West African Culture Books

Culture Books | History Books | Children’s Books

See also culture books in French.

Great books on West African culture, when found, are a little like great paintings ― created with a careful compositional eye, a thoughtful color palette, with deliberate gestures that draw in the viewer, time and time again.

Here are some of those books (by alphabetical, not preferential order!) that slide off our own bookshelf, time after time — either ‘painted’ with exuberant, broad brushstrokes to give an overall view of West African culture or with more delicate, detailed touches of more locally-specific hues and textures.

Are there other ‘chef-d’oeuvres’ we should add to our ever-expanding collection? Let us know in the comments below!

(Note: If you would like to expand your own library of West African culture books, purchasing through our affiliate links below would help support this website at no extra cost to you.)

African Folklore: An Encyclopedia by Philip M. Peek & Kwesi Yankah (eds.)

Cover of 'African Folklore: An Encyclopedia' by Phillip M. Peek and Kwesi Yankah.

So much more than a folklore resource in the narrow sense of the term, this ambitious encyclopedia, with over 150 contributors, references the diversity of African traditional expressive culture, from tangible material culture (masks, dress), to transmitted verbal traditions (humor, even gossip and rumor), to folklore in action (customary gestures, performance, celebrations).

[ Amazon ]

The Anatomy of Architecture: Ontology and Metaphor in Batammaliba Architectural Expression by Suzanne Preston Blier

Cover of the West African culture book 'The Anatomy of Architecture' by Suzanne Preston Blier.

The reinforcing, supporting structures of family, community, ancestors and gods are the metaphorical cornerstones of Batammaliba architecture. This book, which provides the tools needed to extract the elaborate culture built into each of the “miniature castles”, provided the foundational building blocks for our own article on the Tata Somba.

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Bogolan: Shaping Culture through Cloth in Contemporary Mali by Victoria Rovine

Cover of the book 'Bogolan: Shaping Culture through Cloth in Contemporary Mali' by Victoria Rovine, featuring a piece of traditional mudcloth.

From its village origins and the labor-intensive process used to create this iconic Malian cloth, to its emergence on the international scene — thanks to contemporary Malian studio artists using bogolan materials and iconography in their work — this beautifully illustrated book explores the changing notions of tradition, culture and identity.

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City of 201 Gods: Ilé-Ifẹ̀ in Time, Space, and the Imagination by Jacob K. Olúpọ̀nà

Cover of the West African culture and history book 'City of 201 Gods' about the city of Ile-Ife, by Jacob Olupona.

Crossing the threshold of this most sacred of West African cities and entering into its history, cosmology, and culture — catching glimpses of gods and spirits at every corner! — Olúpọ̀nà places well-grounded, ethnographic, archaeological, artistic and socio-political stepping stones: stepping stones that led us to our own exploration of Ilé-Ifẹ̀.

[ Amazon ]

Conversations with Ogotemmêli: An Introduction to Dogon Religious Ideas by Marcel Griaule

Cover of the West African culture book 'Conversations with Ogotemmeli' about the Dogon cosmology, by Marcel Griaule.

Thirty three days of conversation with the blind elder Ogotemmêli has shed light ― intimately personal and touching light ― on the cosmology, metaphysics, and day-to-day belief structures that backdrop everything from Dogon architecture, to marketplace exchanges, to textile and instrument creation.

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Flash Afrique! Photography from West Africa

Cover of the photography book "Flash Afrique !", featuring an old portrait of a West African man holding a flower.

From studio portraits to documentary images by preeminent West African photographers such as Philip Kwame Apagya, Seydou Keita, Boubacar Touré Mandémory, and the celebrated Malick Sidibé, Flash Afrique! gives a glimpse into how West Africa has seen itself, through evolving times.

[ Amazon ]

The Forge and the Funeral: The Smith in Kapsiki/Higi Culture by Walter E. A. van Beek

Cover of the West African culture book 'The Forge and the Funeral', about Kapsiki-Higi blacksmiths, by Walter van Beek.

The social structures of caste and guild are forged into many West African societies; a perfect illustration can be found among the endogamous Kapsiki blacksmiths, “internal others” that stand apart, as creators, spiritual mediators, funeral directors, healers and diviners. The Forge and the Funeral is the result of four decades of exploration into Kapsiki/Higi culture.

[ Amazon ]

From Timbuktu to the Mississippi Delta by Pascal Bokar Thiam

Cover of the West African music book 'From Timbuktu to the Mississippi Delta' by Pascal Bokar Thiam.

The distinctive sensibilities of traditional West African music — its polyrhythmic textures, its call and response mechanisms, its bent tonalities — have shaped musical aesthetics well-beyond its borders. The scholar Pascal Bokar Thiam, himself a working musician, follows the rhythms emanating from West Africa back to their sources, to the vibrating strings of a kora, the resonating wooden keys of a balafon, the pulsating goat-skinned drumhead of a djembe, and to the ever-echoing voices of griots.

[ Amazon ]

The Gèlèdé Spectacle: Art, Gender, and Social Harmony in an African Culture by Babatunde Lawal

Cover of the book "The Gelede Spectacle: Art, Gender, and Social Harmony in an African Culture" by Babatunde Lawal, featuring a traditional sculpture.

