New York Times Correspondent Jeffry Gettleman’s Tribute to Himself: Another Paean to the White Man in Africa

By the Strathink Editorial Team

New York Times East Africa Bureau Chief Jeffrey Gettleman loves Africa. We know this because he titled his book “Love, Africa.” “Love, Africa” is a memoir about Jeffrey Gettleman’s rise as a journalist—and what a story. The thrills and chills of a Pulitzer prize winning journalist chasing a dream of fortune and fame living the white man’s dream of “the Dark Continent.”

Unfortunately for the reader, Mr. Gettleman seems to have no self-awareness about how he sounds to people outside the small, insular world of the foreign correspondent.

For Jeffrey Gettleman, “Africa”—the amorphous land mass populated by caricatures in a movie starring Jeffrey Gettleman—is the backdrop of his tedious story of fraternity boy turned journalist. It is not a real place, the Africa inhabited by Jeffrey Gettleman, but a place where the cartoonish antics of terrorist groups, corrupt politicians, bar girls and white people intersect in a wonderland of miasmic realism.

Mr. Gettleman sets the scene in his first chapter telling us about one of the “big stories” he covered as the Times bureau chief in Nairobi. Louis, a French diplomat, is described as having “wavy hair, a big intelligent face and a weakness for cinnamon liqueur, tall African women and conspiracy theories.” According to Louis, “Who knows what’s going on in the Ogaden.”

That was enough for journalist Jeffrey Gettleman to get in touch with “a human rights contact” to figure out that “the Ogaden rebels were extremely well armed.” He needed to confirm this fact even after he had just “banged out” a story “about how this same outfit had attacked a government oilfield and killed seventy-five, “ then adding, “but by the standards of this region, that hadn’t immediately registered as major news.”

We beg to differ. If a story is featured in the New York Times, we think it is considered “major news.

Mr. Gettleman’s take on this story is that “the Americans” were in cahoots with “the Ethiopians”. He writes, “The Ethiopian army had sealed off the entire Ogaden desert and was burning down villages and massacring civilians.” This area is 200,000 square kilometers and the assertion that the Ethiopian army could seal off the entire Ogaden, Mr. Gettleman’s words, defies anyone’s reality. He writes, “I could see the story; clandestine American involvement; an underdog war, with a religious edge (the Ethiopians were predominantly Christian, the rebels Somali and Muslim).”

Huh?

This kind of perverse ignorance about Ethiopia’s religious makeup, ethnic identity, history, and political system is the problem with the Western foreign correspondent’s reportage about anywhere in Africa. But let’s continue with his story.

Mr. Gettleman hooks up with Commander Peacock, who leads“a band of freshly bloodstained outlaws,” “looking for the Ethiopians looking for us.” According to Mr. Gettleman, “The Ethiopians were one of Africa’s most ruthless regimes. They had MiGs helicopter gunships, tens of thousands of infantrymen, and now the CIA helping them too.” Why, then, were they looking for “the Ethiopians?”

Mr. Gettleman’s wife, a recurring character in his memoir, is unfazed about the outlaws—known to everyone else as the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), a terrorist group that has killed, burned and destroyed across the width and breadth of Ethiopia’s Region 5—home to most of the Ethiopian Somali community.

“Look at these guys,” she says. “They’re carrying all of our shit, they’re happy we’re here, they’re blowing up people, but at the same time, they’re so nice.”

Let’s stop here. To make a long and tedious story short, Mr. Gettleman and his wife are detained by soldiers—“the Ethiopians.” And here comes the theme of his book, and his life.

“Was this where my love of Africa had taken me? I know that a privileged white man falling suddenly—and inexplicably—in love with Africa is a cliché. So much so the French have a term for it, le mal d’Afrique, the Africa disease. It puts you under a spell and/or kills you. Maybe so. But I had worked hard to get here, and it took half my life.”

