The best novels set in Africa about journalists, diplomats, and spies

Keith B. Richburg Author Of Out of America: A Black Man Confronts Africa
By Keith B. Richburg

Who am I?

I’ve been a journalist since high school and I spent 33 years as a reporter for The Washington Post, mostly as a foreign correspondent based in Asia, Africa, and Paris. My book Out Of America chronicled my three years as a correspondent in Africa during some of its most tumultuous events, the Somalia intervention, and the Rwanda genocide. I’ve always thought a well-crafted novel often captures a place or a time better than nonfiction — books like The Quiet American about the Vietnam War, and The Year of Living Dangerously about Indonesia. I now teach a university course on The Role of the Journalist in Popular Fiction, Film and Comics.

I wrote...

Out of America: A Black Man Confronts Africa

By Keith B. Richburg,

Book cover of Out of America: A Black Man Confronts Africa

What is my book about?

Keith B. Richburg was an experienced and respected reporter who had paid his dues covering urban neighborhoods in Washington D.C. and won praise for his coverage of Southeast Asia. But nothing prepared him for the personal odyssey that he would embark upon when he was assigned to cover Africa. In this powerful book, Richburg takes the reader on an extraordinary journey that sweeps from Somalia to Rwanda to Zaire and finally to South Africa. He shows how he came to terms with the divide within himself: between his African racial heritage and his American cultural identity. Are these really my people? Am I truly an African-American?

The answer, Richburg finds, after much soul-searching, is that no, he is not an African, but an American first and foremost.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Rules of the Wild: A Novel of Africa

Why did I love this book?

Not many books, fiction or nonfiction, have accurately captured the crazy world of the 1990s expat community of Kenya — the journalists, diplomats, do-gooders, conservationists, backpackers, and erstwhile adventurers. But Francesca Marciano does so masterfully here. Set against the backdrop of the turmoil of the ‘90s, with the Somalia intervention, the civil war in Sudan, and the Rwandan genocide, Marciano takes a simple tried and true story of a woman torn between two lovers — one of them a jaded British newspaper correspondent — to paint a vivid portrait of contemporary Africa, its tragedies and boundless natural beauty, and the foreigner interlopers and descendants of white settlers who call it home. If the characters all ring true, it’s because they are taken from real life.

By Francesca Marciano,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Rules of the Wild as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In the vast space of East Africa lives a close-knit tribe of expatriates. They all meet at dinner parties; they share the same doctors and eat at the same restaurants; they sleep with each other and take the same drugs.

Set in contemporary Nairobi, Rules of the Wild is at once a sharp-eyed dissection of white society in modern Kenya and the moving story of a young woman, Esme, struggling to make sense of her place in Africa, and her feelings for the two men she loves - Adam, a second generation Kenyan who is the first to show her…

The Canal House

By Mark Lee,

Book cover of The Canal House

Why did I love this book?

Okay, this fine novel is only partially set in Africa, in Uganda, where intrepid fictional journalist Daniel McFarland treks into the jungles to find and interview the leader of a rebel group based on the Lords Resistance Army. Told from the vantage point of world-weary photographer Nicky Bettencourt, the action later shift to East Timor during the fight for independence against Indonesia. This novel comes as close as any to describe the real lives of foreign correspondents — the unnecessary risks, the loneliness of life lived constantly on the road. It’s beautifully written, a good read, and reeks of authenticity.

By Mark Lee,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Canal House as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Photojournalist Nicky Bettencourt thinks he's seen everything until he teams up with the legendary war correspondent Daniel McFarland. To Daniel, the story is everything; people come later. But after a plane crash nearly takes his life, Daniel begins to see the world in a different way. He falls in love with Julia Cadell, an idealistic British doctor, and together they find refuge at an old canal house in the center of London. Soon after, Nicky, Daniel, and Julia are called to East Timor, where the government has fled and the entire country is a war zone, and Daniel must decide…

Book cover of The Distance Between Stars

Why did I love this book?

This sleeper of a novel creates the fictional East African country of Umbika, with its charismatic strongman who everyone refers to as “His Excellency, the Life President”, in a thinly veiled resemblance to Malawi under the dictatorship of the late Hastings Banda. Small wonder for the comparison, since the author was a foreign service officer in Malawi before turning full-time to writing. The journalist in this fast-paced story is an outspoken African-American activist and columnist named Maurice Hightower, and the story revolves around the career American diplomat, Joe Kellerman, who gets the unwanted job of escorting Hightower around Umbika in the middle of an escalating civil war.

By Jeff Elzinga,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Distance Between Stars as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Distance between Stars is the story of two Americans divided by history and skin color. Joe Kellerman, white, is an accomplished diplomat who has spent his career solving difficult problems in sub-Saharan countries. Maurice Hightower, black, is a prize-winning but controversial journalist who has spent his life exposing injustice in the United States. During a fact-finding trip to an African country that is quickly sliding towards civil war, and where the U.S. government is accused of supporting the increasingly violent opposition, Hightower travels alone into the bush and then disappears. The dangerous assignment of finding the missing man and…

American Spy

By Lauren Wilkinson,

Book cover of American Spy

Why did I love this book?

This book is probably best known for making Barack Obama’s summer reading list. The story of a Black American woman working for the FBI who gets recruited by the CIA for a Cold War mission to befriend, and ultimately undermine, the revolutionary president of Burkina Faso is the type of historical fiction I love, a spy thriller based on true events and taken directly from the headlines of the 1980s. Wilkinson brilliantly weaves together a story of race, class, gender, identity, and above all patriotism and loyalty.

By Lauren Wilkinson,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked American Spy as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?



'A whole lot more than just a spy thriller, wrapping together the ties of family, of love and of country' BARACK OBAMA

'There has never been anything like it' MARLON JAMES (GQ)

'A compelling read' MAIL ON SUNDAY

'Pacy and very exciting' DAILY TELEGRAPH

What if your sense of duty required you to betray the man you love?

It's 1986, the heart of the Cold War. Marie Mitchell is an intelligence officer with the FBI. She's brilliant and talented, but she's also…

A Good Man in Africa

By William Boyd,

Book cover of A Good Man in Africa

Why did I love this book?

This laugh-out-loud story of a bumbling British diplomat, Morgan Leafy, in the fictitious African country of Kinjanja evokes the immediate British post-colonial with a dark wit and a sense for the absurd. The colonial expats depicted in the book are all thoroughly dislikable, but as Leafy gets mired deeper and deeper into problems, I found myself rooting for him to find a way out. His characterisation of the expats and the locals, and the hilarious interactions between them, seem searingly accurate, probably because Boyd grew up in Nigeria and Ghana, giving him rich material for his first novel.

By William Boyd,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A Good Man in Africa as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A funny first novel about the misadventures surrounding Morgan Leafy, a young, overweight, oversexed British diplomat in West Africa. The book won the 1981 Whitbread Literary Award and the 1982 Somerset Maugham Award.

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