Evanston RoundTable, July 13, 2017
A great journalist has to be insatiably curious, passionately dedicated, and a terrific writer. Jeffrey Gettleman has all these talents in abundance, which is why the Evanston-born and -raised reporter won a Pulitzer Prize in 2012 for his work covering East Africa for the New York Times.
He will be back in Evanston to read from and discuss his new book, “Love, Africa: A Memoir of Romance, War and Survival,” at a free event 6:30 p.m. July 25 at the Evanston Public Library, 1703 Orrington. (Registration on the library’s website is encouraged.)
“I’m thrilled to return to my hometown. It helped shape the person I am,” he said in a phone interview from Nairobi, where he is based. After 11 years filing hundreds of stories from Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Somalia, and other war zones, he is moving to New Delhi at the end of summer to head up the Times’ India bureau.
The married father of two, his wife and boys make up an important part of the book, which chronicles his first visit to East Africa in the summer of 1990, when he was 18, traveling a thousand miles to deliver medical supplies to refugees in Kenya, Tanzania, and Malawi. “It was a life-changing experience,” he said.
Several years later he returned to serve as an intern for Save the Children. While the job was difficult and lonely, the trip confirmed his love for the region, with its “sweet intoxication” and where “nothing’s easy, but anything’s possible.”
He studied Swahili at Cornell University and enjoyed campus life. “In the morning, you’re an interested student trying to understand John Rawls’ veil of ignorance. In the evening you’re a dumbass five beers deep and peeing on the hood of Carl Sagan’s Volkswagen Rabbit.” He went to Oxford as a Marshal Scholar and received a master’s in anthropology. “The dons,” he wrote, “had accomplished the impossible. They made Africa boring.” He schemed for years to get back to Nairobi in some kind of paying job.
The answer first came to him when he was producing a newsletter for Save Our Children. He realized he was good at interviewing and writing about people, which led him to an epiphany: maybe he could be an old-fashioned newspaperman. Ironically, when a teacher at Cornell had suggested the same thing a few years before, his reaction had been: “Who wants to work for a boring newspaper?”
Life since then has been anything but boring for Mr. Gettleman. The book is made up of chapters that read like highlight reels of his most adventurous and dangerous assignments, covering battle zones and interviewing warlords, rebels, and pirates.
At his first newspaper job out of college, the St. Petersburg Times, he came close to cracking a murder case. From there he moved to Atlanta, reporting on the south for the Los Angeles Times and then the New York Times. He was one of the few out-of-town reporters who were able to get to New York City after 9/11 and spent two weeks covering the aftermath of the terror attacks.
He loved the excitement and value of his work. “Journalism was traveling,” he wrote, “journalism was adventure, journalism was having an excuse to talk to whomever you wanted, journalism was sticking up for the little guy and making powerful people scared of you.”
Nevertheless, working in Third World countries could be daunting. He visited Ethiopia in 1994 just after the country had emerged from a 30-year civil war and “begging was [the] leading economic activity.” The capital Addis Ababa “stank of death and diesel.” During a nighttime ride his driver hit a soldier. But stopping was too dangerous, “because a mob could adjudicate the case on the spot.”
Other dangerous situations and assignments followed. One afternoon in the spring of 2004 he was abducted by Iraqi militants in Fallujah. Mr. Gettleman’s father, Judge Robert Gettleman, who with his wife still lives in Evanston, got a phone call from the Times’ executive editor, Bill Keller. “He told me Jeffrey had been captured. It was one of the worst times of my life.”
“Iraq was a killing field,” Mr. Gettleman confirmed by phone. “Life was incredibly cheap. And the insurgents hated Americans. It could have gone either way.”
Following a few tense hours, during which he hid his passport and posed as a Greek national, he was released.
The reference to “romance” in the book’s subtitle is not just about the roller-coaster adrenaline of the job. Mr. Gettleman describes falling in love with Courtenay Morris, a classmate at Cornell, and their bumpy and sometimes tumultuous on-again off-again relationship, which is a major thread of the book.
But therein lay a conundrum. Mr. Gettleman’s twin passions, for Courtenay and his work, seemed at odds. She had a good job as a public defender in Newark, N.J. But to his amazement, Courtenay acceded to his request to join him in East Africa, eventually teaming up with her husband as a videographer for the Times.
Other chapters describe the details of being a foreign correspondent; filing stories from Cairo, Tripoli, Islamabad, Baghdad, Mogadishu, and Khartoum; and the wonders and travails of living in East Africa (“the striking harshness of the Horn, the comforts of Nairobi, Congo’s immutable vibe”). Readers even learn how to bribe someone employing “a handshake with a crisp 500-shilling bill passed from palm to palm.”
The most hair-raising chapter describes his hijacking in the Degehabur desert in Ethiopia. Traveling as a couple he and Courtenay were held by Ethiopian soldiers for a week. Once again Judge Gettleman received a phone call bearing the bad news from the Times’ Bill Keller. “Bill,” Judge Gettleman told him, “we’ve got to stop meeting like this.” Fortunately, the U.S. State Department helped negotiate a safe release.
Mr. Gettleman is a close observer of events and people. “I watched country buses slide past each other, going in opposite directions, the roofs piled high and messily with chairs, couches, blackened cooking pots and bundles of clothes, the faces of children of different ethnic groups pressed to the glass, staring at each other as they passed.”
In another scene from the book, he describes a refugee camp where “thousands of people materialized every dawn out of the thin desert air. They sat at the camp’s gates, masses of them, little kids so dazed they couldn’t cry and proud nomadic men reduced to begging for a bag of glucose biscuits.”
Still, he writes about seeing progress. “Nairobi was sprouting new buildings, new stories, new bridges and new malls in every part of town. It was as if someone had sprinkled water over the urban area and a whole new city had popped up.”
At the end, he reflects on “everything I loved about this part of the world: the unbelievable beauty, the excitement braced with a splash of anxiety, the confirmation that people, even if they have so little and so much stacked against them, usually help one another.”
Asked how Evanston prepared him for his career, he is quick to respond. “Evanston trained me to get along with all types of people. It gave me an ease handling situations where I was an outsider or in different elements. I took as lot from Evanston. Living that diversity felt very natural.
“Courtenay said one reason I traveled a lot was because I always felt a safe harbor in Evanston. The stability of the city helped me feel very rooted. I’m so grateful to have grown up where and when I did.”