhodesia in 1895 (before it became Zimbabwe). This powerful drama got me thinking how little I know about African countries. I realized that for many countries in Europe I could rattle off lots of information—what language is spoken, a famous writer or two, what the national costume looks like, names of cities, even a little history. But despite making a few friends from Kenya, Ghana, and South Africa, my knowledge is really limited.
I came home from Gurira’s play, checked out my bookshelf, and found (unread) Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga, set in the same country as The Convert nearly 100 years later. What surprised me most were themes that were very similar in the two books, despite the difference in time: the tension between the old ways and the new, and the struggle to get an education for a girl on the brink of womanhood.
Next I learned of a prize-winning short story by another Zimbabwean author, NoViolet Bulawayo, which led me to her book (also about a child but written for adults), We Need New Names. I had begun a journey. Inevitably, I read a little nonfiction and studied some maps, along the way. I also realized it wouldn’t hurt if I even knew just the names and general locations of more African countries. There were some games on the internet to help me with that.
I moved on from Zimbabwe to other countries, and also from books written for adults to children’s books, my real love. The theme of City Boy by Jan Michael, set in Malawi, was a kind of reversal of the Zimbabwean stories—a child from an educated, city-dwelling family must move back to a rural setting because his parents have died of AIDS. In Stones for My Father, by Trilby Kent, the main character is a white child in South Africa during the Boer War at the end of the 19th century. Linda Sue Park’s A Long Walk to Water tells of two children of Sudan, in 1985 and 2008, respectively.
Most recently, I’ve just finished A Girl called Problem, set in Tanzania in 1975 (soon after the end of colonial rule). Author Katie Quirk’s website included a link to a helpful resource: a list of Young Adult Fiction from Africa, on the Bookshy blog. Another resource I’ve found is Access Africa which reviews and gives annual awards for children’s and young adult books on Africa published or republished in the US.
My plan is to read my way through the countries of Africa in middle grade fiction, contemporary or historical. Whenever possible, I’ll read books by black writers who are from the country they write about. (That hasn’t been the case, yet, for any of the children’s books I’ve read.) I don’t have any deadlines for this project. But someday I hope to be able to take a blank map of Africa and fill in the name of a children’s book that takes place in every country.
Zimbabwe, Malawi, South Africa, Sudan (which is now two countries), Tanzania. Only about 50 more countries to go! I’d love to hear book suggestions.