Jeffrey Gettleman was born and raised in Evanston, but a trip to Kenya when he was 18 years old changed the trajectory of his life.
It led him into journalism and a career that took him to the front lines of every major conflict of the past 20 years—from Afghanistan to Iraq to the Congo. It has also led him to imprisonment and the brink of death several times.
In 1993, one of Gettleman’s friends, Dan Eldon – a Kenyan photojournalist, activist and artist – was killed. Eldon was just 22 when, working as a photographer for Reuters, he and three colleagues were stoned to death by an angry mob in Mogadishu, Somalia during the height of the U.S.-led intervention in the country.
“His death was like a real blow in many, many ways,” said Gettleman. “I just got lucky to have crossed paths with him. My life would have been a lot different had I not.”
Three years earlier, Gettleman traveled with Eldon to deliver medical supplies to refugees.
“He wasn’t sanctimonious about trying to go help people. He just knew that it was the right thing to do and figured out what was the most fun we could have while doing that,” he said. “But he also just made traveling through Africa seem very doable and not so intimidating and that if you go for it, it probably will work out.”
Gettleman said Eldon’s death shocked him.
“In a big way I was just shocked that he could get caught off guard like that and it was scary because he was so charming and so insightful,” he said. “And to see him get essentially tricked and then beaten to death was like, ‘Wow, if that could happen to him it could definitely happen to me.’ And so I was deeply unsettled by what happened to him and remain so.”
Since 2006, Gettleman has been the East Africa bureau chief for the New York Times based in Nairobi, Kenya.
His book, “Love, Africa: A Memoir of Romance, War, and Survival” details the beauty and danger of that beguiling and conflicted continent.
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Gettleman joins Paris Schutz to discuss his book.
Below, an excerpt from “Love, Africa.”
Every day, after my 3:35 class ended, I hurried back to the frat house to check my mailbox. Many of the letters started the same: “My beloved friend . . .”
Some asked for a camera, others for clothes. Most asked for nothing, just sharing the news from rural Tanzania or backroads Malawi, the two agrarian countries where I had been five months earlier. One boy, Macfereson Banda, from Karonga, Malawi, wrote to see how our soccer ball was doing. “When I played with it,” he said, “I was really feeling as if I am on top of the mountain.” I won’t lie. We had met thousands of kids driving from Nairobi to southern Malawi on a homemade mission to bring aid to refugees. I didn’t remember who Macfereson Banda was. But I remembered that spirit, that drive to get close and stay close.
The letters from East Africa came in slender, tissue-thin envelopes trimmed in red and blue. The envelope was the letter, so I was careful slipping the blade of a knife under the seam. As I sat at a long wooden table in our dining room, happily rereading the week’s Africa mail, Michael Laudermilk sauntered in, wearing a Lakers tank top and thumping a basketball.
“Gettlemern”—mern was our word for nerd—“what you doing?”
Laudermilk—Milk—was my same year. He stooped above me.
The ball stopped bouncing. “Those airmail?”
He bent closer, glancing at the stamps.
“Africa, huh? You were there over the summer, right? What’s Africa fucking like?”
I looked up at him. His handsome face was framed by glossy black hair. Milk was a star safety on the varsity football team, built like a gladiator, unjustly athletic. We weren’t close, and for the first time he seemed genuinely interested in something I had to say.
“It’s like . . .” My mind started to race. “Like . . .” I looked out the window, off into the naked Ithaca trees. I hated that question.
How much did Milk really want to know? What was I supposed to say? That question still trips me up, and back then I definitely didn’t have the poise to hop over it. My first Africa trip had been like a lucid dream—and I was possessive of this dream, because dreams lose their power if you start sharing them around. It began the moment I’d landed and stood eagerly in the aisle, peering out the windows, waiting for the stewardess to wrench open the door. When that dry canned airplane air rushed out and Nairobi’s fresh cool night air rushed in, rich and loamy, like a million wet leaves, it was an immediate intoxication. That’s how that whole summer went, our truck chugging down the road, one thing morphing into the next, things just seeming to happen, leaving behind this sweet, heavy, mysterious emotional aftertaste.
