Mike Unwin’s 5 inspirational African books



(Issue 67, Summer 2014) The travel writer and natural history and guide book author selects his favourite reads.

Savage Paradise
(Hugo Van Lawick, 1977)
This fabulous early portrait of the Serengeti was the first coffee-table collection of African wildlife photography I ever owned. After poring through its pages in a London bookshop, aged 12, I saved up my pocket money for months. Countless similar books have since been published, with advances in camera technology producing results that Van Lawick never dreamed possible. But none has ever bowled me over quite like this did. The master of composition.

My Secret History
(Paul Theroux, 1989)
An irreverent account of the famous American travel writer’s Peace Corps days in Malawi and Uganda, and one that chimed with many of my own early African experiences. Risqué, perceptive and hilarious throughout.

Looking at Animals
(Hugh B. Cott, 1975)
A fascinating exploration of animal colouration and camouflage. English Zoologist Cott was the product of a more starched, colonial era. For me, however, his fine photographs and exquisite line drawings brought African wildlife alive, and his rather stiff prose was more evocative than he may ever have imagined.

Half of a Yellow Sun
(Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, 2006)
There’s little to say about this gripping, beautifully written novel that hasn’t already been said by the judges who awarded it the 2007 Orange Prize for Fiction. Set in the build-up to and horror of the 1967-1970 Biafran war, Adichie visits events through the personal dramas of a compelling set of characters. All expats who’ve ever grappled with race and identity in postcolonial Africa will wince at Richard. Shocking, moving, an education and a page-turner.

A Primate’s Memoir
(Robert M. Sapolsky, 2002)
This hilarious account of studying baboons in the Masai Mara brings a blast of humour to the sometimes earnest world of Goodall, Fossey et al. Sapolsky, a respected primatologist, reveals an endearing naivety in his attempts to deal with baboon, safari guide and Maasai herdsman alike, with anthropomorphism often getting the better of science. I laughed like a drain – but I was moved, too. If I ever had the brains to be a scientist, this is the kind I’d want to be.

Have you read any of these titles? What did you think? What books have inspired you? Add your comment below…