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Beach Reads: Jeffrey Gettleman’s ‘Love, Africa’

- August 25, 2017
Beach reading (Laura Seay)

It’s hot, school is about to start if it hasn’t already, and at this point in our summer reading series, you may be getting a little tired of reading academic books. Luckily, there are plenty of nonacademic books about African politics out there. I read two recent tomes by journalists with longtime experience in the region in hopes that if, unlike most of The Monkey Cage’s editorial team, you are not spending the Labor Day holiday weekend stuck in a hotel with several thousand other political scientists and instead are at the beach or the lake or in the mountains or enjoying a comfortable staycation at home, you’ll enjoy a lighter look at some of the topics we’ve been examining this summer. While we were originally scheduled to review two books this week, I’ve divided this post into two. My review of Jeffrey Gettleman’s “Love, Africa” runs today, while we’ll look at Andrew Harding’s “The Mayor of Mogadishu” next week. 

Full disclosure: I am not a fan of longtime New York Times East Africa Bureau Chief Jeffrey Gettleman’s reporting. His coverage of eastern and central Africa has irked me for the last 11 years, and I was pleased to learn that he had finally moved on from his position in Nairobi in July. Gettleman’s writing was often the worst of parachute journalism, in which a journalist charged with covering a dozen or more countries flies into a country for a few days, gets only the narrowest grasp on a story and jets off to the next crisis. As I have written elsewhere, no individual could possibly cover such broad range of subjects well, but Gettleman often compounded the problem of mile-wide, inch-deep reporting by relying on lazy and reductionist assessments of armed group members’ motivations for fighting in complex contexts and failing to seek out local academics and other neutral observers who could provide context for his stories.

In other words, I was likely to hate Gettleman’s new book, “Love, Africa” before I even started it. And I did. I expected the book to be much like his reporting: reductionist and exoticizing. Mostly, though, it was just boring. An Africa largely devoid of Africans is not a particularly interesting story about a man’s journey to finding himself, finding love and finding what really matters to him. While it’s not the worst book I’ve ever read on Africa (that dubious distinction belongs to Kuki Gallman’s white savior-laden “I Dreamed of Africa“), it’s not a book I would recommend to students or friends wanting to learn about the continent, its politics or its people.

This is because Gettleman’s book is not a book about Africa. It is a book about Jeffrey Gettleman. Africa is merely the backdrop to Gettleman’s process of finding himself, deciding whom he loves and committing to a career in journalism. Africa also serves as a kind of totem, a stand-in for the vague aspirations of his early 20s and his zealous search for increasingly dangerous and sometimes illegal adventures to offset the emptiness of his comfortable, suburban upbringing and dragged-out struggle to fully commit to the woman he loves.

We are nearly 200 pages into the book before Gettleman begins describing his time in Nairobi, save for some summer and gap-year adventures in his early 20s, in which the author catches the Africa “bug” and vows to find a way to return professionally. Most of the book comprises descriptions of Gettleman’s efforts to build a career as a journalist in St. Petersburg, Fla., Los Angeles, Atlanta, Afghanistan, Iraq and Newark. At the same time, his on-again, off-again romance with his college sweetheart also occupies Gettleman’s heart and mind as he travels around the world chasing stories and developing what sounds like a case of undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder from seeing so many tragic deaths in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. He responds to the stress of a long-distance romance and seeing so much trauma by sleeping with a number of women who are not his then-girlfriend, which results in the reader being subjected to several incredibly awkward and questionably necessary descriptions of Gettleman’s bedroom escapades and quite understandably upsets his girlfriend, who finds out about his infidelity only after they have married and moved to Nairobi to cover the region together for the Times.

Although it comprises only about a third of the text, Gettleman’s description of his time as Africa correspondent is by far the most interesting part of the narrative. However, there’s a peculiarity about it, too, foreshadowed in the book’s early stories about Gettleman’s summers on the continent: the near-total absence of meaningful African characters. Almost all of the Africans mentioned in the book are either subjects of his stories who are most often one-dimensional objects of pity, Gettleman’s employees, or simply part of the background scenery. With one semi-exception, a rebel in Ethiopia nicknamed “Peacock,” we don’t meet any multidimensional, complicated African people. This is made even more bizarre by the fact that Gettleman dedicates so much time to describing the fancy, expat-centered hotels in conflict zones he stays at around the world. Sometimes it’s as though Bukavu’s Orchid and Mogadishu’s Sahafi hotels are as central to the narrative as anyone who actually lives in the cities they occupy.

Moreover, even in their 11 years in Nairobi, Gettleman and his wife don’t appear to socialize much outside of expatriate circles, depriving both them and the reader of any close friendships with Kenyans or other Africans to share. Early in the book, Gettleman laments his summer interning at a nongovernmental organization in Ethiopia, describing the profound loneliness he felt as a recent college graduate with no friends and nowhere to go at night. Why he didn’t attempt to make friends with ordinary residents of Addis Ababa is a question that is never asked nor answered. The pattern repeats itself throughout the memoir; the author describes an elaborate New Year’s Eve party at the nearly all-white Muthaiga Club in 2007. Africans only enter the story that night as Gettleman is pulled away to cover Kenya’s unfolding, horrific post-election violence that stretched well into 2008.

Love, Africa” is at its best in its discussion of the 2007-2008 Kenyan electoral crisis, a story Gettleman could report deeply from his home base in Nairobi. It’s here that he struggles most openly with the way he covers Africa, debating how to describe horrific human rights abuses and murders, fighting with editors over whether to use the term “tribe” or not, and wondering whether describing very real things that happened at the time takes his coverage too far toward the “Ooga-Booga” approach to covering Africa that exoticizes its subjects.

Unfortunately, Gettleman’s thoughtful discussion of Kenya is the exception, not the rule in “Love, Africa.” The book bounces from topic to topic in roughly chronological order, but at times the bizarre interactions between Gettleman’s personal and professional life are jarring. More contraceptive methods are discussed than are African journalists, even as Gettleman relies on many of their services as fixers. And there are a few outright falsehoods and misleading claims, such Gettleman’s weird description of the Islamic Courts Union, which brought peace to Mogadishu until U.S.-backed Ethiopian forces ousted them in 2006, as al-Shabab, conflating the two movements when al-Shabab actually did not split away from the Islamic Courts Union until after Gettleman’s visit with the movement’s future leader.

I can imagine someone with little familiarity with Africa or Gettleman’s reporting to be enthralled by “Love, Africa.” Gettleman comes off as a fearless, risk-taking journalist who gets kidnapped and detained just often enough to have great stories while not losing his life. And it is obvious from the way he writes about her that he is deeply in love with his wife and has been since they met. But the overall effect of the book for anyone with even a passing familiarity with the continent is to wonder why media outlets like the New York Times insist on continuing with the tired old tradition of having foreign correspondents cover the world rather than hiring the many competent local journalists who have far deeper contextual knowledge and are just as adept at translating complicated situations for Western audiences as are their American counterparts. I am excited about Gettleman’s replacement as bureau chief, Jina Moore, a talented and experienced journalist who will bring a badly needed, fresh perspective on eastern and central Africa to the Times. But at the same time, I can’t help but wonder why the Times didn’t seize this opportunity to bring an African journalist on board to such a prestigious position. The talent is there, but the will is not, and until that fact changes, we’re more likely to be stuck with coverage from figures like Gettleman than not.