Reading African authors from across the continent

“It’s important to me that African stories be told by African people.” -Chimamanda Adichie (here)

I am seeking to read books by authors from every country in Africa. Please share with me what you recommend in the comments. Or link to your own reviews of books by African authors.

Posted in Uncategorized | 10 Comments

Jowhor Ile (Nigeria) — And After Many Days

Countdown to the Etisalat Prize!

Each year, the Etisalat Prize for Literature is awarded to a first-time African novelist. The 2017 prize will be awarded next month. I’m working my way through the shortlist, which includes

2016-shortlistSource: Etisalat (2017)

Today, quick thoughts about and 6 pieces of wisdom from Jowhor Ile’s lovely And After Many Days.

“Not everything has to be plot…. It’s just lovely and that’s okay.”

and-after-many-daysIn the opening pages of Jowhor Ile’s debut novel, And After Many Days, the Utu family’s eldest son — Paul — disappears. But shortly thereafter the novel pivots from the search for Paul to a series of reminiscences from the viewpoint of the second son, Ajie. While Ile returns to Paul in the final chapters, that plot — or any plot — isn’t what drives this story. Rather, Ile provides a series of vignettes about life in Nigeria in the mid-1990s. The lack of a strong plot isn’t a critique: As a cop recently said on Saturday Night Live, “Not everything has to be plot!” and her partner, “It’s just lovely and that’s okay.”

Indeed, the same could be said of And After Many Days: It’s just lovely, and that’s okay. While some elements feel specific to Nigeria in this season (such as the reason for Paul’s disappearance), much will be familiar wherever you live. Take this scene, when the children of the family go to stay with an aunt and uncle for a time:

“That night they all sat down and watched one of Auntie Leba’s favorite Mexican telenovelas. Since they arrived, the children had joined in watching the show, which aired three nights a week. Uncle Tam said it was trash but remained in front of the TV whenever the program started….

“‘Stupid man!’ Uncle Tam hissed at the TV. “She is deceiving you.”

“Antie Leba said, “No, there is a reason why she had to lie to him.”

“Paul and Ajie still couldn’t tell some of the characters apart…. At some point, everyone was talking back to every scene that came on, sighing, hissing out loud, and lamenting the silliness of the story and of the characters and actors.”

I remember sitting in front of the U.S. daytime soap The Bold and the Beautiful most evenings while working in rural Kenya in the early 2000s, and similar scenes are played out with my own family here in Virginia today. Even the series of scenes where village members are gradually bought off by a private company will be reminiscent to all who have scene corporate values erode community norms and collective action.

It’s a lovely, relatable, serene novel. I recommend it. I listened to the unabridged audiobook, narrated by Chukwudi Iwuji. The narration was well done.

Here are 6 wise observations within the book:
  1. On the quality of education: “The number of people I meet who have been to primary school but can’t read well is just alarming.”
  2. On thinking (and talking!) in terms of systems: “It makes me a little crazy when you keep saying systems.”
  3. On the mechanism of prayer: “This woman of God could only speak in Igbo, so before they left home that morning, Auntie Julie told Ma she should write her prayer request on a piece of paper. Bibi wrote hers, too, even Auntie Julie did, and Ajie was sure they had all written the same thing and were somehow hoping that if answers were being rationed, at least they stood a greater chance of being granted their single request.”
  4. On the bad luck of others: “When misfortune befalls you, people secretly blame you.”
  5. On not losing your cool: “Remember what we agreed you should do when someone tries to annoy you. The backward count always works. Take it slowly from 100, and before you know it, you will think of something better than to lash out.”
  6. On one of the big questions: “How do you make yourself do that? How do you learn how to work yourself up over something that’s not directly your concern?”
And here’s a bit of miscellany:
  • First line: “Paul turned away from the window and said he needed to go out at once to the next compound see his friend.”
  • Last line: “Ache reaches for the light switch on the parlor wall and turns it off.”
Books mentioned in the book
Don’t believe me? Here are a few other reviews:
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Yaa Gyasi (Ghana) – Homegoing

homegoingTrace the impact of slavery through two families over seven generations

a review of Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi

How different would your life be if you some major event had gone down differently in the life of an ancestor? Yaa Gyasi’s wonderful, ambitious novel Homegoing answers that question. Two sisters are separated in Africa’s Gold Coast in the 18th century, one sold into slavery and one the local wife of a British slaver. The chapters of the novel alternate between the two families, one evolving in West Africa and the other in the United States, with each chapter advancing the family by one generation. Over the course of 320 pages (or 13 hours, if you listen to the audiobook), we hear the stories of slaves, coal workers, drug addicts, as well as village leaders, individuals struggling with mental illness in rural, colonial Ghana, history professors, and poets. I loved it.


