African and African Diaspora travel writing:  Ten books and narratives for your shelf

With travel narratives by African and African Diaspora authors often absent or not well publicised on mainstream bookstore shelves, the following offers an introductory array to get the reader started:

1. An African in Greenland, by Tété-Michel Kpomassie

Kpomassie’s tale of his journey from the lush forests of Togo as a young man to the northern reaches of cold and treeless Greenland is a remarkable read.   Enraptured with the idea of Greenland in his youth, he gets there on a shoestring years later via West and North Africa and finally into Europe, all with the kind of charm and entrepreneurial spirit that puts other intrepid explorers to shame. In Greenland, as the only black man most Inuits have ever seen, he finds himself amongst people that are as fascinated with him as he is with them. Accepted into several of their families, he settles into a society that in the end resonates with the one of his own birth.

2. Looking for Transwonderland:  Travels through Nigeria, by Noo Saro-Wiwa

Having largely avoided the country since her father’s execution by the Abacha regime in 1995, Noo Saro-Wiwa’s return was always going to be permeated with insights into the most personal of homecomings.  But this book is no sad retrospective, nor an emotive exorcism through outright condemnation. Instead, Saro-Wiwa offers a fearless travel narrative that soberly tackles the country’s dysfunctions, underpinned by an indefatigable belief that things just don’t need to be that way.  Traversing the country from most quarters, the diversity of geography, culture, and experience includes Lagos, Kano, Maiduguri, Calabar and her own “backyard” of Port Harcourt, to name but some.

3. The Voyages of Ibn Battuta, by Ibn Battuta

The most legendary of North African travellers, Ibn Battuta’s 14th Century travels outclassed Marco Polo in sheer geographical span alone.  Covering North, West, and East Africa, through to the Arabian peninsular and the Levant, central Asia, the Indian sub-continent, southwest Asia and China, these collected narratives are a treasure trove for understanding much of the world prior to the advent of European empire. While some today question how far he embellished his experiences, the keen observation and detail of his accounts constitute a remarkable narrative that remain unparalleled.

4. One Day I will Write About this Place, by Binyavanga Wainaina

This memoir of middle class Kenyan life in the late 20th century and early millennium is a classic example of how an African travel narrative can be found ensconced within another genre.  Journeying inside Kenya and across Africa, his accounts are largely of organic life travels: university life in early post-apartheid South Africa; a visit to his maternal roots in Uganda; professional trips to countries in West Africa as his writing career takes off.  But this is a lens that offers peoplescapes of the continent rarely seen.  Wainana’s eyes are that of a Kenyan and an African – with the multiplicity of identities inherent –offering layers of internal and external observations, insights and perspectives on Africa that are long overdue.

5.  The European Tribe, by Caryl Phillips

The name of this book unapologetically prepares the reader for the reversal of perspective and a long overdue social anthropological analysis on Europe and Europeans.  Unpacked through the eyes of an Afro-Caribbean diasporan raised in Britain, this is a journey that covers the continent from Spain to Russia and back to the UK, all the while probing the white Eurocentricism of the inhabitants through a discourse on post-colonial minority rights, bigotry, and via an extremely personal lens of self-exploration and identify of being black in Europe.

6).  Water Has No Enemy, by Teju Cole

A short narrative found in Granta’s Magazine of New Writing, July 2013, Water Has no Enemy is a succinct taster of a returning diasporan gaze on Lagos.  With the hustle and bustle of that city already a well known given, Cole instead focuses on fragments of experience in Nigeria’s mega city: a comedic snapshot of wealthy flashiness getting its come-uppance on Bar Beach in front of a jeering crowd of locals; a tense close call with armed robbers whilst sitting in go slow.  A few thousand words deftly paint both the city at its best – “good food, great music, people dancing and a sensational vista” – and the Lagos that Lagotians themselves “love to hate”.

7.    The Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavius Vasa, the African, Olaudah Equiano

Olaudah Equiano’s late 18th Century autobiography is on e of the first works in English written by a former slave. Born to an Igbo family in eastern Nigeria, his kidnap, enslavement and subsequent self-emancipation is captured in a narrative that depicts extensive travels through the America’s, Europe and Turkey.  As with all historical travelogues, readers are taken on a journey through time as much as through space, but Equiano’s narrative – hewn from his experiences of slavery and as a free African living and struggling at one of the most critical times of racial discourse in history – is a much needed eye on the world he walks through.

8. The History and Description of Africa: and of the notable things therein contained, by Leo Africanus

Born El Hasan ben Muhammed el-Wazzan-ez-Zayyati, the man who would be known as Leo the African was a late 15th Century Granadan. Growing up in Fez following the expulsion of the Moors from southern Spain, his commercial and diplomatic missions throughout North and Sub-Saharan Africa were later captured in this detailed study.  As much a historical source as a travel narrative in its own right (although there remains a debate over accuracy), Africanus offers insights into the then West African super powers, particularly through his experiences as a young man in Timbuktu.

9.  No Place Like Home, A Black Briton’s Journey Through the American South, by Gary Younge

Tracing the route of the Freedom Fighters of the American Civil Rights movement of the 1950’s, Younge’s sojourn through the American South from the opinionated perspective of a Stevenage-raised black Briton is as fresh an insight as one could hope for.  The absence of a clear black identity at home is an impetus for the trip and an analytic thread throughout the narrative, while the figure he presents to African Americans he meets – familiar on the one hand yet bewilderingly foreign on the other – highlights the paradox of a fragmented yet culturally resilient African diaspora in its many manifestations.

10. Other Routes: 1500 Years of African and Asian Travel Writing, edited by Tabish Khair, Martin Leer, Justin D, Edwards and Hanna Ziadeh

An anthology that attempts redress the balance in a genre that is currently dominated by the western gaze, Other Routes has a significant array of African travel writing from over the centuries.  The African and diaspora gaze is found in a variety of intersecting genres, including the essay, memoir, diary, and slave narrative.  Excerpts from the larger works of Battuta, Equiano and Africanus are included alongside lesser-known gems: African Muslim slave narratives of the 19th Century; the diary of an African-Arab princess in Europe; and the voyage to Palestine by the Igbo/Caribbean/Liberian pan-Africanist, Edward Wilmot Blyden.

Fatimah Kelleher will moderate the panel, Broadening the Gaze: African & Diaspora Travel Writing in the 21st Century Saturday, 12th July, 15:30 – 16:30 at Africa Writes 2014 literature festival. 

READ MOREWhat Space for African Eyes? Travel Writing and Africa in the 21st century – By Fatimah Kelleher

By Fatimah Kelleher