Love, Africa (book review)

It is probably fair to say that I have read and reviewed quite a few, quite different aid worker and correspondent memoirs over the lifespan of Aidnography.
I have met an American ‘warrior princess’ in Kenya, a strange journalist pursuing the LRA in Uganda – and Louise Linton.
But there have also been interesting (self-) reflective aid worker memoirs, more artistic writing projects as well as historical memoirs at the end of long and distinguished international careers or biographies.
I am certainly not claiming that ‘I have seen/read it all’, but I have kept an eye on the genre for a while now-as a researcher, teacher and global development enthusiast.

So when the first critical reviews of Jeffrey Gettleman’s Love, Africa-A Memoir of Romance, War, and Survival appeared, I felt sufficiently prepared for yet another turn on the memoir rollercoaster. Actually, it is not a bad contribution to the genre, but also does not take existing narratives further.

Gettleman’s book has become the backdrop for much bigger debates on how journalism, foreign correspondents, the New York Times, expat living in Nairobi and globalized descriptions of African politics and conflicts have been changing-our at least should be.
Maybe Gettleman’s book was written five or ten years too late, a memoir of an ‘old school’ correspondent in a quickly and fundamentally changing media landscape that demands more localization of content and a nuanced treatment beyond ‘Africa is a country’ of conflict and war.

From the frat house to the safe house - the pre-African adventures
The year is 1990 and ‘we had met thousands of kids driving from Nairobi to southern Malawi on a homemade mission to bring aid to refugees’ (p.13). Gettleman’s first encounter with the African continent is one of need, aid and outside help.

I found the first three chapters underwhelming; those ‘frat boy turns into adventurous traveller in Africa’ storylines often lead straight to the nearest voluntourim outlet, back into the Silicon Valley to develop products to ‘eradicate poverty’-or in Gettleman’s case the top of Mount Kilimanjaro wearing socks as gloves during an unprepared ascent. He continues on a professional path of domestic journalism and war reporting which eventually leads to his ten-year stint as East African Bureau Chief of the New York Times.

By and large, Gettleman manages some ambivalent plotlines well: The introduction to the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad, a place for ‘four-star American generals, Arab sheikhs, tattooed contractors, bearded journalists, plump-bellied members of the Iraqi governing council, tall Sudanese prostitutes, harried aid workers’ (p.141) is nearly as Hollywood movieesque and stereotypical as it gets.
But then again, the adventures around his temporary abduction are an engaging piece of writing which comes with some critical self-reflection of being a ‘bomb chaser’ in Baghdad
I may have come across ‘emergency sex’ almost ten years ago when I read a book entitled, well, Emergency Sex, but we are also dealing with a memoir written for a general audience, so those ambivalent narratives seem to be acceptable. The difficulties of maintaining relationships and making bad choices are two common themes of any aid worker or expat biography.

Another important aspect of my academic positionality is the fact that my PhD research looked at, among other things, expat communities in Kathmandu, Nepal-so I probably have a more critical understanding of the social and cultural dynamics surrounding these life- and work-styles.
I was pleased when Gettleman mentioned the classic anthropological distinction of expats between Mercenary, Missionary and Misfit in the opening of chapter 9 (pp.175-176) and musings what his ‘M’ would be. 

Arriving in Nairobi: Mercenary, Missionary and Misfit - Whats your M?
 It seems like an odd choice to start his reporting journey in Kenya with the story of the downfall of an aristocratic white British landowner. This rite of passage evokes ‘I once had a farm in Africa’ connotations-as I said, a slightly odd choice of a story to feature in the book.

Gettleman is clearly embedded in the privileges that come with expat lifestyle and being a full-time correspondent for one of the world’s leading media brands, but some of his more traditional parachuting missions into neighboring countries do have an impact beyond the story. His reporting on DRC’s leading/only gynecologist helping victims of sexual violence or covert American support for Ethiopia’s insurgency in Somalia opened up important debates at a time when the (printed) New York Times carried a much heavier weight in international affairs. He encounters some moral dilemmas and may have jeopardized sources in Somalia, but frankly these are mostly ‘normal’ professional challenges that happen in humanitarian situations all the time and aid workers, journalists and researchers have to deal with them constantly.

It wasn’t as simple as my having adrenaline junkie qualities or once-a-cop-reporter, always-a-cop-reporter, or that I was trying to bring Hemingwayesque glory to death. I felt irresponsible sinking time into a lighter story when I knew that one short plane trip away, people were being slaughtered. This was the New York Times after all, the paper of record read by diplomats, intelligence services, and decision makers around the world (p.221).
Gettleman is quite fond of Gettleman; that may not be that surprising given that he is writing his memoir, but it may also be indicative of similar Generation X narratives: His story is not a ‘rags to riches’ story, Gettleman essentially gets paid for creative work he loves and is good at and once his wife Courtenay has come to terms with the ‘emergency sex’ cheating they are starting a family and settle firmly into Nairobi. There is clearly a ‘I would do it again!’ notions about his experiences-and some parts of the European white academic male in me initial think ‘why not?!’.

What is the future of expat professioalism in Kenya and beyond?
On further reflection this is the point where his narrative seems a bit outdated, maybe even out of touch with the changing realities around him and the expectations from privileged global professionals.
Couldn’t Peacock, the Somalian rebel commander he ends up looking after in Nairobi after a long professional relationship be more involved in the story? Where is the local or regional talent, the Nairobi-, Kenya-, East Africa-, Africa-born journalists that could cover some of the stories (they are noticeably absent from Gettleman’s narrative), perhaps differently? And even if there may be instability in East Africa, shouldn’t there be more space for positive stories and solutions journalism?

I think this is where some of his narrative feels ‘so 2007’-most of the action happens as journalism and global media are changing (he is proud that one of Courtenay’s videos she produced for the NYT website generates 500K views which would probably lead to immediate dismissal from CNN these days…) and before tougher debates on expat professionalism hit the filter bubble.

In the final chapter Gettleman notices changes, from Macedonian waiters in upscale restaurants in Nairobi to broader socio-economic changes and changes in his mental well-being after years of high-intensity work in conflict zones. But is has been a fulfilling live so far for him and his family, even though there is an element of benefitting from other people’s misery-the ultimate paradox for all of us who work in the industry and have the privilege to write about it.

At the end of the day, Gettleman’s memoir is not an exceptional piece of writing or insight and maybe other reviewers had expected more, because he is not ‘just’ a regular humanitarian aid worker or traveling journalist. He delivers an entertaining memoir that clearly has potential for further discussions and non-expert engagement around topics of foreign correspondents and journalism from and about Africa, but ultimately falls a bit short as self-reflective, and –critical assessment of how white men, global media brands and expat bubbles create ‘our’ image of a rapidly changing continent with its 54 countries.

Gettleman, Jeffrey: Love, Africa-A Memoir of Romance, War, and Survival. ISBN 978-0-06228-409-9, 325pp, 27.95 USD, New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2017.


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