I listened to the audiobook narrated well by Dominic Hoffman, although I wish there had been a female narrator for the female protagonists.


If I haven’t convinced you, let Gyasi persuade you herself in just three minutes, here.


Here are a few lines that stuck with me:
  • “Just because somebody sees or hears or feels something other folks can’t, doesn’t mean they’re crazy. My grandma used to say, ‘A blind man don’t call us crazy for seeing.’ ”
  • “Those who had been determined to stay on the fence found themselves without a fence at all.”
  • “Jo had worked hard so that his children wouldn’t have to inherit his fear, but now he wished they had just the tiniest morsel of it.”
  • “Asante traders would bring in their captives. Fante, Ewe, or Ga middlemen would hold them, then sell them to the British or the Dutch or whoever was paying the most at the time. Everyone was responsible. We all were … we all are.”
  • “Most people lived their lives on upper levels, not stopping to peer underneath.”


Here are a few pro reviews
  • Steph Cha, LA Times: “‘Homegoing’ covers seven generations in 300 pages and is, for the most part, a blazing success.”
  • Alyssa Rosenberg, Washington Post:  “‘Homegoing is, to Gyasi’s credit, more interested in raising difficult questions than offering pat answers.”
  • Michiko Kakutani, New York Times: “At its best, the novel makes us experience the horrors of slavery on an intimate, personal level; by its conclusion, the characters’ tales of loss and resilience have acquired an inexorable and cumulative emotional weight.”


I’ll even direct you to a few questions for discussion (here) for when you read this for your book group, which you absolutely should do.
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Chigozie Obioma (Nigeria) — The Fishermen

fishermen-2Things Fall Apart for Four Nigerian Fishermen

Okay, so there are these four Nigerian brothers, ages 9 to 15, plus a couple of toddlers at home. Dad migrates to another part of the country for work. The boys start sneaking out to go fishing at a river that is prohibited for both public health and mythical reasons. A mentally ill homeless man makes a frightening prophesy. Subsequently, things fall apart. (Indeed, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is heavily referenced here.)

The novel is unremittingly dark, with murder, rape, and even a bit of necrophilia. Even occasional happy memories are seen through the lens of the subsequent domestic disaster. But Obiama’s prose is undeniably lyrical. Here are two samples: “Although Christianity had almost cleanly swept through Igbo land, crumbs and pieces of the African traditional religion had eluded the broom.” The narrator, 9-year-old Benjamin, aspires to be a veterinarian and so peppers his tale with animal metaphors: “The udder of courage from which we’d drunk our fill had been drained, and was now shrunken like a crone’s breast.”

This wasn’t my favorite Nigerian novel (what can I say? I’m more of a farcical Blackass guy), but I’m glad I read it listened to it. Fiammetta Rocco writes in the New York Times, that as more and more Africans have “erupted” onto the world’s literary stage, “these writers’ voices, anything but undistinguished, are as distinct as the African countries they come from, whether Nigeria in the west, Zimbabwe in the south or Ethiopia in the east.” They are — in fact — much more distinguished than that. It’s awesome.

Here are excerpts from a few other reviews:

“In his exploration of the mysterious and the murderous, of the terrors that can take hold of the human mind, of the colors of life in Africa, with its vibrant fabrics and its trees laden with fruit, and most of all in his ability to create dramatic tension in this most human of African stories, ­Chigozie Obioma truly is the heir to ­Chinua Achebe.” (Fiammetta Rocco, the New York Times –

“Whatever happens, Obioma has written a striking book—and luckily, people are noticing.” (Naomi Sharp, the Atlantic –

“Chigozie Obioma’s debut novel grows, gaining complexity and power as it rises to its heartbreaking climax.” (Helon Habila, The Guardian –

