A Case of Le Mal d’Afrique
New York Times reporter Jeffrey Gettleman speaks of his love affair with Africa.
In 1990, at the wide-eyed, impressionable age of 18, Jeffrey Gettleman traveled to East Africa. The young college student from suburban Chicago drove 1,000 miles from Kenya to southern Malawi delivering medical supplies to refugees. Little did he know that first trip to Africa would forever change the trajectory of his life.
“Everywhere we went people were welcoming,” Gettleman told me recently by phone from his new home in New Delhi, India, where he works as the South Asia Bureau Chief for The New York Times. He recently took this position after 11 years reporting from Nairobi, Kenya, as the Times’ East Africa Bureau Chief. Last year, the Pulitzer prize–winning journalist published his account of those years in “Love, Africa: A Memoir of Romance, War and Survival.”
“People I met were incredibly warm, very genuine, and very alive,” he told me. “And I felt more alive there and happier and more stimulated than anywhere else I had experienced.”
In “Love, Africa,” Gettleman recalls, “This was a different world. Personal space didn’t exist. Grown men walked down the beach holding hands, and once when I was standing in the middle of a pack of fishermen, I felt a set of rough-calloused fingers interlace in mine. I liked that. I squeezed back. It made me think that maybe out here, you didn’t have to move through life hopelessly alone.”
Today, Gettleman readily admits that none of those observations is particularly original. “I think a lot of people who get to sub-Saharan Africa make those observations. But I was at the perfect age to be hit by these impressions because I was old enough to think about it and let it come into me and absorb it, but I was still young enough to be like a clean slate. That trip made a big impact on me, and from then on I was pretty sure that this was a part of the world that I wanted to be a big part of my life.”
But his newfound passion was inconvenient. He knew where he wanted to live, but he had no idea about how to achieve that dream. When he returned to the United States, Gettleman studied Swahili with a Tanzanian professor at Cornell University’s Africana Study Center. Four years later he found his way back to East Africa, this time living in an Ethiopian slum as a volunteer aid worker with Save the Children. It was a confusing time for Gettleman. He found few peers in Addis Ababa, he missed his girlfriend (his future wife), and he felt disconnected from his surroundings. Aid work would not be the doorway into his African future, at least in the usual sense.
“I believe deeply in helping other people and sharing what we have with others, which is basically the premise of the aid industry, but I just didn’t feel that engaged in the work,” he said.
But near the end of his internship in Ethiopia, Gettleman received an assignment to interview residents and write articles for a newsletter. He finally saw his path forward.
“I really enjoyed the process of interviewing somebody and trying to connect with them, and then trying to express what they were trying to express. It was really at that moment in this Ethiopian slum that I thought, OK, this is what I should be doing. I should be a journalist.”
After attending Oxford University, Gettleman paid his dues at a small newspaper in Florida and then quickly moved up the journalism ladder with stints at the St. Petersburg Times and the Los Angeles Times before being hired at the prestigious New York Times. He told me that timing played a key role in his career.
“In 1996, it was the last gasp of a really healthy newspaper industry, and the internet was just coming at it. In the next decade, the internet would take over the way most people got their news. But at the time people were reading [physical] newspapers all over the country, and that’s when I got in, right at that moment.”
War reporting for the Times took Gettleman to danger zones such as Iraq and Afghanistan, where death was a constant presence. But through it all he still had his eye on Africa. The call would finally come in 2006: The Times’ East Africa Bureau posting had came through.
In “Love, Africa,” he recalls his arrival in Kenya. “I wasn’t sure what my role was,” he writes. “The well-worn story of the white man with a bad case of le mal d’Afrique was now my story.”
Initially, Gettleman found his new posting overwhelming. As the Times maintains four bureaus in Africa — Cairo, Dakar, Johannesburg and Nairobi — his reporting beat covered 3.3 million square miles and 400 million inhabitants. And of course no two countries are alike.
Unfolding news events came quickly, such as the Islamist takeover of Somalia, turbulence in eastern Congo, and the elections in Kenya. Those stories, Gettleman told me, raised the question, “Why is this happening? What are the forces underneath? That’s what we do as journalists.”
But perhaps what separates Gettleman’s reporting from many other journalists’ is his commitment to generate compassion through personal stories. “We’re in the empathy-generation business,” he told me. “We need to find these personal examples of people’s lives that you can open up and share to get others to care . . . Part of my job was trying to present this part of the world as a place we should care about. For moral reasons. For business reasons. For strategic reasons.”
That approach to news-gathering received the highest recognition in journalism. In 2012, Gettleman was honored with a Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting. Judges cited his “vivid reports, often at personal peril, on famine and conflict in East Africa, a neglected but increasingly strategic part of the world.”
I asked Gettleman what had changed during the 11 years he spent in East Africa. He said that with the advent of technology East Africa is more connected than ever, and that more development and investment has led to better infrastructure. But he also warned of the risk that economic growth faces through political instability, and the delicate balance between development and openness.
Ethiopia remains one of Gettleman’s favorite countries. “Ethiopia is one of the most important countries on the continent. It has a different feel than much of Africa partly because it wasn’t colonized,” he said. “A lot of traditions and cultures were never stamped out. You feel that as a visitor. It hits you immediately. The smells, the language, the old churches.
“I tell people all the time, I’ve been to 100 countries in the world and Ethiopia is one of the most interesting places to visit. If you’re going to go anywhere in sub-Saharan Africa, Ethiopia is more stimulating, and has more history and culture, than just about anywhere else.”
Travel writer Stephen J. Lyons is the author of four books of essays and journalism. His most recent book is Going Driftless: Life lessons from the heartland for unraveling times.