It felt like every day we discovered something; of course that was an illusion, but the illusion was rarely broken. Our summer was a road trip, we covered a thousand miles over four weeks across eastern and southern Africa, we did see a lot. The afternoon we rolled into Salima Bay, on Lake Malawi, was no more or less event- ful than dozens of other long sunny lazy days we shared, but it re- mains deeply etched. Lake Malawi was an inland sea; you couldn’t see across it. The water was coppery, the sand by the shore burning.
We stripped off our shirts and ran in, pushing the water away with our thighs. It seemed to get thicker each step. Immediately we were surrounded by dozens of kids thrashing toward us, belting out “Mzungu! Mzungu! Mzungu!”—the equivalent of gringo. We couldn’t communicate, but that didn’t stop us from playing with the slippery little kids and throwing them into the water and wrestling on the beach with the bigger ones. They cheered at just about everything we did, and after I toweled off and dressed—in front of a crowd of about ninety-five—scraps of paper were thrust into my hands. Where from! What district! What village! The children wanted to be pen pals, and I scribbled out my address as fast as I could. They tugged us toward their huts, and I peered into one, a little round house, roof black from smoke. There was nothing inside, no toys, no balls, no books, no mattresses even, just blankets bunched up on a clean dirt floor. Malawi was one of the poorest countries on earth; I had never seen anything like this. I felt something on my leg. I looked down. A little boy, about four, was rubbing my shin. People here don’t have hairy legs. His warm little fingers tickled like a spider. As I was standing in the doorway of his house, checking things out, he continued to move his fingers up and down the ridge of my shin extremely lightly, feeling my hairs. It was one of the most intense moments of mutual curiosity I’ve ever experienced.
This was a different world. Personal space didn’t exist. Grown men walked down the beach holding hands, and once when I was standing in the middle of a pack of fishermen, I felt a set of rough calloused fingers interlace in mine. I liked that. I squeezed back. It made me think that maybe out here, you didn’t have to move through life hopelessly alone.
Our guide to this new world was just a year older. His name was Dan Eldon and I’d never met anyone like Dan Eldon. He’d blaze into a restaurant, snap a stiff salute to the waiters, flick them a cassette, and the next thing I’d know, there would be one white face in the middle of a circle of waiters, everyone grooving together and singing out loud in one voice with several different accents: “Fight the power! We got to fight the powers that be!”
The first time I saw Dan was in Mombasa, swimming in an ocean that was a shade of bright blue that didn’t look like any water I’d ever seen before; it was the color of Windex. Dan was paddling just beyond the waves. When someone pointed him out, I was surprised by how young and delicate he looked, after all I had heard. He was clean-cut, with a long face, dark eyebrows, and a square jaw, but still, there was something fragile about him. We had met through a fluke. I have a childhood friend named Roko, who was friends with this guy Chris, who came on the trip to film it and knew a guy named Lengai, who had grown up in Nairobi with Dan. Dan had organized a mission to help Mozambican refugees, and he invited a dozen students to drive from Nairobi to the border of Malawi and Mozambique, where he planned to donate a car and several thousand dollars to the refugee camps.
Before we left for Africa, I held that same vague patchwork of images in my head that many people hold, of suffering, disease, deprivation, and poverty. That part of Africa is real—but it’s only that, part of the picture. Even though we were constantly aware that we had so much more than the people around us—our Nikes, our flashlights, our Walkmans, money—even though we were surrounded by people who were clearly struggling, I rarely sensed any resentment, any bitterness. Curiosity, yes; we were oddities. When we walked through the towns, things would suddenly stop; people around us would turn and stare, shoe-shiners would be suspended in mid-stroke, and I’d hear them whisper to each other, “Something-something-mzungu.” It felt like we were being worshiped, which felt wonderful—and disconcerting. It didn’t seem right to be regarded as representatives of some alien civilization that had just descended for a quick visit.