“Obioma’s The Fishermen is storytelling at its most captivating. The novel is delivered with the enchanting tenor of an ancient storyteller.” (Onyeka Nwelue, Brittle Paper –

“There is, to be sure, a compelling story somewhere in these 300 pages, as the attention from the folks at the Man Booker Prize attests. But it feels The Fishermen’s inclusion in the longlist has something to do with literary geopolitics: they had to fish out an African.” (Percy Zvoyuma, the Sunday Times –

“The Fishermen is an African novel that is not just historically relevant but thrilling and poignant in many ways.” (Obinna Udenwe, Illumination –

“This is a dark and beautiful book by a writer with seemingly endless promise.” (Michael Schaub, NPR –

Books mentioned in this book
  • The Bible
  • The Odyssey
  • Things Fall Apart
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H.J. Golakai (South Africa / Liberia) – The Lazarus Effect

lazarus-effectGolakai’s feminist mystery turns the thriller genre on its head

It is to the credit of H.J. Golokai’s engaging, rewarding, and fun thriller that I didn’t notice until I finished that it entirely circles around strong women. The protagonist is Voinjama “Vee” Johnson, a reporter for a South African fashion magazine who survived Liberia’s horrific civil war. She can detect, she can fight, and she can keep a secret. “Vee didn’t have secrets as much as a whole other underground life.”

Her assistant, Chloe Bishop, is fearless. Her boss, Portia Kruger, has some compassion but Vee is pushing her limits. The murder victim that Vee wants wants to investigate is (was) a rebellious, strong-willed teenager, Jacqui. The list goes on. This is a feminist novel, and I love this investigative team.

Golakai repeated turns the traditional thriller on its head:

  1. Vee wants to investigate Jacqui’s death because Jacqui appears to her in visions. But unlike Patrick Swayze in Ghost, typing out names on keyboards, Jacqui just appears, leaving Vee to figure out the rest. “Movie ghosts introduced themselves, and then went about sprinkling helpful clues for the intrepid heroine to find. Jacqui was a lazy, taciturn diva.”
  2. Near the end, several characters gather so that Vee can reveal what happened, just like Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot might do. But Vee tells the story so non-linearly that her friend remarks, “You’re a terrible storyteller.” (Contrast with Yaa Gyasi’s recent novel Homecoming, in which one character tells another, early in the novel, “You are a fine storyteller.” Sorry, Vee!)
  3. Women detectives tend to be asexual (Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple) or tough-on-crime but sensitive-on-love (Robert Parker’s Sunny Randall). But Vee is “sexually frustrated” and — minor spoiler alert — ends up with two simultaneous boyfriends.

The novel’s pacing wasn’t perfect, with occasional ebbs and flows, but I still won’t miss the sequel — The Score — already out.

Other notable lines
  • On gatekeepers: “The receptionist was serving the cocktail proffered by all gatekeepers: apathy and bullshit, garnished with feigned sympathy.”
  • How hospitals are like children’s birthday parties: “Vee didn’t ask for much from hospitals. They were like jails and children’s birthday parties –if you got out alive, count yourself lucky.”
  • On starting a new job in journalism: “Welcome aboard the Titanic. May you perish in interesting times.”
  • On street food: “She adored street food –the cultural nuances, the brazen messiness and flirtation with questionable hygiene, how you needed to tuck into it with both hands. Best dining experience ever.”
  • On newspapers: “If she had to follow reports of a world falling to ruin, the printed page was less depressing than live images.”
  • On ambition: “The climb to the top was steep, and victors seldom made it purely on talent, resolve and integrity.”
  • On good people and bad choices: “Even good people can do wrong. It happens every day. Anything is possible.”
  • On running: “The days of running for fitness were over. Now she was in it solely for peace of mind and the sense of freedom.”
  • On failing to respond to a cry for help: “Crime had desensitised the nation; the neighbours would fasten their locks and send her a prayer.”
  • On rest: “I’ll rest when I’m dead.”
  • On race and crime in South Africa: “If
    any white people get hurt, everything gets so much worse.”

