Early Conversion

09.09.14 9:45 AM ET

How I Got Addicted to Africa (and Wrote a Thriller About It)

A semester outside Harare with a local family, a 11,000-mile trip that included a harrowing sailboat ride, a diplomatic career—and now writing thrillers that at last have an audience.

“American audiences don’t want to read about Africa.” That was the reaction from one literary agent a few years ago in reply to my first pitch for a novel about an American diplomat in the West African nation of Mali battling to reverse a coup d’état and stop an attack on the U.S. Embassy. “Africa’s not commercial,” I was told. “It’s not mainstream.”

The message was disappointing, but not unexpected. For much of my professional career, I’ve heard similar sentiments. Africa was supposedly a land of disasters, unsolvable poverty, or, worst of all, irrelevant to Americans.

My relationship with foreign cultures began, like many privileged Americans, with an idealistic college semester abroad. Unlike my peers who were mostly going to Britain or Spain, I chose Zimbabwe.

Stepping off the plane more than 20 years ago in the capital, Harare, what struck me as strange was not that Zimbabwe was exotic but instead how familiar it felt. My host family of two parents, both primary school teachers, and their four children lived in a modest house on the outskirts of the city. They talked and laughed about the same everyday things as my own family back in Rochester, New York: school, the trip to work, what’s for dinner, the local sports team.

While Zimbabwe was ordinary, it was also powerfully captivating. I studied the local Shona language. I learned the elaborate greeting rituals—clapping, bowing, and back-and-forth inquiry into family health—which helped to break down cultural barriers and initiate animated conversations. I ate the staple corn paste sadza every day and tasted fried mopane worms. I commuted to class crammed into a local “emergency taxi,” an overloaded jalopy often held together with wire hangers and duct tape. The smells of roasting maize, diesel fumes, and floral soap from the streets of Harare are still seared into my brain.

That one semester was enough for me to catch the Africa bug, a common ailment of visitors who develop an intense lifelong affection. A few days after graduation from college, I rushed back to Zimbabwe. I volunteered for a local nonprofit that was raising money from Scandinavia to help people in the eastern part of the country rebuild homes burned down by rebel incursions from across the border in Mozambique. By the time I arrived, however, the war in Mozambique was over and the attacks had subsided. In a foreshadowing of things to come, I learned that Africa is always changing.

After several months of diminishing work, my then-girlfriend—now my wife—and I decided to travel overland, first to Cape Town and to then wind our way north again toward East Africa. The next eight months included a harrowing sailboat trip around the Cape of Good Hope, hitchhiking in Zambia, a 52-hour train journey across Tanzania, and countless days on bone-jarring local buses. Eight months later, we’d traversed 11,000 miles in seven countries, ending up in the newly reopened Bwindi Impenetrable Forest of southwestern Uganda. The Africa bug was, by then, a chronic condition.

The obvious next step was a career working on, and in, the continent. I’ve since been to 22 African countries and worked on the region’s issues at think tanks, universities, the World Bank, and inside the U.S. government. I wrote a book on African stock markets (there are 21!) and published a jargon-free primer on African development to try to attract even more students to study the region. Last year, I took my kids on a trip to South Africa and Namibia, which included an emotional reunion with the now-grown children of my Zimbabwean host family. And I can see the bright early glimmer of the Africa bug in my own children.

Even as my connection to the continent has deepened over the years, I’ve faced a constant barrage of skepticism. Most Americans have viewed Africa through the lens of LiveAid or Black Hawk Down or the altruistic whims of Madonna. American media, when they cover the region at all, report largely on war or disaster. The Economist cover in 2000 dubbed it “The Hopeless Continent,” with a photo of a grinning, heavily armed soldier. (Robert Kaplan’s famous “The Coming Anarchy” even predicted that West African warlords were omens for a global dystopian future.) Africa was supposedly a place to avoid or, at best, an oddity to pity.

I even encountered some of these same sentiments within the U.S. government. When I had the great fortune to serve at the State Department, I found many hard-working, dedicated people who recognized that Africa was evolving and rising in significance. But most officials didn’t yet see it. Diplomatic relations with African countries were frequently pushed to the margins and focused on low-priority, feel-good issues—humanitarian response, wildlife protection, food aid—that fit with the popular image. The U.S. clearly cared about national security in the Middle East and trade with Asia. But for Africa, the goal was to keep pesky problems off the president’s desk.

Whether at college, in a business meeting, in the newspapers, or in the halls of government, I heard similar questions: “Isn’t Africa a basket case? Isn’t it dangerous? Aren’t the tribes just fighting each other? Why don’t you work on another region with better opportunities?”

Yet even as the doubts have been relentless, another trend I’ve witnessed firsthand is that Africa will surprise you by changing in unexpected ways. For most African countries, the past two decades have been boom time. Rwanda and Ethiopia, symbols in the past of death and mayhem, are now among the fastest-growing economies in the world. Nigeria, once synonymous with corruption and waste, is now one of the most sought-after destinations for investors. I’ve watched as American companies have gone from ignoring African markets to hungrily hunting for projects. Business outlets now cover African investment deals just like any other region. The Economist even repented with another cover in December 2011 declaring “Africa Rising.”

While economic trends are generally looking up, there are also worrying new security threats—such as violent jihadist cells, international criminal cartels, or the latest outbreak of Ebola—that emanate from Africa. And my beloved Zimbabwe has sunk from a promising beacon into an abyss of greed and dictatorship.

The confluence of these shifting dynamics means Africa is finally moving from the negligible to the normal within U.S. foreign policy. President Obama hosted the first-ever summit of nearly 50 African leaders in Washington, D.C., last month to promote investment and security cooperation.

Mainstream American popular culture seems to be embracing African artists too. Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o and the award-winning author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie are becoming household names and bringing contemporary African influences to wider audiences.

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The new questions I am asked lately are “How can I invest? What’s the best place to visit? Where can I read more? Aren’t you glad that you chose to work on Africa?”

All of these trends converged for my novel, too. A few weeks after finishing my book, Mali experienced a real coup, and Islamist extremists overran the northern half of the country. I had just sent the manuscript to an agent who, it turned out, had been watching television reports about the unfolding events. He believed American audiences were ready for a thriller set in Africa. Three weeks later he sold my book and a sequel to G.P. Putnam’s Sons, the publisher of Tom Clancy and Clive Cussler. The sequel is about a stolen election in (where else?) Zimbabwe and will be released next year.

Across business, foreign policy, and popular culture, more Americans are discovering Africa and catching the bug. I hope that, in some small way, by sharing my passion for the continent, the region can be even more accessible—that Africa will, finally, be considered mainstream.