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5 books set in Southern Africa worth reading

Namwali Serpell’s The Old Drift – Zambia

I’ll confess to being a bit of a superfan of this one, but I think the book deserves it. Serpell’s debut novel stretches to 560 pages and it’s no small feat for either writer or reader, but it’s thoroughly worth it. It came out in 2019 and is probably my favourite book published in recent years. Serpell spent years researching this multi-generational epic set in Zambia and the result is a many-layered narrative of complex path-crossings and multiple complicity. It takes its readers on myriad journeys: Victoria Falls, Italy, England, all around Lusaka; into the past, present and future. It’s a colonial history, an account of the Zambian independence struggle, a close examination of complex family ties, a tongue-in-cheek satire of millennials, and a dystopian sci-fi vision of a not-too-distant future. It encompasses the building of the Kariba dam, AIDS research, mass vaccination and drone surveillance. And it does all this with a strong intuition for irony and a wonderful facility for playing with language and form. At poco.lit., we’ve written about it here and here.

Panashe Chigumadzi’s These Bones Will Rise Again – Zimbabwe

I read this in 2018 when it came out and when I recently found myself paging through it again, I was struck by how many important issues this slim non-fiction volume is able to tease out. Chigumadzi sets out to tell a history of the Zimbabwean chimurengas that is not the established history of Big Men she grew up with and which has dominated so much of how the narrative of her country is represented. She does this in the form of an autobiographical essay that tells the story of the many women who have been integral to her country’s multiple freedom struggles – from colonial subjugation to the injustices of Robert Mugabe’s long rule. These women include Mbuya Nehanda, the spiritual guide of the revolutionary struggle who reappears in different guises when she is needed, and Panashe’s own foremothers. Easy to read and clear in expression, this book has a lot to teach. You can find our review of it here.

Zoe Wicomb’s You can’t get lost in Cape Town – South Africa

This one isn’t everyone’s cup of tea because it’s not the easiest read, but I maintain it rewards the effort. It’s set in Namaqualand and Cape Town in apartheid South Africa, and was originally published in 1987 – so before the country’s first democratic elections. It recounts the development of its female protagonist from rural girlhood, to a university education in Britain, to her return home as a published writer. Wicomb opts for a narrative of vignettes – short chapters of closely detailed incidents and anecdotes that are all somehow salient to Frieda’s experiences of becoming an adult woman and a published author, but which are not bound together in a coherent arc. Wicomb has a joy in language and an aptitude for the complex relationships between people that has long stayed with me. At poco.lit., we’ve written about the book here.

Rémy Ngamije’s “The Neighbourhood Watch” – Namibia

This short story was published in The Johannesburg Review of Books and was a finalist for the AKO Caine Prize for African Writing in 2020. Ngamije’s quiet and spare prose relates the story of the title-giving group of five homeless people who are forced to eek out a living in the oftentimes hostile streets of Windhoek, Namibia. It’s arresting and undramatic, as it gives each of its character’s tragic particularities with understatement and an eye for details that linger with the reader. At poco.lit., we wrote about it here.

Abdulrazak Gurnah’s Afterlives – Tanzania

This one is set in Tanzania, so not really Southern Africa (but South of the equator). It’s an historical novel that does important work in detailing the little-represented history of German colonialism in East Africa. The novel relates the stories of Ilyas and Hamza, and their encounters with the German colonial presence and the aftermath of these encounters: the advantages their familiarity with the German language brings them, as well as the literal and figurative scars the coloniser’s violence leaves on them and their country. Gurnah has a wonderful ability with character-building, and especially the soft-spoken Hamza and his gentle ways have stayed with me long after having read the book. You can find a review of it here.