Books mentioned?
  • Just one: Sun Tzu’s The Art of War
  • Note on content: This book has some language, some sex, and some violence. So there you go.
  • Posted in Liberia, South Africa | Leave a comment

    Fiston Mwanza Mujila (DRC) – Tram 83

    tram 83a frenetic, visceral ride through the chaos of a conflict-ridden, mineral-rich African city

    a review of Tram 83, by Fiston Mwanza Mujila (translated into English by Roland Glasser)

    What’s the plot of Tram 83? Irrelevant!

    Tram 83 transports you into an unnamed African city, governed (if you can call it that) by warlord. The money comes from mining, but everyone in town comes together at Tram 83, a bar based in “a station whose metal structure is unfinished.” Everyone includes the miners, the students, the nonprofit tourists (aid workers?), and the prostitutes. The two main characters are Requiem, a deal-maker and extortionist, and Lucien, a writer and historian. Over the course of 224 pages, they fight, rob a mine, dance, drink, argue, seek opportunity discuss, get arrested, get attacked, and much more.

    “At Tram 83, it was impossible to converse without being interrupted.” The city’s prostitutes are constantly interrupting the dialogue between the characters, sometimes with innocent queries (“Do you have the time?” repeated 57 times throughout the book) and other times in a more forward way (a variation on how they feel about foreplay, repeated 17 days through the book). The book is peppered with music references, with references to biblical verses (many of which don’t exist, like Ephesians 18).

    More than a story, Tram 83 is an experience, plunging the reader into the midst of the chaos and moral depravity (child prostitutes, torture) and pleasures. Tram 83 shows how chaos can become normal against the “everyday rhythm of blackouts and cave-ins of underground quarries.” The narrative doesn’t pause for more than a moment on events that in any other book would be central and traumatic, as when one character is forced to drink his own urine out of his shoes. (Spoiler alert?)

    This book is kind of insane, it’s not for the faint of heart, and it merits every award and nomination it’s been getting.

    Here are a few bits and pieces that caught my eye or my mind:
    • On intellectual navel gazing: “What’s the point of playing the intellectual all the time if the equation must remain the same? The roads that lead to truth and honesty are cut by flooding, filth, dog turds, lies, and blackouts, but why did he obstinately maintain his belief that a better world was possible? Why did he strive to reduce humanity to the dreams and quotations he gleaned on the pages of his texts? It’s called cowardice, perhaps even amnesia, or indeed a combination of the two.”
    • On intellectualism: “True debauchery [is] the debauchery of the mind.”
    • On African literature: “We’ve already had enough of squalor, poverty, syphilis, and violence in African literature. Look around us. There are beautiful girls, good-looking men, Brazza Beer, good music. Doesn’t all that inspire you? I’m concerned for the future of African literature in general. The main character in the African novel is always single, neurotic, perverse, depressive, childless, homeless, and overburdened with debt. Here, we live, we f***, we’re happy. There needs to be f***ing in African literature too!”
    • On the worst public relations for a book reading ever: “The guy entrusted with raising awareness of the benefits of literature entrusted it to another guy who entrusted it to another guy who entrusted it to another — suffice it to say, it was the shoddiest sort of awareness-raising.”
    • On aid workers and their hopes for Africa: “Nearly all the nonprofit tourists…arrived with the hope of living in a world, a continent, as yet unpolluted by the excrement of globalization.”
    • On cities and stories: “There are cities which don’t need literature: they are literature. They file past, chest thrust out, head on their shoulders. They are proud and full of confidence despite the garbage bags they cart around.”
    • On Africa: “Africa is of no interest to many intellectuals; let’s just say it’s not as exotic as it was four hundred years ago.”
    • On dancing: “How’s it possible a guy that age could have difficulty jiving to beautiful music like this?”
    • On detesting your own pleasure: “Your descents into vileness that drive me to ecstatic revolt”
    • On torture: “Torture is one of the demarcation points between an organized banana republic and a chaotic, or in other words disorganized, banana republic.”
    • On getting your partner ready: “Stroke my navel first and, while we’re at it, tell me about the Second World War. Teach me mathematics.”
    • On uncooperative computers: “His computer boycotted the transposition of the document to PDF. … Bad luck, blackout!”

