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Review of Gettleman's memoir on Africa


I was asked by the blog, Critical Investigations into Humanitarianism in Africa, (CIHA) to write a review of Jeffrey Gettleman’s memoir, Love, Africa: A memoir of Romance, War and Survival, after ranting on Twitter about foreign correspondents who spend years in Africa, write books on the continent and somehow manage not to recount friendships with Africans as part of their experience. Such was the handling of Africa by Keith Richburg, formerly of the Washington Post, in Out of America: A Black Man Confronts Africa.

I reviewed Richburg's book almost 20 years ago, while studying for my MA, comparing it to Blaine Harden’s Dispatches from a Fragile Continent, which had been published five years earlier.  I promised to buy Gettleman’s book to read for myself whether this offense of non-African friendship had been committed. And so, here we are.

Like Gettleman, Richburg and Harden, I am a journalist; unlike them I am an African.  I chose to go into journalism because of my frustration with the portrayal of Africa in the Western media. Much of my career has been spent in international media organisations, covering Africa for a primarily African audience, because I was concerned about the stories we as Africans were telling and hearing about ourselves. I also naively believed that the problem with international portrayals of Africa and Africans was due to the lack of Africans working in international media. Twenty years down the line, I no longer believe this. Children and rape victims are identified if they are African; Africans are interviewed as victims, rarely as authorities unless they are corrupt or inept; and images of Africans in vulnerable states will almost certainly be intrusive when compared to images of Westerners in similar states of vulnerability. Westerners will parachute into Africa and become ‘Africa hands’ (alleged experts) but no African journalist who has lived in the West will ever be seen as a credible authority on the West. African journalists are either assumed to be not good enough, their accents too strong to be understood by international audiences or they are deemed to be too emotionally attached to parochial subjects that international audiences care little about.

Gettleman caught what he tells us is the “Africa disease,” a term coined by the French, as a teenager on a college trip to East Africa in the 1990s. He wrote his memoir, Love, Africa, to document his conflicted pursuit of his two great loves, Africa and his wife, Courtenay, and the tensions, mostly self-inflicted, between these two. He met Africa first and describes the ease of human connection in Malawi, all under the mentorship of Dan Eldon, who went on to become a photojournalist with the then Reuters News Agency, and who was killed by a mob while on assignment in Somalia.

Courtenay, Gettleman meets on campus; they are both students of Cornell University, one among the prestigious Ivy League. She understands his fascination with Africa while his peers do not; puts up with and eventually supports his journalistic ambitions by retraining as a videographer when he lands the plum assignment of East Africa bureau chief for the New York Times; she manages to protect footage she filmed in Ethiopia’s Ogaden Region when they are detained by government authorities.

Where Gettleman’s love for Africa is steadfast and only briefly threatened by a stint in Afghanistan while working for the LA Times; his love for Courtenay is sacrificed for his career ambitions, betrayed by multiple affairs on his part and consequent dumpings by her. That is the romance part of the memoir.

After his first visit, Gettleman finds his way back to Africa, as a back-packer with his best friend. Africa inspires him to try his hand as an aid worker in Ethiopia, and it is here that he works out that journalism will be his path. His evolution as a journalist is relatable. He starts small, at a local newspaper, works his way up to a national and then international newspaper. He suffers applications that receive no response, the pain of editors, the conferring of accelerated status and opportunities that arise from being in favour with organisational powers-that-be, and the fall from grace for shaving a quote. There are multiple theatres of war: Afghanistan, Iraq, The Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, Eritrea. There are close encounters with kidnapping and death, and what could be post-traumatic stress. There is also the challenge of professional distance, bearing witness versus wanting to intervene in the situations that he finds some of his subjects, as he eventually does for Bahram and later for Peacock. These constitute both the war and survival aspects of the memoir. The survival theme also overlaps with the romantic as his marriage survives into parenthood.

Gettleman is painfully honest about the consequences of American politics and policies backing the wrong side around the world, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia; he’s seen and survived them. This is particularly powerful as today’s world grapples with the politics of identity. His honesty about nominating himself for the Pulitzer Prize and the response to his self-nomination is also powerful. But there is a different cadence to the honesty about his self-discovery and his affairs compared to the honesty of being involved in a hit-and-run that kills an Ethiopian soldier and the sloppiness during the Ogaden assignment that allows his contacts to be tracked down. The personal disclosures sound confessional, verging on self-flagellation for which he expresses remorse, while the latter seem matter-of-fact and inflict no emotional toll.

