A Wider Heart: Reading About Africa

The world stands out on either side/No wider than the heart is wide.


—“Renascence” Edna St. Vincent Millay

Recently, a friend of mine, a professional woman, sent me an e-mail message that she was going to Spain for vacation. Knowing that Spain was almost contiguous to Africa, she checked a map to see if Ghana was near enough to make a detour for a quick visit. She found that it wasn’t.

Africa is terra incognita for many, if not most, Americans. It was for me when I came to Africa, almost five years ago, to teach at the newly established Catholic University College of Ghana. Since then, I have been learning about some of the countries on this continent, the second largest in the world. Initially, I studied the map of Africa and tried to learn the countries’ locations. Then I discovered “a more excellent way.” I read novels and memoirs set in different countries, and people in their particular settings came alive in my imagination. I began to “learn” Africa, and I found that learning leads to love. My heart was becoming wider.

So I suggest that if you are a member of a book club or community book group, you encourage your group to choose “The Year of Africa” as the theme for next year. Perhaps my reading experiences would be helpful to your group in choosing books to read and discuss. Even if you don’t belong to a book group, read on.

Purple Hibiscus, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiichie (Harper Perennial), opens with a few words that show the young author’s debt to Nigeria’s famed Chinua Achebe: “Things started to fall apart at home....” The voice is that of a 15-year-old Nigerian girl, torn between allegiance to her father, a God-figure whose authoritarian rule of the family is cruel and heartless, and her father’s sister, a liberated, joyous Catholic woman whose life demonstrates true Christianity. Both were strongly influenced by Catholic missionaries, but the influence produced totally different results. The Nigerian scene comes alive: village life and customs; animist religion; corruption; the Nigerian church; civil strife. A coming-of-age novel, it excels in the characterization of the four key women.

Algeria is the setting of Letters From the Desert, by Carlo Carretto (Orbis Books). A spiritual classic, it describes life in the Algerian desert, which Carretto embraced when he left his native Italy to join the Little Brothers of Jesus. The letters tell a little about how to live in the desert; they tell much about how the desert encourages contemplation; and they offer insights on the basic harmony between nature and human nature. The language is clear and evocative. Such metaphors as “[w]e are the wire; God is the electric current. Our only power is to let the current pass through us” are arresting and powerful. Caretto left the desert after 10 years, bringing desert spirituality back to Italy.

Acts of Faith, by the Pulitzer Prize-winner Philip Caputo (Vintage), is a fascinating novel. Strong on characterization, with an intricate plot, it paints a vivid picture of the setting, which is primarily southern Sudan but with some scenes in northern Sudan and neighboring Kenya. I learned much and came to understand the cause of the 21-year civil war in the country; the novel presents both sides of the conflict, along with romance, intrigue and sudden death. The author writes from a solid background of experience in Africa.

One sees the same country from another angle in God Grew Tired of Us (National Geographic), a memoir by one of the “lost boys” of Sudan. John Bul Dau tells his story, from fleeing his village in Darfur to his arrival and resettlement in the United States. He and thousands of other boys trekked across the width of Sudan to reach the camps set up by the United Nations and nongovernmental organizations. The trials and terrors of their flight make bitter reading, and one wonders how they could have survived all the deprivations. The resilience of youth and the determination of the human spirit to survive shine through in countless ways.

Although not as recent as other books mentioned, The Poisonwood Bible (Harper Perennial) is a classic study of a wrongheaded missionary effort in the Belgian Congo, along with an equally wrong-headed interference by the United States in the politics of the country. Barbara Kingsolver’s literary prowess makes this novel a literary feast, as she tells the story in the unique voice of each of the benighted missionary’s four daughters, and frames the story with reminiscences by his wife. One views a missionary family in a small village against the backdrop of Congo’s changing political scene, and the missionary establishment’s reaction to it. The political and religious experiences of the family decisively influence the adult lives of the three daughters who survive.

Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust (Hay House), is the memoir of a survivor of the war between the Hutu and the Tutsi. Immaculée Ilibagiza, a Tutsi, tells of the massacre of her family and her neighbors, and recounts her finding a hiding place in the small bathroom at a Christian pastor’s home. Into this cramped space seven other women came to hide with her. A harrowing tale, it is at the same time a tale of redemption, as her captivity turns her to God in the most contemplative way. She learns to pray, to forgive and to seek out the mission God has for her in the world. After reading the book, I came to a deeper understanding of the brutality of ethnic cleansing, and a new realization of the power of God’s grace to instill forgiveness of the enemy.

The small, little-known country of Botswana comes to life through the extraordinary tales of Alexander McCall Smith, beginning with The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency (Anchor Books). The first of a series, this novel introduces the character of Precious Ramotswe, who dubbed herself a lady detective and set up her agency by selling the legacy her father had left her—a big herd of cattle. Her fiancé, Mr. J. L. B. Matakoni, becomes her husband as the series develops. He owns and manages a car repair shop; his lazy apprentices provide some of the humor. In his interaction with Mma Ramotswe, one learns much about the mores of Botswana. In their adventures, they lead the reader over the country’s terrain. The reader becomes fully engaged while following the problems this detective confronts. A refreshing read, the book shows the simple and profound philosophy of life that underlies the decisions of the detective, her enterprising secretary and her faithful mechanic.

If you do not belong to a book group, and cannot read all these books, choose This Our Exile, by James Martin, S.J. (Orbis Books). It is a spiritual memoir of the two years that Martin, then a Jesuit scholastic, spent in Nairobi, Kenya, working with refugees. Do you recognize the title? I had to run through a few prayers until I reached the phrase, in the Hail, Holy Queen. The book describes the many problems of expatriates in a foreign country, the plight of the refugees and their methods of coping with life, and the ambience of Nairobi and its slum area, Kibera, the largest slum in the world. The narrative is laced with humor, and readers will find themselves laughing aloud. Martin captures the rhythm of the English that the refugees—and indeed many in Africa—speak, with its ongoing present tense: “I am having my work finished soon.”

Reading about the situations of people in African countries proves both informative and enlightening; it also widens the reader’s heart. One can love only what one knows. In the books cited above, each country comes alive—individual and real and connected to the reader. No longer, then, will one speak of Africa as if it were a single country.

I hope that in your book club discussions of these moving and provocative books, you will find a new world opening up. The problems of Africa, well documented in the news media, will now be put in balance by what you have learned about the culture of the various countries, and the values of the ordinary people who have come to life for you. Perhaps the end of your book club’s “Year of Africa” will find you and your fellow readers ready to take on another area of the world, so that the horizons of your hearts will continue to widen.

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