    And here are a few snippets from other reviews:
    • John Powers, NPR: “An exuberantly dark first novel by Fiston Mwanza Mujila…plunges us into a world so anarchic it would leave even Ted Cruz begging for more government. … Fiston evokes the textures of the city in all its deliriousness, blowing marvelous riffs on everything from the sleaziness of foreign visitors to the differing shapes of streetwalkers’ buttocks to the way the poor patrons of Tram 83 like jazz, because it’s so classy.
    • Michelle Newby, The Rumpus: “With echoes of Flannery O’Connor, Ralph Ellison, and Joseph Conrad, Mujila’s language alchemizes epic poetry from violence, despair and distraction.”
    • John Taylor, Arts Fuse: “Tram 83 mirrors the most sordid and chaotic features of contemporary African cities, in which non-Africans also remain intimately and often deviously involved. Nothing angelic crops up in this believable dystopia.”
    • Publishers Weekly: “Mujila succeeds in exploring themes of globalization and exploitation in a kinetic, engaging work.”
    • Geoff Wisner, The Quarterly Conversation: “Tram 83 is not exactly a deep novel, but it carries itself with exuberance and style.”

    Books mentioned in this book
    • The Bible
    Posted in DRC | Leave a comment

    A. Igoni Barrett (Nigeria) – Blackass

    As I post this, I’m sitting in the Piano Lounge of the Transcorp Hilton in Abuja, Nigeria. It also happens to be the setting of a climactic scene in A. Igoni Barrett’s brilliant novel Blackass. What a treat!

    Furo Wariboko, resident of Lagos, Nigeria, wakes up with a problem. He wakes up white. And he’s running late for a job interview, the latest comma in a long spell of post-university unemployment. He sneaks out of the house (How to explain this to his mother?) and shortly begins to feel the advantages of his new skin tone. At the job interview, he gets pulled out of a long line of applicants and is rejected as a salesman but appointed as the firm’s marketing director. He casts about for a place to stay and meets an educated, beautiful woman willing to take him in.


    In addition to the obvious allusions to Kafka’s The Metamorphosis (a cockroach emerges from under Furo’s bed in the early pages, and the job he applies for is as traveling salesman, just like Kafka’s Gregor Samsa), these initial elements evoke the old Saturday Night Live sketch in which Eddie Murphy masquerades as a white man for a day. But Barrett does more with the premise than that, exploring the nuance of race relations. On the one hand, “his whiteness had landed him a job.” On the other, “Everything conspired to make him stand out,” and “a white man in Lagos has no voice louder than the dollar sign branded onto his forehead.” On net, Furo benefits, but not everything is easier for this new white man.


    Barrett observes life in Lagos with wonderful specificity and more than a little reflection, as in his thoughts on fancy houses with their own generators: “The nerve-grinding roar of individual power generation was as much a consequence of every-man-for-himself government as the lynch mobs that meted out injustice in public spaces. Private provision of public services has turned…everyone’s backyards into industrial wastelands. Every man the king of his house, every house a sovereign nation, and every nation its own provider of security, electricity, water. Lagos was a city of millions of warring nations.”


    The novel isn’t perfect — I felt a few lags, and one sub-plot involving another character’s surprising transformation needed to be either longer or not there at all.


    But the margins of my copy are spotted with notes, and I repeatedly gasped or laughed aloud. I loved it; I recommend it.



    • Dami Ajayi, Olisa: “This debut novel…charts contemporary Lagos with infectious vivacity and exactness. People from all walks of life – food vendors, kept women, business owners – are portrayed in their fullness, warts and all.”
    • Jon Day, Financial Times: “Blackass is a strange, compelling novel, and Barrett has something to tell us all.”
    • Lisa Guidarini, Chicago Review of Books: “Lyrical and inventive, Blackass casts a wide net with a large cast of characters, a testament to Barrett’s imaginative power.”
    • MY FAVORITE REVIEW: Ikhide Ikheloa, What’s On Africa: “Blackass is a gorgeous book, I had trouble putting it down to attend to basic functions. It is the funniest, most engaging badass book I’ve read in years. You should read this book and enjoy freshly minted scintillating prose rioting with each other – it is a lush canvas of ideas, humor and vision. Barrett can write.”


