Jeffrey Gettleman has to be one of the luckiest men alive.
Born and raised in a comfortable Chicago suburb, Gettleman, now 45, has fulfilled his teenage dream of living in Africa.
For the past 11 years, he’s held the dream job of East Africa bureau chief for the New York Times, an action-packed posting for what is arguably the world’s most influential newspaper. He lives with the woman of his dreams and their two young sons in Nairobi, a city he loves.
Most of all, Gettleman is lucky to even be alive.
As he recounts in “Love, Africa,” his newly published “Memoir of Romance, War and Survival,” the award-winning journalist has had more than a few close encounters with death.
In his freewheeling youth, Gettleman nearly fell from a chute of loose rocks high on Kilimanjaro, which he was climbing without a permit while wearing athletic socks as gloves.
Then, after evading Tanzanian authorities and crossing into Kenya, he was flattened in Uhuru Park by muggers who stole all his money and US passport.
In his no-less-risk-riddled journalistic career, Gettleman was abducted by insurgents in Iraq, brutalised by Ethiopian soldiers, threatened at gunpoint by warlords in Somalia and Congo, and sickened for months by a rare strain of malaria.
“You have to be reckless to do this job,” Gettleman acknowledges near the end of his harrowing and absorbing book.
“Love, Africa” is centred squarely on the personal and professional escapades of the author. He tells readers a lot – perhaps too much – about his serial trysting whilst single, the anger these amorous adventures stirred in his wife-to-be and his ensuing self-hatred and gnawing guilt.
But Gettleman does make space in the book’s 325 pages for some provocative observations about the chaotic countries he covers for the Times.
And despite the joy and beauty he finds in Kenya – which he views as a sanctuary in a violent region – Gettleman is candidly critical about the corruption, inequality and tribalist politics of a country he labels an “ethnocracy.”
The book is just as critical of aspects of US policy in Africa.
“When it comes to Somalia,” Gettleman writes, “my government is dangerously stupid.”
Reporting from Somalia in 2006, he came to reject the State Department’s view of al-Shabaab as an “African Taliban.”
While the Somali Islamists did share some ideological traits with the Afghan insurgents, al-Shabaab brought order to the formerly anarchic streets of Mogadishu and won the respect of many Somalis – especially in comparison to the “geriatric warlords” who made up the country’s government at that time.
The US was wrong to encourage and abet Ethiopia’s invasion of Somalia, Gettleman argues, pointing to Shabaab’s subsequent guerrilla war of resistance that returned the country to bloody disorder.
But he also refrains from romanticising the rebels. Initially “a well-disciplined militia,” Shabaab had, by the time of the Westgate slaughter, “morphed into a terrorist group of some of the world’s most accomplished killers,” the Times man writes.
Gettleman also accuses the US government of remaining “lamely quiet” as Ethiopia, a strategic ally, carried out violent repression of dissenters.
He and his wife, Courtenay, then a Times video journalist, got a direct dose of Ethiopian authorities’ abusiveness when they and another reporter were held incommunicado in life-threatening conditions after travelling with a rebel group in the country’s Ogaden region.
The election of Barack Obama in 2008 touched off emotional celebrations and high expectations in Kenya and many other African countries but, in Gettleman’s view, did not alter the US approach to Africa.
“Obama’s policies in this part of the world were simply continuations of what came before – drones, mercenaries, sanctions and Seal Team 6,” he writes, referring to a US Special Forces unit.
Kenya’s leaders fare no more favourably under Gettleman’s scrutiny. The 2007 election, he finds, was “a fraud” involving “massive rigging.” Protests against Mwai Kibaki’s victory took the form of tribal killing sprees, which were met by retaliatory pogroms on the part of the president’s ethnic allies, Gettleman relates.
The post-election violence arose primarily, in his estimation, from an existential factor: “Kenya had failed to build a nation.” Those carrying out or urging on the ethnic bloodletting had no “sense of Kenyaness.”
Gettleman’s reporting on East Africa has focused, he reflects, on civil wars and their attendant atrocities.
“I had gotten pretty good at bleak and troubling. I wasn’t so strong on progress, and now, finally, it was all around me,” he observes, specifically in regard to Nairobi in recent years. The Kenyan capital “was sprouting new buildings, new stores, new bridges and new malls in every part of town. It was as if someone had sprinkled water over the urban area and a whole new city had popped up.”
More than a decade is an unusually long period for the New York Times to leave a foreign correspondent in place.
The day may come – soon – when his editors insist he must move on. “I’m torn by opposing impulses,” Gettleman admits. “Part of me wants to look up and see a new skyline, to experience more of our fast-changing world. Part of me never wants to leave.”
The greatest strength of “Love, Africa” – in addition to its author’s seductive style – is his ability to demonstrate to US readers why he never wants to leave Africa in general and Kenya in particular.