01 Jun 2021 18:41 IST

Inside Africa, the unknown continent

Jeffrey Gettleman’s book is a fresh and inspiring take on the African diaspora, presented candidly

This is my 259th Worldview column. It is also my first piece about Africa, a continent that most of us forget even exists unless we read about a horrible news story of war, poverty, disease, or strife.

Jeffrey Gettleman, the South Asia Bureau Chief of the New York Times, who now lives in Delhi, will agree that the world has a bias against this huge continent that covers 20 per cent of Earth’s land area, large enough to fit China, India, the United States, and most of Europe put together. In his wonderful memoir, Love, Africa he takes the reader through a third of this massive landmass during his more-than-a-decade stint covering twelve countries in East Africa.

Early beginnings

A Cornell graduate Gettleman says that he was bitten by the Africa bug when he was still in college in 1991. Taking time off from studying, he stuffed $5,000 of his father’s money into his front pocket and went to Tanzania and Malawi for a five-month do-it-yourself community service project and visited two other countries — Kenya and South Africa. He so loved the experience that he hungered to be in Africa for the rest of his life.

Returning to Cornell, he walked to the study abroad office to see if he could study for a semester in Malawi. He was shocked to find that an established Ivy League institution did not have a single program in any of Africa’s 55 countries. He finally signed up for Swahili language classes at the far end of the Cornell campus to bring a part of Africa home to him.

After graduating from Cornell in 1994, he bid goodbye to his girlfriend (Courtenay, now his wife) and headed to Ethiopia unsure of what to do with his degree. He initially pursued a career as an aid worker for Save the Children. As a mzungu, a Swahili term that refers to white people, he initially expected that people would treat him with suspicion. But he “rarely sensed any resentment, any bitterness.”

“Begging was Ethiopia’s leading economic activity,” he says. Gettleman theorises that the world took advantage of Africa at every turn. During the Cold War, both the US and the USSR built arsenals, taking some of the least developed areas on Earth, like the Somali desert or the Congo River basin, and pumped in first-world killing equipment. They installed leaders of these tinderboxes on the basis not of genuine popularity but merely of who would do their bidding. When the Berlin Wall fell, the West abruptly disengaged from Africa. Upheaval and war erupted everywhere.

Not seeing a future as an aid-worker, Gettleman realised that his skills of being forever curious and the ability to socialise with people of varying backgrounds were perfect medicines for his chosen profession — journalist. Temporarily abandoning dreams of living in Africa, he returned to America and Central Florida as a beat reporter for the St Petersburg Times, where he says he honed his on-the-ground talents to near-perfection. Switching to the Los Angeles Times, Gettleman covered the southern United States as its national correspondent based in Atlanta. When planes crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on 09/11, he became a de-facto war correspondent, covering Afghanistan and Pakistan for the paper, and later Iraq, for the New York Times.

Turning point

In 2006, he won an appointment as the East Africa Bureau Chief of the New York Times, a dream he pursued since he was a teenager. His role required him to cover 400 million people over 3.3 million square miles in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Congo, Djibouti, Somalia, Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Seychelles.

Describing the war between Eritrea and Djibouti, Gettleman traces many of Africa’s conflicts to pride. “Eritreans kneel on only two occasions,” the Eritrean information minister told him. “When we pray, and when we shoot.” Eritrea is a far poorer country compared to Djibouti, which, because of its French colonial past, is much better off. Soldiers from both sides furiously defend a hilly region that they both claim, sometimes being within walking distance of each other. Although they fight for their nations, Djibouti soldiers are known to feed their Eritrean counterparts. But the Eritreans refuse the food because they are too proud.

Gettleman says that Congo is essentially the world’s biggest mine. Trillions of dollars of gold, diamonds, and copper are buried in her soils, and everyone wants a piece: the Russians, the Chinese, the South Africans, the Rwandans, and Americans. “Put that intense scramble for astronomical profits in a place where the government is as mushy and rotten as an old mango, and the inevitable result is war.” He describes the horror of female mutilation in the Congo. A gynecologist trained in France, serving as a director at the Panzi Hospital, told him, “When the victims come, you can tell by the wounds where it happened. In Bunyakiri, they burn the women’s bottoms. In Fizi-Baraka, they are shot in the genitals. In Shabunda, it’s bayonets.”

Candid, intimate narration

Zanzibar island is like paradise, Gettleman says, with white-sand beaches looking out into the Indian ocean. Nairobi’s climate - always in the mid-20’s Celsius, low humidity, sunny with a few clouds — makes it an ideal location to live, work, and raise families. The capital of Kenya, the sixth wealthiest country in Africa, is where both of Gettleman’s boys were born.

As a veteran correspondent having written over 1,000 byline stories for the New York Times, he understands the power of its brand and his own brand. “A story in our pages really does have the power to put pressure on governments to adjust their policies. It is the paper of record read by diplomats, intelligence services, and decision-makers around the world.”

Gettleman’s book is a page-turner as he narrates story after story in his fluent, easy-going writing style. He is outstanding at practising the rules of classic “less-is-more” world-class journalism: Write in eighth-grade English, heavy on verbs, light on adjectives, the shorter the sentences, the better. For a non-fiction book, Gettleman confirms that all the events actually happened. His candid narration of some of his most intimate personal secrets (such as the numerous affairs he had before marriage) invites reader trust.

It is little wonder that he was a top contender for the Pulitzer Prize based on his qualifications alone. But the Pulitzer was for shining the spotlight on the vast swathes of Africa in his book, so eloquently, in a way very few people have done before.