    • Kirkus: “Barrett’s prose is consistently entertaining, and though the ending leaves something to be desired, readers will have plenty of fun getting there.”
    • Josh Cook, Star Tribune: “Split attentions contribute to a feeling of torn loyalty — am I supposed to care about anyone here? — in an otherwise charming first novel.”
    • Claire Fallon, Huffington Post: “Barrett’s racial satire bulges with more ambitious ideas than its length can handle, but its power and insight should put him on to-watch lists.”
    • Helon Habila, The Guardian: “Igoni Barrett’s greatest asset is his ability to satirise the ridiculous extents people, especially Lagosians, go to in order to appear important. … But his handling of plot is not so masterly.”


    1. The Metamorphosis, by Kafka
    2. Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe
    3. Fela: This Bitch of a Life, by Moore
    4. Black Skin, White Masks, by Fanon
    5. The Rules of Wealth, by Templar
    6. Defying the Odds, by LEAP Africa
    7. The Leader Who Had No Title, by Sharma
    8. Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done, by Bossidy and Charan
    9. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, by Covey
    10. 1001 Ways to Take Initiative at Work, by Nelson
    11. The Five Dysfunctions, by Lencioni
    12. Are You Ready to Succeed? by Rao
    13. Metamorphoses, by Ovid


    • On mosquitos: “Those Brit-massacring heroes of West Africa’s anti-colonial resistance: the unacknowledged national insect of Nigeria.”
    • On government bureaucrats: “He hadn’t foreseen that he would be left alone to face an official armed with a system.”
    • On government corruption: “The process was moving along much more smoothly than he’d expected. The bribe-sharing, the queue-jumping, the fact non-checking, and the customer-handling were as efficient as any system whose design was alimentary: in through the mouth and straight out the anus.”
    • Urban survival: “Life in Lagos was locked in a constant struggle against empathy.”
    • On Nigerian airlines: “Trust our airlines too much and you’ll be late. Fly them long enough and you’ll be dead.”
    • On local versus Western knowledge: “I strongly believe, sir, that the best business practices, like the best books, are universal. I have nothing against business books by Nigerians. But until they measure up, my company will never sell them.”
    Posted in Nigeria | Leave a comment

    Mia Couto (Mozambique) – Confession of the Lioness

    A remote village in Mozambique has been prey to a series of lion attacks. Mia Couto’s novel tells the story through two narrators — Mariamar, a young woman whose sister was recently killed by a lion, and Archangel, a hunter from the capital who has been hired to eliminate the lions. As the tale proceeds, it becomes clear that literal lions are just one danger facing this community. Tensions between men and women, traditional and industrial viewpoints, and rural and urban areas all come to a head in the course of the hunt. The legacy of Mozambique’s decades-long civil war, and the violence against women that continues even when “peace” has been declared, permeate this novel.

    Here are a few passages that stayed with me. But more than any one passage, the book evokes a powerful mood. I recommend it.

    “Every morning the gazelle wakes up knowing that it has to run more swiftly than the lion or it will be killed. Every morning the lion awakens knowing that it has to run faster than the gazelle or it will die of hunger. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a lion or a gazelle: When the Sun rises, you’d better start running. –AFRICAN PROVERB”

    “There’s only one way to escape from a place: It’s by abandoning ourselves. There’s only one way to abandon ourselves: It’s by loving someone.”

    “I’ve never liked airports. So full of people, so full of no one. I prefer train stations, where there’s enough time for tears and waving handkerchiefs. Trains set off sluggishly, with a sigh, regretting their departure. But a plane has a haste that’s inhuman.”

    “We don’t need enemies. To be beaten, all we need is ourselves.”

    Here are excerpts from a few professional reviews:
    • The Guardian: “Couto renders the politics of everyday living poetically but his focus on the status and treatment of women displays a stout refusal to look away from a harsh reality – fiction brings us closer to the truth here than mere facts ever could.”
    • Los Angeles Times: “Mia Couto’s somber and masterfully wrought novel ‘Confession of the Lioness’ examines a village in danger, a place where ‘the border between order and chaos was being erased.'”
    • Kirkus Reviews: “A haunting, ethereal flight of magical realism.”
    • Financial Times: “A radical call for change framed in a semitraditional form; a book of profound disenchantment written in language that seeks to re-enchant the world.”

    I listened to and enjoyed the unabridged audiobook, narrated by Kevin Kenerly and Lisa Renée Pitts.

    Posted in Mozambique | Leave a comment