By Keren Weitzberg
Africa has often served as a laboratory of self-discovery for privileged outsiders. Since the era of colonial adventurers, as Nadifa Mohamed notes, the continent has been a site “for dreams and nightmares,” a foil and mirror for many a Western traveler.
This is the tradition/trap into which Jeffrey Gettleman falls. Gettleman, a Pulitzer-prize-winning journalist known for his lurid coverage of war, was until recently the East Africa correspondent for The New York Times. His journey from middle-class suburbia to the halls of one of the country’s most prestigious papers is detailed in his newly published memoir: Love, Africa.
Gettleman’s first forays into Africa are as a young undergraduate, when he visits the late photojournalist Dan Eldon, who becomes a friend and older-brother figure. Together, they drive from Nairobi to the Malawi/Mozambique border on a mission to aid refugees. One can forgive a sheltered young American for romanticizing a part of the world that has been so profoundly misrepresented in the U.S. (He describes East Africa as “visceral,” real, the people inexplicably happy despite their poverty.) Yet that same adolescent voice carries throughout the book. Gettleman may experience interpersonal growth as he ages (he stops cheating, settles down, starts a family). But his intellectual growth (and his understanding of the continent he claims to love) feel profoundly stunted.
The first half of the book is devoted to the path that brings Gettleman back to East Africa as a seasoned reporter. He begins his journalism career at a small paper, the St. Petersburg Times, in the working-class town of Brooksville in Central Florida. He views the locals much as he sees East Africans. He is friendly and sympathetic, but his perceptions are also tinged with a kind of liberal, middle-class condescension. After a big scoop that helps convict a child-murderer, Gettleman lands a job as a correspondent for the LA Times and later a coveted position at The New York Times. He does stints in Afghanistan and Iraq, where he loses track of how many bombings he has covered. A theme emerges: Gettleman becomes the journalistic equivalent of an ambulance chaser, following the stories with the most thrill and bloodshed and also the biggest pay-off.
His narrative is replete with drama and machismo: flings with local women in Florida; a brief romance with a colleague; a kidnapping in Iraq; fights and make-up sessions with his then-girlfriend/now-wife, Courtenay. (His fraught but intense relationship with Courtenay serves, throughout the memoir, as a highly gendered metaphor for his relationship with Africa). His romantic escapades and trials feel trivial against the background of war and violence.
Finally, he lands his dream job: Times correspondent for the East Africa desk. In the second half of the book, Gettleman relies on many of the same tired, recycled tropes that appear in his reporting for the NYT. Modernity vs. tradition. Ethnic conflict. Malthusian concerns with overgrazing and population growth. Death, especially of the exotic variety.
At times, one gets glimpses of the reporter Gettleman could have been. He is critical of American interventionism, citing examples of US blundering and criminal behavior in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Somalia. His views of al-Shabaab (when it was part of the Islamic Courts Union and enjoyed popular support) are surprisingly nuanced. And, given his track record for reporting in conflict zones, one can hardly accuse him of being an “armchair journalist.” Though in often hackneyed and self-affirming ways, Gettleman acknowledges the privilege he enjoys, the inter-personal and professional mistakes he has made, as well as the socio-economic disparities that enable his very career and lifestyle in Nairobi.
Yet reckoning with his guilt and reciting the critiques he perhaps anticipates does not seem to lead to more serious reflection on his journalistic practice. Africa remains a sounding board, a site for self-discovery. Passionate about the region, Gettleman is capable of a great deal of sympathy and admiration for the people he interacts with and interviews. But rarely do Africans appear in his memoir as equals.
Under different circumstances, Gettleman might have been a better, more responsible reporter. If only he had received the right editorial guidance from the NYT. If only he had freed himself from the pressures of an industry intent on chasing blood and mayhem, willing to apply different standards of ethics and quality to its coverage of Africa. If only he had seriously engaged with the many excellent reporters and analysts from East Africa, such as Abdullahi Boru, Charles Onyango-Obbo, and Murithi Mutiga, to name only a few. (African journalists are conspicuously absent from his memoir).
But it is likely that a more self-aware, self-critical version of Gettleman would not have come to occupy such a plum position within the hallowed halls of journalism. Gettleman is a great story teller. His prose is light and engaging. Handsome and photogenic, he is able to tell seductively simple stories about a continent that seems so overwhelming to most Americans. There will always be an audience for this type of work.
Which brings us to the question of professional ethics. To be clear, academia (my own field) is riddled with similar moral and political quandaries as journalism. How one should best negotiate power dynamics is not always obvious. With a platform like The New York Times, however, the stakes feel much higher. Unfortunately, Gettlemen reduces these dilemmas to a base choice. Before he leaves for his position in Nairobi, a Times editor cautions Gettleman to “not get too ooga-booga out there.” He is given contrary advice from another veteran reporter: “Don’t forget the ooga-booga. It’s what makes Africa Africa.” Surely there are better ways to understand the moral ambiguities of one’s profession than to view it (in his words) as an “ooga-booga tug-of-war.”
To be fair, Gettleman also grapples more sincerely with the stakes of his profession. He justifies his lurid choice of subject matter by arguing that “sinking time into a lighter story” would have been irresponsible for a Times reporter. “A story on our pages,” he writes, “really does have the power to put pressure on governments to adjust their policies or the United Nations to send in more peacekeepers…or a nonprofit to divert more of its resources to a specific area of need.” To some extent, this may be true. And there is certainly an argument to be made for “bearing witness” to atrocities and human rights abuses. Yet there are also obvious limits to such an approach. Especially when poorly contextualized and undertheorized, his style of reporting becomes parasitic, doing more to feed into public fantasies of Africa than to encourage any kind of meaningful intervention.
Gettleman, after all, is no mere observer. In reporting on conflicts, he also inserts himself into them. His boldness and naiveté sometimes work to his subjects’ benefit. In Afghanistan, he helps rescue a young Taliban solider being tortured by American allies (though, as he notes, the implications of publically fundraising to pay ransom are far from clear). At other times, by blundering into conflicts whose scope he does not fully comprehend, he leaves behind a more damaging trail. In Ethiopia, he is arrested by soldiers who confiscate his notebook. His sloppy note-taking, by his own admission, appears to lead them to the whereabouts of the Ogaden rebels he had earlier befriended.
What emerges is a tale of a very storied life and gilded career. But it is far from clear how Gettleman remains accountable to the people he is representing.
Since the publication of his memoir, Gettleman has stepped down from the East Africa desk. One can only hope that “the paper of record”—which has lagged behind a number of African newspapers in its coverage of the region—will take their responsibilities for reporting on East Africa more seriously.