I soon learned that the playing, the wrestling, the endless grip- shifting handshaking, helped lower those barriers. My guard began to drop, inch by inch. I realized there was so much less to fear than I had originally thought. When we camped in the middle of the savanna in Mikumi National Park, animals all around us, big ones, so close we could smell their pungent musk, somehow it didn’t feel reckless. It felt as if they had their space, we had ours.
“You guys ever wonder what to do with a landscape like this?” Dan asked after we all sat down by a campfire. “It’s, like, beautiful food you can eat; a beautiful woman you can kiss; but what are you going to do with a landscape this beautiful?” Eager for Dan’s approval, we gazed out at the acacia trees silhouetted by the moon and the chest-high elephant grass rolling away for miles, wondering if there was any possible way to answer a question so profound.
I heard a thumping on the wooden floor, jarring me back to my senses. Milk. Bouncing his ball again. I had nearly forgotten he was still standing there.
“Interesting, Gettlemern, very fucking interesting.”
I don’t even know what cow-eyed sentences I’d uttered. “I’ll see you tonight. And don’t forget the garbage bags.”
That night we called a meeting.
“Get in close, fucking weenies!”—that’s what we called the eager young men who wanted to join our house, fucking weenies. “You know the rule of this house! We always stay close!”
We shoved the weenies into a corner of the living room and began ripping apart Hefty bags and taping them to the windows so nobody could see in. Sam, another one of my brothers, struggled to crawl up on a table, slow as a grizzly, and then he reared up like one. Sam gazed down at the weenies and then opened his mouth and vomited on them. I was at a safe distance, but one weenie—Derek, from Baltimore—reached up, face distraught, and slowly felt the gooey chunks in his hair. We all pointed at him and howled. That’s how it went in our house. True humiliation was how we expressed our false love.
Maybe, looking back, I’m giving myself too much credit. But I think it was around this time that I began to suspect that I was on a collision course with myself. I knew I couldn’t keep this up. My fraternity was such a radical reduction of what there was on campus, let alone what I had tasted on that summer trip, let alone what I suspected lay out there in the even wider world. I was nineteen, a sophomore at Cornell University, and like any other teenager, desperate to fit in—and desperate to stand out. I’d allowed myself to be puked on and worse to get into that frat, and for no good reason; frats were simply what I thought you did at Cornell.
So I created my own alternate world: Africa. It was perfect. No one knew much about it, especially me. Of its fifty-some nations, I had briefly visited four: Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, and South Africa. But I kept staring at the pictures in my scrapbook, rereading the Africa mail, writing to my buddy Dan, stoking my appetite.
It was a cold morning when I walked purposefully up our drive- way, my worn-out Nike trainers, the same ones that had been such a fascination in Malawi’s sun-blasted villages, squeaking in the snow. I climbed the hill to Uris Hall, past icicles hanging in the gorge, a dark trickle running between the banks of ice. Up ahead loomed a nineteenth-century clock tower wearing a toupee of fresh snowflakes. Its hands showed ten o’clock, which felt like the crack of dawn to me. I was headed to the study abroad office. If I had one mission at this point, it was to break free of the confines I had so ardently put around myself.
“There are some excellent programs at Oxford and Cambridge,” a counselor suggested when I told her I didn’t speak any foreign language but wanted to go to Africa.
When I stared back, she asked: “What about an archaeology program in Crete?”
I trudged home in disbelief that there wasn’t a single program south of the Sahara. I was beginning to see that this wouldn’t be easy, that I was nurturing an inconvenient passion. So I hatched my own plan. It turned on four classes a week in a room that smelled of chalk dust and mold, located in a small building at the farthest end of campus: the Africana Study Center. The instant I walked into that little classroom, where I had signed up for Swahili, I was back in a world of light, soapy cumulus clouds somewhere on the horizon.
Mwalimu Nanji, our teacher from Tanzania, was short and quiet, with tired eyes and a gray Afro that he combed into a rec- tangular shape. He never volunteered how he had come from sunny Dar Es Salaam to snowbound Ithaca. I never pried. I desperately wanted him to like me. He was my only link.
