Retelling an African adventure

Nini Panner, Reporter

Follow retired CESJDS history teacher Mike Connell in an adventure in Niger, a negotiation in the Ivory Coast, a meeting in Liberia and more in his new book, “Into Africa: Three Years in Sub-Saharan Africa at the End of the Cold War.” 

Connell’s new book includes personal stories from his time in different African countries and his research on the continent throughout his career. Connell worked in Africa for three years at the end of 1980’s with the United States Military. Although the book is structured around personal experiences, the main focus is to educate the reader on the value and history of Africa. 

“I took a journal that I kept when I was in Africa and turned it into a book,” Connell said. “The purpose was not only to tell people what I did in Africa but to teach people what it was like so people could understand the countries better. Africa is not a very well understood continent.”

Before his teaching career, Connell attended the United States Military Academy and served for 20 years in the Army. During this time, he worked as an intelligence officer in West Berlin, a commander in Arlington, Virginia, a policy worker at the Pentagon and a history professor at West Point. In the early 2000’s, he became a teacher so that he and his family could experience a more stable working environment.

Connell’s career at JDS provided practice in communicating information to students, which made it easier to target the book to a more diverse range of people with different degrees of African knowledge. 

“It’s really my experience at JDS [that] I taught at for almost 20 years that gave me the motivation to turn it into a book,” Connell revealed. 

One of the book’s main goals was to capture the essence of African culture. This includes the complex social expectations, political leadership and religious differences. 

He also credits the idea of a combined policy and personal story to JDS history department chair and longtime colleague, Mark Buckley.  The book changed to focus on the history and current events of Africa and Connell’s personal story. In their time together in the history department, Buckley viewed Connell as a leader. 

“I’ve learned from him how to approach things with a clear head. Even when things don’t seem to be going the way you want them to, he always had an incredible calm.… He navigated through things by being purposeful and holding to his values,” Buckley said. “We worked together for 18 years and I saw him live that every day. He was always the anchor.” 

Connell’s writing process was a combination of his conscious and subconscious working together. He wrote in the mornings for several hours and used the ideas in his dreams to add to the book the next day. 

Connell believes Africa is very important right now because of its impact on the global economy, the source of fatal pandemics and the risk of Islamic extremist groups. A key point, however, is the human aspect of his stories. According to Connell, Africans can be very “traditional” people, and he points out the welcoming and friendly culture he found throughout his time in many African countries. 

“There are a lot of positive characteristics about Africa that are underappreciated, and I would like to help combat some of the stereotypes about Africa being a place with a bunch of jungles and chaos,” Connell concludes. “It really is much more complex and interesting than that.”

To find out more about Connell and his book, visit his GoodReads or Amazon page.