Great African Reads discussion

Great African Reads: Books > African "river" books

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message 1: by Andrea (new)

message 2: by Marieke, Former guide & Chief Chatterbox (new)

Marieke | 2838 comments Mod
this is a great idea. it will help me stock the "River" shelf i plan to make.

message 3: by Muphyn (new)

Muphyn | 816 comments Yes, that's fabulous, Andrea!! Can't think of any myself just now but it's a good place for compiling these!

message 4: by Dan (new)

Dan (danmorrison) | 21 comments Heythere:

Andrea, I hope you're enjoying The Black Nile. Here are two Congo River books, one from the 80s and one from the 90s.

From the Reagan and Mobutu era is the fine East Along the Equator by my friend Helen Winternitz. (East Along the Equator: A Journey Up the Congo and Into Zaire)

And I would definitely check out this masterpiece by Redmond O'Hanlon: No Mercy: A Journey to the Heart of the Congo


message 5: by Muphyn (new)

Muphyn | 816 comments Hi Andrea,

I've moved the thread into the "Great African Books" topic - hope you don't mind! :) Just seems to fall nicely under this category.

message 6: by Katy (new)

Katy | 81 comments Andrea wrote: "As I am reading The Black Nile: One Man's Amazing Journey Through Peace and War on the World's Longest RiverI am thinking of all the other Africa books centered on river journeys and..."

Great thread!

There are the classics by Alan Moorehead:
The White Nile
The Blue Nile

message 7: by Alex (new)

Alex Down the Nile: Alone in a Fisherman's Skiff is a pretty entertaining book.

message 8: by Andrea (new)

Andrea | 660 comments Here's another twist to it. All the books mentioned so far, I think, are by non-Africans. As we add to the list, I'll be interested to see if any are by African-born writers. Don't know if it's fair to add Swimming in the Congoas the river part is really metaphorical for most of the book. And there's A Bend in the Riverwhich is set on a riverbank rather than traveling on the river.

message 9: by Katy (new)

Katy | 81 comments Oh, thank you, Andrea! I read Swimming in the Congo a few years ago but could not, for the life of me, remember the name!

message 10: by Alex (new)

Alex Real African people aren't dumb enough to swim in the rivers. :)

message 11: by Marieke, Former guide & Chief Chatterbox (new)

Marieke | 2838 comments Mod
I think of rivers as ecosystems that include the non-flowy part. so for me, I think it's fine to include books that take place next to rather than on or in a river.

message 12: by Marieke, Former guide & Chief Chatterbox (new)

Marieke | 2838 comments Mod
i just noticed one of my favorites isn't here but i did mention it in a different thread: The Other Nile: Journeys in Egypt, The Sudan and Ethiopia.

message 13: by Andrea (new)

Andrea | 660 comments Also on the Nile ثرثرة فوق النيل"Adift on the Nile"

message 14: by Andrea (new)

Andrea | 660 comments Oops, "Adrift"

message 15: by Marieke, Former guide & Chief Chatterbox (new)

Marieke | 2838 comments Mod
I haven't had a chance to search yet, but what about the Niger, the benue, the Zambezi, and the river that runs through Ghana, the orange in south Africa?

Forgive me if any names are outdated...I have an old map on my wall (with Zaire).

message 16: by Andrea (new)

Andrea | 660 comments Well, yes, what about them? Surely there are adventure stories or novels set on those rivers? I guess I could search by keyword.

message 17: by Manu (new)

Manu (manuherb) | 166 comments Marieke asked " . . .what about the Niger, the benue, the Zambezi, and the river that runs through Ghana, the orange in south Africa?"

I don't know about books but that set me making a list.

I grew up in Muizenberg, near Cape Town, just across the road from the Vlei, which was a river of sorts, except that the direction of the flow changed twice a day.

I’ve camped by the Breede Rivier, crossed the Orange, the Vaal and the Limpopo by car and the Congo/Zaire by ferry from Kinshasa to Brazzaville.

In 1960-61 I spent a year working on the construction of a barrage across the Ogun River at Abeokuta. It’s still there – I’ve just checked on Google Earth.

At Kariba, in the time of Kenneth Kaunda and Ian Smith, I gazed across the Zambezi at the then forbidden territory on the Rhodesian side.

I’ve travelled down the same Zambezi on a moonless night, perched on top of a pile of timber on a barge from Katima Mulilo (before the bridge was built) to Kazungula, above the Falls; two days up the Gambia from Banjul to Georgetown with a cabin all to myself; in another cabin on the Yapei Queen up the Volta from Akosombo to Yeji; and as a tourist disturbing the peace of hippopotamuses on the Kafue in Zambia and on the Victoria Nile in Uganda; and again as a tourist on the Nile in Egypt, while the Aswan Dam was under construction.

