With the unique opportunity to coordinate two conferences as part of follow-on for the President’s Young African Leaders Initiative–and hours to clock at airports and en route to Dakar, Senegal–I eagerly settled in with the search function at Amazon.com. For a while now, as part of my travel, I love nothing more than to dive into books—generally fiction—set in the place where I’m heading.
I cried over The Namesake throughout Rajasthan, was transfixed by Pretty Birds in Sarajevo, and so on. I was optimistic as I typed in “contemporary African novels” only to find the usual suspects appear: Things Fall Apart, Double Yoke, and The River Between—amazing books, but ones I had read a decade or so ago in grad school. Only after I searched for the young Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie—having fallen in love with her last, The Thing Around Your Neck—did I discover her newest novel, Americanah, along with of the fabulous suggested titles, thanks to the “Customers Who Bought This Also Bought” feature. Zimbabwean author NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names and Nigerian/Ghanaian Taiye Selasi’s Ghana Must Go were both promptly added to my shopping cart.
Exploring a place through literature is to be immersed in a culture, both physically and sensorially. To me, novels round out the experience of travelling—pulling you in with subtle critique and nuanced commentary that you may not get from your daily interactions as a tourist (or traveler). While guide books are no doubt handy, particularly with logistics and recommendations, literature has a way of fully enveloping the reader—not just suggesting where to get the best cup of coffee. For this reader, it’s the equivalent of lingering at an outdoor café, studying people and their interactions, hearing snippets of their most personal conversations, their heated political debates. And so I cracked open Americanah on the flight that would take me to West Africa, and let the journey truly begin.