Our picks of the best from the year.
Whether it’s been with light-hearted love stories, heart-wrenching histories, or gritty thrillers, African writers have provided us with some brilliant books in 2020, all of which have had us saying “just one more chapter”. Here are 20 of the best books from 2020.
The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste
Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, this masterpiece is set during Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia. It intricately brings together memory, history, and artistic prose. Central to the plotline is Hirut, a house girl ready to take up arms and fight in the war. Her relationships and interactions with an array of other characters provide insight into the brutality of the conflict. Rape, violence, courage, cowardice, darkness, and light, this is an unforgettable book about the women who fought and the importance of telling our own histories.
At Night All Blood is Black by David Diop
Alfa Ndiaye is among the many Senegalese men that fight for France in WW1. When his fellow “Chocolat” soldier and friend Mademba dies a grizzly death, Ndiaye is transformed into a monster of sorts. He sneaks around at night, killing German soldiers, bringing back their hands as a memento, ravenous for death. A harrowing yet necessary read, telling the long-overdue stories of African soldiers that fought for colonial powers in the war.
The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi
Born to an Indian mother and Nigerian father, the protagonist Vivek Oji enters the world on the day his grandmother died, an omen of what is to come. Throughout the book, we experience him through the people around him as they grapple with his life and death. Every so often Oji speaks from the grave. “I’m not what anyone thinks I am. I never was. And every day it was difficult, walking around and knowing that people saw me one way, knowing that they were wrong, so completely wrong, that the real me was invisible to them. It didn’t even exist to them.” A bewitching novel by one of the greatest writers of our time., the novel deals with themes of family, relationships, culture, identity, and how cruelly the outside world can stifle our innate selves.
The Death of Comrade President by Alain Mabanckou
A master of satire, Mabanckou’s books are mainly set in his home country of the Republic of Congo and are a combination of wit, comedy, and tragedy. His latest offering is no different. A follow-up to Tomorrow I’ll be Twenty, we continue to see the world through the eyes of 13-year-old protagonist Michel and his somewhat hilarious “post-colonial” childhood. Things take a serious turn with the announcement that President Ngoubai has been assassinated, from which point on no one is safe and our hero finds himself in the midst of madness.
Imperfect Arrangements by Frances Mensah
The queen of romantic dramas is back, following the successes of her novels From Pasta to Pigfoot and Second Helpings. Focusing on the lives of three best friends living in Ghana, this charming read is about the challenges which come with friendship, love, and relationships, and the search for that happily ever after.
The First Woman/A Girl is a Body of Water by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi
Makumbi continues to take the literary world by storm with her latest novel centering on Kirabo, a young girl coming of age in Uganda during Idi Amin’s rule. Growing up in a village, she seeks to discover the identity of her mother, an answer no one will provide. Later, her father takes her to Kampala from where she is sent to a boarding school. We watch her discover her own identity and how this is challenged through culture and patriarchy. But this is not just the story of Kirabo. On a broader level, the book explores the impact of folklore, tradition, and societal norms on women.
Afterlives by Abdulrazak Gurnah
The tenth novel by the renowned Tanzanian writer encapsulates the impact of colonialism not only on entire nations but individual lives. Set in German East Africa, the book follows the lives of married couple Asha and Khalifa; Afiya, the girl they take in; Ilyas, who becomes part of the Schutztruppe Askaris and goes to fight for Germany in the war; and Hamza who returns home injured and has to rebuild his life. What is it to live after, as one character puts it, “the Germans have killed so many people that the country is littered with skulls and bones and the earth is soggy with blood”? Afterlives tells it all.
Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi
Gyasi’s much anticipated second novel focuses on Ghanaian-American neuroscientist graduate Gifty who spends much of her time carrying out experiments in a lab. On the surface, this is just a job, but delve further and we discover how closely it is linked to her experience of childhood trauma and grief on multiple levels. The impact of racism, the loss of her brother to substance abuse, her father travelling to Ghana only to never return, a deeply religious mother crumbling under the burden of depression. How to bring together the complex relationship between faith and science amid this myriad of losses and the everyday complexities of life?
His Only Wife by Peace Adzo Medie
Set in contemporary Ghana, this is the story of seamstress Afi Tekple who has agreed to marry a wealthy businessman whose mother has chosen her in the hope he will let go of his “inappropriate girlfriend”. As Afi moves to the bright lights of Accra to be with her husband, the fairy tale she expected does not quite materialise. However, there is more than one version of a happy ending, and one can be found through female friendships, food, fashion, culture, and the ultimate journey to independence.