At Ghana Nungua I bathed in the Tano and swam across to Côte d’Ivoire. Then I hired a canoe and travelled upstream all day, up the Tano and then up the Boin to Asemkrom (before the Elubo-Enchi road was constructed).

One planned trip, down the Niger from Bamako to Timbuktu, didn’t come off. The service had been suspended because the water level was too low.

All years ago.

message 18: by Andrea (new)

Andrea | 660 comments I found a couple. To Timbuktu,Strong Brown God: The Story of the Niger River,Coming down the Zambezi,Zambezi: The First Solo Journey Along Africa's Mighty River. I'm sure there are more but these bookstore customers, as Mark Twain put it, "Pester me so that I cannot read with any comfort." :)

message 19: by Marieke, Former guide & Chief Chatterbox (new)

Marieke | 2838 comments Mod
I think Manu needs to write a river(s) book!

message 20: by Andrea (new)

Andrea | 660 comments I'd love to read a "river" book by Manu!

message 21: by Muphyn (new)

Muphyn | 816 comments I agree, I want to read more about Manu's river adventures as well - what a fascinating life!

message 22: by Lorraine M. (new)

Lorraine M. Thompson (lorrainemarie) | 22 comments The River: A Journey to the Source of HIV and AIDS by Edward Hooper. This books examines the origin of the HIV virus. Hooper posits that the administration of oral polio vaccine in Africa in the 50s may have had a role to play. The river to which the author refers is the Congo River. It is a fascinating and well-researched story...well worth the read.

message 23: by Andrea (new)

Andrea | 660 comments Thanks, Lorranie!

message 24: by [deleted user] (new)

As as an HIV educator, I have to say that Hooper's hypothesis has been reasonably well discredited.

message 25: by Lorraine M. (new)

Lorraine M. Thompson (lorrainemarie) | 22 comments Sho wrote: "As as an HIV educator, I have to say that Hooper's hypothesis has been reasonably well discredited."

References please Sho

message 26: by [deleted user] (new)


Cohen, 2001?, in Science

Worobey et al. in Nature

I'm sorry I don't have the complete cites handy, but they should be easy to find and a university or professional library may get you free access to copies of the articles.

message 27: by Lorraine M. (new)

Lorraine M. Thompson (lorrainemarie) | 22 comments Thanks Sho.

message 28: by [deleted user] (new)

Hooper's exploration of the Oral Polio Vaccine hypothesis is very interesting and well worth reading, but should probably be paired with the critiques about methodology and accounting for all the data for a better big picture.

message 29: by Lorraine M. (new)

Lorraine M. Thompson (lorrainemarie) | 22 comments I agree with you 100%.

I should say that I lived in the Congo (DRC) for 8 years so I was very interested in what Hooper wrote about the country, Stanleyville, etc. If you look at the history of of the DRC some pretty awful things were done to the Congolese by the Belgian colonists allegedly in the interest of "civilizing" them.

BTW Hooper has a website at

message 30: by [deleted user] (new)

message 31: by Nina (new)

Nina Chachu | 205 comments I just finished Tim Butcher's Blood River: A Journey to Africa's Broken Heart and was interested to hear a podcast of his discussion of the book on BBC Radio 4

message 32: by Matt (new)

Matt | 1 comments Another one I think you may have overlooked (that I've read, anyway) is Swimming in the Congo, a childhood remembrance of a girl in colonial Belgian Congo. The river figures prominently in the book, of course.

message 33: by Marieke, Former guide & Chief Chatterbox (new)

Marieke | 2838 comments Mod
Swimming in the this the book, Matt?

Nina, did you like Tim Butcher's book? i did...i had a few quibbles but mostly i thought he did a great job with it.
thanks for the link to his discussion...hopefully i can listen to it very soon!

message 34: by Nina (new)

Nina Chachu | 205 comments Marieke wrote: "Swimming in the this the book, Matt?

Nina, did you like Tim Butcher's book? i did...i had a few quibbles but mostly i thought he did a great job with it.
thanks for the l..."

I liked the Butcher book, though I was conscious that at times the author used his expatriate connections to get him places he might not have been able to go to if he were African. And despite Stantley's achievements, he was not exactly either a nice or good person, especially as far as treatment of either his colleagues or employees were concerned.

message 35: by Andrea (new)

Andrea | 660 comments Oh, Matt, we got that one up on comment #8! lol. I think there are a lot more out there.

