Pulitzer Prize Winning Journalist Jeffrey Gettleman Writes About His Love Of Africa | Lifestyle | KenyaBuzz
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Pulitzer Prize Winning Journalist Jeffrey Gettleman Writes About His Love Of Africa

24 Apr 2017 | By Alix Grubel

Jeffrey Gettleman Love Africa Interview

We sat down with Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Jeffrey Gettleman, the New York Times Bureau Chief for East Africa, to discuss the imminent release of his memoir; Love, Africa.

KENYABUZZ: How long have you lived in Kenya?
JEFFREY: I first came to Kenya in 1990 at the impressionable age of 18 and went on a trip organized by Dan Eldon to deliver supplies to refugees in Mozambique. Dan became a very transformative person in my life. It was a wonderful trip and it changed my life… I was hooked on East Africa. I had never seen anything like it and I loved the warmth and spirit of this part of the world and felt very connected to the people. And I thought I wanted to live in this part of the world. But it was a long path back. First I wanted to be an aid worker then I wanted to be a photographer and it was only when I had my back up against the wall and had to find a career that I gravitated towards journalism. I had to work hard to get the kind of job I wanted to come back with. I came back in the summer of 2006 and I’ve lived here since. 

KENYABUZZ: What did you do before that?
JEFFREY: I worked at several newspapers doing local news, national news, I was in Iraq, I was in Afghanistan. I was in some pretty hairy situations in those places. By the time I got my job as the East Africa Bureau Chief for the New York Times, I had been working in newspapers for 10 years and had been through a lot.

KENYABUZZ: When did you start to write your book Love,Africa?
JEFFREY: I started working on the book about five years ago. I struggled to write it because I didn’t know what I wanted to include or how I wanted to tell the stories. There was so much trial and error. As a newspaper writer, I realized there were things I just wasn’t good at - things like character development, having themes, having messages. Everything in the book has to contribute towards the overall theme and it takes time to figure out what that’s going to be. I wrote whole chapters that I cut out. I learned that it’s important to really understand what I’m trying to say and then work backwards.

Jeffrey Gettleman Love Africa Interview
One of my favorite haunts. Black Diamond night club, Nairobi

KENYABUZZ: Did you have a mentor? 
JEFFREY: I had an editor from the start who was a friend and he was my primary sounding board. He was really helpful and I got a whole lot of feedback. Then I showed different versions of the book to different people at different times, got feedback then showed it to a bigger group. I had an editor from the publisher and agents but I didn’t bring them in until I had a critical mass of material.

KENYABUZZ: As the East Africa Bureau Chief for the NY Times, your articles tend to be about depressing topics like child soldiers, pirates, civil war, poaching, and famine. Is your book along the same lines? Or do you find hope amidst the chaos?
JEFFREY: I find a lot of hope. I’m constantly torn about my role here. Is my job to write about the entire experience of living in Africa? Or is my job to report the news?

The news tends to be pretty negative whether it’s here or in the States. People are focused on the dramatic. There’s a line in my book that says, ‘You don’t want to read about the millions of sensible moms who are taking care of their kids. You want to read about the one mom who drowns her kid’. That’s the story readers look at and are curious and troubled by. So unfortunately, journalism is kind of a history of violence. If you look back at history, what makes the news is wars, famines… it’s trouble.

Jeffrey Gettleman Love Africa Interview

So, I struggle with that because that’s not why I came to Africa. I came because I thought it was a wonderful place where I felt very connected to people. But in Africa there are a lot of bad things that happen to people that don’t get to see the light of day. There’s less scrutiny here. The governments are more prone to human rights abuses and the people tend to be more powerless. And I feel I have a responsibility as the New York Times guy with a big megaphone to try to write stories that move people to make change. It’s the journalist’s mission to drive change rather than simply represent the place. It’s how I justify reporting on all these depressing things.

KENYABUZZ: Is there a lot of African chaos in the book?
JEFFREY: So, my book is a very personal book. It’s going to surprise people. It’s not a political, analytical, historical book. It’s a book about me and my struggles to find my path in the world. It’s a lot about my wife who I met at a young age. And my struggle to return to Kenya. There are some references to stories I have covered but it’s not primarily that. It’s more of a personal memoir- learning from my mistakes, trying to do the right thing and the journey and adventure of that.

KENYABUZZ: What is the take home message of the book? What are you hoping your readers will remember?
JEFFREY: Anybody can have an adventurous life and chase their passion. I wasn’t equipped or positioned to spend a good part of my career in East Africa. I grew up in a suburb of Chicago, didn’t travel much as a kid, my parents had no connection to Africa, and I didn’t know any journalists. My dad was a lawyer, my mom a social worker. It wasn’t like I was born to have an adventurous life. So, one message is that anybody can follow their dreams and passions and have an exciting life.

Jeffrey Gettleman Love Africa Interview
In Somalia crossing a river with rebel fighter Commander Peacock, a "heavily armed dreamer"

Another message is the importance of being connected to people and trying to help people and opening up your heart to meet people that are very different from you. So, the book is populated with stories about people who opened up to me and I felt close to -people in Iraq, Afghanistan, a rebel soldier in the deserts of Ethiopia and more. These are people I learned a lot from and got close to and some of them lost their lives.

KENYABUZZ: When will the book be released?
JEFFREY: In the US on the 16th of May, and in the UK 15th of June; but for anyone who has Amazon, you can pre-order now and start reading it May 15th. I am working on getting books to Kenyan book stores; we should have a bunch here by June.

KENYABUZZ: Tell us one thing that most people don’t know about you:
JEFFREY: I once had a 3-hour interview with Paul Kagame (President of Rwanda) and didn’t realize that my tape recorder has stopped working after 20 minutes!

KENYABUZZ: Anything else you want to share with our readers?
JEFFREY: Just that Love, Africa is a very accessible book. It’s not written for specialists. It’s not a version of my journalism. You don’t have to have an interest in African politics. It’s a story about two normal people and the adventures we had and there is a lot to be learned about Africa along the way.

Jeffrey Gettleman Love Africa Interview
Never got a straight answer on this one. In Northern Kenya.

For more information on the book, please go to www.jeffreygettleman.com

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