By NADIFA MOHAMED
JULY 3, 2017
A Memoir of Romance, War, and Survival
By Jeffrey Gettleman
352 pp. Harper/HarperCollins Publishers. $27.99.
A memoir is an opportunity for a writer to put his or her life on trial, but few follow through and condemn themselves too. Jeffrey Gettleman, this newspaper’s Pulitzer Prize-winning East Africa correspondent, fell in love with Africa while still a self-described frat boy; at Cornell he met his other great love, Courtenay, an alluring sorority girl. The twisted road that eventually allows him to unite these two conflicting passions takes the reader through a melodrama that squats uncomfortably between “Eat, Pray, Love” and “Heart of Darkness.”
Africa. That vast swell of nations, languages, landscapes and histories has always had a peculiar impact on foreigners, but Gettleman seems to have been hit harder than most. The continent is described as his “imaginary friend,” a place that his fraternity brothers cannot possibly understand: basically a high-five-happy Shangri-La where the people are poor but rarely resentful. It is a place where he felt “worshiped” during a summertime visit, and to which he hankers to return. Gettleman’s first job as a rookie journalist, though, is in Brooksville, Fla., and this setting, both familiar and unfamiliar to him, provides for the most vivid passages of the memoir, particularly his suspenseful description of an unintended confession by a child-murderer.
As he blasts what he acknowledges to be a charmed path through the world of American journalism, it is not long before he is sent abroad. In Afghanistan the affability of the locals threatens his love of East Africans. Gettleman is a man keen on physical contact, and handshakes and bear hugs from burly men come in thick and fast in the marketplaces and cafes of Mazar-i-Sharif. He treks to the Valley of the Caves and helps rescue a young Talib who had been kidnapped by Northern Alliance militiamen. In Baghdad he has an on-the-job affair with a female photographer whose black abaya slips to the floor in a James Bond-esque flourish. During the day they chase stories, and he coins the term “man-slaw” to describe the clumps of fat and flesh left behind in the debris of suicide attacks and car bombs. The whole memoir is peppered with terms — “dork,” “yo mama” — that feel unnecessarily juvenile and jar with the gravity of his subjects.
Gettleman is admirably honest about his selfishness and naïveté: He is a passenger involved in a hit-and-run accident in which an Ethiopian soldier dies but he quickly “brushed that away”; he is arrested with a notebook that could expose Ogadeni rebels to torture and assassination; he cheats multiple times on Courtenay. The long-distance romance is wrung of all drama, every breakup and row described in minute detail. Eventually, he wins both girl and continent, and is given the plum job title he has worked so long for: East Africa bureau chief for The New York Times.
Before Gettleman leaves New York, conversations with one of his editors and with an old Africa hand present him with the question of to “ooga-booga” or not to “ooga-booga”? How free should he be with the stereotypes that surround Africa, the stereotypes that he knows Binyavanga Wainaina and Chinua Achebe have notably warned against? He initially avoids the cliché-ridden approach of older correspondents: His first big story is about the trial of Thomas Patrick Gilbert Cholmondely, a white Kenyan landowner who had killed two black men on his 50,000-acre estate. In this memoir, though, Gettleman slips into the ooga-booga quicksand. Mogadishu — or “Mog,” as he calls it — is a word that “summoned up all the nastiness Africa could quite possibly produce.” When it comes to Mogadishu, it’s personal; it is the city where his friend, Dan Eldon — a young photojournalist whom Gettleman credits with igniting his love of East Africa — was killed. Eldon’s ghost haunts this book, and in taking on Mogadishu, Somalia, Al Shabab and American meddling, Gettleman is intent on putting that ghost to rest.
I have perceived in many works on Somalia by Western journalists some of the wild-eyed joy you see in photos of youths running with the bulls in Pamplona — a macho thrill that life there is supposed to be short and cheap, an almost sensual delight in, say, the “dark, unblinking eyes” and “chains of bullets.” “Love, Africa” follows in that tradition, but it does a useful thing too: It shows just how impervious that gaze is to the work of African writers, and how the call of the tribe — the media tribe — cuts through whatever good intentions are put before it.
By the end of the memoir, ensconced in comfort in Nairobi, Gettleman strikes a conflicted figure. He is still in love with Africa, though the postelection violence in Kenya as well as the Westgate Mall attack by Al Shabab have torn away some of his illusions. Both he and Courtenay have accepted the wisdom of their predecessors, ruefully recalling what a Zimbabwean farmer told them once at a truck stop near the South African border: “These people can survive on very little. They’re not like us whites. They don’t need a hamburger or an apple. They’ll be fine for a month with a slab of rancid donkey meat.”
After spending years living in Africa, after questioning the inequality he sees around him, and after conversing with numerous politicians, activists and ordinary men and women, Gettleman allows the embittered white farmer to get in a parting shot, which he and his wife seem to take as brutal honesty. This unintentionally amusing scene fits what is a bewildering memoir. The whole narrative reminds me of those books written by colonial adventurers such as Sir Richard Burton, aimed at readers interested in Africa mainly as a site for their dreams and nightmares.
Correction: July 3, 2017
An earlier version of this review referred incorrectly to conversations that presented the New York Times correspondent Jeffrey Gettleman with the question of how free he should be with familiar African stereotypes in his reporting from the region. The book recounts two such conversations, both in New York before the author left for the continent. One was with an editor, the other with “a former Africa hand.” Neither conversation took place with “old Africa hands” in Nairobi.
Nadifa Mohamed is the author of “Black Mamba Boy” and “The Orchard of Lost Souls.”