I agree, Nina, that putting Stanley at the center of the book was a little off putting for me, too. But I thought Butcher made some good observations about "backwards development." Even in a relatively stable country, like Kenya, it's sad that my husband's generation in the sixties and seventies had more economic and educational opportunities than his nieces and nephews do today. Butcher notes that the younger children in the village have less experience with various technology than their parents and even grandparents.

message 36: by Marieke, Former guide & Chief Chatterbox (new)

Marieke | 2838 comments Mod
That was essentially my reaction to Butcher's book as well. I was glad to have had a bit of background knowledge on Stanley so that I could take those bits with a grain of salt. Still, I thought he accomplished an incredible feat which allowed him to see these remote villages and talk to people about how their lives had changed since independence. Alarming, to say the least.

message 37: by Lorraine M. (new)

Lorraine M. Thompson (lorrainemarie) | 22 comments I just watched the March 8, 2011 Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, and Human Rights hearing on "The DRC: Securing Peace in the Midst of Tragedy" so I am feeling particularly vexed right now.

I like Butcher's writing style. However, I hate when people refer to the Democratic Republic of Congo in the following terms: "Heart of Darkness", "Hope for Congo", "Empower Congo", "Troubled Congo", "The Center of Rape", "Africa's Broken Heart" etc...I am sure you get the idea.

Congo-Kin is a huge country populated by over 60 some million people, over half of whom are 18 years old and younger. Yes, the country has serious problems (e.g., on-going fighting in the East) and these should not be overlooked. I have translated several reports written by different Congolese women's group who have interviewed 1000s of their sisters about the assaults on their lives, their bodies, and their way of life. But that isn't all that defines the country.

If all Butcher did was ride a motorcycle through some parts of Detroit (where the illiteracy rate is as high as 50%) he would think he was in a war-torn land (buildings still bear scars from the last race riots).

The DRC has been--and is still--considered to be the music heart of Africa. Theater, art, graphic novels, languages (4 national languages plus French as the international language with English coming in a close second), the ballet, even a symphony. All can be found in the DRC. There is enormous entrepreneurial spirit to be found throughout the country. I don't know one Congolese person living in Kinshasa who doesn't speak at least three languages fluently and usually many more (and this includes the street kids).

The problem is that if all you see is the negative how can things ever change, and perhaps, more importantly, why would a person even bother?

I would encourage everyone to read Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja' "The Congo: From Leopold to Kabila, a Peopel's History.

Full disclosure: I lived in the diamond capital of the DRC for three years and then in Kinshasa for 5+ more years. During most of this time I lived with different Congolese families in both places.

message 38: by Marieke, Former guide & Chief Chatterbox (new)

Marieke | 2838 comments Mod
Hi Lorraine, thanks for your insight from personal experience...i'm curious if you've read Butcher's book? his schtick was to follow Stanley's path, which went through inaccessible areas. Butcher was told over and over again that it couldn't be done. because he actually accomplished reaching such inaccessible areas, he got a very interesting perspective of the country, i think. he spoke to everyone he could, not just indigenous Congolese; but missionaries who have been there since before independence; NGO workers from around the world, including other African countries; and South Asians who had "come back." the book was not totally negative, as i remember; i seem to recall that he definitely discussed the creativity and entrepreneurial spirit of the people quite a lot. but it's been awhile since i've read it so maybe Nina can say something about that.

i think his descriptions of the backward trajectory of economic development there was very eye-opening for me, and as Andrea points out, this trajectory is not unique to DRC, but DRC is perhaps the most extreme example of it in the world right now.

message 39: by Lorraine M. (new)

Lorraine M. Thompson (lorrainemarie) | 22 comments Hi Marieke, Yes, I read Butcher's book when it first came out. I have to say that having a name like "Butcher" and titling the book "Blood River" given the time in which he wrote it...well.

Economic development never follows a straight line anywhere in the world (look at Detroit, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Iceland, Greece, Serbia, Bosnia, Ireland, South Africa, Ivory Coast, etc).

Actually, my experience with most NGO workers (especially if they have been in country awhile) and long time missionaries has been largely negative. There is an aura of colonialism about them that is very disturbing. And as far as I could discern Butcher didn't speak any of the national languages and I do not know how fluently he speaks French. So, I seriously question his ability to have any meaningful conversations with the people living in those "inaccessible areas". Remember the Margaret Mead Samoa allegations?

message 40: by Marieke, Former guide & Chief Chatterbox (new)

Marieke | 2838 comments Mod
oh, good! i'm really glad you've read it. i really wish i had the personal experience as context that you have...but i really don't! i forgot to say that the book you mentioned above has been on my list for awhile but i haven't gotten to it yet...i'll link to it so others can also find it easily: The Congo: From Leopold to Kabila: A People's History.

i understand what you are saying about margaret mead, but i'm willing to give journalists a bit of a pass since they are supposed to be merely reporting...anthropology is another can of worms altogether. i mean, journalism and anthropology both observe and report, but for different reasons and in different ways. i don't think butcher would purport to be much of a real expert...this was mostly a stunt book through which he shared his observations; if he didn't speak any french or lingala or anything local languages and had only his extensive research about stanley's life to guide him, there is no way he would really be able to ask the type of questions you might have wanted him to.

