Books about the Great Lakes region of Africa
I spent some of my undergrad studying and living in the Great Lakes region of Africa. Here’s a few of the best books I’ve read about it, plus a few others to avoid –
The Great Lakes of Africa: Two Thousand Years of History by Jean-Pierre Chrétien
A long academic book that explains the Great Lakes region from the perspective of what happened there, not in Europe.
Rwanda Inc by Patricia Crisafulli and Andrea Redmond
A feel-good story of Rwanda’s (impressive) development that reads like propaganda — so many opinions, so few facts. Skip this book.
Shake Hands with the Devil by Roméo Dallaire
The memoir of the Canadian general who commanded the UN Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR), which had been trying to broker peace with the genocide began. The UN pulled nearly all its troops, but Dallaire stayed behind — and eventually wrote this memoir. It’s not an easy read, but it does provide a reminder of what it feels like to be human.
Chief of Station: Congo by Lawrence Devlin
The memoirs of the CIA Station Chief in Kinshasa during the Cold War. Glimmers of truth amongst the stories, probably. Read this as James Bond-style fiction and you will be entertained.
Shame by Melanie Finn
A woman escapes from rural Switzerland to rural Tanzania after her marriage falls apart. With multiple narrators, some unreliable and others omniescient-ish, an odd dream sequence, and too many coincidences, this novel tried too hard to be quote-unquote modern.
The Last King of Scotland by Giles Foden
Well-researched fiction about the Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. If you’ve already seen the movie, I promise the book’s better.
Leave None to Tell the Story: Genocide in Rwanda by Alison des Forges
The book on the Rwandan genocide: nearly 800 pages of academic-level detail. des Forges was an anthropologist who built her career working in Rwanda before the country was made famous/infamous in 1994.
We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families by Philip Gourevitch
If US interest in Rwanda can be traced to a single thing, it is this book. Gourevitch doesn’t report from East Africa often any longer, but his piece on the country’s cycling team, from 2011, is also worth reading.
King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild
The story of the Congo’s plunder by Belgium’s King Leopold II in the late nineteenth century. The best thing we can (maybe?) say about the monarch is that he spurred the existence of a human rights movement.
A Thousand Hills by Stephen Kinzer
Hagiography of Paul Kagame, Rwanda’s longtime president/dictator. Kagame’s done some amazing things, but this book is not a balanced portrait of him. Skip it.
West with the Night by Beryl Markham
The romance of small planes coupled Out of Africa-style expat hijinks. It’s easy to like this book.
The Scramble for Africa by Thomas Pakenham
Long and dense, though the best history of Africa’s early colonialism of which I know.
Africa’s World War: Congo, the Rwandan Genocide, and the Making of a Continental Catastrophe by Gerard Prunier
Beside Jason Stearns’ book (below), this is “the other best book” I’ve read on conflict in the Great Lakes region. Prunier is an academic, and is writing is both more dense and more “inside baseball” than Stearns’.
The Origins of AIDS by Jacques Pepin
An epidemiologist’s take on where the AIDS virus came from and how it infected humans. Super interesting history that travels from infected bush meat to Belgian infrastructure to Norwegian aid to Haitian blood donations.
A Thousand Hills to Heaven by Josh Ruxin
Feel-good book about present(ish) day Rwanda that’s exactly what it sounds like.
Dancing in the Glory of Monsters by Jason Stearns
The best history of the decade-long Congo wars I’ve come across. The conflict itself is monstrous (to start: more people killed than any conflict since World War II (four million!), most of whom were civilians) but this book humanizes as much as is possible. It’s also accessible; you can enjoy it without a background in the region.
Borderlines by Michela Wrong
Fiction from one of my favorite non-fiction writers (non-fiction recs below.) It’s the scene-setting and tight place descriptions that really make this novel. (Once a foreign correspondent always a foreign correspondent?)
I Didn’t Do It For You by Michela Wrong
Eritrea’s history, told through profiles and narrative nonfiction. This book made me fall in love with the idea of Eritrea — I actually booked a flight to the capital, Asmara, when I finished. (I haven’t actually been though; someday.)
In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz by Michela Wrong
The most sensible account of the waning months of Mobutu in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), a time when everything turned upside down.
It’s Our Turn to Eat by Michela Wrong
Corruption in Kenya, from colonial times to the present. The book focuses on John Githongo, a journalist, activist, and onetime Kenyan “anticorruption czar.” The book’s analysis is sound and it reads like a thriller — what more could you want?