A revealing scene in Jeffrey Gettleman’s memoir of ten years as the New York Times correspondent in Nairobi shows much of what is wrong about mainstream coverage of Africa, and, by extension, the Middle East. Gettleman relates how widespread violence broke out in Kenya after the disputed 2007 election, and unscrupulous political leaders mobilized it along ethnic lines.
The Times foreign desk calls from New York, and directs him to travel some 190 miles northwest, to the town of Eldoret, where a mob burned to death up to 50 people who sought refuge in a church: “‘The church, Jeff, the church in Eldoret. It sounds like something out of Rwanda. Can you get to the church?’” Reporters and photographers are starting to fly in from Europe and everyone wanted to get to Eldoret. Gettleman and several colleagues charter a helicopter to race their journalistic rivals to the tragedy.
His article, dwelling on the horrible details at the still smoldering church, appeared on January 3, 2008. (His desk’s Rwanda comparison was wrong in one critical way; there, the genocidal regime kicked out all journalists before it started the mass killing.) But many press people did get up to Eldoret and several of them filed the day before Gettleman. The Times paid for that helicopter just to copy what the BBC and Reuters had already reported.
The episode is characteristic of the crises in Africa and the Middle East. Hordes of press race to the fighting, or the refugee camp, and all write the same story. Of course, violence in the rich world also attracts masses of journalists, as to the 2016 massacre at an Orlando nightclub, and the killings this May at a Manchester, England pop concert. But the audience knows there is more to the U.S. and Europe than the occasional mass killing.
Meanwhile, if you follow Africa and the Mideast you have to wait for the any sustained effort to explain the economic and social background to the outbreaks of violence. And you will almost never learn about the global structures of injustice that are the primary cause.
Visitors to this site may recall that we have indicted Jeffrey Gettleman for his incompetent coverage of the crisis in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which is one of the greatest ongoing humanitarian crises anywhere since the end of World War II. But his just-published book, Love, Africa: A Memoir of Romance, War, and Survival, shows, perhaps inadvertently, that the mainstream press is in a structural straitjacket that would hamper even a better reporter.
Unfortunately, much of the book uses “Africa” as just a backdrop for the author’s own fantasies and his coming of age experiences, which include a stormy love story. You finish it unable to recall more than a few memorable African individuals — which would be an impossible achievement after just a week actually spent on the continent.
But the memoir’s value is that it peeks inside the mainstream press. Before starting his job in Nairobi, Gettleman gets contradictory advice about “ooga-booga” stories. This expression, popularized by the legendary reporter Howard French, is immediately familiar: condescending articles that treat Africans as violent, primitive and exotic. One recent example was the August 2014 cover story in Newsweek that suggested — dishonestly — that the ebola epidemic could spread to the United States because of imported bushmeat.
One Times editor warns Gettleman as he leaves for Nairobi, “Let’s not get too ooga-booga out there.” But the another veteran reporter then tells him that ooga-booga “is what makes Africa Africa.”
Gettleman says that “the ooga-booga tug-of-war looked unwinnable,” but that he tried to walk the line, “not sanitizing the extremes but not pandering to types.” By any standard, he often failed. Over a 5-year period, for instance, he never wrote about the great Kenyan woman Nobel Peace Prize winner, the brave scientist, environmentalist and political activist Wangari Maathai — until she died in 2011, and he did her obituary. Meanwhile, New York was pressing him to get to the scenes of violence quickly — so he could write the same articles as the rest of the Western press.
He doesn’t try to analyze his editors’ reasoning. They presumably would justify their story selection partly by claiming that mayhem and mass suffering is what their public wants. But surely these days, most Times readers see another article about killings in Africa (or the Mideast) and turn the page.
Fortunately, we live in the age of the internet, so we can follow the work of excellent longtime independent East Africa correspondents like Tristan McConnell. And how did Gettleman leave African reporters out of his book, such as one of the deans of the East African press corps, Charles Onyango-Obbo?
Gettleman’s book does have one extremely valuable section, about the rise of an Islamic movement in Somalia in 2006. The U.S. and others dismissed the al-Shabab as an “African Taliban,” but Gettleman gets to Mogadishu and discovers the slander is wrong; the new movement has restored order after decades, is not particularly repressive, and does enjoy popular support. He approaches the U.S. embassy in Nairobi for reaction, to discover that “when it comes to Somalia. . . my government is dangerously stupid.”
Sure enough, Washington soon encourages neighboring Ethiopia to send in its army to unseat the al-Shabab. Gentleman notes, “America’s decision to green-light Ethiopia’s invasion of Somalia and overthrow a popular, grassroots and surprisingly effective Islamist administration led, over the next five years, to the explosion of chaos, high-seas piracy, terrorism spreading across East Africa, and ultimately the next Somali famine, in which more than 250,000 people died. That policy decision was one of the most questionable in recent history . . .”
This vital analysis deserves some scrutiny. Here is more violence in Africa, but apparently Africans are not the only ones responsible. “Dangerously stupid” U.S. diplomats encouraged a war that is still claiming victims a decade later. It is too bad Gettleman did not include more of this in his book.
Let us give the last word to the great Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe, who died in 2013. Achebe was unsparing in his criticisms of Africa’s repressive regimes, and he was thankful when atrocities were reported. But he cautioned that there was much more to Africa than just violence. Achebe said that the West might benefit “once it rid its mind of old prejudices and began to look at Africa not through a haze of distortions and cheap mystifications but quite simply as a continent of people — not angels, but not rudimentary souls either — just people, often highly gifted people and often strikingly successful in their enterprise with life and society.”