African Literature 201: Reading For The Tour d’Afrique – Non-Fiction
Cycling from Cairo to Cape Town is an epic adventure and one way to prepare for the experience of a lifetime is to stock up on some great literature covering the areas you will be pedalling through. Read them before you go or bring them along for the ride. Reading one of these books, sitting in your tent at night under the vast African sky, surrounded by the sounds of the bush, is an incredibly rewarding experience.
Here are my top 10 non-fiction picks.
Dark Star Safari – Paul Theroux
The book starts with one of the catchiest opening lines ever written – “All news out of Africa is bad. It made me want to go there…” It covers a range of topics such as Aid workers “Aid workers in rural Africa are in general, oafish self-dramatizing prigs and, often, complete bastards” but despite the occasional caustic tone, Theroux’s love for the continent always shines through.
Don’t Let’s Go To The Dogs Tonight – Alexandra Fuller
I remember picking this book up in Nairobi during my 2006 Tour d’Afrique ride and being absolutely captivated by the characters – Alexandra Fuller (Bobo), her sister Vanessa (Tubs) and her parents, Nicola (Tub) and Tim. This story of a family of white Zimbabwean tenant farmers in the years before and after Independence will make you laugh uproariously and will break your heart, often at the same time.
The Tree Where Man Was Born – Peter Matthiessen
This book is a classic account of Matthiessen’s travels in Eastern Africa from Cairo to Tanzania. His observations of the flora, fauna and peoples of the region are priceless. The perfect book to read while cycling in the shadows of Mount Kenya and Kilimanjaro.
The Shadow of the Sun – Ryszard Kapuściński
Polish-born Kapuściński spent over 30 years travelling throughout Africa as the foreign correspondent for the Polish Press Agency. Rider may soon begin to identify with him on their ride – “They have no maps, they’re lost, and they’re confronted with an enormous herd – stretching almost to the horizon – of buffalo. They press on regardless. It gets hotter and hotter. The burning air started to quiver and undulate.”
In Search of King Solomon’s Mines – Tahir Shah
Riders on the Tour d’Afrique will likely find Ethiopia to be one of the most enigmatic countries they have visited. Reading this account of Shah’s quest – as a historical detective, he’s a bust—content with a bogus map and half-baked ideas – is the perfect literary companion to their ride. As the New Yorker put it “as he wedges into a Land Cruiser with twenty-three other people or worms his way down mine shafts, he displays the stoic grace of the Victorian explorers he so admires.”
They Poured Fire on Us from the Sky – Benjamin Ajak, Benson Deng & Alephonsion Dengn
While cycling through the Sudan, the riders on the Tour d’Afrique are likely to be amazed at the hospitality of the local population. There is, however, a darker side to the country and this book details the ordeal of 3 boys as they flee the civil war in Sudan, a world of bombed-out villages, mine-sown roads, and relentless desert. Their journey to safety in Kenya and eventually the USA is truly inspiring and a testament to human courage.
The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Creating Currents of Electricity & Hope
As the riders cycle through Malawi – ‘The Warm Heart of Africa’ – they will be struck by both the beauty of the land and the poverty of the people. This book will help them look beyond the people’s daily struggles to a better future. William Kamkwamba’s Malawi village was hit by a drought in 2001, everyone’s crops began to fail. His family didn’t have enough money for food, let alone school, so he spent his days in the library and came across a book on windmills and figured out how to build a windmill that could bring electricity to his village. Everyone thought he was crazy but he managed to create a functioning windmill out of junkyard scraps. Unbelievable and inspiring!
Long Walk To Freedom – Nelson Mandela
Crossing the Orange River and entering the Rainbow nation of South Africa should remind riders to pull out this book and learn about the country’s iconic leader – his early life, coming of age, education and 27 years in prison. His struggles are vividly recounted and he appropriately (given his later political career) ends the book – “But I can only rest for a moment, for with freedom comes responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not ended.”
Out of Africa – Karen Blixen
Published in 1937, this memoir recounting Blixen’s time on a coffee plantation outside Nairobi is a vivid snapshot of African colonial life in the last decades of the British Empire. She respected and admired the Africans in her local community – which made her increasingly suspect among the other colonists – and was able to discern the vast cultural differences between the nomadic Masai and the more settled Kikuyu. Reading this book, riders may be able to better understand some of the current tensions in modern day Kenya.
The Lost World of the Kalahari – Laurens van der Post
Cycling along the Elephant Highway in Botswana the riders will find themselves skirting the edge of the Kalahari Desert – home to the San people, also known as the “Bushmen”, members of an indigenous hunter-gatherer group. While many participants might remember their depiction in the, admittedly entertaining movie – The Gods Must Be Crazy – a better introduction to their culture can be found in this insightful book, the perfect companion for this section of the tour.
The Emperor: Downfall of an Autocrat – Ryszard Kapuściński
Africa Solo – Mark Beaumont
Dodging Elephants – Alice Morrison
Waugh in Abyssinia – Evelyn Waugh
And Home was Kariakoo: A Memoir of East Africa – M.G. Vassanji
It’s Our Turn to Eat: The Story of a Kenyan Whistle-Blower – Michaela Wong
The Flame Trees of Thika: Memories of an African Childhood – Elspeth Huxley
South from the Limpopo – Dervla Murphy
An African Love Story: Love, Life & Elephants – Daphne Sheldrick