From the Beacon: Africa's history highlighted in books

With South Africa hosting the World Cup this summer, the African continent will be in the spotlight. This continent of stark contrasts and beauty has a rich and tumultuous history. Spend this month exploring Africa through fiction. The following novels give a vivid portrait of the land and lives of Africans, as seen through African and non-African eyes.

Probably one of the most popular Africa-themed films was "Out of Africa" starring Meryl Streep and Robert Redford. Streep portrayed Isak Dinesen, who wrote the book with the same title. Dinesen, who was from Denmark, lived in Kenya from 1914-1931. At that time, Kenya was part of British East Africa. Dinesen spent many years running a coffee plantation. Her book provides a vivid description of Kenya, its people and life under British colonialism.

Two novels focus on the changes to African villages and people wrought by colonialism. In the first novel, Chinua Achebe's "Things Fall Apart," an African tribal village and its members undergo profound changes as British colonial rule takes hold. The main character is banished from the tribe for committing a crime. Seven years later, he returns to a much different village as a much different person. Inevitably, there is a clash of cultures and nationalities, as missionaries come to the village. This novel is very appealing because of its rich description of life in an African village, as written from the perspective of a native of Nigeria.

The second novel, "The Poisonwood Bible," is by Barbara Kingsolver. It is about a Baptist missionary and his family who travel to the Belgian Congo, where they will remain for many years. The family comes to the Congo during the 1950s, when the country is in tremendous upheaval, as independence draws nearer. As in the first novel, there is tension between people of different races and cultures.

"Cry, the Beloved Country" by Alan Paton explores the life of Reverend Kumalo, an Anglican priest who lives in apartheid South Africa during the 1940s. Rev. Kumalo must face many trials: living in a racially segregated country; having a son who murders a white man; and experiencing questions about his own beliefs, among others. The reader is given contrasts between the stunning beauty of South Africa and the hard, dismal lives of blacks living under apartheid.

Alexander McCall Smith, who was born in and grew up in Zimbabwe and lived in Botswana during part of the 1980s, has written a very entertaining series about a female detective from Botswana. Her name is Precious Ramotswe, and she started the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency in Botswana. Currently, there are 10 titles in the series, beginning with "The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency" and followed by "Tears of the Giraffe," "Morality for Beautiful Girls," "The Kalahari Typing School for Men," "In the Company of Cheerful Ladies," among others, and the latest, "Tea Time for the Traditionally Built." As the titles may suggest, the series is light and fun. You may have seen the miniseries on HBO.