For Mr. Gettleman, and too many Western foreign correspondents, “Africa” exists as the soundstage of their own movie. His infatuation with himself in Africa is the real mal d’Afrique—a condition of unmasked narcissism with symptoms of self-absorption and witlessness. He caught mal d’Afrique as a young man from his friend who was so clueless about Somalia that he ended up being stoned to death by a Somali mob in war-torn Mogadishu. He learned about his death while running a house painting business with his suburban friends, specializing in stealing equipment from his competitors.

As banal as the story about stealing painting equipment is, the narrative gives us insight into Mr. Gettleman’s character—more accurately, his lack of good character. He takes equal delight in recounting the story of cheating the Kenyan government out of an entrance fee to Mount Kilimanjaro. We are also subjected to the excruciatingly awkward story of his long courtship with his wife—interrupted by bouts of infidelity as he makes his way around the globe covering wars.

Unfortunately, the person who emerges from this self-portrait is not very admirable. His sense of self and his place in the world is outsized for his accomplishments. A Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, he boasts that he was the one who nominated himself for the prestigious prize, not his colleagues at the New York Times. His complete lack of self-awareness in how he views the people of East Africa is painfully exposed in a story that glorifies the suffering of people as a means of building a journalistic career.

Maybe this explains why Western journalists can’t seem to get the story right.

The reductionist narrative of Africa so often reflected in the stories that come out in the mainstream press may serve to sell news to the public, but do little to advance any understanding of the African reality. The media, especially the print media, is considered “the fourth estate” in a democratic system. The role the media plays in a democracy is a watchdog over the government, serving the public by creating awareness and opinion.

Western media has failed miserably to reflect the new African reality. Journalists like Jeffrey Gettleman write stories that play into the outdated stereotypes of “the Dark Continent,” so deeply ingrained in the mind of the West. The foreign correspondent in Africa reasserts the role of the colonialist—writing about African events from a perspective of privilege and entitlement.

Savage violence. Draconian poverty. Societal collapse into a maelstrom of dysfunction.

When will this kind of reporting disappear from the pages of the New York Times?

Not for a while. As long as journalists like Jeffrey Gettleman keep writing the superficial, surface skimming narratives that win international prizes, reporting on Africa will reflect the views of contemporary versions of Joseph Conrad.

Jeffrey Gettleman may love Africa. Africa doesn’t love Jeffrey Gettleman.

2 Responses to “New York Times Correspondent Jeffry Gettleman’s Tribute to Himself: Another Paean to the White Man in Africa”

  1. Dear Strathink,
    The Editorial Board of EthiopianCommentator reviewed your piece on Jeffrey Gettlman’s professed love for Africa. First and foremost, we would like to commend you for a job well done. What you have done is truly a breath of fresh air. It represents the spirit and substance of the new Africa, proudly standing tall to unmask those progenies of those who yesterday gave us the bible in one hand and took our land and more with the other! Love from Jeffrey Gettlman and the like? Impossible! The heart and mind so reared in the filth of infatuation is incapable of love but condemned to self-serving pretentions and mimicry. But what Gettlman and others do not know is that the time of getting away with it is over, for the new Africa is ready to tell in their face that the little emperors not only have no cloth but are without souls! Thank you for saying it loud!

  2. Groom says:

    Thank you for this great review.

    Remember, low-level journalists are always sent to Africa (when the best of them are sent to Europe or stay in their cities and states). So, I do not have any high expectations from journalists sent to Africa.

    In most cases, journalists who go to Africa, can not make it in their native country, state or city. The best ones do not accept a job assignment in Africa, seeing Africa as “the dark continent” with their colonial mind. So, whoever is interested to go to Africa would get the job, whether qualified or not. Typically, entry-level journalists take the job in hopes of getting some international experience and return back to their country to get yet another entry-level position. That is all. Now you know the whole game.

    Africa is not what it used to be 50, 40, 20, 10 or even 5 years ago. New breed of young leaders are coming out of Africa. Knowledge is now global. All the privileged information the Western people have been getting is equally available via the mighty Internet.

    God bless Africa! It is time for Africa to shine!

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