Favorite Living Books about Africa

Today I’m sharing some of my favorite books about Africa for all the grade levels.

For many of us, when we think “geography lesson,” we think globes and maps and statistics of population or gross national products. But Charlotte Mason’s ideas about geography lessons were very different and vastly more interesting.

Here is how Charlotte described what geography lessons should be like:

“Do our Geography lessons take the children there? . . .

“Let him see the place with the eyes of those who have seen or conceived it; . . . . A map of the world must be a panorama to a child of pictures so entrancing that he would rather ponder them than go out to play; and nothing is more easy than to give him this joie de vivre. Let him see the world as we ourselves choose to see it when we travel; its cities and peoples, its mountains and rivers, and he will go away from his lesson with the piece of the world he has read about, be it county or country, sea or shore, as that of ‘a new room prepared for him, so much will he be magnified and delighted in it.’ ”

A Philosophy of Education, pp. 40-42

That’s what our geography lessons should accomplish. Today I’m happy to share with you some books about Africa that I think help accomplish that goal; they “take the children there.”

For the Entire Family

Two of my favorites actually accomplish that goal for several countries around the world: Material World and Hungry Planet, both by Peter Menzel. These two books are fascinating for all ages. In Material World we get to visit with families in different countries and read about how they live and what they did on one particular day. We also get to see a large photograph of each family outside their house with all of their possessions on the front lawn. In Hungry Planet the focus is on what those families eat during a week. Both books are scheduled in our Visits To . . . geography guides, as are many of the other books I’m going to tell you about today.

For Grades 1-3 (or the Entire Family)

Ashanti to Zulu: African Traditions by Margaret Musgrove

Africa is an enormous and varied continent inhabited by hundreds of different people groups whose array of customs and traditions are as diverse as the land itself. This book is a collection of short vignettes that introduce 26 different African tribes (from A to Z) and describe in a living way their ceremonies, celebrations, and day-to-day customs. Some of them are shared by many peoples, others are unique, but all are fascinating. There’s a map in the back that shows where each of the 26 tribes is located on the continent. I would recommend this short book for all ages.

Let me just mention that some of the books I’m sharing with you today contain some National Geographic-type nudity. It is not sensationalized in any way, and it authentically represents the culture in that area of the world. But I wanted to let you know so you can preview and make any needed adjustments for your family.

Beatrice’s Goat by Page McBrier

The best way to introduce this book is to read the first few sentences: “If you were to visit the small African village of Kisinga in the rolling hills of western Uganda, and if you were to take a left at the crossroads and follow a narrow dirt path between two tall banana groves, you would come to the home of a girl named Beatrice.

“Beatrice lives here with her mother and five younger brothers and sisters in a sturdy mud house with a fine steel roof. The house is new. So is the shiny blue wooden furniture inside. In fact, many things are new to Beatrice and her family lately.

“And it’s all because of a goat named Mugisa.”

The book goes on to tell what life was like before the goat, how some kind-hearted people from far away gave them the goat, and how it changed their lives—giving the children healthful milk and generating some income for the family. Though it’s a picture book, it contains helpful ideas about real life for some children in Africa and demonstrates how a small gift can make a large difference. You might invite your older children to read it to your younger ones.

The Butter Man by Elizabeth and Ali Alalou

Nora is hungry and vocal about it as her father cooks dinner. They are waiting for Nora’s mother to return home from work. To pass the time, Nora’s father tells her about his childhood in Morocco and a time when he was much hungrier and had to wait much longer for his father to bring back food during a famine. This is a sweet picture book about family, patience, and hope. The Author’s Note in the back gives more details about where the father’s story came from, and a glossary is included to help with pronouncing potentially unusual names. I would recommend it for grades 1–3. Now, last time I looked, this title was becoming rare and a bit expensive. So you might want to check your library for a copy.

One Child, One Seed: A South African Counting Book by Kathryn Cave

This unique counting book tells the story of a child in the district of Nkandla as she plants a pumpkin seed, tends it until harvest, and watches her mother prepare it for the whole family. The photographs are wonderful and really “take the children there,” as Charlotte described geography lessons earlier. You can use the book with a variety of ages: read just the number pages and statements to your toddlers, add the longer description of what’s happening in the picture for your preschoolers and kindergarteners, and add again the short notes about life in that area of South Africa for grades 1–3. Check your library for this out-of-print gem.

We All Went on Safari: A Counting Journey through Tanzania by Laurie Krebs

This is another counting book with fabulous illustrations. The text on the pages is very simple, but I love that it includes lots of extras in the back. There are interesting ideas about the animals of Tanzania, including their names in Swahili. There is a short description of the Maasai people along with a list that tells the name and meaning of that name for each person in the book. There’s a map and more information about Tanzania. And on the last page, there is a guide to help your child learn how to count to ten in Swahili. Another great book to have your olders read to your youngers.

Yatandou by Gloria Whelan

Yatandou is another story of hard work and how things change with a new arrival in the village. This book takes place in Mali and tells what life is like for a family who lives there. Yatandou helps the women pound the millet, fetch the water, and gather the firewood. They have heard that there is a machine that can grind the millet, but they need money to buy that machine. It’s a story of resourcefulness and hope, mingled with cultural sayings and some superstitions, and depicted in lovely watercolor paintings. This is a beautiful picture book that younger students will particularly enjoy, but don’t overlook how much everyone can learn from a well-written children’s book. 

For Grades 4 and Up

Letters from Egypt by Mary Whately

This book is recommended for grades 4–12. This is an edited version that is published by Simply Charlotte Mason. When Mary Whately went to Egypt to start a school for girls, she wrote letters back to her family in England, telling all about Egyptian culture, weather, traditions, animals, plants, and other observations. These letters paint a fascinating picture of life in Egypt in 1879. And Mary’s insight into customs, culture, and climate ring true even today. Plus, many Bible quotations and allusions are woven throughout the letters, along with descriptions of how life in Egypt reminded Mary of those passages.

All right, those are all geography books about African cultures and climates and animals and customs and such. I also want to mention three Bonus Titles that focus more on aspects of African history.

Mansa Musa and the Empire of Mali by P. James Oliver

This is a very readable account of a great African empire during the Middle Ages, an empire overflowing with gold. We include a chapter on Mansa Musa in our book, A Castle with Many Rooms, but if you want to dig deeper into this empire and Mansa Musa’s historic trip across Africa, this book would be a great option. I would recommend it for grades 4–9.

Shaka: King of the Zulus by Diane Stanley

This is a biography by a favorite author: Diane Stanley. Diane always does a wonderful job of including lots of information but couching it in a living narrative. In the late 1700s, Shaka and his mother were banished from their tiny Zulu clan in the hillsides of southern Africa. Shaka dreamed of becoming a warrior, and he proved himself again and again—battling a springing leopard, overcoming a fierce opponent in hand-to-hand combat, and eventually overseeing whole battles. By sheer will and military genius Shaka rose to lead a mighty nation, and turned a handful of Zulu fighters into an army of warriors known for its power, endurance, and discipline. But he never forgot his outcast childhood. I recommend this biography for grades 4–6.

If your high schoolers want to dig deeper into the history of South Africa and more specifically, its struggles to overcome apartheid, take a look at Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela. Yes, it is a thick book, but it is very interesting and readable and has short chapters. It’s a fascinating account of this Nobel Peace Prize winner’s life and work.

I have plenty more books to recommend on many topics in upcoming posts.