Love Africa:A Memoir of Romance, War and Survival
While the title is accurate for the story presented, one might be forgiven for expecting something a little lighter and more idyllic. And an author in his mid-40s writing a memoir might seem a little premature, but that is not the case given the intensity of the events that became his job and life.
Jeffrey Gettleman is the foreign correspondent for the New York Times in East Africa, a job and posting he wanted since he visited that part of the world when he was about 20. Maybe somewhat unusually he brings to the job a fluency in Swahili, the primary language of East Africa. The work he put into learning the language in youth reflects his intense interest in being there. However, the job posting, we learn, is more about seniority with the paper than specific personal qualifications or interest.
The posting for the dozen or so countries he covers is Nairobi and despite robbery and setbacks living there, his passion seems undiminished
Refreshing, while Gettleman is the 'hero' of his story, he is surprisingly candid about his flaws. And there are no excuses or rationalizations about how these are integral to who he is and why he can be good at his job. Along with the sins, we are given a window on his contriteness.
Early we learn the boy who grew up in Evanston, Illinois (northern suburb of Chicago), was adventurous, past caper and encroaching on the larcenous. He and his friends had a part time house painting company supplied by theft from other similar companies. Later he admits to sneaking on and hiking up Mt. Kilimanjaro avoiding fees and permit. He reflected on it as the among the “stupidest and most reckless things” he ever did.
As one would expect from such a writer, Gettleman does a masterful job telling the story with some surprising turns of phrase where he does, and says he is, rebelling against journalistic constraints. He is a master at colourfully describing a scene or situation. Obviously a rebellion against 'newspaperese'. On taking the Africa posting he was told not to be too “ooga booga”. Essentially that means not too graphic. So “1,000s of people hacked to death” should be rendered “1,000s of people killed”.
The book is an easy and compelling read. Many of his metaphors seem his own construction: “gauze of my dream” and “ringed by a moat of beggars”, “clock tower wearing a toupee of fresh snowflakes”.
His high school sweetheart ultimately stays with him through more than 20 years of professional and personal trials whereby she is victimized by Gettleman's undisciplined behaviour, to become his wife and mother of two children. The author does not skimp on praise for her, nor from what we read, should he.
He starts his foreign experience immersion with a trip around the world as a young person, a venture I can personally identify with. I too remember children gently stroking my arm intrigued by the existence of hair. I can identify with many of his observations. Along with observations, he expresses well his reflections on his own personal maturation.
He makes an interesting comment about post colonialism. Many of the African countries are not bordered by mountains, rivers and other natural boundaries or traditional tribal territories, but created on artificial, often straight line colonial borders. They had the misfortune to gain independence during the cold war when sending weapons and manipulating leadership, instead of fostering infrastructure was the way powers dealt with them.
He is critical of almost every aspect of and initiative of U.S. foreign affairs over the 25 years this book encompasses. Of Afghanistan he asks,“How many other people had the U.S. government and its Baba Johns stabbed in the back”
He speaks of the horn of Africa, (Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea) as a strategic intersection of Africa/Arabia, white/black, Christianity/Islam, Red Sea/Indian Ocean that superpowers fight over.
Now back to the author. A little nugget of his wisdom in making a decision... try to take the one that will involve the least regret.
He describes his university studies which included American Indian literature, Indonesian, Swahili, Kant, B&W photography and Japanese history as “a map to nowhere”. One could argue this eclectic mix is the right kind of preparation for journalism, especially foreign correspondent.
With his trip around the world over, he took an internship with Save the Children in Africa. From there he started journalism on the crime and violence beat of a small town Florida newspaper.
At one point, he details a litany of horrific acts in that Florida town of 7,000 and concludes with “and people say Africa is violent”.
And an interesting observation of the career as “getting people to tell me things they shouldn't”. And the bookend from my days in the field, I once heard a similar comment from a district attorney who said “I am not often misquoted, but often quoted saying things I wish I hadn't said.”
And a little life philosophy: “you should constantly integrate adventure and thrills into whatever you're doing, keep steadily feeding those urges with little bites, here and there, but always, so they don't become so voracious they end up devouring you.”
He speaks of his time covering the war in Afghanistan as the only country experience that ever competed with East Africa for his love. He calls curiosity and empathy the two essential qualities of a journalist.
While he regularly comments on the societies he is dealing with, his stories are overwhelmingly about war and violence. This must be the news market, even for the dignified New York Times that resists 'ooga booga'.
And another insight into media “newspapers always say they don't like stereotypes, but it is stereotypes we eagerly colour in all the time because it is easy.”
He uses well known land expanses to demonstrate how large Africa is. The continent could contain the lower U.S. 48 states, China, Japan, India and Europe. We don't generally appreciate this because of the mercator projection maps we were educated on. They exaggerate the size of land masses to the north and south of the equator and minimize those near it.
An interesting lesson he learns and relays is his part as a western resident in the local economy. His values prompted him not to follow the servile demanding patterns of colonialism. “But laying people off wasn't the answer__these jobs in our house supported a chain of relatives stretching from our front door to little green villages, hundreds of miles away.”
The name Kenya for the country derives from Mt. Kenya (one of Africa's three icy peaks) which in turn derives from “God's resting place”. It is a marvellous hike and those who trudge up Mt. Kilimanjaro (for its fame) miss something special if not visiting the huge rugged beauty of Mt. Kenya.
Gettleman describes the road leading west from Nairobi into the Rift Valley as one of the world's most spectacular.
He points out that Nairobi can be a dangerous city and has been since public safety began to crumble in the late 1970s. Danger is mostly at night or in certain areas. Somewhat ironically most of Kenya's neighbouring countries are both safer and poorer. Kenya “was more modern and more traditional” than so many other African countries. It is divided along race, class and tribe with mzungus (white people) being the most obvious.
As a state, with functioning institutions, Kenya has done better than most of Africa, but as a nation it continues to be highly fragmented and more dangerous than neighbouring Tanzania, which under its founding president, largely eliminated the negative tribal factions. The fragmentation was enhanced by occupational divisions and access to land introduced by the British. People vote tribal lines. Some of this is mitigated by the middle class which tends to identify with their professions.
He describes many countries of East Africa “rising” since about 2013, much of it fuelled by mineral- seeking Chinese infrastructure projects. Also helping are fast money moving technologies. On the negative side is the Chinese middle class's thirst for ivory.
And the impetus for those Somali pirates: “America's decision to green-light Ethiopia's invasion of Somalia and overthrow a popular, grassroots, and surprisingly effective Islamist administration led, over the next five years, to the explosion of chaos, high-seas piracy, terrorism spreading across East Africa, and ultimately the next Somali famine, in which more than 250,000 people died.” He says his pride in being American went from “boastful, to quietly assertive to dormant”.
And about war: “God's way of teaching Americans geography” . Reporters all have to take a side and go in with those forces and report from the one perspective. However, Gettleman occasionally gets to meet the leaders of the other side.
The Congo has the disadvantage of being the world's biggest mine with superpowers vying for the riches through a weak and corrupt government.
He admired the impulse of “people even if they have so little and so much stacked against them, usually helped one another.”