The reference to “ooga-booga” is vexatious, as is the reference to Joseph Conrad’s fictional Heart of Darkness. Ooga-booga, we learn, is the stereotypical depiction of Africans in costumes, dancing and chanting around a fire. A colleague warns him to stay away from those depictions. Another colleague urges him to include those depictions because they are “what makes Africa Africa.” Thus, Jeffrey Gettleman finds himself having to tread a fine line between the Africa of suffering, diseases, deprivation and poverty, which he acknowledges is only part of the picture. He says that stereotypes are easy especially under deadline pressure. He admits that he was not so strong on stories of African progress and reflects that he could have written more about culture, sports, economies and technology. These would have provided a more complete picture of the continent.

That Heart of Darkness, a book written in the 19th century, is still referenced in today’s Africa of the 21st Century, is deeply troubling. Gettleman attempts to balance that trouble by citing the late Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe’s objections to Conrad’s portrayal of the continent. However, there are several contemporary African writers who have similar objections such as Kenya’s Binyavanga Wainaina, whom he quotes but does not seem to bother to reach out to, even though he is based in Kenya.

Most telling of all is the absence of African peers in Gettleman’s network. The only African intellectual featured is in the blurbs endorsing the book; one from a former Sierra Leonean child-soldier, himself an author based in the US; an Indian-American doctor and author who was brought up in Ethiopia offers his praise as well. More support comes from notable Americans: all of them writers of repute, straddling entrepreneurship, technology, psychology and journalism, in this case Harden.

The first story Gettleman covers in Kenya is the murder conviction of Thomas Cholmondeley, the descendant of a British aristocrat who settled in Kenya four generations prior. Cholmondeley has killed twice by the time of the story, local men in both instances. Gettleman quotes a white friend of Cholmondeley; does not challenge the friend’s threat to kill black men as Cholmondeley has done; and does not seek out the families of the slain men, experts on land politics or Cholmondeley’s lawyer even though he recounts his appearance in court.

Gettleman’s tenure included seminal moments in Kenya’s history: the violence that followed the general election of 2007 and the Westgate terrorist attack of 2013. Both of these showed Kenyans at their worst and most vulnerable. But little is said about the best of what the country offers. Despite speaking Kiswahili, spending ten years based in Kenya, and covering a patch of 13 countries, Gettleman could find no artists, writers, thinkers, innovators or techies to give voice to events in their countries and on the continent. He attends cocktail parties but could find no local birthday or wedding parties to attend or get himself invited to, never mind how colourful and joyful these celebrations are. His close friends, the Da Vinci Brothers, are involved in film-making but he could find no directors and thespians to speak to nor performances and movies to watch. This trend is discernible much earlier, during his stint as an aid-worker in Ethiopia where he is lonely and miserable, and only finds solace in the companionship of other expatriates.

Gettleman talks about the ease of human connection in Africa, but the only connection he offers readers is that with Peacock. He does indeed therefore commit the offense of not having or perhaps failing to feature strong friendships with Africans. Two Kenyan names feature in the book acknowledgements, but the trusted source for most of his stories out of East Africa is the French diplomat, Louis.  African diplomats are mentioned but not quoted. Gettleman’s memoir therefore seems written for a Western audience since the reader is told on the book sleeve endorsement that Africa is “…the most terrifying and beguiling continent in the world.” This is an Africa that many of us Africans are unfamiliar with. And yet, as we watch international news, the same could be said of the world’s other continents, including North and South America, and Asia. These dichotomous statements are typical of Western writing about Africa and thus the continent is yet again cast as an anthropological canvas for adventure, self-discovery and career progression. But the continent has changed and Africans are now more confident on several fronts, including the use of technology. Kenyans on more than one occasion have, for instance, taken to Twitter to express their anger at some of Gettleman’s reporting using the hashtag #SomeonetellGettleman.

Love, Africa is a memoir and so Gettleman is the hero of his own book. He follows his dreams against all odds, survives kidnapping and wars, gets the girl and is apparently living in their happily ever after. However, Gettleman’s memoir stifles African voices, African agency and African development especially because as he tells us, he writes for “the paper of record, read by diplomats, intelligence services and decision-makers around the world.” And so opportunities to fill this Western record with up-to-date, balanced and nuanced pictures from the continent, which determine business opportunities, inform various policy engagements and foster understanding of other cultures, communities and races were lost. Gettleman claims to love Africa, but it would seem, not Africans.


The original review is at Critical Investigations into Humanitarianism in Africa.

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Monday, 16 September 2019

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