Former US president Barack Obama has chosen an appropriately diverse list of titles for his trip to Africa this week (16 July). It includes African classics like Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, which he describes as “a masterpiece that has inspired generations of writers in Nigeria, across Africa, and around the world”, and modern novels like Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi and The Return by British-Libyan writer Hisham Matar.
The list also includes Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom, described by Obama as “essential reading for anyone who wants to understand history – and then go out and change it”. He has also picked A Grain of Wheat by the legendary Kenyan writer Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, who is now 80 and, with Achebe’s death in 2013, now effectively the father of African writing. Obama describes the book as “a compelling story of how the transformative events of history weigh on individual lives and relationship””.
Obama is traveling to Africa for the first time since leaving office and describes the continent as having ‘wonderful diversity, thriving culture, and remarkable stories’. He writes: ‘I was proud to visit sub-Saharan Africa more times than any other sitting President, and I’ll return this week to visit Kenya and South Africa. In South Africa, the Obama Foundation will convene 200 extraordinary young leaders from across the continent and I’ll deliver a speech to mark the 100th anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s birth. Kenya, of course, is the Obama ancestral home. I visited for the first time when I was in my twenties and I was profoundly influenced by my experiences – a journey I wrote about in my first book, Dreams from My Father.’
He continues: ‘Over the years since, I’ve often drawn inspiration from Africa’s extraordinary literary tradition. As I prepare for this trip, I wanted to share a list of books that I’d recommend for summer reading, including some from a number of Africa’s best writers and thinkers – each of whom illuminate our world in powerful and unique ways.’
It will be interesting to see if bookshops display these titles on tables headlined ‘What Obama took to Africa’. The list includes one title by a white author – The World as It is by Obama’s former deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes. Obama defends the choice by saying Rhodes’ book is “one of the smartest reflections I’ve seen as to how we approached foreign policy, and one of the most compelling stories I’ve seen about what it’s actually like to serve the American people for eight years in the White House”.