Babatunde Lawal, art historian, researcher and participant in the Yoruba Gèlèdé, brings this spectacular festival to life with his unique perspective, vivid descriptions, photographs, collected chants, proverbs, and verses. Through masquerade, dance and rhythm, the spiritual powers of women and social harmony are celebrated.

[ Amazon ]

The Horses of Satire: The Kórèdugaw of Mali by Jean-Paul Colleyn

Cover of the West African culture book 'The Horses of Satire', about Malian clowns, by Jean-Paul Colleyn.

On full display in this gorgeous book are the “Niokala so”, the emblematic and intricately carved stick-horses of a funny, derisive, and curious kind of horseman, the ritual buffoon of Mali. Inspired by this, we, ourselves, broke into a gallop to explore West African clown culture!

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Makasutu: Mecca in the Forest by Jason Florio

Cover of the photography book "Makasutu, mecca in the forest" by Jason Florio, featuring the portrait of a West African girl.

These award-winning portraits, taken by Jason Florio over a 12-year period in the sacred forest of the Gambia, are revealing. “With little direction on my part, I found that the subjects in front of the camera would become silently quizzical of themselves and how they wanted to be portrayed.” ― Jason Florio

[ Blurb Books ]

The Mande Blacksmiths: Knowledge, Power, and Art in West Africa by Patrick McNaughton

Cover of the West African culture book 'The Mande Blacksmiths' by Patrick McNaughton.

Manipulating forms, manipulating power, blacksmiths are not simply master sculptors, they are intermediary agents, articulating both Mande social and spiritual worlds, simultaneously respected and feared. The author brought his ethnological background to the forge, rolled up his sleeves and began an apprenticeship that would shape this detailed study.

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The Masons of Djenné by Trevor H. J. Marchand

Cover of the West African culture book 'The Masons of Djenne' by Trevor Marchand.

From anthropologist to apprentice to artisan: the vivid descriptions of the art of building, the inside glimpses of professional associations, relationships, ritual symbolism, and changing fortunes of Djenné’s master masons color this narrative as Trevor Marchand transitions from raw laborer to skilled craftsman.

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Playing with Time: Art and Performance in Central Mali by Mary Jo Arnoldi

Cover of the cultural book 'Playing with Time: Art and Performance in Central Mali' by Mary Jo Arnoldi.

An ethnographic study of an intriguing genre of West African expressive culture, the puppet theater of the Bozo and Bamana people in the region of Ségou. While the tenor of performances may be playful, they are, at the same time, a way to explore, construct and intensify identity.

[ Amazon ]

Radiance from the Waters: Ideals of Feminine Beauty in Mende Art by Sylvia Ardyn Boone

Cover of the West African cultural book 'Radiance from the Waters: Ideals of Feminine Beauty in Mende Art' by Sylvia Ardyn Boone.

Mende life is dominated by secret societies, one of which is the Sande women’s society. This book is an extended meditation on notions of beauty in Sierra Leone and how they are translated simultaneously into art and ritual. Discretion seems to be a virtue that is valued above all others.

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A Spirit of Tolerance: The Inspiring Life of Tierno Bokar by Amadou Hampâté Bâ

Cover of the book 'A Spirit of Tolerance: The Inspiring Life of Tierno Bokar' by Amadou Hampâté Bâ.

Amadou Hampaté Bâ devoted his life to recording, collecting, and preserving the wisdom of sub-Saharan Africa. This is both tribute and testimony to the teachings of his extraordinary Sufi Master, the “Sage of Bandiagara.”

Hampaté Bâ later imparted some of his own wisdom in his Open Letter to the Youth, which we translated from the original French.

[ Amazon ]

The Transmission of Kapsiki-Higi Folktales over Two Generations: Tales That Come, Tales That Go by Walter E.A. van Beek

Cover of the West African culture book 'The Transmission of Kapsiki-Higi Folktales over Two Generations' by Walter E.A. van Beek.

“Any story we tell is ultimately about ourselves, and the Kapsiki also tell stories about their own life, to themselves and here to us. So now we listen.”

These Kapsiki-Higi folktales, recorded twice with a time gap of two generations, illustrate the stable yet dynamic nature of this time-honored oral art form.

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Twins in African and Diaspora Cultures: Double Trouble, Twice Blessed by Phillip M. Peek (ed.)

Cover of the book 'Twins in African and Diaspora Cultures: Double Trouble, Twice Blessed' by Phillip M. Peek.

The subtitle, “Double Trouble, Twice Blessed” perfectly captures both the ambiguity and contradiction that surround twin births in African cultures. Both feared and cherished, the cultural practices around them, explored in this book through a multidisciplinary lens, are as varied as the continent itself. We did our own ‘double-take’ on twins in West Africa with this collection as our muse.

[ Amazon ]

Villages of West Africa: An Intimate Journey across Time by Steven House & Cathi House

Cover of the culture book 'Villages of West Africa: An Intimate Journey across Time' by Steven House and Cathi House.

When two award-winning architects begin photographing the vernacular architecture of West Africa, intimate and poetic portraits of the people who build it, inhabit it, give it breath and vitality emerge. The colors and textures of remote villages throughout the region ― from the arid Sahel to the forested coast ― are captured not only by over 500 incredible photographs but by the imagery of words, powerful, insightful, and revealing.

[ Amazon ]

Top image: “Mask and String Instrument” by Dean Mitchell.

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