“Bwana Jeff, habari yako?” How are you?
“Mzuri,” I’d eagerly answer—Good—forming my whole mouth around the word, like he had taught us: “Mooo-zur-ree.”
Swahili is a visceral language. You don’t say “I am hungry,” you say “I hear hunger.” You don’t smoke a cigarette, you pull it. There’s no fancy or plain way to say “you,” no masculine or feminine words; it’s communication stripped down to its essence, just how it felt out there.
I finally learned the origin of mzungu, that word a hundred little children had shouted at me on city streets and country roadsides. It comes from the verb kuzunguka, to go around and around, and is probably derived from observations of the first honkies in the region, the explorers. Roughly translated, it means “the dude who walks in circles.”
Swahili started long before any white men came to walk in circles. About a thousand years ago, when the first Arabs landed on the East African coast in crescent-sailed dhows, hungry for ivory, spices, fragrant woods, and slaves, they needed a way to communicate with the African merchants. A language evolved, part Arab, mostly African, with bits of Hindi, Portuguese, Persian, English, and German eventually sprinkled in. It was an Esperanto that people actually spoke—today, more than a hundred million speak it.
As the months passed, my interest in Swahili provided endless amusement for the guys in the frat. One night the following October, we were all gussied up for a sorority formal at the Waterfront, a club in downtown Ithaca. I was wearing a tie, a wide floral one that I had bought on the streets of Manhattan from a homeless man for a dol- lar. I had even spritzed some Calvin Klein Obsession on my neck. I looked—and smelled—the part.
There were a bunch of us sticking to the bar as usual, drinking the usual. Colored lights flashed across the wood-paneled room, which had big windows looking out on a smooth, black Lake Cayuga. The windows were partly fogged up, and the techno music was blasting so loud that if you held your cup real gently, you could feel the plastic sides vibrating to the bass. Boosh, boosh, boosh, boosh. “Gettlemern,” O’Hare shouted. “Tell me again why you’re taking Swa freaking Hili?”
Our backs were to the bar, elbows on it. O’Hare was a red- headed kid from a town on Long Island that everyone seemed to have heard of but me, Port Something or Other. He was a bit of a ringleader. We didn’t like each other.
“I don’t know,”I said.“The teacher’s pretty cool. It’s an easy A.”
“Gentlemen.”Milk leaned in—and people tended to listen to Milk. “He likes it, he’s been to Africa. What’s the b.f.d.?”
“Seems weird to me,” O’Hare went on. “Why don’t you say something? Say something in Swahili.”
“Just shut ’em up,” Milk said. “Say something. It doesn’t have to be long.”
Everybody looked at me. The last thing I wanted was to perform like a circus bear. College was constantly creating these predica- ments: in the morning, you’re an interested, earnest student trying to understand John Rawls’s veil of ignorance, in the evening you’re a dumb-ass five beers deep and peeing on the hood of Carl Sagan’s Volkswagen Rabbit. Youth knows no contradictions. I took a swig of my Sex on the Beach, a sweet pink drink with the viscosity and charm of cough syrup.
“I don’t know, man,” I said. “What do you want me to say? Jambo means ‘hello.’”
For some reason, that set off a burst of wild cackles, and I seized the opportunity to get the hell out of there. I walked across the club to near the dance floor. I felt much better standing by myself, sipping my drink, watching the swirl of colored lights and people moving back and forth.
As my eye traveled across the faces, I kept coming back to the same one. It belonged to a girl with high cheekbones, wide-set eyes, heavy eyelids and dark hair; her features looked Eurasian, maybe even Eskimo. She was wearing a red dress that showed off her back; she was lithe and freckly. As she danced, the blacks of her eyes shone. There was something in them that I had seen before. She seemed deeply, freely happy, like those kids on Lake Malawi. I could tell she really dug dancing. I was terrified to approach her directly, so I chose a moment when a girl I knew was talking to her, went up to them both, and lamely shook her hand.
