Thursday, November 19, 2015

A Long Strange Trip

Stanley - Thursday

A couple of months ago, Pat and Gary of the wonderful Once Upon A Crime bookstore in Minneapolis suggested that I attend an event by a writer whose name was Todd Moss.  I'd never heard of him, but Gary said that Todd wrote about Africa and that I'd enjoy his books.  So, of course, I attended.

At the event, I was able to spend some time talking one-on-one with Todd, which I thoroughly enjoyed.  I learned that he had spent a lot of time wandering around Africa when he was young and was left with a passion for it.  What was particularly interesting was that Todd had been with the State Department on the Africa Desk.  So I had many questions for him, not only about his experiences, but also about where he thought the continent was heading.

Needless to say, Todd's books are about Africa.  Golden Hour (reprint, July 2015) is set in Mali, and Minute Zero (September 2015) in Zimbabwe.  Both feature Judd Ryker, a State Department Crisis manager.

Kirkus gave Golden Hour a starred review, saying “Outstanding debut . . . An intriguing cast of morally dubious characters, an intricately constructed plot, and a tantalizing cliffhanger make this thriller a page-turner of the highest order.”

These two books give an intriguing insight into international politics and a feel for a different side of Africa from the Detective Kubu or Mma Ramotswe series.

Please welcome Todd Moss.

My long strange trip that starts and ends in Zimbabwe

Twenty five years ago, I was a dumb college kid who thought he was going on an exotic adventure. I was indeed starting a journey, but not the one I expected.

Stepping off the British Airways flight onto the tarmac at Harare International Airport in Zimbabwe’s capital, I didn’t know what to expect on my semester abroad. The only Africa I knew was from reading books and watching wildlife documentaries and aid appeals on television. For all I knew, it was another planet.

The first shock was that it was chilly. Yes, August is winter in southern Africa and it can get cold.  When I arrived in the city’s downtown, I was surprised to find a modest urban skyline with tall modern buildings. It looked a hell of a lot like the downtown of Rochester, New York where I grew up.

The unexpected familiarity didn’t end there. I lived with a warm host family of two teachers and four children in a three bedroom single story house in the middle class suburb of Cranborne Park. Each night over dinner we talked about school, traffic, local sports, what was on TV, all the same stuff as back home.  The unanticipated ease of living in southern Africa helped me to adjust quickly—and to fall in love with a region that has become an integral part of my life ever since.

I returned to college at Tufts University in Boston thoroughly hooked. A few days after graduation, I was back on a plane to Zimbabwe where I volunteered for a few months, then with my girlfriend Donna spent the better part of a year traveling from South Africa to Uganda by any and all means. We worked on a yacht from Cape Town to Port Elizabeth, hitchhiked from Harare to Lusaka, took a 52-hour train across Tanzania and long bumpy bus rides through Kenya’s Rift Valley. We crossed the equator sitting on a pile of dried fish in an open canoe on Lake Victoria, days after recovering from an ugly bout of malaria. Somali bandits had attacked a road in northern Kenya, so we were forced to fly in an 8-seater from Malindi to Lamu. While this trip gave nightmares to our parents back in America, it also sealed my bond with the continent.

Tanzania, 1993
Washington D.C., 2008

Fast forward to March 2008. By then, I’d finished grad school, moved London-DC-London-DC, married Donna, had three kids, and was living happily in Maryland. Through a series of accidents (that begin with a minor role in a $30 billion debt deal with Nigeria), I found myself serving in the State Department as Condoleezza Rice’s deputy assistant secretary for Africa. I’d been working mainly on economic issues in West Africa, but this month Zimbabwe was holding an historic election. The country where I got my start in Africa was poised for a democratic revolution. Robert Mugabe who had been in power already for 28 years but was facing a tough challenge from a labor leader, Morgan Tsvangirai.

The U.S. Government had taken a modest interest in Zimbabwe and was hoping for a good election. As the human rights conditions worsened, relations with Mugabe had soured and the country was under sanctions (backed by legislation sponsored by then Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton and Joseph Biden). The State Department had invested in supporting the vote count and our embassy was active in watching for signs of trouble. As Zimbabweans voted, we waited anxiously in Washington DC for a result that confirmed what private polling was already telling us:  Tsvangirai won. 

But the hours of waiting for the official results turned to days. Nothing was announced. As catalogued by the Washington Post, Mugabe huddled with his senior military leaders and was preparing to admit defeat and flee the country. But his Generals had another idea:  instead of quitting, let them crush the opposition so Mugabe can win in a second round vote. That’s exactly what happened.  The army attacked villages, thousands of homes were burnt down, hundreds of thousands of civilians displaced, and more than eighty people killed. (Peter Godwin’s The Fear provides the gruesome details). Mugabe then “won” 85% of the next round after chasing Tsvangirai out of the race and fleeing into the Dutch embassy for refuge. Zimbabwe’s moment of democratic triumph had turned into a nightmare. Seven years later, Mugabe is still president.

That incident, watching a country I love come so close to a momentous transition only to see it slip away, has stuck with me. I wondered what, if anything, might the U.S Government have done that could have altered Zimbabwe’s history.  Was there a phone call that could have resulted in a different outcome? A quiet delivery of a suitcase of cash?  A well-placed threat?

Now jump to 2013. I’d left government and wrote my first novel, The Golden Hour, a thriller about a crisis manager in the State Department who gets his big chance when there is a coup d’état in West Africa. The plot was inspired by a real coup in Mauritania, but I set the story in Mali since Timbuktu is well known while no one has ever heard of Nouakchott. When my publisher asked for another book I said yes. But before I had even set the phone down, I knew the sequel would be about an American diplomat trying to work behind the scenes as an election is falling apart in my beloved Zimbabwe. Minute Zero was born.


  1. Welcome, Todd. The aftermath of that election was going on the first time I was traveled to that area of Africa. Though we had planned to visit Zimbabwe, it turned out to be seriously ill-advised. So we went to Zambia, where refugees were pouring in to escape the strife. Such a sad story. I would go on chatting here, but I have a couple of your books to go and buy. Come back again.

  2. Thanks Annamaria. Yes, sad story and unfortunately ongoing.

  3. Well told, Todd, and thanks for the column! Now I have to check out your books. Sigh, the things I have to do...

  4. Do you think that Boko Haram (sp?) will spread throughout Africa?

  5. You do Rochester proud, Todd! Hopefully, we'll meet someday and can chat about who I'm willing to bet are mutual acquaintances in Nigeria.

    1. Thanks. I just spoke at the Rochester JCC book festival last weekend. Always fun (and a little weird) to be back home.

  6. It's already spreading into Nigeria's neighbors but I highly doubt it'll go much further. We will almost certainly see more Al-Qaeda copycats however. Mali is only the beginning I'm afraid. I hope the US stays engaged but in a way that doesn't make things worse.

  7. This is very educational content and written well for a change. It's nice to see that some people still understand how to write a quality post.