it's problematic, indeed. tim butcher's book something you recommend to people, don't recommend at all, or recommend with reservations? as i said above i liked it, but there were plenty of things that bothered me about it too. however, those things that irked me probably don't run as deeply as they would if i had your experience in the country. and i'm sure there is a lot of nuance i missed simply because i don't have those experiential tools.

message 41: by Manu (new)

Manu (manuherb) | 166 comments In the preface to the Congolese academic Jacques Depelchin's "Silences in African History: Between the Syndromes of Discovery and Abolition," (Mkuki na Nyota Publishers, Dar Es Salaam, 2005), Ibrahim Abdullah writes:

The description and representation about other cultures affirms the power and dominance of the imperial other; it is the coloniser and the native once again, who, in the immortal words of Fanon, know each other just too well. It is also about the outsider (observer) and the native (observed) as much as it is about defining and representing a particular group of people to the world.

Is this relevant to Tim Butcher's book? Does it fit?

message 42: by Marieke, Former guide & Chief Chatterbox (new)

Marieke | 2838 comments Mod
i think so Manu...but sometimes i just don't feel smart enough for this group.

if others agree with the above, maybe i could ask...what should a journalist's responsibility be compared to an anthropologist's?

message 43: by Lorraine M. (new)

Lorraine M. Thompson (lorrainemarie) | 22 comments @Manu Yes, I agree with Mareike, I think it does fit. I also have to say that I do think that outsiders of any culture may also see things about the culture of which the insider is unaware. Are you familiar with the Johari window? Although it is more commonly used as a cognitive psychology tool, I also find it very useful to apply it at a group, culture, society level. My concern--as mentioned previously--is that way too often with respect to the DRC the outsider's voice is often taken as the absolute truth.

@Marieke To be fair to Butcher...although he was a journalist in the DRC I don't believe he was serving as a journalist when he "followed in the footsteps" through the DRC therefore the resulting book should not be considered a piece of journalistic work.

message 44: by Marieke, Former guide & Chief Chatterbox (new)

Marieke | 2838 comments Mod
Lorraine, I really hope this group still exists and you are still an active member when we get back around to DRC again. :D

i am not familiar with the Johari window. :(

how would you classify Butcher's book? some sort of hybrid? like i said above, i am thinking of it as a type of stunt book. do you happen to know any Congolese who have read it? Do we have any Congolese members here who want to chime in? if so, please do!

message 45: by Andrea (new)

Andrea | 660 comments Manu, as usual, brings in some really interesting insights. Sometimes, though, the outsider's perspective is the only thing we, other outsiders, can get at a particular time. Then, is it better than nothing? My husband and I have been reading some accounts of Kenyan agriculture in the 20s-50s written by white "settler" farmers. It's obviously very skewed, but it's almost the only record we can find of certain information about Kenyan agricultural development.

message 46: by Dan (new)

Dan (danmorrison) | 21 comments Heythere -- On the Congo tip, check out this series by the great Paul Salopek that ran in the Chicago Tribune in December 2000, part of a package of reporting that garnered the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for international reporting.

Salopek kayaked down the Congo. And, for reasons I don't know and wouldn't understand, never wrote a book about it.

Here's a link:

It's a marvelous read.
Best/Dan Morrison


KOLWEZI, Congo -- The rains start in October in Katanga province, with huge drops that fall as they do only in the tropics, straight and hard, like a hail of ball bearings.

Water pools. And then, restlessly, the runoff begins to move. It slides northward across an immense red savanna, once home to an African king who played two colonial powers off against each other, only to be shot for his cleverness. The water creases into rivulets, which soon merge into small, sluggish creeks. One of these creeks flows past a mine that once supplied the uranium for America's first atom bomb. Another, snaking miles away on a plain of strange, bone-white mud, sluices between the bare, spindly legs of Paul Katoji.

"Gold," whispers Katoji, holding up a grain of shiny metal on the tip of his thumb.

message 47: by Lorraine M. (new)

Lorraine M. Thompson (lorrainemarie) | 22 comments Wow, thanks for the link Dan. Isn't this the same journalist who had problems in the Sudan?

message 48: by Dan (new)

Dan (danmorrison) | 21 comments Yes, he was arrested on the Chad border and held for some weeks by military intelligence. While reporting this story on the Sahel:

He's one of the greats of my generation. Not sure what he's doing now. Owns a ranch in Mexico.

message 49: by Andrea (new)

Andrea | 660 comments I'm thinking Mary Kingsley's "Travels in West Africa" should maybe qualify. She spends a lot of time on rivers.

message 50: by Marieke, Former guide & Chief Chatterbox (new)

Marieke | 2838 comments Mod

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