Mogadishu Through the Eyes of an Architect by Omar Degan
Omar Degan is part of the Somali diaspora that chose to return home and help the rebuilding of the country. Part of this journey has been to release a non-fiction book that takes the reader on a tour of Mogadishu through photographs combined with snippets of history. It is a reminder that beyond the narratives of war, there is much beauty to be seen, stories to be remembered and a cultural heritage to be saved.
Travelling While Black by Nanjala Nyabola
‘This is not a travel memoir’ says Nyabola. Indeed, this non-fiction book is much more than that. It features an array of essays that explore race, identity, privilege, and migration, seen through the lens of life on the move. It reflects on how being Black means one can blend in when in Haiti or Burkina Faso, yet experience discrimination of the worst kind and even come close to death elsewhere. These are not just her stories but those of many others, skilfully told and constantly challenging the reader to ask questions and see the world from varying perspectives.
The Dragons, The Giant, The Women by Wayétu Moore
This memoir by the Liberian writer is not just a story of fleeing conflict, but about what happens next. When you find yourself seemingly safe in America, you may leave the war behind, but as a Black, African immigrant, a different set of battles begin.
No Roses From My Mouth by Stella Nyanzi
Activist, academic, writer, and hero, Dr. Nyanzi penned this collection while she was in prison for 15 months on charges of cyber harassment after she posted a poem on Facebook which allegedly insulted Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni. On everything from the state of prisons to feminism, this collection is unapologetic, blunt, unsparing, and inspiring. Much like Nyanzi herself.
Love in Colour by Bolu Babalola
If there is any book you wish would not end, it is this one. A collection of stories from around the world re-told by British-Nigerian writer Bola Babalola, it brings to life mythical folktales on all matters of the heart. It is exquisitely written and would make the perfect gift.
Addis Ababa Noir edited by Maaza Mengiste
This is a journey into a city that has seen joy and horror, that has tasted blood and smelt roses, that reflects the light of the sun while is sometimes cloaked in the shadow of darkness and can change shape based on who you are. This rich collection of short stories pulls you in and launches an assault on all your senses.
This Mournable Body by Tsitsi Dangarembga
Though released in 2018, its entry onto the 2020 Booker Prize shortlist makes it a must-read for this year again. In it, we are reunited with Tambu, the protagonist from Dangarembga’s 1998 novel Nervous Conditions. Middle-aged and living in a hostel, Tambu’s quest for a job and a different kind of life sees her battle her demons while illustrating an almost cruel indifference to what is going on around her. As Zimbabwe continues to decline, creating a feeling of suffocation heightened by misogyny, corruption, and the failure of systems, she soon discovers that it is impossible to separate oneself from the conditions around them. Once again Dangarembga shines.
South B’s Finest by Makena Maganjo
Life on Malaba Estate in Nairobi is anything but boring. Friendships are formed, stories are hidden and secrets unveiled as former and current residents come together and reflect upon the twists and turns their lives have taken against the backdrop of a country undergoing political and economic changes.
The Girl with the Louding Voice by Abi Daré
14-year-old Adunni is married off to a taxi driver and ends up working as a maid in Lagos. What follows is her quest for empowerment in a society in which her class and gender expose her to multi-faceted oppressions. The mark of a great novel is its ability to bring unheard stories to the forefront. In exploring child marriage, violence against women, and exploitation of domestic workers, this novel does exactly that.
An Act of Defiance by Irene Sabatini
Some of the best novels of our time have been by writers from Zimbabwe and this tradition continues with the latest novel by Irene Sabatini. Set during the Mugabe era, An Act of Defiance captures the impact of political violence on everyday lives in Zimbabwe. Central to the plot is a love story, serving up a reminder that not even matters of the heart are spared when it comes to big man politics.
Nairobi Noir edited by Peter Kimani
This collection of short stories features some of Kenya’s best writers and manages to capture the beauty, horror, and mystique of Nairobi. Everyone has a story and pulsating through the collection are the role of colonialism, the experience of women, the class divide, and the power of language.
Samira Sawlani is a writer and analyst, focused on East Africa. Follow her on twitter at @samirasawlani.