Spotlight: Jeffrey Gettleman On His Adventures As A Journalist In East Africa
Jeffrey Gettleman is the East Africa bureau chief for The New York Times. Born and raised in Evanston, he’s currently based in Kenya, where he covers more than 10 countries. Gettleman has been beaten by Ethiopian soldiers, abducted by insurgents in Iraq, held at gunpoint by warlords in Congo and Somalia, and sickened by a rare strain of malaria.
Many of his stories have focused on Congo, Tanzania and Kenya, where he’s reported on major issues such as rape, mutilation and ritualized murder. In 2012, Gettleman won the Pulitzer Prize for international reporting.
Gettleman joined Worldview to discuss his risky, adventurous career and his latest book, Love, Africa: A Memoir of Romance, War, and Survival.
On growing up in Evanston
Jeffrey Gettleman: I was a clueless teenager, growing up in Evanston, and I found myself on a trip to East Africa after my freshman year of college. My parents didn’t travel much to overseas when I was growing up; I really had limited travel experience, and I was pretty sheltered. And I found myself on this road trip across East Africa. I had some friends that were organizing this trip and they knew some people, that knew some people and it was really a fluke. It could’ve never happened, and I have no idea what I would be doing if it hadn’t. My parents let me do this (I left out the fact that the trip was led by 19 year old college dropouts), and I was just really struck that summer by seeing people who were so poor, who had so little, literally wearing rags on their backs, living in houses where their only possessions were some blankets bundled up on a dirt floor, yet there was so much joy, and people were very open, and open-hearted, and welcoming. And there was this spirit that I felt just as I was driving from Nairobi to Southern Malawi which is about a thousand miles that just enveloped us wherever we went, and I came back from that trip really moved and confused about all the values I had seen, and I thought “this is a part of the world that I really want to live and work in and spend a good part of my life in.”
On his first foreign job
Gettleman: September 11 changed everything for all of us. The instant it happened, there was this burning desire by newspapers, by the American public, to find out what had happened. Why was part of the world turned against us? What was happening in these areas of the Arab world, the Muslim world, where this anger was growing against the United States? So my first foreign assignment was in Egypt and Yemen, trying to track down information about Osama bin Laden; his family came from Yemen. And I went hiking up the hills in a part of Yemen that would be suicidal for me to go to now because it’s controlled by al-Qaeda, and nobody wanted to talk to me. It was really hard, discouraging. Then the Afghanistan War happened: the United States went into Afghanistan and I was sent there. It was a really wonderful experience because I got there right after the bombing had stopped, before the Taliban had sort of reawakened, and I just found people really open, very hopeful. It’s a spectacularly beautiful country - I mean I know the news today, and it’s like, there are two Afghanistans: there’s this magical, beautiful, really interesting Afghanistan and there’s this other Afghanistan that’s been turned upside down by terrorism and murder like we saw today.
On Africa’s Balance of Power:
Gettleman: I think we’re at this kind of confusing moment in human history, where nobody’s really in control. It’s very clear in Africa in a way because the divisions between the spaces in Sub-Saharan Africa were created by colonial powers, and that resulted in many problems we have today: ethnic politics and bad governance, because that sense of national identity was totally artificial. One day, you were Tanzanian and the guy across the road was Kenyan. Even if you were in the same tribe, you spoke the same language. That line just went right through your area. And as soon as Africa got its independence, it stepped into the Cold War. It was just horrible luck, but in the early 1960s, Africa finally got its independence after years of this colonialism, and they step right into the Cold War and the Soviet Union and the United States did basically the same thing: taking pieces of the map, saying this is our territory, this is our ally, this is your ally. And then when that all collapsed suddenly in 1990, 1991, there was a lot of turbulence in Africa, some of the worst wars were in the 1990s: Somalia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Liberia — that was no accident. All of those conflicts were concentrated right after the Civil War and now we’re in this new moment where nobody really has a vested interest in helping these countries like the Central African Republic or South Sudan. There’s no strategic reason that any superpower should be involved. And so you see China emerging, not for geopolitical reasons, but for resources. They want to build infrastructure in Africa so they can make sure they get all the copper and the coltan and the cassiterite and these minerals that the Chinese economy depends on. And so the United States is kind of off balance trying to figure out, well what’s our role as the richest country in the world, vis a vis the poorest countries in the world? And we haven’t figured that out. I’ve witnessed these blunders like in Somalia a few years back.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. It was produced by Jerome McDonnell and edited by Vera Tan. Click the 'play' button to listen to the entire interview.