Stepping off the plane in Zimbabwe a quarter century ago was a huge shock. A college student on my very first visit to Africa, I was surprised how familiar everything felt.
Like most Americans, my image of the continent had been formed by disaster news, flies-on-the–eyes charity commercials and wildlife documentaries. Instead, I found an energetic-if-ordinary place. My welcoming host family of two teachers, four children and several adopted cousins aspired for good schools, well-paying jobs and a better life. The Zimbabweans I got to know had remarkably similar hopes, dreams and challenges as did my family and neighbors back home.
The skyline of the capital Harare even looked an awful lot like my hometown of Rochester, New York. The downtown was a modest cluster of weathered high-rise office buildings and tree-lined avenues, surrounded by sprawling suburbs of around a million people.
That one semester abroad left me wanting more. I returned after graduation to volunteer and backpack throughout southern and eastern Africa. I’ve now been to two dozen African countries and have been involved with the region as a professor, author and policymaker.
Over the years, what always struck me was the vast chasm between the dynamism and optimism that I witnessed in Africa versus the popular notion of a place stuck in war and famine. It was thus heartening to see this image gap begin to close in recent years.
Buoyed by booming economies and growing confidence, Africa-as-disaster was being quickly replaced by Africa-as-opportunity. Instead of quizzical looks when I told people what I did for a living, I began to get serious questions about the best destinations to visit or where to invest.
Until Ebola. The outbreak has terrified Americans and thrust the continent to the top of the news cycle, reviving the old idea of Africa as a primordial catastrophe, best kept at bay.
Yes, Ebola is a real threat to Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. Americans should do all they can to help these countries contain the virus and we must take reasonable measures to protect ourselves. But Ebola should be put into perspective: The virus is affecting a relatively small number of people in a very small number of countries. In the United States, we’ve had a total of four cases and one death. Influenza, by comparison, kills an average of 23,000 Americans every year.
We shouldn’t allow irrational fears of a virus distort the real reason that Africans and Americans are closer than ever: We share growing interests.
First of all, we have business to do. Cities like Dakar, Nairobi, Lagos and Johannesburg are already major cosmopolitan centers of culture and commerce. One of my first projects in the 1990s was investigating the rise of stock markets in Africa. (I even invested myself and did quite well!). Today, there are 22 stock exchanges on the continent attracting great interest from American investors.
The U.S. business community is taking note too. When President Obama hosted nearly 50 African heads of state in Washington, D.C., this summer, the top agenda item was private investment. Companies like IBM, General Electric, Walmart and Coca-Cola announced more than $14 billion in new investments in Africa’s emerging markets. These brand names are excited because the economies of Nigeria, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Senegal and many other countries are thriving. (Sadly, my beloved Zimbabwe is an exception, saddled with a dictator who keeps that country stuck in the past.)
Today, millions of African families are making a remarkable transition similar to the changes that Americans experienced in the 1930s and ’40s: They’re buying their first refrigerator, their first television, their first family car. The emergence from poverty to the bottom rungs of the middle class is unleashing massive consumer demand and, for the first time, creating tremendous new wealth.
Shared security is another powerful force pulling Americans and Africans together. During my time as the State Department’s top diplomat for West Africa, I saw firsthand how many of the national security threats we now face — terrorism, international criminal cartels, diseases that cross national borders — require that we work much more closely with our African allies. The thwarted 2009 Christmas bomber on Northwest flight 253 from Amsterdam to Detroit was from Nigeria. In 2012, Al-Qaeda-linked extremists took over northern Mali, prompting a French military invasion and heightened American involvement in the Sahara Desert. Last year, Al-Shabab launched a bloody terrorist assault on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
These attacks have sharpened U.S. attention on these new mutual security threats. Our military now has a fully-fledged Africa Command to manage the increase in counterterrorism operations , a naval base in the Horn of Africa, and a growing fleet of unmanned drones in the region.
Social media is bringing us together too. I connect with my host family, a quarter century later, via Facebook. Regular Americans are feeling more connected to the continent through clicktivism: #Kony2012 rallied millions of people to call for the capture or killing of a Ugandan warlord. #BringBackOurGirls captured the world’s horror at the kidnapping of nearly 300 Nigerian girls last April. These incidents may be fleeting, but they can have real effect on policy; both of these twitter campaigns created public pressure that led President Obama to deploy Special Forces.
American culture is embracing Africa too. My longtime affection for Zimbabwean pop music and Burkinabe films is less of an outlier now that artists like Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Oscar-winning Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong’o have gone mainstream. In 2011, when I finished writing my novel about an American diplomat in Mali, I was told Africa wasn’t yet commercial; now, there are at least half-a-dozen contemporary thrillers set in the region.
Deeper economic, security, and cultural ties make it harder and harder to view the continent through the tragedy-only lens. Once Ebola is contained and the news cycle moves on, more Americans will come to experience Africa and come to know what I and the growing legions of Africa-philes have learned: Africa is a source of progress, beauty and life.
Todd Moss, chief operating officer and senior fellow at the Center for Global Development is a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs. His novel, The Golden Hour, a thriller about an American diplomat during a coup in Mali, was published in September.