“It’s easy to explain why you like something. But love? That’s tricky. That’s a story, not a sentence,” writes Jeffrey Gettleman, a foreign correspondent for the New York Times, in his first book, Love, Africa: A Memoir of Romance, War, and Survival. This is the story of two “obsessions”: a woman and a continent. As a young man, Gettleman travels to Africa for the first time and meets Courtenay, a fellow Cornell student. Both encounters shape the rest of his life. Now in his late forties, Gettleman has come to call Nairobi his home; and after many ups and downs, he and Courtenay married and started a family in Kenya.
In the early days, one of Gettleman’s friends and mentors, Dan Eldon, asks at a campfire in the Mikumi National Park: “You guys ever wonder what to do with a landscape like this? It’s, like, beautiful food you can eat; a beautiful woman you can kiss; but what are you going to do with a landscape this beautiful?” You can love it. If you are a journalist, you can also attempt to capture it in words. Gettleman credits Eldon for making “that all-important introduction: Jeff, World. World, Jeff.”
It is through his journeys to Africa and the people he encounters here that Gettleman decides to become a reporter and dreams of being a foreign correspondent in East Africa. “But writing is like travelling. Often you have to pass through a bunch of places you don’t want to visit in order to arrive where you do.” After interviewing the likes of Desmond Tutu and Salman Rushdie for a student newspaper as a graduate, Gettleman eventually cut his journalistic teeth in Brooksville, central Florida, at the St. Petersburg Times where he covered “small-town carnage, one-on-one war”. One of his big stories at the time was about the child molester and murderer, Willie Crain – “the ultimate depths of depravity”.
In 1999, Gettleman became a general assignment reporter for the Los Angeles Times. Soon after, he was writing from Afghanistan and the Middle East, and in 2002, he transferred to the New York Times – initially as a domestic correspondent, before he was sent to Iraq. It was only in 2006 that his Africa dream came true as he took over as chief of the East Africa bureau of the newspaper in Nairobi.
Gettleman won the Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting in 2012. Even if you don’t know his journalism, reading the memoir you will understand why. His writing is visceral; it is impossible to remain unaffected. He states: “There’s exactly one difference between an adventure and a tragedy: death.” Right from the tense opening pages of Love, Africa you know how tightly these two are intertwined, how high the stakes. The memoir exemplifies a hard lesson Gettleman learns – the one that contrasts a life wasted and a life lived: “Or maybe the lesson was simpler. It wasn’t about death. It was about life. It’s never long enough. So get it while you can.”
Gettleman is not the first mzungu to fall hook, line and sinker for this continent. Many have written about their experiences. What makes Love, Africa stand out among the diverse accounts is the vulnerability that Gettleman allows to underpin his writing. He constantly challenges, and accepts when necessary, his limitations as a journalist: “I didn’t have the capacity to absorb all that was being asked of me, nor the courage to tell these men who were putting their hand on my heart the truth. I wasn’t a conduit to a just world. I was simply a reporter.” But there is no doubt that he and others can make a difference, whether in small ways to individual lives they touch or on a grand scale when reporting leads to deeper awareness and changes in policy making. At one stage Gettleman notes: “if we could break Iraq, just imagine what we could do to a really poor place where few were watching.” He is fearless in his criticism, whether of his own or other governments – the right and the courage to do so should never be taken for granted.
There is no way of escaping helplessness in the face of the atrocities Gettleman has to cover as a reporter, and searching for the right way to do it is one of the most vital tasks. When writing, he finds himself having to fight editors for single words like “hacked” to express what he’d witnessed. But as he points out, “just because there was a million questions about what exactly you should do, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do anything.”
Some of his observations seem simple, but go to the heart of conflicts we hear about on the news or experience in our everyday. The following struck me in particular: “Elections are anxious in most Africa… They are not just a race. They are a test. The key questions is never who wins. It’s whether the loser accepts.” And this: “The only African countries that succeeded in overcoming this [colonial divisions] and building anything close to a national identity were those that took forceful steps to neutralize ethnicity or tribe (I use the terms interchangeably).”
Exploitation and betrayal mark our socio-political legacies. Gettleman’s greatest achievement in the book is to trace his own personal, intimate history of both against the background of the global story. His honesty is disarming as he recalls his path towards loyalty and integrity. It is strewn with the suffering of others, especially Courtenay. “I have few regrets in life,” he writes, “but here I wished I could redo everything. But I couldn’t, which left me simply hoping that that clumsy, hurtful time would slip deeper and deeper into a softly entombed past, like the tracks we left behind in the desert that the evening winds gently erased.” In the end, he is redeemed by the ancient truth: “This is all I need, my freedom and you. Take everything else from me. It doesn’t matter.”
Love, Africa: A Memoir of Romance, War, and Survival
by Jeffrey Gettleman
Edited version of this review was first published in the Cape Times on 24 November 2017.