A passionate debut memoir bears witness to political turmoil.
For Pulitzer Prize winner Gettleman, East Africa bureau chief for the New York Times, his response to Africa was nothing less than love at first sight. Yearning to return after a summer trip, in 1992, he left Cornell University, where he was an undergraduate, for “a whole glorious year” of exploring. Naïve, enthusiastic, fearless, and woefully unprepared, he counted among his adventures nearly falling off Mount Kilimanjaro, being arrested for climbing without a permit, getting mugged, and twice losing his passport. Nevertheless, he felt sure that East Africa would become part of his life forever. The path to realizing that dream involved an internship in Ethiopia, just emerging from 30 years of civil war. The country was broken: dead animals rotted in the streets, and beggars roamed everywhere. Later, as a journalist, the author documented the atrocities of other wars: in Iraq, where the American invasion had unleashed “horrific and random and multivectored” violence; in Somalia, where America’s support of Ethiopia’s invasion, overthrowing “a popular, grassroots, and surprisingly effective Islamist administration,” led to chaos, “high-seas piracy,” terrorism, and ultimately devastating famine. Reporting from a region of 3.3 million square miles, 400 million people, and a dozen “fragile and poorly governed” countries—including the hot spots of Sudan, Uganda, Congo, Kenya, and Burundi—Gettleman focused on human rights abuses and terror resulting from conflicts among warlords, religious and ethnic factions, Western-backed rebels, and opportunistic militias “very good at murder on a shoestring.” Caught in those conflicts, he was kidnapped, imprisoned, and beaten. Gettleman is forthright about condemning American policies and U.N. failures, and he underscores his struggles to find language to convey the reality he witnessed. He haggled with his editors, for example, “over hacked versus killed, tribe versus ethnic group,” each of which “expressed value judgments or paternalism.” Besides his career, the author chronicles his long, sometimes-fraught relationship with the woman he finally married and with whom he settled in Kenya.
A stark, eye-opening, and sometimes-horrifying portrait by a reporter enthralled by the “power and magic” of Africa.