A few days later, standing with a pack of guys in front of Rocke- feller Hall, I saw the same girl. She caught me looking, and as she walked by, she lifted her eyes and dropped a casual “Hi.”
“You know her?” my buddy Ethan said, punching me hard in the arm. “She’s kinda fly.”
The next afternoon, I returned to my room to find a note tucked in the door. I took one look at it but instantly folded it up and wheeled around.
“Who wrote this?” I said, stomping down the hallway, bran- dishing the note. “Who really wrote this?”
No girl would venture into our den, alone, in the harsh light of day, braving the one enormous groin-scratching meathead who always lounged on our front stoop with his lacrosse stick like the Cyclops guarding his cave.
But the brothers swore that they hadn’t written that letter.
I went back to my room and shut the door. It was an unusually bright autumn day, light flooding through the windows. I opened the note again and studied the handwriting, strong and clear, perfectly straight on lineless paper.
“Hi, Jeff, how are you? We met the other night. Maybe we can have dinner sometime? Here’s my number. Courtenay.” Her telephone number was scribbled under her name, neatly as the rest.
Was I hallucinating? I stepped back into the hallway to ask again if this was a prank. Part of me still hoped it was. It would be so much easier that way. It was like those colliding feelings of thrill and terror I’d always get sprinting down the side of the lacrosse field as fast as I could, wide open, in perfect shooting range, dying to crank the ball through the back of the net but hesitating to call out for it because I dreaded choking. If the letter was a fake, well, that meant I could just slip back to the safe routine of waiting for the meep . . . meep . . . meep of the beer truck backing up to the front of the house on Friday night with two thousand cans of Coors or Beast or whatever it was before a party. But if it were real, I actually had to do something.
The brothers huddled in the hallway, eager to share their hard- earned wisdom.
“Call her, you dumbshit,” one said.
“This is your lucky day, asshole,” said another.
A few nights later, I picked Courtenay up. We drove to a Vietnamese restaurant at the bottom of the hill, near the Ithaca Commons. I was wearing my typical outfit—ripped jeans, yellow-rimmed Ohio State baseball cap on backward, slightly funky sweatshirt—I prided myself on going three or four days without a shower. Of course I was eager to make an impression, but even more I was fearful of seeming anything less than nonchalant. The last thing I wanted was to come across like I was trying too hard. Evidently she was less hung up on things like that, radiant in a snug-fitting Arctic- blue Nordic sweater with big brass buttons on her chest, borrowed from her roommate, the prettiest thing either of them had in their shared closet. In the car, I smelled her still-wet hair.
She sat down and smoothed out her napkin in her lap. She was beautiful to listen to and beautiful to look at. She didn’t wear a drop of makeup—she didn’t need to, with her dramatic coloring—pale skin, full red lips, and that very dark hair, starting from a sexy widow’s peak. Her eyes were light brown, flecked with dark spots, like tiger lilies. With those wooden chopsticks, she lifted glass noodles to her lips. She handled them like she had been born in Hanoi. I ate with my hands.
I can’t tell you what I learned about her over those spring rolls and little bowls of noodle soup, perhaps because I was too nervous or too busy looking at her. But I don’t think it mattered. We were at an age when all key decisions are made in small parts of seconds, and we had already decided, in one of those small parts, that we wanted something from each other.
As we drove back, I started getting nervous. What should I do when we got to her house? I pulled up along the curb, and she was just sitting there, gazing up the road. I put the car in park, eyeing those swollen lips. I leaned over, moved toward her, shut my eyes. She did the same.
We bumped teeth.
March 13: A place where ducks outnumber people 20 to 1 might not sound like somewhere you’d want to move with your wife and young daughter. But that’s exactly what Chicago author David McAninch did.
Oct. 26, 2016: Meet a former elite soldier from Australia who is now using his special set of skills to combat poaching in Africa.
Aug. 9, 2016: A new memoir tells the story of a young mother separated from her husband during the Nigerian civil war in the 1960s. Hear how she protected her family, including future Chicago Sun-Times journalist Maudlyne Ihejirika.