Ten African novels on mental health

Wednesday, October 9th, 2019 00:00 |
Novel books. Photo/Courtesy

As the world marks the World Mental Health Day tomorrow, PETER NGILA  looks at a few fearless contemporary African novels that tackle issues to do with mental illnesses and disorders 

1. In Between Dreams - Iman Verjee (Kenya)

To keep spoilers to myself, let me say In Between Dreams is a special novel about young, friendless and withdrawn Frances.

She grows up under a grandmother who forgot the art of speaking, and a happy mother who doesn’t seem to notice anything peculiar. Frances doesn’t seem aware of anything wrong with the thing she has with her dear father.

Her father, whose past doesn’t include future plans for having children. But a strange baby is born, and Frances and her father’s demons are released into each other.   

2. Freshwater - Akwaeke Emezi (Nigeria) 

Freshwater, according to me, is already a classic. The novel, which interestingly mirrors the author’s own life, is narrated by selves inside the head of Ada, the protagonist.


The novel digs into the depths of mental illness, making the reader question the politics of gender and identity. Ada is a troubled woman, as the selves dictate everything she does including self-destruction.

This seems to come out of a point of consciousness because the author reportedly survived a suicide attempt. 

3. A General Theory of Oblivion - José Eduardo Agualusa (Angola) 

– translated from Portuguese by Daniel Hahn

With serious undertakings currently being explored to unite long-forgotten Lusophone Africa (Portuguese-speaking Africa) with the Anglophone street, A General Theory of Oblivion couldn’t miss out from this list.

In the novel, based on reality, on the eve of Angola’s independence in 1975 from Portugal, 85-year-old Ludovica Fernandes Mano closes herself in for 30 years.

A paranoid Ludo with a traumatic past living off vegetables and the pigeons she lures in with diamonds, she burns her furniture and books to stay alive and writes her story on the apartment’s walls. 

4. House of Stone - Novuyo Rosa Tshuma (Zimbabwe)

I’ve encountered readers who say that Zamani, the protagonist of the fantastic House of Stone, is a psychopath and a weirdo.

But Zamani, who is with no parents or siblings, does the crazy things he does like sucking on his surrogate father Abednego’s finger, to just belong.

During these crazy moments, he floods Abednego with whiskey just to make the older guy’s tongue loose to unleash his traumatic history.

House of stones and Anna P.

Zamani’s story isn’t just a human endeavour to belong, but also about a clear mirror to stare at a depressed Zimbabwe in the grips of colonisation, civil war and self-sabotage.   

5. The Story of Anna P as Told by Herself - Penny Busetto (South Africa)

In this book, Anna the protagonist, struggles to come to peace with her traumatic childhood. Having no memories of coming from South Africa to a small island in Italy, she in several sessions tells of visiting a therapist.

She only starts remembering things through a relationship with a prostitute and a boy she teaches at school.

When Penny Busetto visited Nairobi in 2015 as part of the Etisalat Prize for Literature shortlist African book tour, I discovered she herself wandered the same routes taken by her protagonist. 

6. Penumbra - Songeziwe Mahlangu (South Africa)

Penumbra, which won the 2015 Etisalat Prize for Prize, is narrated by Mangaliso. Manga struggles to find sense in life.

The Lazarus Effect and In Between Dreams.

He is presented as a person losing sanity due to the drugs and alcohol he engages in with his friends. Instead, he is looking for something more meaningful. He lands in shallow friendships and a religion that doesn’t mean much to him.

8. The Mourning Bird - Mubanga Kalimamukwento (Zambia)

The Mourning Bird is told from the first-person voice of a 11-year-old girl called Chimuka. After her parent’s death, Chimuka finds herself in the harsh streets of Lusaka, Zambia.

Herself and a younger brother Ali are troubled children; their ordered family life ends after their father dies of HIV/Aids.

Their mother, following the death of her husband, can’t take it anymore and commits suicide. The only option young Chimuka has is to engage in prostitution. Interestingly, the writer lost her parents at a tender age. 

9. The Book of Memory - Petina Gappah (Zimbabwe)

The book, told from the first-person perspective of Memory (an eight-year-old Zimbabwean girl), is a sprawling ‘memoir’ on how she landed at Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison.

Although the novel is not directly on mental health, Memory, living with albinism, is a rather troubled girl, what with being passed as ‘white.’

Told in the disintegrated, but interesting style I like calling ‘the short-story curse’, it features Memory’s mother, whose unexpected changes of mood seemingly points to schizophrenia and/or bi-polar. She, alongside her daughter, can tell you a lot about tragedy. 

10. About My Mother - Tahar Ben Jelloun (Morocco) – translated from the French to English by Ros Schwartz and Lulu Norman  

In the autobiographical About My Mother, Tahar’s aged mother Lalla Fatma has Alzheimer’s Disease,  which is the most common cause of dementia in older people.

Although the plot takes place in Tangier in Morocco in 2000, Lalla Fatma believes she is in Fez city in 1944.

She confuses people’s faces and can’t even recognise her own son, Tahar, the narrator of the novel. I only made peace with the title after discovering it’s a translation – that linguistic vehicle which unites the world.

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